I’m stupid, but it’s simple

The recent e-mail from Jackie Parker, the National Chairman Elect of CAMRA, is well-meaning in its focus on the future of the organisation, but for me it set the alarm bells ringing. In some ways it reminded me of the business problems of Conviviality and failed retailers i.e. the dangers of over-expansion in the face of turnover decline.

The e-mail states,”….we cannot ignore the fact our membership growth is in decline.” Quite right and it’s good to admit your income problems. More importantly, the next step has to be to address spending…as the organisation has earlier had to do as a supposedly short term measure. Colin Valentine admitted a lack of beer festival income was a problem in this regard. It’s therefore fact that CAMRA has a problem with membership and beer festival income. Unfortunately CAMRA’s glass is half empty.

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Glass half empty

Parker’s e-mail went on, “It is important we maintain income from our beer festivals and the selling of our books, merchandise and membership subscriptions which are essential to fund our campaigning.” To me this flies in the face of financial reality. There isn’t a reasonable prospect of maintaining festival income and membership subscriptions. Whichever way the Revitalisation vote goes, the income problems and a declining active volunteer base will not go away. They may get worse.

Spending levels have to be addressed and that inevitably means a refocusing of the organisation on a narrower field of activities. As a result I have significant concerns with the following section of the email. “We will remain totally committed to real ale, cider, perry, and to pubs and clubs. We also need to reach out to all beer, cider and perry drinkers…” That is unjustified expansion. Instead I think it’s time to work hard on what has to go.

In my view, CAMRA has long-term financial issues going forward. The experiences of other businesses would suggest that going for expansion is a dangerous game when faced with declining income. I hope that I’m wrong but I suspect not.

 

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We’ll be sorry when they’re gone

Finally after an everlasting wet winter interspersed with heavy snow we get out for a decent stroll. From Youlgrave we head past Matthew Parris’s llamas, through gloopy fields and on to Elton, home of the 1950s time warp, the Duke of York. As it only opens infrequently we press on. (Planning application for an inside gents, so maybe plans are afoot.)

Briefly into Winster, where the bricks and mortar exude its former (and perhaps current) affluence. Beautiful three storey terraces on the main street and winding lanes of cottages up to the Miners’ Standard. We head between the houses towards Birchover with the ground sodden and thankfully the lead miners’ stone slabs keeping us above water. Inevitably at the bottom of the hill we’re dancing across a bog.

We survive the gloop and emerge into Birchover. The Red Lion’s website told us it was closed on weekday lunch times. Yet again inaccurate published opening hours – its open. We stay loyal to the Druid Inn down the road.

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Good beer and good cheer at the Druid

A friendly welcome and a thankfully limited range of beers all in top-notch condition, more at the weekend. Publicans working hard for long hours to give us beers and food that bring good cheer. The winter has been depressingly long for me, and Easter the ultimate damp squib, but that’s nothing compared to the effect on the turnover of the pubs round here.

Life’s been tougher than normal for our local pubs and in some villages there’s very little actual support for pubs. Of course they’re a ‘good thing’ and everyone wants them to continue. The reality is that money through the door is what matters. We’ll  be sorry when they’re gone.

12 miles of walking effort, we’re exhausted and home. Publicans have an evening of hard work ahead. Please support them.

 

Waddington, a monopoly on real ales in good condition?

A trip to the Forest of Bowland gave a few pointers to the successes of the real ale movement and why there is still work to be done. (And the outcome of Revitalisation voting is irrelevant to my points.)

We stayed in Waddington just outside Clitheroe (Kid not spotted) and, over a few days, wandered along the Ribble Valley, alongside the Hodder and over the fells. Bowland remains one of the many hidden gems between the Lakes and the Yorkshire Dales.

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Man the pumps?

Very good pints of the house beer (very popular said the bar person – CAMRA approved terminology) at the Higher Buck (4 hand pumps at a rural dining pub) and the Bowland beers at the Waddington Arms. Sadly a Moorhouses’ Premium Bitter spoilt by massive over-chilling at the Lower Buck. Of the three village pubs, it’s the Higher Buck that’s in the GBG. We can cope with the available choices we thought.

A stroll down the Ribble next day to Grindleton, with a choice of two lunchtime pubs according to WhatPub, although one is shown (incorrectly) as nearly a mile out of the village. Last survey dates of 1999 and 2015 (updated 2016 and 2017) gave us cause for concern. Rightly so as it proved, both closed for lunch and one with a for sale sign up.

