Sunday, 26 November 2017

It does happen

Last month, I wrote about how there was a collective delusion in the British pub trade in refusing to accept that over-ranging was a major factor in poor cask beer quality. One aspect of this is the very prevalent attitude in CAMRA that adding an extra handpump is pretty much always a good thing.

I am fortunate in my own branch in that one of our current Good Beer Guide entries, the Boar’s Head in Stockport, only sells one cask beer (although it shifts three full barrels of it a week) and indeed was our Pub of the Year in 2016. But other areas aren’t so enlightened.

There have been plenty of reports of pubs being told that they couldn’t go in the Good Beer Guide because they didn’t stock enough beers, or because their range was too dull and didn’t include any guest beers. “Nonsense,” people have replied, “it’s just hearsay.” But Martin Taylor has now unearthed the evidence on the ground at the Green Man at Hatton near Heathrow.

The landlady was very chatty... I congratuated her on their Beer Guide place, and told her the Starry Night (NBSS 3+) was good. Beer Guide standard. Then she told me she’d had a visit from “one of those CAMRA people” last week.

He’d been very upset about the beer range, as one of the three had just gone, and told her she couldn’t be in the Beer Guide with just those beers on. If we can’t support and encourage suburban dining pubs with good quality beer to keep the appropriate range of beers on, we’re stuffed.

Get your heads out of the clouds.

And, until this attitude changes, it will continue to be a major reason behind poor beer being sold to unsuspecting customers. If cask beer is to be saved, we need to go back to the days when the one- and two-beer pub was the norm.

33 comments:

  1. Well, I thought it was "just hearsay", but now I've heard what Martin says the landlady of the Green Man told him that "one of those CAMRA people" told her...!

    It's not the hardest of evidence, is it?

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  2. I didn't suggest it was anyone from the local branch, almost certainly wasn't. This isn't a police investigation. There's nearly 200,000 of us in CAMRA, and a vast range of preferences amongst us. The branch put a pub putting a small range of Greene King beers in the Guide because they're well kept, then someone comes along and tells the landlady they won't get in the Beer Guide with a range that small. Doesn't really matter who said it, licensees will tar us all as interfering busybodies telling us how to best run their pub.

    Martin

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    1. it doesnt need a police investigation, its called confirmation bias, Id be amazed that a licensee remotely takes what one person says to them as gospel truth, its got that air of this person said something I agree with, therefore its proof of an opinion about it.

      I once was told by a CAMRA member that a particular pub only got in the guide because the landlord bribed members with free pints, which as I actually knew the landlord of the pub quite well, knew was a complete load of horse manure as he's never remotely offered any freebies to anyone, let alone to get in the GBG, and thats not something he would ever consider.

      But had I not known that, would I have believed the ramblings of basically what some bloke down a pub told me, should I beleive it just because someone who is a CAMRA member believes it as well, or what ?

      if licensees tar us all based on what one person said,and we accept we cant control what one person says anymore than we control the weather, thats kind of their problem not mine IMO

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  3. Haha, it's so easy to dismiss anything that conflicts with your own narrative as "hearsay" or "confirmation bias". Personally, I blame the Russians.

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  4. It is simple to work out how the beer guide is decided. Attend a few CAMRA meetings and watch it. It is quite an odd thing to witness. People get very worked up about what pubs go in or get knocked out. Some do their best to game the rules & some do their best to stop them. Some object to pubs solely to create space for pubs they champion, especially in the case where people want a limit on certain popular pub chains. Some people submit inflated beer scores. Stats are produced in ways that hope to show this to those reading. All sorts is attempted. Overall it comes down to managing it but those doing so have their own firm opinions of what result they would like to see.

    If you witness the process you will draw your own conclusions. On the issue of hand pump numbers, I observed this.

    CAMRA members are not as objective and fair as they like to claim or see themselves. They are subject to the same prejudice for giving an easier ride to things they like and applying a tougher criterion to what they don’t as anyone is.

    This means it is easier for pubs that are free houses with lots of handpumps to gain approval than other establishments. Members are quicker to forgive beer quality, poor customer service, queues etc that might otherwise mark a place down if it already ticks the boxes of being the type of place they approve of.

