My favourite day of the year is the day the new Beer Guide arrives. That may be sad but I really enjoy looking through a new guide to see the annual changes and the trends they reflect.
The 2016 Guide arrived today quite a bit earlier than usual. It’s officially launched in mid September and CAMRA have politely asked that detail on entries is embargoed till then. I have in past years come across several publicans who seemed unaware they were in the Guide that had prompted my visit, and been surprised they didn’t know before publication.
My main reflection is on what an impressive publication the Guide remains, and on how much work is carried out by CAMRA volunteers locally to ensure that entries reflect beer quality first and foremost. There are a few notable omissions this year which accord with my views of beer quality on recent visits, showing that reputations can be lost as well as earned. I have a view on the distribution of Guide allocations by branch (it reflects volumes rather than quality) but I’m not sure there’s an easy solution.
Looking back at the last year, I visited about 300 new (to me) pubs in the 2015 Guide, and I have been slightly disappointed with beer quality in a higher proportion of those pubs than in previous years. I score beer quality using the NBSS system, and a lot of it was more 2-2.5 than 3-3.5. Drinkable beer, but nothing to excite and more likely to make me wish I’d had a more expensive Punk IPA or Meantime on keg. Typically the pubs with dull beer would have more handpumps than customers. On the other hand, I’ve had some of the best beer ever in a few unlikely places, like the Atom in the New Adelphi in Hull.
The one discernable trend in the new Guide is the continued rise of the micro-pub, particularly in East Kent, South London and Merseyside, all areas where more traditional boozers have shut and where small shop units are probably available at reasonable cost. Micro-pubs as a concept have fans and critics, but in theory beer quality ought to be good because the owner is a real ale enthusiast and the customers largely drink real ale rather than Peroni. In practice I’ve found quality a bit variable, in part because even 3 barrels go stale if you only have 3 or 4 customers in a pub at any one time.
No doubt there will be some detailed debate about specific exclusions and entries come mid-September.