Sunday, 20 January 2013

Some More Thoughts on CAMRA's Good Beer Guide

 
Next Sunday sees my local, West Kent CAMRA branch holding its annual Good Beer Guide Selection Meeting. I shan't be attending as we have a family get together on that day, but even if this were not the case I really couldn't face the prospect of sitting through hours of turgid debate on which pubs should be selected and which should be left out. I am not the only member to feel this way as during our social at the Dovecote on Saturday, a friend expressed similar sentiments to me.

However, spare a thought for the army (ok handful) of brave volunteers responsible for carrying out surveys of all the nominated pubs. Amongst my friends and branch colleagues I detect a definite sense of battle-weariness with the whole thing - something I think CAMRA nationally overlooks - there is a limit to the amount of goodwill the campaign should expect from its volunteer members. Even then, once the final selection of pubs has been decided on, some poor so-and-so has to sit down and transfer all the information from the survey forms onto a data-base suitable for use by the guide's compilers/editors. The deadline for completion of  this task is a mere eight days after the selection meeting. The guide does not make its appearance in the nation's bookshops until the end of September (in time for the all important Christmas book trade), which begs the question, "What are Mr Protz and his production staff doing during the intervening eight months?", especially as local branch volunteers have done most of the work for them!

An interesting question concerning the GBG surfaced recently; namely what happens when, for whatever reason, a long-standing pub entry finds itself no longer in the guide? This point was brought home by another friend I was talking to at the Dovecote. He had been out surveying all day on Friday (at his expense and  time), when he happened to call in at a pub that is on the periphery of our branch area. The purpose of his visit was to check the situation regrading the pub's stock of our local Gateway to Kent Guide, rather than to carry out a survey. He found mine host in a less than jovial mood, and in fact quite bitter about his alleged treatment and neglect by CAMRA.

The pub, without naming it, was a long-standing fixture in the Good Beer Guide; I believe it featured for some 15-16 years before it was dropped several years ago. At one time it may have even been Branch Pub of the Year, although I will have to check to confirm this. The pub in question served a wide and varied selection of cask ales, but probably reached a point where it was stocking one or two too many for the number of real ale drinkers it attracted. Despite a few doubts, it soldiered on with a place in the Good Beer Guide each year until the landlord decided to put the pub up for sale. It is perfectly understandable that after such a lengthy period behind the bar, the licensee felt he deserved a rest, but unfortunately with both the ownership and stewardship of the pub uncertain, the branch had no choice but to exclude it from selection next time around.

That was five years ago and, as my friend discovered the other day, the pub is still on the market. Whilst he was there the landlord complained bitterly that he never saw anyone from CAMRA these days, but to be fair the pub is quite difficult to reach by public transport, and  few beer enthusiasts would risk driving there (and back). He was also moaning about some of the other pubs selected for this year's edition of the guide. My friend attempted to explain the uncertainty issues, mentioned above, which had precluded the pub's selection, but these appeared to fall on deaf ears.

I had a similar experience myself a few years ago when during a quick lunchtime drink in a pub close to where I work, I bumped into the former landlord of a now closed pub. This person was also very bitter towards CAMRA, and blamed the demise of his pub on his exclusion from the Good Beer Guide. To put the record straight, his non-selection was a straight forward beer quality (or lack of it) issue, and the pub closure was more down to the landlord having lost interest in the place than anything else. I even wonder whether the tears he was shedding were crocodile ones, as the pub was converted into two private houses, one of which was sold on, presumably at a not inconsiderable profit? Incidentally, the licensee my friend spoke to on Friday was threatening to do the same!

This leads me on to my final point - does inclusion in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide boost the trade of a pub to the extent claimed by the two landlords above? And if, for whatever reason, a pub finds itself excluded, will the subsequent loss of trade be sufficient to spell its death knell? I suspect the answer to both these questions is NO, but I would be interested in learning what other people think.

16 comments:

Curmudgeon said...

See this post on my blog.

At times there's a failure to understand the "track record" rule which means that generally a pub won't be eligible unless the licensee has been in place for at least six months prior to the date of the selection meeting.

But there are some marginal pubs in my area which are often in one year, out the next, for no very obvious reason, which understandably can annoy the licensees.

Paul Bailey said...

Curmudgeon, I've just re-read your post and noticed that I'd even commented on it.

The general concensus amongst those posting comments seemed to be that inclusion in the guide makes very little difference to trade. It therefore follows that exclusion also makes bugger-all diffeence. This re-enforces my point about the two whinging landlords I described, unfairly laying the blame for their troubles at CAMRA's door.

Cooking Lager said...

Why put you own time and effort into what is nothing more than a money making exercise for a book they flog back to you at a members discount dearer than the Amazon price?

All you need is the Spoons pub finder app on your phone.

Paul Bailey said...

There is more of a grain of truth in what you say, Cookie. The Good Beer Guide has become such a money spinner for CAMRA that they daren't drop it now.

Cooking Lager said...

Years ago dead trees was the only way to spread the information. If it was a campaigning excercise they would leap at giving it away free to the youngsters with smartphones. It isn't, though, it is a way to make a quid.