    They are toughest on Sam Smiths & Wetherspoons for the same reason. If those places get an award or guide entry they have overcome more objections than the micropub free house.

    The only CAMRA award winners where I have ever gagged on the beer have been free houses with too many handpumps and not enough turnover. I have sat in a meeting where a pub with known quality issues was excused with “they willingly exchange beer without issue if you take it back” and given a CAMRA award.

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    1. There is a pub in our branch area which to my mind serves consistently iffy beer which smacks of a lack of line cleaning. However, for some reason it always seems to get the benefit of the doubt. Once a multi-beer pub becomes established, it can be very hard to dislodge it unless the licensee actually starts thumping the customers.

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    2. You will of course be raising this when we come to select the 2019 GBG entries in February.

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    3. What is there to raise? I have no better system as to how you may go about it.

      A CAMRA beer guide selection meeting is like a film on film 4 late at night. It looks interesting, so you record it. You watch it and think it okay, but it doesn’t enter your list of favourites. It’s no Fast & Furious 6 where you might want to watch it over, get the DVD so you can watch it whenever you like. It’s more like Das Herz ist ein dunkler Wald. Interesting but no car chases.

      But my comments were kind. They show the result is a fair attempt at democracy. Democracy may be like a sausage in that you might not want to see it made but all other systems are differing degrees of tyranny. I don’t think you’ll get a better result appointing a panel of experts. Not having seen those that would put there hands up for such a gig at any rate.

      My observation is that the beer guide is a list of the more active members favourite pubs. A peer reviewed selection of interest to like minded people. It isn’t a guide to the best pubs and the disappointment some people express is due to the expectation that it is. The favourite pubs of active CAMRA members appear of a type. As you might expect considering it is a collection of likeminded people.

      I could ask my Mum and her friends to list their favourite pubs. It would be pubs that do tea and cake in the afternoon and contain no old pissed up scrotes. It would be a list of interest to people minded like my mum. It would no more be a guide to the best pubs as the CAMRA beer guide.


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    4. As an addition I did give some thought as to why people got so worked up about it and appeared to care passionately as to whether their favourite pub got in the book. Why it might be such a competitive event. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking it. Just attempting to understand it.

      I concluded that many active members saw CAMRA as a firm part of their personal identity. As such their own favourite pub being in the guide was a form of personal validation. Kind of a seal of approval on their own choice. A reinforcement of their identity.

      I don’t know whether I’m right, but that was my thought.

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    5. I was replying to Curmudgeon...

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  5. Regardless of any of that, there's still an obvious problem of too much crap beer being served in pubs. And (with the exception of a few genuinely dedicated multi-pump emporiums) most of the best ale is served in pubs selling just a couple, or even just one. These strike me as facts, clearly observable by anyone who goes to pubs and gives a damn.

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    1. Not sure which Anon you are, but I agree :-)

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  6. “If cask beer is to be saved, we need to go back to the days when the one- and two-beer pub was the norm”. Reality check now, Mudge. You know as well as I do this is not going to happen, no matter how long you keep carping on about it.

    I also imagine this situation is not what the majority of Good Beer Guide buyers want either. Market research has already established most of these people are not CAMRA members, and most are looking for something a little special. Sending them off to some out of the way, estate pub, where they keep a consistently good pint of GK IPA, but nothing else, isn’t really adding appeal; even though the pub might be serving the best pint ever, so let’s not kid ourselves.

    The example you put forward of the Boar’s Head in Stockport, whilst admirable on the part of the branch, is rather spurious, in so much that the decision to stock just one cask beer is not that of the licensee’s. Sam Smiths only produce one cask ale, so given that Sam’s would never allow another brewer’s products in their pubs (they even stock their own-brand crisps!), the publican’s hand are tied anyway.

    Imagine though if Sam’s were to introduce another cask beer, then wouldn’t the landlord be under pressure to stock this. After all people would argue he/she is already selling 3 x 36 gallons a week, so surely another Sam’s cask would sell? Don’t tell me that, even in your branch, there wouldn’t be members having a quiet word in the licensee’s ear, piling on the pressure to stock something extra – “Just to add a bit more variety”.

