The Good Pub Guide and Good Beer Guide clash over pub closures in the UK. So who’s right?
By Jack Peat, Editor of The London Economic
British pubs – like museums, cathedrals and castles – are cultural institutions and ought to be protected accordingly. But until they fall under the National Trust umbrella of endangered species they are slaves to the free market economy, and unless they act accordingly, they are responsible for their own demise.
The introduction to this year’s Good Pub Guide has sparked heated debate with rival publication The Good Beer Guide after it responded to the prospect of 4,000 pub closures with the words:“it’s high time they closed their doors”. Roger Protz, editor of the latter guide, argued “pubs need to be saved, not thrown on the scrapheap”, but as much as I’m an advocate of the British pub I’m also a sworn enemy of “bad pubs”, and one can’t help but sympathies with outbursts in a book documenting Good pubs, and not the tosh.
There’s certainly editorial faux pas in the new edition of the Good Pub Guide, and Protz was quick to misconstrue some of the ill-advised sentiment. Pubs at “the bottom of the pecking order” – meant to mean badly managed establishments, interpreted to mean working class establishments – was one such statement, which Protz responded to by saying: “There are people in towns and cities who go to boozers for a decent pint, not a Michelin-star chef because they don’t have that kind of income”. Cut through the competitive rhetoric and this is nothing more than crude misinterpretation.
But I couldn’t help but notice elements of class divide in this year’s results. Other than Inn of the Year (The Blue Lion, Yorkshire) and the Whisky Pub of the Year (Bon Accord, Glasgow) there is a notable lack of northern entries, and the ‘gastro’ portmanteau commonly tied to pubs is slipping worryingly towards pretentiousness. A look at the Dining Pub of the Year (Stagg Titley, Herefordshire) supports Protz’s accusation of Michelin star dining, and is far removed from our pie and peas customs.
Stats on pubs ought to be taken with a bucket full of salt. There may be 4,000 pub closures projected for this year, but like house sales, new tenants are never far away to plug the gaps.
For those that do “end on the scrapheap”, bad service is generally a greater threat than economics. Pubs offering indifferent food, drink, service and surroundings should rightly be trumped by establishments which are creative with their offering and strive to provide quality. It is rather hard to make this case in London – where simple visitor numbers keep pubs alive – but elsewhere, such as my native Yorkshire, the battle for survival is far more clear cut.
The Junction pub in Castleford – a town which falls within the top five per cent of most deprived wards in England according to the Index of Multiple Deprivation – remains in my estimates one of the best pubs I’ve ever visited. My judgement isn’t measured by grandeur, surroundings or their gourmet food offering, but on the basis that they cater to an audience by providing real, honest ale at a good price. Friends of Ham, another ‘pop up’ pub in the centre of Leeds, has enjoyed similar success by offering food and drink which is out of the ordinary, rather than tapping a keg of Fosters and assuming it will suffice.
My sympathies lie with the Good Pub Guide in this case, and although their sentiments are easily misconstrued, the underlying elements are bang on the money. Pubs may be a staple of British society, but that doesn’t give them a free pass on the market economy. Like any business, they must fight to survive.