Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Grudgebearers’ Arms

This time of year sees CAMRA branches across the country selecting the pubs they will include in the following year’s Good Beer Guide. They now have results from the National Beer Scoring System to inform their decisions* but, inevitably and rightly, other more subjective factors will come into play. A welcoming, well-run pub with good scores may well be preferred to one that has slightly better beer but is otherwise far less pleasant, and a large number of scores provide more confidence that they are representative than a small handful.

However, it’s interesting how, over the years, people have sought to bring various kinds of anecdotal evidence into the discussions in an attempt to sway the outcome. A prime example is how, many years ago, someone tried to get the local CAMRA branch to target individual pubs suspected to be returning slops to the cask. This is undoubtedly a reprehensible and insanitary practice, not to mention being illegal, but the problem is that it also is well-nigh impossible to prove through observation from the customer side of the bar. So the end result is that you just end up levelling accusations against pubs that can neither be proved nor disproved, but where some mud might stick. And the pubs singled out always seemed to be those that the complainers didn’t much like anyway.

Another pub was criticised for closing its front door on busy weekend evenings which, given that it is a very small pub in a city centre, doesn’t seem that unreasonable to me. It was pointed out that customers in the know could get in round the back, but one person claimed that when he had tried to do so, he had been attacked by a large and vicious dog. Whether or not that was the case, it was brought up for several years, by which time it had turned into a shaggy dog story.

Then there are the inevitable reports that “I had a bad pint” and “I was served short measure”. Now, I can’t think of a single pub I regularly visit where I’ve never had to return beer to the bar, and so an isolated instance tells you nothing. If people were regularly receiving bad pints it would be reflected in the scoring. Some pubs may be a bit more likely than others to serve short pints, but at the end of the day it’s up to the customer to ensure they get a full glass, and indeed on occasions I’ve seen CAMRA members take blatantly short pints off the bar which surely would have been topped up without asking if they had left them,

Another accusation levelled against certain pubs, although less so now, is that they were “cliquey”. This was essentially shorthand for saying they had a substantial contingent of regular middle-class drinking customers, amongst whom the duffle-coated ale enthusiast might not feel at home. This has now much reduced as the middle classes have become less keen on drinking (as opposed to eating) in pubs but, even so, unless a place is actively unwelcoming, you have to accept its social mix for what it is. On the other hand, more recently a pub’s suitability was questioned because some of the clientele were “a bit rough”. This didn’t mean it was in any way threatening, just that it was popular with older working-class drinkers who at times might burst into song or use some ripe language. Compared to some of the raw Holt’s boozers of thirty years ago it was like a vicarage tea party.

A perennial gripe is that some pubs charge extortionate prices for their beer. There is a wide variation in prices depending on location and the affluence of the customer base but, when it’s now commonplace to pay well over £3 for ordinary-strength beer, who is to say what is and isn’t too much? Several Brunning & Price pubs appear in the Guide despite being well-known for pricing at the top end of the scale. It often seems that people are prepared to tolerate high prices in pubs they approve of, but eager to moan about them in those they dislike.

The common thread throughout all these points is that they are only brought up by people who don’t like the pub in question in the first place. If I had had one bad pint in a pub during the year, but ten good ones, I wouldn’t bring it up. And if you have had one bad pint and never gone back, your experience can hardly be said to be representative. If, on the other hand, you went to a particular pub every month to attend meetings of a club, and never had a good pint, then your experience would be much more relevant to the discussion.

* some branches of CAMRA, including my own, created their own beer scoring systems well before the NBSS

26 comments:

  1. You should publish the Mudgie pub Guide. A guide to Blighty's miserable dumps. I'd buy it.

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  2. We had our meeting last weekend. Interestingly, there was a request that the votes be carried out at committee level, i.e. in private. This was back heeled of course; but the sort of comments you've recounted would no doubt have surfaced had they gone behind closed doors.