Next day we head northwards to Dunsop Bridge (West Riding to Mudgie), go up the remote Hodder Valley and then over the fells with a lunchtime stop at the Inn at Whitewell, another GBG entry, exceptionally well justified by two beer events.

My beer of the year so far, a brilliant pint of Copper Dragon Best Bitter. Secondly, my observation of a pint of Black Sheep being returned by a fellow customer. The returned pint resulted in the clip being turned until more could be pulled through or replaced. And a replacement pint served immediately with an apology. Top performance from a country pub/hotel that offers perfection in many respects.

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Copper Dragon perfection

The night before I tried a pint of Thwaites’ Original at the GBG Higher Buck. One taste and the flavour of Sarson’s is as strong as could be. Check with my mate, without a comment from me, and I get the same response. I head back to the bar, thinking…I’ve not seen another Original pulled through while I’ve been staying here.

I return the beer and then I’m treated to a theatrical performance..a fresh glass pulled, held up to the light above head height, tasted with a flourish and declared as fine. Of course my pint remains untested. A staring match results in a different pint being offered. Not really a GBG standard of beer or service.

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Which direction for CAMRA?

A few conclusions from my Bowland experiences…

  • Encouraging pubs to have banks of hand pumps isn’t working, particularly in rural areas.
  • Poor real ale still has to be challenged and noted. I’d rather have a Carling than a duff pint.
  • Is there a commercial opportunity for CAMRA to replace the widely ignored Cask Marque for real ale (or whatever is approved) and provide independent advice?
  • The time lapse between GBG branch selections and GBG publication is too long given the fast-changing nature of pub performance and the expectations of internet-savvy consumers.
  • If CAMRA want to continue with WhatPub with a declining active body of volunteers there needs to be a much greater effort to engage the wider membership, and perhaps other drinkers, in feedback through social media. Out of date information is useless in the pub world. If a pub hasn’t been updated in the last 12 months don’t show the detailed info.
  • After THE VOTE, the navel-gazing has to finish and the focus has to be on superb beer looked after by superb landlords. Come on CAMRA HQ shout about the excellent examples. Every week, not once a year.

Why CAMRA matters to me

I’m just an ordinary bloke who enjoys a pint in a welcoming pub. I’m not one for committees but I’ll happily help set up a few casks for a local beer festival. I find myself at best bored, and at worst, irritated by CAMRA’s navel gazing.

I sometimes think as an organisation it’s lost it’s relevance to me and, I suspect, to many other ordinary beer drinkers. But then it goes and saves me from pub nonsense and I love it all over again. When I say it, I don’t mean the St Albans’ politburo, I’m doffing my cap to the little folk on the ground searching out good beer in their patch. The happy, and sometimes happily curmudgeonly, volunteers on the ground.

I refer of course to the gem that is the Good Beer Guide (and WhatPub as a backstop). I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about what I see as issues for the guide but it remains the saviour of the beer drinker in lands unknown.

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Photo of Jane Austen House cat. The photo of Mrs WM in a Jane Austen bonnet not allowed.

Travelling south and stopping off in Chawton , Mrs WM reports that there’s a pub across from Jane Austen’s House. (I just love that Wuthering Heights.) Chillingly I’m told the pub will be fine for a quick lunch. Hmm, I’ll just have a look at WhatPub. My excuse…it might have a record for food poisoning. Of course what I mean is that I want to check it’s a proper pub. I look at the pub website. A Fuller’s pub..that’s fine, but the website proudly proclaims its motto is ”Dining is Fun”.  I’ll decide what’s fun and thankfully I find the GBG’s Fur and Feathers at Hilliard.

Open the door to the pub…a friendly greeting is forthcoming. I order beers and as I seem willing to chat, conversation is available without being over the top. The beers are in good condition (a couple of micros and Pride) and the food was good. It was an enjoyable experience but thankfully no clown arrived on a stage to create “Dining is Fun”. Beer in good nick, fine food and friendly service…that’ll do me. Many thanks to those creators of the GBG. Keep up the good work.

 

Perfect beer and pubs

I’m thinking of starting an organisation for lovers of cask beer. It goes something like this…

We really like cask beer and think it’s the best beer around when it’s looked after properly. That’s our focus.

