Sunday, 17 April 2016

CAMRA's Pub of the Year Competition

I’ve been thinking a lot recently. Okay, I know it’s a dangerous thing to do sometimes, but the Revitalisation project which CAMRA recently embarked on has provided plenty of food for thought, and last week’s presentation to the Windmill at Sevenoaks Weald, for achieving West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year, for the third year in succession, sparked off a train of thought about this award and my past involvement with it.

I’m not certain exactly when the CAMRA Pub of the Year award traces its roots back to, but I imagine it started off as something fairly low key, organised by individual branches. Not all branches would have run such a contest, and regional and national awards would have been unheard of.

The award came into my consciousness, sometime during the late 1980’s-early 1990’s, when my local CAMRA branch committee, invited members to submit their nomination(s) for branch pub of the year. This would have all been in the days before email communication, when everything relied on the Royal Mail, so the request would have gone out via the branch magazine, Inn View News (now sadly defunct). There may have also been a mail out – possibly tied in with the invitations for the branch AGM.

The idea worked, and several prominent local pubs won the title. One, at least is sadly no longer trading, but the award scheme did attract quite a lot of local attention at the time, including some welcome publicity in the local press, for both the pubs concerned as well as the branch.

Later, the idea of a mini-bus trip to survey all the pubs short listed (normally six), caught on, and became a very popular annual event amongst branch members. It was a logistical nightmare to organise though, and I member one memorable occasion when the van broke down, stranding us on the edge of Tonbridge after only making it to one pub!
The major flaw in the process was that as the day progressed, and the number of pubs visited increased, the amount of alcohol consumed also increased, and peoples’ judgement became increasingly impaired, so much so that by the last pub, some participants had little clue as to what they should be scoring and voting on.

In addition, because of the numbers of people involved, it was only fair to check with the pubs beforehand, rather than just turning up mob-handed on a Saturday lunchtime. To their credit, the organisers didn’t let on about the purpose of the trip, and as far as the pubs were concerned it was just a jolly for local CAMRA members.

Unfortunately, the real purpose behind the trip did become public knowledge, on a number of occasions (some people can’t even hold their own water!), so there were instances of landlords putting on beers specially for us, or even plying us with free food.

In recent years West Kent CAMRA have abandoned the mini-bus idea and instead have asked volunteers to visit survey and score every pub on the short-list. They can do this individually or as part of a group and they can obviously carry out these surveys over a number of weeks, but for their votes to count they must have visited all the pubs (usually six) on the list.

Unfortunately working full time precludes me from taking part, but we have plenty of retired people amongst our members, who are able to spare the time. In addition, their dedication to the task does make for a more balanced and more objective results, compared to sending a load of people out in a mini-bus on a glorified piss-up – even if it was enormous fun at the time!

A pattern emerged quite early on from these processes, and it is still evident today. What seems to happen is that is most of the winners go on to claim the award for two or three years running. When a winner is eventually toppled, it is hard to determine exactly why. Has the pub concerned become complacent and allowed standards to slip? Has an even more worthy winner crept up from behind to claim the crown? Or have people just become bored with the same pub winning year after year?

It does appear that natural selection ensures that whilst a pub may win the award several years on the trot, no pub hangs onto it for ever. In our case it doesn’t deter contenders, (as far as we know), because the short-list of pubs is drawn up each year by members, rather than pubs nominating themselves.

Some CAMRA branches automatically exclude the current winner from consideration in the following year’s competition. This is to avoid allegations of a pub being regarded as” branch favourite”. West Kent CAMRA feel that to do this means the branch is not operating a level playing field and a pub may feel that it has done everything right, only to find itself excluded from the contest purely for being the best.

People can be very fickle anyway, and few are totally objective in their judgements – often allowing personal prejudices or personal favourites to ride rough shod over the reality of the situation. For these reasons, CAMRA has issued guidelines to be observed when selecting a Pub of the Year, and these guidelines have evolved, and inevitably lengthened over the years.

Branches sometimes put their own interpretation on things, but some of the most detailed guidelines I have seen appeared on the Ipswich and East Suffolk CAMRA Branch website. You can get the full picture by clicking on the link opposite, but I have have listed the categories by which a pub is judged below, along with a brief summary plus a few comments of my own,

Is the beer, cider and/or perry sold of good/excellent quality? Pretty obvious really, but this is the most important single factor in judging a pub for a CAMRA award.

In addition, quality always wins over the number of beers/ciders on offer, although having a range of beer/cider styles may be a factor, provided that quality is high.

The pub should provide a comfortable, pleasant, clean and safe environment throughout, with a friendly atmosphere. Is it a nice place to be? Care over matters such as hygiene and cleanliness, normally translated into licensees and their staff, taking care over the beer as well.

The service should be welcoming, friendly, polite and also prompt whenever possible. If the pub is busy, a friendly acknowledgement of your presence is desirable.You should be treated like a valued customer and made to feel at ease.

The pub must be inclusive and feel welcoming to all age groups and sectors of the community.  Where appropriate, does the pub have a community focus, eg. supporting local groups, sports teams, etc? Does the pub have information on the local area which may be of use to locals and visitors to the area?
Little things in themselves, but things which can add up and make a big difference.
If a pub’s up for a CAMRA award, then it stands to reason it should broadly adhere to CAMRA’s principles. There are too many to list here, but things to look out for are misleading dispense methods, full measures, range of beer styles and strengths, prices and opening hours being clearly displayed and real ale (cider and perry where applicable) being promoted in a positive way.

Little things again, but things which matter.

This category covers those undefined elements that are not considered elsewhere; the most important of which is did you enjoy your visit to the pub?