Tyson said...

I don't think anyone claims the GBG is a "campaigning exercise". It is quite unashamedly simply a way to boost CAMRA's coffers. And what is wrong with that? The real problem with the GBG lies with the inconsistencies between branches over selection and the lack of direction shown by the great and good in St Albans

Bailey said...

I wonder if some landlords confuse cause and effect? "Everyone stopped coming to my pub because it's not in the GBG!" is actually "My pub went shit and everyone stopped coming and now it's not in the GBG."

Interesting to read newspaper stories from the mid-70s about the pubs dropped from the second commercial edition. Hadn't occured to them, it seems, that your GBG stock can go down as well as up...

Cooking Lager said...

Nowt wrong with that, Ty, so long as the mugs that spend there own time, effort & money volunteering to do it know that it is nowt but a commercial exercise to raise money for Mike Benners paper clips, campaigns against the poor drinking, and a bit of promotion for Protzy.

KentishScot said...

I think that paper annual beer guides are now a thing of the past. I know the pub that Paul is referring to but have to say that while a pub is on the market the difference between survey time and publication makes it very difficult to include it as much as it may be rated by local members. I know that some landords report an increase in trade from GBG inclusion but it is short lived as they new faces are "tickers" and will nver be seen again. CAMRA needs to spend time and give support to local branches to produce their own web versions. Currently it is down to one (if you are lucky 2) volunteers to do all the donkey work of converting word docs, excel spreadsheets, various Db versions into one of the approved formats before they can be uploaded to a central system. This is simply not good enough Branches need the support of HQ to carry out this momentous task and not send out belittling emails about the branches that are failing to conform.

Paul Bailey said...

KentishScot you are SO right about annual beer guides. The amount of time and effort that local CAMRA branches have to devote to the GBG is out of all proportion to any benefits that might be gained locally.

However, as Tyson points out, CAMRA nationally does very well financially from the guide and this, as many have hinted at, is the real reason for its continuance in its present form. It wouldn't be so bad if some of the profit was diverted back to branches in the form of support and assistance with the central pub database, as KentishScot suggests.

The way forwrd for paper guides, as I see it, is for the campaign to produce more guides along the lines of Des de Moor's excellent "London's Best Beer, Pubs & Bars", or indeed our branches own local "Gateway to Kent" guide which, as well as the basic pub information is packed full of interesting articles about beer styles, festivals, suggested pub crawls, how to get to the pubs using public transport, along with essential tourist information. In short, a guide that will appeal far beyond the seasoned pub-goer/ticker/beer nerd market.

How about it CAMRA?

Barm said...

The manager of a newly opened pub near me seemed rather crestfallen to learn that it would be at least a year before it would even have a chance to get into the GBG.

I cannot fathom how it takes seven months to produce this thing. I realise it is a book of many hundred pages that has to be designed, laid out, proofread, edited, proofread again, printed and distributed, but still … seven months?

Many of the people who get the GBG as a Christmas present would be staggered to learn that the pubs in it had been chosen just one week short of a year earlier.

Paul Bailey said...

Barm, it totally amazes me that in this day of computer type-setting and digital printing it takes Protzy and his team seven months to get the guide to market. CAMRA volunteers have done all the hard work for them, and for free. All Roger and his merry band have to do is put the thing to bed!

We are saying here that the information in the guide is virtually a year out of date by the time its key readership obtain their copy, ie, at Christmas. This really isn't good enough, and makes a mockery of all the hard, and unpaid, effort put in by local branch volunteers up and down the country.

Surely time for a fresh approach!

Fred Street said...

Yes Paul ,I ran a pub that was selected for the GBG for the last 3 or 4 years of my tenure and would confirm that the increase in trade from what we could make out was not huge , but it was noticeable in the sense of the type of customer that it attracted ( discerning ale drinkers }. Free inclusion into the GBG should be viewed as a bonus by the recipient publican ,much in the same way as a restraunter would view entry into the Michelin food guide . There are plenty of paid for guides both can subscribe to . Overall I would comment that its nice to get the recognition and free entry , but it certainly is not a major factor in the commercial success of a pub..

Curmudgeon said...

The effect on trade will vary greatly depending on what kind of pub it is. A rural or village pub in a National Park or AONB, or a multi-beer pub in a busy town, is likely to see a substantial uplift. A back-street boozer tied to a family brewer is unlikely to notice much if any difference.

RedNev said...

A few years ago at the CAMRA AGM, I spoke against a motion that forbade Branches from publishing in their own magazines the lists of local GBG pubs that they had researched. Protz spoke for the ban and the motion was passed. Considering how much work goes into the GBG at Branch level, I thought the motion was a damned cheek, and the AGM passing it utterly bizarre.

Paul Bailey said...

Nev, I think CAMRA nationally, sometimes take the membership for granted. They make great play that all the pubs in the GBG are recommended, surveyed and chosen by branch members, but then treat the same members with disdain.

Without the information being fed in at grass roots level, there wouldn't be a guide. It's high time St Albans woke up to this fact!