Why oh why is the Good Beer Guide STILL getting British beer styles so totally, shambolically wrong?

I feel bad about greeting the new editor of Camra’s Good Beer Guide, Emma Haines, with a spittle-flecked rant. A little. But not much. Because SIX YEARS after I pointed out that the “British beer styles” section of “the UK’s best-selling beer and pub guide” was choked with errors, the 2020 edition of the guide, just out, is STILL printing paragraph upon paragraph of nonsense about practically everything, from IPA to porter, and barley wine to mild.

It is also seriously misleading by what it omits to say: failing to point out, for example, that today’s American-style IPAs, with their emphasis on fresh, fruity, flowery hop flavours using modern varieties of hops, are radically different beers from the aged IPAs of the 19th century, or the debased IPAs of the mid-20th century; and that modern interpretations of porter and stout, frequently adding a wide range of ingredients from coffee to vanilla to blackberries to peanut butter, are again very different from the versions that sustained the street porters of London in the time of the Georges.

Inside sources tell me that suggestions for changes to the “British Beer Styles” section for the 2020 edition were made, but were ignored. That’s shameful, frankly: of the many thousands who buy the guide, all those who knew little to nothing about beer styles will now be utterly misled into believing nonsense, while all those who DO know about beer styles will be deeply under-impressed by an obvious lack of knowledge in a book that purports to be the country’s leading pub guide, published by an organisation that purports to be the country’s leading organisation for beer drinkers.

It’s not as if all the information on beer styles that the GBG gets wrong isn’t out there in easily discoverable forms: there are now a considerable number of books, blogs, magazine articles and so on giving the true facts about how the beer styles we know today developed. And yet the 2020 GBG still prints utter nonsense such as “a true pale ale should be different to bitter,” and “From the early years of the 20th century, bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity, and as a result pale ale became mainly a bottled product.” I wrote an article 15 years ago – FIFTEEN YEARS AGO – for What’s Brewing, the Camra monthly newspaper, detailing the history of bitter, and pointing out that bitter and pale ale were and always have been synonyms for the same drink, and that brewers have never differentiated between them. To claim that there is any difference, and that at some time ” bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity”, is total made-up spherules. Here’s something I wrote 12 YEARS AGO about why saying otherwise is historically totally wrong.

Since the guide screws up “pale ale” so badly, unsurprisingly it gets the section on bitter wrong as well. It starts off talking about “running beers”, but running beers only began appearing at the end of the 19th century, and the first bitter beers appeared 40 or more years earlier, a cut-price, lower gravity response to the popularity of India Pale Ale, which was always a premium beer. It also claims that the rise of “running beers” (most of which, anyway, were mild ales, not bitters) was connected with the growth of brewers’ pub estates, which is more nonsense. It was a consumer-led desire for less alcoholic, lighter beer that saw the formerly well-aged “stock” bitters disappear. All the same, bitter/pale ale was a minority, middle-class drink until the early 1960s.

The section on IPA repeats the canard that the original “pale ales as prepared for India” were high in alcohol, a fallacy which I thought Ron Pattinson and I had stamped out, again, 15 or more years ago. At six per cent to 6.5 per cent abv, 19th century India Pale Ales were lower in strength than 19th century milds, which were up to seven or 7.5 per cent abv. It also gets the history of the entire brewing industry wrong, claiming that IPA “changed the face of brewing in the 19th century”, as “new technologies of the Industrial revolution enabled brewers to use pale malts to produce paler beers.” It was always possible to produce pale malt, but developments in the 17th century – not the 19th – made pale malt production easier, and pale ales began growing in popularity from the end of the 1600s. (It’s a curious fact that the first known mention of the expression “pale ale” came in 1706.) What these were, however, were unhopped, or very lightly hopped pale ales: the more hopped “export” kind were an 18th century development.

Those lightly hopped, sweetish pale ales were what the brewers of Burton upon Trent specialised in before they started brewing the more bitter IPAs, and those sweetish pale ales became known as Burton Ales. It’s a style that has almost vanished now: Marston’s Old Rodger and Young’s Winter Warmer are two of the very few survivors. The 2020 GBG beer styles section actually mentions Burton Ale, but screws it up unforgivably by claiming that the beer launched in 1976 under the name Ind Coope Burton Ale was a Burton Ale of the sort once popular around the country until the 1950s. This makes me really want to smack someone hard, because I have again been pointing out for years that the 1976 beer was an IPA, with a recipe derived from what was once Ind Coope’s premium India Pale Ale, Double Diamond, and it was the marketing department at Allied Breweries that decided to mess with beer historians’ heads by giving their “new” cask bitter/pale ale the name of an older beer of a completely different style. So allow me to shout it out: IND COOPE BURTON ALE IS NOT A BURTON ALE. Thank you.

Let us continue with cataloguing the mistakes. This is very tedious, because I detailed these errors in 2013 and NOBODY TOOK ANY NOTICE, which makes me today VERY SHOUTY. Old ale was not called “stale” by drinkers because of the lactic acid and tannic flavours that developed as it aged, it was called “stale” by brewers because “stale” formerly indicated something that had “stood” (the word is related to “stall”), and thus meant merely something that had been around for a while, as opposed to fresh ale or beer, which was called “mild”. The same ale (or beer) would be “mild” when first brewed and “old” (or “stale”) after it had aged.

Mild was NOT “drunk primarily by industrial and agricultural workers in the 18th and 19th centuries, who needed to refresh themselves after long hours of arduous labour.” That role was filled very specifically by porter, which actually gets its name from the workers who were its first big fans, the street and river porters, coal porters, and the like, of London. Mild ale never took off in popularity until the second half of the 19th century, though after it replaced porter in popularity, mild remained THE working class drink, urban and rural, until the 1950s

Barley wine does NOT date “back to the early 18th century”, and nor was its development anything to do with “thumbing a nose at France”. Very strong “doble-doble” beers were being brewed when Elizabeth I was complaining about them, and ales that had been aged for up to ten years were around in Queen Anne’s time. It is claimed that such ales became more popular when brandy was unavailable during Britain’s frequent wars with France. But the expression “barley wine” as a term for such strong brews is extremely rare until the end of the 19th century.

I suppose I should be happy that the worst of the myths that were once repeated about the origins of porter do not appear in the GBG 2020, but there is nonsense enough: the development of porter did NOT “herald in the commercial brewing industry”, since we had had a thriving brewing industry in Britain for more than 350 years before porter. Nor were there special restrictions on dark malt during the First World War: and the dominance of “Irish brewers” (why the coyness? If you mean Guinness, say so) was grounded in developments happening long before the Kaiser kicked off in 1914. Nor, I suggest are stouts jet-black and roasty while porters are dark brown and sweeter: I do not believe there are any generalisable differences between beers brewed today called porter and beers brewed today called stout.

At least the 2020 GBG has the decency to admit that it is “an urban myth that Scottish beers are less heavily hopped that English ones”, a myth that it was spreading in the 2014 edition, but it still claims that Scottish beers “tend to be darker and maltier than those south of the border” – not true – and insists that “Wee Heavy” was a style of beer. It was not: it was the nickname for a particular brand, Fowlers’ Twelve Guinea Ale.

There we are then: two pages on beer styles, more than a dozen silly mistakes, with the true facts in each case easily available for years. The blurb on the 2020 guide’s back cover claims that it is “fully revised”. Can I suggest that for the 2021 edition the “British beer styles” section is not “revised”, but thrown right out the window, and a completely new version written by someone who has taken on board research done into the history of this glorious brewing nation’s beer styles over the past 20 years.