Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Never say "Never"

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!


Curmudgeon said...

WhatPub doesn't make any qualitative judgments about pubs, and so can't be regarded as a substitute for the GBG.

Matt said...

My problem with the GBG is that branches are told they have a certain number of entries and then see this as a quota to be met rather than an upper limit. Leaving spots unfilled is seen as unthinkable, and gaining extra ones an achievement. This leads to a thick volume which could and should be a lot slimmer (the earlier editions are, but that's probably a result of cask beer not being available in many areas then). Outstanding pubs are padded out with merely average ones as competence is mistaken for excellence.

Curmudgeon said...

in the past, the number of entries in the GBG was greater - 5,500 as against the current 4,500, but it was a much slimmer publication because the descriptions were much shorter, as was the brewery section.

The total number of real ale pubs was probably much the same in the late 1970s as it is now, but their distribution was more patchy and they represented a lower proportion of the total.

It's important to remember that the GBG should be a service to its users, not a badge of honour for licensees. If the number of entries was substantially reduced it would become much less useful, especially if large gaps started opening up.

Dave said...

I don't want to just shill for the GBG, but I often don't get the controversy about the book. My wife, brother and I all travel to the UK a lot. The GBG, above all other guide books, has given us our best experiences. These are both beer experiences and people experiences. I know beer gets a pub in the guide; I also know that most of the pubs in the guide are interesting places. Places we would not have found by chance. It seems to me people quibble far too much about the guides value. They need to spend more time enjoying the pubs listed in it. We are lucky to have a guide that takes us to them.

Curmudgeon said...

What Dave said. And I'd also lay money that there will still be a print edition of the GBG in 2027.

Paul Bailey said...

The point you make Mudge, about the GBG being of service to its users, rather than a badge of honour for licensees, is a valid one. Our new branch chairman tried to put the same point across, in his address before the meeting. Far too many CAMRA branch committees seem to forget this, come selection time, and there sometimes is a perception that places in the guide are awarded as a mark of merit.

Having said that, Dave’s point is also valid, and there is often far too much navel gazing and head scratching when it comes to choosing pubs.

My point regarding WhatPub was only about NBSS scores, and my own branch use these solely as a guideline when it comes to drawing up the initial shortlist. We do also accept nominations from members; either by post/email, or in person at the branch AGM.

With regard to the Breweries Section of the Guide; isn’t there now a compelling case for this to be a separate publication. I would also question its overall value, apart from acting as a “ticker’s” list, especially as now most of the information is available on-line (and usually in far more detail).

Curmudgeon said...

I was referring to WhatPub as the online guide rather than the scoring mechanism, so we may have got our wires slightly crossed there.

Whether in print or online, I continue to believe there is merit in a "curated" guide where people with local knowledge have taken the trouble to sift out which are, in their view, the best pubs for beer in their area.

Dave said...

I think you are right Paul on removing the brewery section. The brewery section should be moved to online only in my opinion. With the proliferation of seasonal beers it is really tough to keep it current.

Paul Bailey said...

Irrespective of my own thoughts on the GBG, I think both Dave and Curmudgeon are correct on the value (usefulness) of the Guide to the end user, and the staying power of the printed publication.

When e-books and e-readers (Kindles etc), first made their appearance, people were very quick to predict the demise of traditional printed books. I’m glad to say I was not one of those pundits, and it’s encouraging to see that not only have books proved remarkably resilient, but they are more than holding their own.

There is something about the feel of a proper book, which Kindles and their like just can’t replicate, so I agree that a printed GBG of some description (with or without the brewery section), will still be around in 10 years time.

Dave said...

I am curious about one of Matt's comments. The padding of the book with undeserving pubs. It's rare for me to hit a pub that is in the guide that I think is bad. Normally when I do they are pulled by the next volume. As a visitor though I likely don't test the book as hard as the natives. Do you find the book to be padded with undeserving pubs?

Matt said...

I can only really comment on the beer quality in the GBG pubs I've drunk in in my local area (Stockport, South Manchester and Manchester City Centre) and I'd say there are a fair few where the it's at best average, and occasionally poor, but which are in edition after edition, either for their atmosphere, architecture or maybe just out of inertia on the part of selectors.

Speaking of inertia, I'd guess that quite a lot of copies of the GBG are bought each year as someone's standard gift to a relative who likes cask beer.