What – no Sheffield Tap? Maybe we should get the quibbles about excluded pubs out of the way first. And I know we ought to bear in mind that Camra’s Good Beer Guide 2011 is what its title boldly states: a good beer guide, rather than a good pub guide. This is why the guide includes Wetherspoons and glacial city bars where fine ale appears as a fashion accessory. And many readers will be wary of both. But I have to wonder why the Museum is listed here – a colossally dreary Greene King franchise tucked into the side of a Sheffield shopping precinct – with no mention of the hundreds of superb British and global beers on offer in the handsome setting of the Tap.
On the one hand this sort of anomaly seems to me to undermine the credibility of the guide a bit, really. On the other, of course, folk will never agree on what should and shouldn’t be in it. When you buy a book like this, you sign up to dispute the inclusion and exclusion of particular pubs – in much the same way as you go to a football match knowing in advance that half the fun you’ll have will derive from swearing at the referee.
So what do you get for your £15.99? You get 888 pages, listing more than 4,500 pubs. And let’s look at the practicalities: you get a book that weighs about a kilogram. If you want a pub guide that you can slip comfortably into your bag when you’re out exploring unknown territory, this relative lack of portability is worth bearing in mind. (One alternative is the Good Beer Guide smartphone app, available for a fiver, which can look up your location using GPS and guide you to the nearest listed pub. Now that’s the future.)
The best way to use the printed Good Beer Guide, instead, is to curl up in your favourite chair in advance of a journey and rummage through the listings for your destination, storing up the names and locations of excellent pubs in advance. This has the advantage of making you seem more clued-up to any companions on your visit, as you appear to draw effortlessly on a large repository of pub knowledge stored up in your head.
And it’s just as satisfying to flick through the guide without any particular visit in mind, just to see what it says about pubs you’re already aware of. Maybe the greatest delight is flicking through to discover that a boozer you knew and loved, but haven’t set eyes on in years, is still there. Ah, the White Lion in Walsall – maybe one day we’ll meet again. I know I could have Googled for it, but where’s the glamour in that?
Then there are the other little gems, off the beaten track of the guide content. The quirky sidebars with wry quotes about beer from 19th-century literature. And the articles at the start about the brewing museum in Burton on Trent and how beer is made and Camra’s latest campaigns. It’s good to know about the latter, but is it still relevant to bemoan the practices of the big breweries? With so much superior ale so readily available these days, does anyone still give a bugger? Maybe I’m just spoilt rotten by living in Sheffield, but I can’t remember the last time I was forced to sup any of those rubbish corporate beers. For real ale enthusiasts to lament the huge breweries producing big brand beers like John Smith’s in Wolverhampton instead of Tadcaster, or whatever it is, seems like a Belle & Sebastian fanzine regretting the choice of producer on the new Lady Gaga single.
Say what you like about the Good Beer Guide, but you can’t accuse it of underselling itself – or of missing opportunities to trash the opposition. This is a book that includes “no unchecked ‘lucky dip’ sections of pubs sent in at random,” states the introduction, in what seems a pretty clear swipe at the rival Good Pub Guide. And Camra’s publication doesn’t let it rest there, adding: “We happen to believe that when one so-called pub guide offers no main entries for Leeds, it’s both a dereliction of duty and an insult to the people of that city.” Steady on!
Ultimately, of course, this publication derives value from the scope of its coverage and authority from the sheer number of its contributors. Can 115,000 Camra members be wrong? Well, the ones who rate the Museum higher than the Sheffield Tap can, obviously. And the web address given which allows members to submit beer ratings online doesn’t seem to work, or at least not when I tried looking. But if you don’t agree with something in the book, there’s a form at the back that you can fill in and send to Camra to tell them why. And you can’t say fairer than that. Whatever fairly minor reservations there might be about the Good Beer Guide, if you’ve got 16 quid jangling about, there’s nothing else out there that’ll do the job better, is there?
The Good Beer Guide 2011 is available from Camra’s website at a discounted price of £10 for Camra members or £12.99 for non-members. Click here to order a copy.