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  3. I’ve heard all of these examples at Good Beer Guide selection meetings Mudge; and a few more besides. Alongside the “I had a bad pint there once” comment, the other one which kept cropping up in our branch was “I think they use cask-breathers.” Note the word “think”. The duo making these comments, and it was always the same two individuals, only ever thought; they never knew! They never had the front to ask the question of the landlord, let alone ask to see the cellar.

    Things came to a head one year, when one of these characters kept insisting a certain pub was using the proscribed devices, only to come into conflict with a friend of mine who had carried out the original survey. After my friend asked the question “Does your pub use cask-breathers?” the landlord had quite willingly showed him down into the cellar. The result, of course, there were no such devices to be seen. However, the member with the CO2 obsession was adamant that he could tell by the look and taste of the beer, and insisted my friend was wrong. Now my friend is a pretty easy going sort of chap, but up against such crazy obstinacy ended up using a few choice swear words.

    Fortunately common sense prevailed, but I’m really glad I don’t subject myself to these farcical meetings anymore. Having endured a few more years of it than me, my friend is also coming round to the same way of thinking!

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  4. When I was a branch chairman it was a struggle to keep some dross out of the GBG. Since I packed in to keep my sanity the rubbish has returned. God knows what strangers to the area think.

    I do remember some years ago that a Wetherspoon's manager turned up for a selection meeting with a gang of his acolytes all brandishing their new membership cards. We managed to resist on that the occasion. The pub had crap beer then and still does.

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  5. "I’m really glad I don’t subject myself to these farcical meetings anymore" More problems with West Kent branch it seems. First it was lack of volunteers and now it's farcical meetings. Could the two be linked perhaps?

    Any way - back to GBG selection meetings - all that is required is firm chairing of the meeting to be honest. There is a balance to be struck between allowing decent discussion with views being aired and descent into a circus of moaning, complaint, personality clashes with licensees and rumour mongering.

    Robust beer scores and getting the meeting to agree minimum qualifying criteria help too. Last week my branch managed to choose 25 entries and three reserves in about 90 minutes. It's not rocket science.

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  6. MY local branch will, as usual, be ignoring the plethora of refurbished and new pubs selling consistently good cask beer that have opened over the last few years in favour of their usual haunts. Don't get me wrong, some of them are highly deserving of an entry, but several are most definitely not and haven't been for years, if ever. I think The problem stems, as Mudge mentions, to the 'fish out of water' scenario when the local CAMRA members visit these deserving but not exactly traditional pubs and bars.

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  7. In reply to Birkonian and electricpics, if you use the NBSS results properly and set a floor of average scores below which pubs will not be considered, then you should be able to eliminate any dead wood unworthy of entry.

    Also if some pubs are scoring much higher than others, but still not being included, then it highlights that subjective judgments are being made.

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  8. I remember one meeting where the main gripe against the pub was they didn't like the look of the landlord's dog. Thank God for the NBSS.

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  9. “More problems with West Kent branch it seems. First it was lack of volunteers and now it's farcical meetings. Could the two be linked perhaps?”

    No John, the comments I have made on this forum reflect my own views, which I admit are biased because of my disillusionment with the Good Beer Guide. West Kent’s chairman does a pretty good job in controlling these meetings; or he did when I last attended one! It has not been my intention to give the impression that my local branch is in crisis; it isn’t and in fact since last November’s AGM a number of new faces have come forward and attendance at the last few socials has been on the up. Obviously it’s still early days, but there does appear grounds for optimism.

    Getting back to the subject, it seems abundantly clear from comments made by other people that Good Beer Guide selection meetings are, by and large, somewhat subjective. The NBSS results help, of course, and my branch uses these to draw up the initial short list of pubs. However, being a democratic organisation it also asks the membership as a a whole to submit nominations, and this is where the problems originate and the controversy starts to creep in.

    We all know that some people get very emotional over their favourite pub(s), but allowing emotion to take precedence over hard facts is a recipe for disaster. Selecting pubs for the GBG is, by its very nature, a flawed process, and as Birkonian and electricpics point out the end results are often all too obvious.

    My views on the matter are obviously clouded by my thoughts on the Good Beer Guide, which I won’t repeat here, but as I said in my original comment on this post I really am glad I don’t attend these meetings anymore. Life definitely is too short!