    Much as it pains me to say it, I fear Cooking Lager’s comments regarding the selection process, are much closer to the truth than most of us would like to admit; in fact it is a clever observation of the psychology behind how people act in these situations. It only takes one or two determined individuals and the whole selection process ends up heading in a different direction from where it was originally heading,

    Some might accuse me of being cynical, given my well known disillusionment with the Good Beer Guide, but instead the points argued on both this and other blogs, reinforce the need for a total re-think of the Good Beer Guide. That though, is subject matter for a completely separate post.

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    1. Maybe we're not going to return to the days of the two-beer pub, but I'd hope there is scope to at least slightly reverse the "moar handpumps!" obsession and recognise the damage that over-ranging does to beer quality.

      And if people don't want to visit an estate pub serving well-kept GK IPA (although I would), I'd say neither do they want to visit samey, characterless micropubs with no offer beyond the beer, and which are full if there are six codgers in there, or brewery taps open for ten hours a week.

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    2. Many of us do recognise the damage that "over-ranging" does to beer quality, but how do you propose getting this across to CAMRA’s 200 or so branches?

      The question which also needs asking is “Are licensees deliberately overloading their bars with too many cask beers BECAUSE they believe this will get them into the Good Beer Guide?”, in which case a carefully worded leaflet from CAMRA (one which doesn’t come across as too patronising), might help; or should we just leave it for market forces, to sort the whole over-stocking issue out?

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    3. You're probably right, Paul. But I do observe that many Wetherspoons have paired back their Doom Bar, Abbot and Adnams + 4 guests range, and now just offer 1 guest. I very much doubt 99% of their target audience care, and few beer enthusiasts visit Spoons for interesting ales these days.

      Likewise a lot of the small new craft bars offer more keg than cask. Sensible developments do happen.

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    4. In the case of Sam Smiths, they used to do Museum Ale and Tadcaster Bitter in addition to OBB, and there were a fair few pubs selling all three. All from wood and all very susceptible to turnover issues, so the Museum and Tadcaster didn't last very long before production stopped. They were cask versions of existing keg and bottled beers so it wasn't a big deal for the brewery. None of their managers have any choice over what they sell, although some can probably influence the decision, but they couldn't be pressurised by the local beer anoraks to put another beer on even if one was available.

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    5. I used to like Tadcaster Bitter - indeed it was really more my sort of thing than OBB - but it was doomed by the fact that, if you went in a Sam's pub and just asked for "Bitter", you would always get OBB.

      Museum Ale always came across as a really heavy, chewy beer, despite the fact that the bottled Old Brewery Pale Ale on which is was based is a perfectly drinkable beer.

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  7. Whether or not the Green Man in Heathrow gets in the Beer Guide again really isn't the point. I suspect our visitor could do no more to influence the process that stick a score on What Pub, and frankly the pub hardly relies on GBG-carrying visitors.

    The point Mudgie and I are making is that CAMRA members (which is us) who go in pubs and complain about range, rather than quality, do cask no favours at all. I doubt the Green Man will add three guests next week; there's not space on the bar and most regulars drink the Speckled Hen. But we've lost the plot, we really have. MT

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  8. I can only think this "CAMRA member" meant that in some branches a low beer range may not get enough visits from beer scoring members to get a high enough score to get on the GBG short list. Of course the fact that previous year's entries get on it (and sometimes the short list) automatically doesn't help

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  9. There are far, far too many pubs in the GBG.

    Being located conveniently nearby where a couple of CAMRA members happen to live and serving standard beers in OK condition should not be sufficient to qualify for inclusion.

    They should cut the numbers by at least half and use the space to provide more information on why a given pub is exceptional and worthy of inclusion. For simply looking up pubs in a given area and deciding where to go, there's WhatPub.

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    1. As I explained here, WhatPub is of limited value if you're looking for "good pubs in and around Borchester" because it just gives you an indiscriminate list of all pubs and makes no qualitative distinction between them. With a selective guide, someone, for better or worse, has done the filtering for you.

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    2. I agree with the first two thirds. Having done 10,000 Beer Guide pubs over the years, I'd say half of them are places were ones where I'd actively go out to drinktheir beer. Others, of course are good pubs where you might go back for a lager or Guinness and good time.