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There are other beers (e.g. keg mild) and ciders that have their place and we’re not averse to having these sometimes but we’re not going to shout about them, someone else can do that.

We don’t care whether the beer is from large or small breweries but we do recognise that an experienced qualified brewer with the right ingredients is likely to make consistently good beer.

Our holy grail is the perfect cask beer in the perfect pub.

We applaud the skill of the landlord in keeping beer and we favour pubs that keep a limited number of ales in top condition rather than try and serve too many cask beers. It’s horrible when it’s served too soon or gone off.

We wouldn’t dream of appointing ourselves, or others, as experts deciding on the beer brands that are of a somewhat nebulous ‘quality’ standard.

Any takers?

P.S. We won’t have forums where people shout at each other.

 

 

Winter Olympics: Pub Walking

Like putting on an old jumper, sometimes it’s good to forget about the troubles of the world (Revitalisation and Quality Beer) and head off to an old favourite pub. “Don’t travel unless it’s essential”. I’m going, albeit on foot rather than skis.

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Heading for the metal podium

 

The Lathkil Hotel at Over Haddon, near Bakewell, is one of the few pubs to open on weekday lunchtimes in the White Peak. Note for fellow blogging grumps…the website even has an accurate opening hours’ tab.

It’s a special place loved by walkers and folk out for the day in the car. For me, many wonderful family memories. Funny how a pub can influence a house move.

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Lovely Lathkill Dale

 

Today’s different, thanks to the weather…local mums looking after kids sledging on a snow day, the scions of the pub’s family being interviewed by a journalist and the occasional old bloke scarily emerging from the blizzard. Best quote..”she’s had her eyebrows done, more slugs than worms”. It wasn’t me.

And beers in excellent condition, as ever. Always Hartington Bitter from Whim and an Adnams, today Ghostship. Plus today it’s Aviator from Kelham, Moonshine from Abbeydale. And, I like to think, specially for me a very malty rehydrating bitter from Stancill. A proper South Yorkshire pint. Is that alright, love.

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A South Yorkshire pint in oh so many ways

I’m not usually one for solo drinking, but today I feel welcomed and oh so comfortable in this most perfect of perfect pubs. Just as Sir Maurice did. It was worth the walk..can I claim a medal?

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More MI6 than Tubular Bells?

Let’s all make an effort to keep these places going.

 

Cheers landlord

Of course like everyone I have my favourite beers (I might have mentioned Bass). Whilst beer quality may have generally improved over the years, I’m beginning to realise that the beer name on the pump clip is often irrelevant and difficult to rely on, particularly for the big sellers.

What really matters is the landlord come cellarman. (I realise that women do the jobs as well, but landlady never seems right.) Isn’t it time we gave recognition to the folk who get all kinds of beers to us in excellent nick. Britain’s top cellar man or woman should be on a plinth.

I’ve had some poor pints of TT’s Landlord over the years, to the extent I usually ignore it outside of Yorkshire. I remember Jeff Bell aka Stonch deciding against Landlord as he didn’t  have the cellar space to stillage it for the TT’s head brewer’s suggested time. Of course I know that if I was in the Boltmakers in Keighley or the Woolly Sheep in Skipton I could have a wonderful pint.

Similarly I’m dubious about London Pride outside a Fuller’s pub and, on the flipside, the Green Man at Sandridge would be one of my only places for a GK Abbot. Bass at the Stretton Social Club might not be served from the jug, but they serve a consistently cracking pint.

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Craft beer packed full of southern hemisphere hops. Marston’s New World pale ale.

On the microbrewery front the same applies. Sometimes good…sometimes bad, but I’m less certain as to whether that’s the beer or the landlord. I suspect that it’s usually the latter. In small territories directly supplied, by the likes of Allendale and Yorkshire Dales breweries, I’m much more confident about my pint. They know and trust the people who sell their beers.

As RetiredMartin has described on his many GBG pub expeditions, beer quality is generally good but varies even amongst the best. And remember he tends to drink the pub’s most popular pint.

I’ve had good and bad pints in free houses, tied houses, pub restaurants and micropubs; GBG entries, and places unlikely to be ever considered for listing. In my experience, the type of drinking venue and the beer brand are of little consequence unless the landlord happens to keep a close eye on quality and achieves sufficient sales volume.

So next time you’re given a really good pint across the bar, don’t just think it’s all down to the brewer, remember to thank the landlord. He, or she, has probably been responsible for your perfect beer.