It’s a good beer guide, but it’s not perfect
By Phil Mellows
For a 50th birthday party it was a low-key sort of gathering. Yet it was one of those events it’s a privilege to be invited to, and a pleasure to be among some friendly faces that haven’t been able to get together too much during the past couple of years.
And you wouldn’t expect a lot in the way of singing and dancing, even with Fuller’s ESB pouring for free.
The launch of the Campaign for Real Ale’s 2023 Good Beer Guide, the 50th in the annual series, occupied the upstairs room at the Star Tavern in Belgravia, pictured, one of just five surviving entries from the very first guide. The others, in case it comes up in the pub quiz, are the Queen’s Head in Newton, Cambridgeshire, the Square & Compass at Worth Matravers, Dorset, the Buckingham Arms, Westminster, and the Roscoe Head in Liverpool.
Why so few? The aura that surrounds the great cask beer pub is one of seamless tradition, stretching back decades. But it’s not as simple as that. Consistent quality requires a steady focus and a passion for the product that comes from the publican in charge. And publicans change.
Among the handful of speakers at the launch, Simon Emeny, the boss of the Star’s owner, Fuller’s, made perhaps the most telling observation. During that 50 years, the pub we were in has had only six managers. Continuity is important. (When you think we’ve seen five prime ministers since 2016, you’ve got to worry about the country.)
Geoff Strawbridge, Camra’s London director, pointed out that the local branches that choose which pubs go into the guide, and which go out, are wise to the comings and goings of licensees. If a listed pub loses its licensee, unless the replacement has a track record of running other listed pubs, it must drop out until members are sure about the continuing quality of the ale.
The strength of the Good Beer Guide, and what makes it different from, and in many ways better than, competing guides, is that the people picking the entries are so close to the ground. They know exactly what’s going on with the pub, because they drink in there week in, week out.
This is also a weakness. A pub can fall out of favour with these individuals for all kinds of reasons that may be obscure to the occasional visitor. And there must be, it seems to me, a growing pressure on the decision-making resulting from the limit imposed on the number of entries allocated to each county or region.
While each Camra branch has its own way of doing things, Strawbridge suggested that rota systems are common. Regular entries may take turns dropping out for a year to make room for others – though they can hardly now leave out any of the Big Five on that basis.
And although we’ve lost many pubs, and others have stopped selling cask beer, we’ve seen a welcome proliferation of micropubs that specialise in doing little other than pouring a good pint. So to make way for them, another good pub might have to step aside.
That doesn’t seem quite fair. But it’s hard to see a way around it, and the advantage of the allocation system is that it makes sure there’s an even spread around the country so travellers can nearly always find a decent pint wherever they rock up.
Still, you have to wonder whether the Good Beer Guide is feeling the strain of a beer-drinking landscape that’s changed dramatically across half a century.
The 2023 edition is organised differently, by region rather than county, which is taking some getting used to (I’ve found it’s best to start with the places index at the back). And breweries are now listed under each region, which is an improvement. There are some brilliant tap rooms that don’t get into the guide because you can’t be sure there’ll be cask ale on, or its opening times are too limited. Now you can find them more easily and have a craft beer on your travels.
Yes, I do see the point in focusing on cask, but it’s not the only good beer, and that’s now, perhaps, emerging as another weakness.
But the Good Beer Guide remains an indispensable tool for drinkers seeking out the best places for a pint, and with the new edition now positioned within reach of my desk, I shall be using it often.
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