Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Whatever Happened to The Local Guides?

                                                    Whatever Happened to                                               
                                      The Local Guides?                                   

Whatever happened to local beer and pub guides? Those local CAMRA pub guides. Slim of width and back pocket friendly, handy (sometimes fold-out) map enclosed. Visiting a strange town never seemed quite so strange with a trusty guide firmly in hand. 

When planning a trip for business or pleasure they were, for me at least, an essential purchase to ensure that however bad the accommodation, terrible the food, and inclement the British weather I could always find good beer close by. Relying on an army of enthusiasts sent out to visit every pub in their county, they contain the name address, telephone number, opening times, brief description and, because these were CAMRA guides, the real ale (or not) that could be found there.

The opening pages are often simply an introduction to the guide and a list of the (incredibly few) local breweries contained within the county's borders whilst others have more lengthy prose, providing an insight into the issues of the day. Frightening headlines such as "Nitrokeg - the new threat?", "New Keg. New Threat.", "Pubs in Peril", and "Coming Soon ... The £2 Pint" seem as relevant to the Campaign now as the ever were, although if you consider that the last one is from the 1992 edition of Avon Ale, a county that no longer exists, then perhaps we're not as badly off as What's Brewing's letters page might have you believe. There are some lighter and more informative articles too. The Real Ale Drinkers Guide To Kent Pubs (1993) includes one on Pub Games In Kent and Hop Research At Wye (college, the home of the worlds oldest hop research department, a Derbyshire guide (of which more below) has one on Fly-fishing, and The North London Pub Guide (1995) has a handy guide to night bus routes in the North London area.

Most counties had several editions with a new updated versions every three to five years on average some, Essex for example stretching to nine, the last of which was published in 1997. I don't recall seeing any reviewed in What's Brewing's book section any later than the turn of the century, although there may have been one or two, but most county's final editions were published long before this. For a recent excursion I ordered the latest Derbyshire edition I could find from an online store and even though I expected it to be out of date I didn't quite expect it to be nearly a quarter of a century old.

I know this is the digital age where guide books are something archaic. Many cities have applications that can be downloaded (Craft Beer London for example is excellent), enabling you to pin-point your position and find the nearest pub or bar, or even plan your route to your destination of choice but, for me at least, a smart phone in one hand and pub guide in the other is a beer explorers delight.

There are of course some more modern guides, good guides that will take you to the best bars and pubs in key European cities, and I can certainly recommend the Cogan&Mater published "...In 80 Beers" guides if you're visiting the cities covered as I have used them myself on several occasions. I've put some of my favourites in the picture below, a mixed bag but all worthy of investment if you're visiting the areas covered.

Inevitably some cities have lots of guide books, constantly updated. London and York in particular have a glut of 'best of' books that will tell you where to find a pub or bar to suit any whim or persuasion. Good those these are I do have a hankering for the return of those Angus McGill Evening Standard London Pub Guides of the 1990s, their mixture of wit and information meant they were the only guide books I have read through from cover to cover on more than one occasion, and I still look through them now and again.

I have asked myself whether I'm just being nostalgic, looking not-very-far back at a time when mobile phones were actually phones and not the gateway to everything and everywhere they are today but the more I think about it then the more I'd like to see the return of the local guide. While I appreciate that things move faster these days, with new breweries and venues on a seemingly daily basis, it's the successful ones that thrive and grow, staying the course year on year. The Good Beer Guide is limited by space and it's championing of real ale, surely there is a need for these guides now, directing visitors to the best places today and serving as reference guide for the next generation of drinkers and further generations to come who might look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.


  1. We were recently discussing whether to produce a new edition of our Stockport guide, but eventually decided not to, because:

    (a) beer ranges change so rapidly nowadays that any information will be instantly out of date, and
    (b) all the static information is readily available on WhatPub anyway

    I think it's just something that's had its day. The GBG being a nationwide, selective guide is a different kettle of fish.

  2. I see your point but an up to date modern guide would focus on the venue rather than the beer range, possibly including what you might expect and emphasising quality, and the purpose of it would be that it's not an online guide but a book that you can hold in your hands or put in your pocket.

    I do agree with your last paragraph though, and discussing the merits or otherwise of the Good Beer Guide would be a different, and considerably longer, post.

  3. We have pondered the idea of producing a lavishly illustrated book showcasing our classic heritage pubs, of which we have quite a few. Obviously that wouldn't date so quickly.

    I think printed guides could still work and sell for tourist areas such as the Peak District, but not for your typical Metropolitan Borough.

  4. Justin, I too miss the local guides, and agree purchasing one prior beforehand was an essential piece of pre-planning, prior to a trip to an unfamiliar part of the country.

    A significant amount of work was involved in their production (and I’m speaking from personal experience here). There are few CAMRA branches today, who can muster the manpower needed to carry out the surveys, and then there are all the different stages involved with the design and layout before the guide goes to print. The guide will also need financing, and whilst CAMRA HQ will normally provide a loan, branches will need to submit a proper business plan and then wait for approval.

    It doesn’t end there, as you’ve then got to get out there and start selling the guides! My branch produced a guide in 2009, in conjunction with two neighbouring branches. There are still some outstanding accounting issues, plus a number of unsold guides, but on the plus side, the Gateway to Kent Guide won best local CAMRA guide for 2010.

    I don’t think we’ll be producing a follow on, as there’s no willingness in the branch for such another arduous undertaking.

    1. Thanks Paul.

      I realise that the work undertaken must have been tremendous, and that is within an organisation that can muster an army of volunteers. I had pondered on the willingness to repeat such a task on a regular basis, and expect they were initially done as a matter of county pride, this county have made one so we must too, and so on.

      What I didn't know is that there were a few produced as late as you say, I'll certainly try to find them as, from the guides I have, the Kent ones often have the most varied and interesting articles included.

      I'm looking back with a mixture of nostalgia and a little selfish longing but still think they have their place. Perhaps I'll have to do my own.