    Ps. Tyson’s comment about the landlord’s dog says it all. There really are people who come out with stuff like that. Takes all sorts, I suppose, but CAMRA does seem to attract more than its fair share of “unfortunates”.

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  10. Paul - I have to say you come across as being pretty disillusioned about a lot to do with CAMRA these days. Not sure why you still bother. Makes for suitably hand-wringing blog material I guess.

    However, back again to GBG selection. I think I've identified the problem though. You say

    "The NBSS results help, of course, and my branch uses these to draw up the initial short list of pubs. However, being a democratic organisation it also asks the membership as a a whole to submit nominations"

    Well no - you either use NBSS to underpin the basic qualifying criteria or you don't. In my branch we agree that a pub has to achieve a minimum average score (usually 3) from a minimum number of scorers (which varies from year to year) before it can be considered eligible for the GBG. If a pub doesn't meet these criteria than it's just not considered at all regardless of any other redeeming features.

    To first use the NBSS to draw up a shortlist and then invite wider nominations (presumably without reference to the NBSS scores) which, you infer, are then given equal consideration is nonsense.

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  11. As it's basically just a subjective selection of one groups favored boozers for the purpose of publishing a book where one group of beards recommend boozers to another group of beards the success depends on how well all the beardy peer groups fit.

    I suspect that time, generations and beard club growth have created a poor group cohesion. That prejudice is no longer shared and thus disagreements arise.

    I suggest profiling all beards and matching up selections, so as to produce several books. The book your suggestion goes into, and the book you get, is the one for your profile.

    Mudge will get a book of dumps with boring beer, Clarkey will get a book of trendy gaffs with pricey beer.

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  12. The GBG is a complete waste of time. It doesn't include the best pubs, and it doesn't include the pubs with the best beer either. So what's the point?

    It just reflects the personal tastes and prejudices of the handful of people who put it together, with no attempt at consistency from region to region.

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  13. @Py it raises money to send to St. Albans. When you ask yourself what's the point when it comes to the beards, around 90% of the time the answer is "it raises money to send to St. Albans"

    It comes down to being a 40 year old campaign. Most campaigns either succeed or fail long before 40 years is out. The beards won.

    But a book which in the 70's offered the curious a list of places they could check out this beer called real ale that got banged on about in the guardian once had that very function. Most pubs served nice keg beer, not the pongy beardy stuff.

    The real ale is now pretty much ubiquitous. The type of place you can neck it in, up to you, and you can figure out if a boozer is your cup of tea in the time it takes to walk from the door to the bar. You don't need a book.

    But the book is still going, some people buy it, makes money, so they can't really stop.

    But remember Py, they want you as a youngster to get involved and help them with it. The fact that you don't is because your generation is selfish and individualistic. It's nowt to do with the irrelevance.

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  14. @ Mudgie, It's abundantly clear that my local branch don't seem to use use the NBSS. I should have pointed out that I've not had anything to do with them for many years after batching, empire building and politics became more interesting to them than beer.

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  15. Bitching. Bloody tablet spelling suggestions!

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  16. FWIW my branch is tearing up our current criteria and starting again from scratch next year.

    Assuming we get suggestions that is. And that was one nasty dog that!

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  17. Martin, Cambridge17 February 2015 at 22:29

    There's a vast variation in quality of beer and I reckon branches do an excellent job of GBG selection, based on that criteria. There does seen to be a fair "churn" of pubs, at least a third each year, whether due to lack of consistency, licensee change or better competition.

    Py - would love to know what Cambridge pubs you think should be in GBG that aren't.

    NB I haven't seen the beer scores for any branch except Merseyside - be good if they were accessible.

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  18. @Martin - If beer scores were made public many licensees would be apoplectic, and might be tempted to get friends to join CAMRA to skew the results.

    Once in the dim and distant past we printed a Stagger in Opening Times quoting numerical beer scores, which got a very strong reaction. This is why we now stick to "average", "above average", "good" etc.