      The descriptions are plenty big enough though, a lot of the current descriptions are irrelevant historic guff, the opening times are completely pointless, and we could scrap the breweries section as you'll never find those beers and all the info is on the web anyway. Get the GBG back to a hundred pages. Martin

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    3. Well said anonymous (Martin?). I've been urging CAMRA to drop the totally surplus Breweries Section for ages. Perhaps they will now that Roger Protz has stood down as editor.

      Opening times are also irrelevant, if pubs can't be bothered to stick to them.

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    4. There was recently a big survey about the GBG - hopefully dropping the breweries section is something that will come out of it. I disagree about opening hours - they're generally not far off, and it's really only the relatively few occasions when they aren't that stand out. It's always useful in particular to know if pubs don't open at lunchtimes. It isn't realistic to expect people to phone up if planning a visit to an unfamiliar pub.

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    5. The trouble is that the GBG seems to lift most of its content straight from WhatPub, and there's no real effort to check what's on WhatPub, it's assumed that the local branch are on top of things. I'm certainly aware of instances where WhatPub still had "old" opening times dating from several years previously, and that's what was on WhatPub and in the GBG, no attempt was made to check with the pub what their opening times were or what beers they served.

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  10. My "modest proposal" would probably be to do the opposite, and include basically anywhere that's open to the public and serves reliably decent quality cask ale. Trim the descriptions down to name, address, brewery, and maybe the "family friendly" and "food served" symbols. Maybe the branches could then select a small number of places that are likely to be of particular interest to visitors, whether for the beer range or quality or for the architectural or historic interest or whatever, and give them longer descriptions.

    This would have the advantage that I wouldn't get stuck in a small town trying to find a drinkable pint only to be told that there's a really great pub with an open fire and table skittles in a village about thirty miles away. It'd also mean that pretty much any pub could reliably get into the guide by keeping whatever cask beer it did have in good nick, which seems like more of an incentive than the current system where whatever they do, a pub that can only support one ale in good condition is unlikely to get in ahead of the pub down the road that sells enough cask to keep three or four in good nick.

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  11. I doubt if the Good Beer Guide will last for more than a few years and, although I used to depend upon it, I won’t be sorry to see it go.
    For years it has been the Guest Beer Guide and from dozens of GBG Nomination and Selection Meetings I’ve attended I’m all too aware of inflated beer scores being submitted for “Beer range varies” dozen-handpump Free Houses.
    The worst pint I’ve been served this year was Hancocks HB nearly two months ago in the GBG listed Railway Tavern in Newtown. It was one of three cask beers on and I now believe that CAMRA is to blame given that ‘Retired
    “Martin’ reported on who told the landlady of the Railway in Newtown that she wouldn’t get in the GBG unless she had three beers on, even though I’d say the pub probably only has enough trade to support two”.

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    1. Hello "other Mudgie" - are you who I think you are (possibly based not too far from Stafford)?

      I think the GBG is experiencing something of an identity crisis - is it a guide to good pubs selling well-kept real ale (which is what I think most of its buyers are looking for), or is it a handbook for the seeker after new and obscure beers?

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    2. Yes, two miles was "not too far from Stafford" town centre before my knee failed me.

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    3. Welcome to blog commenting :-)

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    4. I can confirm that Newtown story, Other Mudgie, though I confess I had a better experience than you...
      https://retiredmartin.com/2016/07/26/top-100-pubs-railway-tavern-newtown-powys/
      MT

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  12. With less and less people going to pubs (insert any number of factors influencing the decline in pub trade), small pubs especially feel the pinch when it comes to cask ale. I don't need to explain to you guys the temptation to leave beer on that little bit longer if the barrel hasn't shifted. I just wonder if a little pressure on the breweries, and not necessarily the pubs isn't in order. More and more I am being advised on a 3 day conditioning, which ultimately means less shelf life for the product. To combat this, we have moved over to pins, which we had to buy ourselves due to the lack of availability in 90% of all beer in anything other than a firkin: The brewery are happy to fill ours up, but not for us to borrow theirs.
    I would suggest if 'several' beers has to necessarily reflect what is a 'good' beer, then perhaps a little industry nudge in terms of cask size would alleviate the problem a little?

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