|With acknowledgements to West Dorset CAMRA|
Regular readers of this blog will know my antithesis towards CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide; an annual publication, a perennial best-seller, an important source of income for the Campaign for Real Ale and the inspiration for dedicated people like retired martin and Simon Everitt who heroically trudge the length and breadth of the country in order to “tick off” entries in the Guide.
For several years I have ceased to have any involvement in the, at times, quite fraught selection of pubs for the Good Beer Guide; a situation I am quite happy with after standing down from the committee of my local branch. Despite this, I surprised myself at last November’s Branch AGM when I volunteered to survey an isolated pub, which is relatively close to where I work.
My reasons for doing this weren’t entirely altruistic and were due more to a desire to visit this particular pub, rather than doing my bit to help the branch, but that said, I visited the pub, did the survey and then thought that was that. Last Sunday 12th February was the date chosen for the final selection meeting, and like all members on the branch mailing list, I received an email inviting me to the selection meeting. The email also informed recipients that a total of 38 pubs had been put forward for possible entry in next year's guide, but these need to be whittled down to 22 pubs, plus a possible three reserve entries.
The pub chosen to host the meeting was the Brecknock Arms at Bells Yew Green; a smashing little Harvey’s pub, which is easily accessible by train (just 5 minutes walk from Frant station). I have written about the Brecknock on many past occasions, most recently because it was the venue for our branch Christmas meal. It was considered the ideal pub to host the selection meeting because it is not within our branch area, being just over the border into Sussex. It therefore counts as “neutral territory”. The pub also has an area at the back which can be reserved for functions and, as previously mentioned, is easy to reach by public transport.
I should also add that the Brecknock serves excellent food, and the plan was that those who wished to dine first would arrive shortly before one o’clock, thereby allowing the meeting to commence at 2pm. I had toyed with the idea of going along for a bite to eat, plus a few pints of Harvey’s Old, and then drifting off before the meeting really got going, but as it happened, things worked out the other way.
My son and I are going away next Sunday for a few days, (more about that later). In addition the branch have organised a visit to Old Dairy Brewery the day before. I had put my name down for this trip some time ago, way before our planned short break, so in the interests of maintaining marital bliss and not wishing to forgo too many "Brownie points", I decided that going to the selection meeting might not be such a good idea. I emailed our new branch chairman and offered my apologies, along with my thoughts on the pub I’d been asked to survey.
The chairman replied thanking me for my thoughts on the pub, but his reply also included a comment along the lines that, despite my reservations about the GBG, he would have welcomed my input to the meeting. He also stated he had some views of his own concerning the Guide. Well flattery does sometimes work, so after giving the matter some considerable thought, I decided I would make the effort and go along to the meeting after all. My decision was helped by my wife and I getting the shopping, cleaning and other domestic chores largely sorted the day before. We not only finished this, but I also got most of my stuff sorted out for next weekend’s trips. I then spent the rest of the afternoon and all evening knocking out a couple of blog posts, alongside researching suitable winter-time watering holes in Munich.
By bedtime, despite having achieved a fair bit, I realised I was bored silly, and the prospect of spending another whole day stuck indoors, was not one I relished. So on waking on Sunday morning, I had resolved to go the meeting. The weather was still cold, grey, damp and miserable, meaning there was no chance of doing any work in the garden, so what better to do than take a train over to Frant for a few pints of Harvey’s Old at the Brecknock? Oh, and whilst I was there I could make the odd contribution to the GBG selection meeting.
Eileen wasn’t overly concerned at me going. She was up for a spot of “refurbishing”, and also had some cooking planned, so she didn’t really want me around getting under her feet, and certainly didn’t fancy going along to beer guide selection meeting. Consequently I wrapped myself up against the cold and walked down to the station in time for the 13:41 train to Frant. I bumped into some CAMRA friends on the platform, and we travelled together the three stops, down the line to Frant.
The advance party (those who’d chosen to eat), were already there when we arrived, but there were still a few seats available in the back section of the pub. On tap at the bar were Harvey’s IPA, Sussex Best and XXXX Old Ale. I, of course, opted for the latter, and whilst it would be churlish for me to say it was “sole purpose of visit”, it was in tip-top form, dark, cool and very drinkable There were around a dozen of us present, charged with the unenviable task of selecting 22 possible entries for the guide.
The meeting kicked off on time. In front of us was an A4 sheet listing all 38 pubs, together with their average NBSS scores, plus details of number of people who scored each pub. This would act as our guide, but only in conjunction with reports from the people who’d actually undertaken the individual pub surveys. All those present were free to add their comments or observations (positive or negative), if they wished. It goes without saying that only pubs which had been inspected, and for which a survey form had been filled in, could be considered, so I think this was about as democratic as a GBG selection meeting could get.
The chairman went through the list several times; the first time being where we chose the definite entries. These were the obvious candidates; the pubs which just had to go in and for which there could possibly be no dissent. Nine pubs were thus selected. We then went through the list again, picking out those worthy of further consideration and rejecting those which failed on criteria such as suspect or poor quality beer, change of licensee, rude or “surly” landlord (yes, they do unfortunately exist!), and not meeting CAMRA dispense guidelines (cask-breathers – controversial, but highlighted by the Revitalisation Committee as an area for change).
From the remainder, we then decided to select, by secret ballot, up to three “reserve” entries. As if by magic, once this had been done we were left with the remaining 13 pubs which the majority agreed were worthy of going into the 2018 Guide. It was all really rather painless and almost without controversy. I said almost, as it wouldn’t be CAMRA, and it wouldn’t be GBG selection time if there wasn’t one controversial decision. However, like a Freemason who’s just been inducted into the local lodge, I am not at liberty to disclose what it was, and neither am I free to reveal any of the entries until the Guide hits the bookshops in September!
So, “Never say never”, and on balance I’m glad I made the effort to go along. My overall opinion on the GBG hasn’t altered, although I do agree with our new chairman’s opening remarks, when he said that we need to be mindful of the people who buy and use the guide, and not let our own personal preferences and prejudices influence our decisions, and override the basic principle behind the publication.
As an aside, the importance of submitting NBSS scores was emphasised, as it really does help build up a picture on overall beer quality. This is especially true when it comes to some of the more isolated pubs, or some of the less popular ones, which we rarely get out to. A comment was also made that it is good to receive scores from visitors to the area, as these are likely to be more objective and less biased than those submitted locally. Members were encouraged to do the same when visiting pubs away from West Kent. Despite WhatPub’s relative ease of use, there were a few calls for a smartphone App to be made available.
This part of the conversation went completely over the heads of two people sitting round the table. Technology has obviously passed some people by, and I wouldn’t even have mentioned this if one of them hadn’t specifically asked me to write about it on my blog! I suppose if it brings you your “15 seconds of fame” then there is something to be gained from not always following the crowd and being a bit of a dinosaur!