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  19. In fact we published the Stagger scores for quite a time until we had the problems with this pub (it was the Jolly Crofter in Edgeley I think - this was back in the mid-1980s). I suspect the pub's reaction was not helped by an accompanying comment - "short measures dispensed by unfriendly bar staff". I've never forgotten that little nugget.

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  20. I don't know what Cambridge pubs are in the GBG and which aren't, seeing as no-one I know has ever bought a copy.

    I'm not even sure what the purpose of the GBG is to be able to recommend which pubs "should" be in. Is it meant to be good pubs? Good beer choice? Well-kept beer?

    A pub can have the best kept beer in the world, but if its not a beer I like, and the pub is a dump, I'm not going to go there.

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  21. Well Py, it's a peer group recommendation. It order to think it relevant you have to be in the peer group. If you are "in" then it is a definitive list of the nations best, and you care what goes in or out. If you are "out" then it is an irrelevant list of nonsense.

    Most of this comes down to issues of group dynamics and how people fit into a peer group than any definition of what is or isn't a good pub.

    Mudge is an odd chap, he claims to value free speech but isn't fond of people saying what he doesn't like. A group of people in a room deciding on a list of pubs are going to bring personal prejudice into it. Same as are going to do if they submit scores. The point of scores is only to solicit the view of a larger group that won't turn up to vote in the room. There are plenty of people submitting scores either to intentionally game the result or suspected of doing so because their tastes don't match the peer group.

    The end result is a collection of all prejudices. Some will dominate and some will be outweighed.

    If you like the result you fit the peer group, if you don't then it shows a poor fit.

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  22. Cookie - I support people's right to free speech, but also my right to say they're talking bollocks.

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  23. Amusingly a group of Camra guys tried to come into mine last night, I'm assuming to check beer and give scores, because this particular group only ever come in once a year, at this time of year. The place was fairly packed and obviously too busy for them. I imagine that I'll get marked down for being too busy, at least they can't say I'm too expensive at least. Good article and good comments.
    The GBG has a fundamental problem, which is that it's a lot easier to say just keep Doomb*r and Pride than it is to have four or five changing guests, some of which you have never had before. But they should both be scored equally, given the same condition. I have to run my pub as a commercial business, which means that I have to sacrifice my chances of getting into the GBG a little in order to stay open.
    Oh ,yeah, an the vast regional differences don't help it's integrity much, either. I think the book needs to accept more that some cities just have far more good beer pubs than others, and reflect this. As I may have mentioned, there are loads of pubs in Bristol that don't get in which would be a walkover in other areas. There's a trendy bar called The Canteen which does three rotating guests from Bristol Beer factory and others, and 3/4's of the guys that vote had never even heard of it. The Hophouse has four good quality changing guests, with Moor Beer a big feature; No chance of getting in the GBG these days. There's just too many good beer pubs in Bristol. I don't know how many entries Cardiff has, but there's pretty much three places to drink unless you want the very second rate Brains beer.
    I think a guide book that includes so many venues that are inferior to so many others that it excludes according to it's own criteria, is a deeply flawed thing indeed.

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  24. @Saga - on the other hand, I've argued in the past that branches are too keen to see varying guest beers as a prerequisite for inclusion, so the traditional two-beer family brewer pubs don't get a look-in.

    It's hard to see how the regional differences point can be addressed, and surely any guide of this kind requires a broad geographical spread of entries and thus will inevitably exclude pubs in some areas that would be included in others.

    Scotland and Northern Ireland do get poorer representation because they simply have a much lower proportion of pubs serving cask beer.

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  25. Martin, Cambridge20 February 2015 at 00:25

    Bristol has 33 entries which seems to me a fair allocation relative to comparable cities. I had quite a bit of average, as well as good, beer in the ventral pubs last year. They do seem to have a good number of micro beers in them, which doesn't make them good beer pubs of itself. Personally I preferred Bristol when it served lots of superb Courage Best, flat Bass and Smiles.

    I don't follow your point Saga - do you mean you put on unusual beers for commercial reasons at the expense of consistency quality ? I may have misunderstood.

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