Obviously not all these criteria are followed to the letter, neither does every branch apply them all, but I would like to think my own branch makes a reasonable attempt to follow them as closely as possible.

Some might question the point of these Pub of the Year competitions, and others might even deride them for being divisive. It’s probably true that only a small percentage of pubs, within a given CAMRA branch area, ever get a look in, but if you look again at the above criteria, the things CAMRA is looking for in an ideal pub are both specific and quite exacting. The positive benefits derived from these awards outweigh the negatives by a large margin, so I do not see Pub of the Year disappearing any time soon, no matter which way CAMRA’s “Revitalisation Campaign” takes the organisation.


Neville Grundy said...

Regrettably, awards are often seen as rewarding the CAMRA committee's favourite pubs, and this perception is not without some justification.

Kieran Lyons said...

Those are good criteria and in a good order of importance. One question though, who is the shortlist decided by?

The voting can never be entirely objective because of the close ties many active, voting camra members have to the pubs they are voting for - plus publicans are often members themselves and sometimes on the branch committee. Turnout for voting is (in my branch at least) only a fraction of membership, although it's never been easier to vote.

Having said that, i've never seen a pub openly campaigning for the award. No notices saying 'vote for us!'. Most view it as something that would be nice to win, and maybe give a boost to trade (particularly from travelling camra members who seek the pub out).

Here's an idea I've just had (and not fully thought through!): why not get a neighbouring branch to vote while all local members abstain for an expriment one year? Their votes will be more objective since they don't have any local prejudice. You could return the favour for them. Just a thought.

Paul Bailey said...

Nev, I fully understand what you are saying and the whole process does leave branches open to accusations of favouritism. I don’t think there’s an easy answer; apart from not running a Pub of the Year contest at all. As I described in the post, my local branch has tried three different approaches. None of them are flawless, and all, in one for or another, could be open to fixing (gerrymandering?).

Kieran, nominations for Pub of the Year are asked for prior to the branch AGM. I have to confess I am uncertain how the shortlist is then drawn up, but quite heated discussions take place immediately after said meeting. At this stage I can normally be found, propping up the bar, as after 30+ year’s service, I retired from the committee and whilst I take little interest in how these matters are arrived at, I am always pleased for the winning pub.

I totally agree with what you are saying about members having favourite pubs, and yes we have a publican on our branch committee. His pub has been runner up, at least once, but I wouldn’t say he influenced the voting in any shape or form.

It’s interesting what you say about asking a neighbouring branch to vote, as this sort of happens in Kent, when pubs go on to he next stage of the competition. Basically, the county is split into east and west. Once each branch has selected its PoTY (hate that acronym!), voting takes place for the East Kent PoTY and the West Kent PoTY. The inspection and voting is conducted by members from the opposite part of the county (ie. members from East Kent branches vote on pubs in the western half of the county and vice-versa).

The arrangement seems to work, although even here, members might still have their favourites in a different part of the county.

Kieran Lyons said...

Yes I suppose that no system will ever be perfect, and lets not forget that members have favourite pubs for a reason ie. they are good pubs.

Bit of a tangent here, but i'd be interested to know your thoughts on pubs giving a camra discount? Right now i'm a tenant for a brewery, and I give 30p off a pint of house bitter (and lager!). This is the same discount given to brewery loyalty card holders, NUS,and blue light card. Since we have a uni and hospital nearby, and all the regulars have loyalty cards, nearly everyone gets the discount.

However, i'm leaving soon to open a micropub nearby and I plan to not discount anything to anyone. Yes, it makes people feel rewarded/special to get a discount, but i'm often uncomfortable charging two people different prices who are standing ordering together, and would prefer just to give the best price to everyone.

I suppose my question is, how much do members value their discount, and dos it have any influence on the committee shortlist and voting? It doesn't appear in the criteria above, which gives me hope.

Neville Grundy said...

Paul: I wasn't arguing against awards as such. In fact, the first awards given by our branch came from a proposal by me many years ago. There may be favouritism somewhere, but I think most awards are given with an honest attempt at fairness. Perceptions can be a different matter though.

Kieran: my local doesn't have a CAMRA discount. It is a pubco house that charges reasonable prices, and the margins on ale simply don't permit a discount. Neither do they normally give samples for the same reason, although you can buy third of a pint measures.

The problem is when a small minority of CAMRA members with a sense of entitlement expect both of these things and take exception when they are refused. No reasonable person would object to good prices for everyone.

Paul Bailey said...

Kieran, the micro-pub will be your business and if you feel uncomfortable about offering discounts, then don’t. Micro-pubs tend to offer pretty keen prices anyway, so by offering a discount you will eat further into already slender margins.

As a CAMRA member I have never expected to be offered discounts in a pub or bar. Most of my Spoons vouchers end up being thrown away, as I forget to carry them round with me! Those who think that CAMRA membership bestows an automatic entitlement to special treatment are deluded and far too full of their own self-importance.

I would like to think that pubs offering discounts to CAMRA members are treated exactly the same as those which don’t, when it comes to selecting GBG entries or Pub of the Year. I agree with Nev that no reasonable person would object to good prices for everyone, and that would be my advice to you as well.

ps. I do appreciate what you are saying about Pub of the Year, Nev. The perceptions about bias and favouritism often come from rival pubs, or those which didn’t quite make the grade. It’s one of the more unpleasant sides of human nature, unfortunately and there will always be gripers, no matter what.

pps. Good luck with the micro-pub, Kieran.

Kieran Lyons said...

Thanks! Hoping to open mid June. Local branch (Leicester) is very supportive so far.

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