15th September 2016, it is official, the Good Beer Guide is upon us.
For those of us who have respected the embargo through those difficult days of late August / early September when the CAMRA carrier pigeons buckled under the 1,000 plus pages heading to "The North", some even being electrocuted on power lines just outside Stockport, today is a momentous day.
I have finished my "cross-ticking exercise". I was on 1,006 pubs going into the 'blackout' period, I emerge 110 poorer at 896. Was expecting about 100 drop, but at one stage looked nearer 150 so I can't complain.
Here's ten highlights, lowlights and BRAPA strategy ideas for the 2016/17 "season" (like you care).
1. Tuesday Triumph - Yorkshire of course is my main focus, living there n all, and it has not been too cruel. South Yorkshire looks very achievable by the end of 2016, and whilst West Yorkshire has thrown up plenty of new challenges, I love my Tuesday nights so lots to look forward to. North and East Yorkshire have been kinder, I'm aiming to finish all four Ridings (or whatever they are called) by the end of next summer.
2. The Bedfordshire Conundrum - Sounds like a dull Dan Brown novel*, but I'll explain. I had completed Beds, and moved onto Berks. But now Beds has new pubs to go at. So do I return to Beds once I've completed Berks, or move on to Bucks and sack off Beds until I've done all other counties in many years time, then go back round the counties again? My three leading 'strategists' all favoured the latter approach, so that is what I will do. Did that make sense?
3. Evil Greater Manchester - All this tooling around missing Hull City away games (NFFD's) to tick off the many weird and wonderful places that inhabit this region, and how does it repay me, with the biggest percentage drop of anywhere?! It's taking the P I S S out of me. Suddenly, Altrincham, Ashton under Lyne, Atherton, Billinge and Tyldesley all have new pubs to visit. I'm surprised Crooke hasn't opened up a new underwater canal micropub. Arrrghhhhh. And I bet it would have a shitty Christmas menu.
4. Berkshire Blast - My current "long distance" focus county is not looking too bad, by contrast. Amazingly ALL my pre-emptive ticks I did early September are in the GBG, even horrid Theale (fancy that!) and I can see me finishing the county by Feb/March 2017. I'd like to once again thank Tim Thomas and Sir Quinno for keeping me on the right Berkshire track back in April.
5. Bucking Hell - Which makes Buckinghamshire my "far away focus" (FAF) county of 2017. I lost more than 50% of the 11 pubs I'd done here (i.e. 6) so am annoyed our Wembley day pub ticking was almost totally in vain. Roger Protz might find it commendable MK has forgone all it's entries ("doing a Watford" as it is known in the trade), but for me, sheer annoyance!
6. Chauff me the Money - With self driving cars still not available, and Tom still not passing his driving test (not sure which of these two would be safer) Dad is my premier chauffeur / tricky pub ticking buddy having earned himself a new 2 year contract(!) with BRAPA, having impressed in mid-Wales. We've spoken about strategy, so on Hull City home days, I'm advised to focus on the likes of Lancs, Greater Manc, Merseyside, Cheshire, Notts, Cumbria and Durham and leave tricky Yorkshire days for when he's free. This is a shift in focus but makes sense, and our sporadic NFFD's with Tom will continue.
7. Pre-emptive Joy - Most satisfying to see some pre-emptive pub visits making their way into the guide, the gamble (in some cases) paid off. Cow & Cask, Newbury, Castle Tap, Reading, Bald Buzzard, Leighton Buzzard, New Brew-m, Burnley, Butchers Dog, Driffield, Gallaghers, Cross Hills - just some of those mainly micro pubs which've come good for me.
8. Marvellous Middlesbrough, Yucky York - Speaking of micro pubs, my place of the 2017 GBG is Boro. It has added Infant Hercules but none of the other micros apart from Dr Phil's which I perhaps judged unfairly due to the time of day of my visit (sure they all opened about same time as IH so must qualify) but what a fantastic bold step to reintroduce Isaac Wilson excellent Spoons near the station instead. Parmos are on me. I also think Sheffield got it spot on with it's entries this year. I can't really criticise most places as I'm rarely more than a one off visitor, but me and my York friends go around random York pubs almost every Thursday and I cannot believe the decision making. Fox is probably my pub of the year, anywhere. Deguided. Old Ebor, superb quality ale, cracking locals pub, passionate landlord, deguided. Rook & Gaskill pub of the year? Gimme a break. Falcon Tap deserves it's debut, Duke of York, well, it's okay, but hardly pulls up any trees. Still, as John Watson says, we (local CAMRA members) all get a vote, it's democratic, so you gotta abide by the decisions made.
9. Archive Surprise - I've counted 24 pubs in the new GBG which I hadn't reviewed since BRAPA has started, either because they weren't in 2014,15 or 16 GBG's, or I didn't consider them as GBG worthy pubs when I visited, so over the next three Mondays, I will be reviewing 8 of them at a time. Don't I spoil you?
10. You Absolute Anchor! - After a year plus of planning this fabled almost mythical pub, references galore with the likes of Martin Taylor and Pub Curmudgeon, me and Martin both get to it, it lived up to the billing with wonderful ale, top landlord and what happens, they de-guide it! If one thing sums up the frustration of pub ticking, this is it.
I've got today off (not because the Guide is out, but to "recover" from last night's York Beer Festival). I didn't overdo it because today seems like a fitting day to go BRAPping.
* The Bedfordshire Conundrum, Chapter 1.
I entered the dusty old Christian chapel on a wet November morning. A man hunched over an alter in robes, heard my footsteps and stood up, bolt upright. "Simon, is that you?" he ventured in a voice broken by too many average pints of Greene King IPA. "But how did you know my name?" "We have been expecting you. Biggleswade has been expecting you. You are the only one who can solve our conundrum .... the Bedfordshire Conundrum!".
Bewildered, I stood open mouthed but he reached forward with an athleticism defying his years, or come to think of it, anyone in East Beds. He grabbed my arm and took me over to an unkempt rusty window, displaying a stained glass prism. "You see the prism?" I squinted into the sunlight which had conveniently appeared at this moment despite the grey rainy morning. "Yes, I do sir" I replied. "Don't call me sir, my name is Alan". Alan seemed a disappointing name all things considered.
"Now see here", Alan rolled out some parchment over the parapet displaying a map of Biggleswade town centre. He took a quill (the poser could have used a biro) and marked a cross. This represents "The Golden Pheasant". He drew another cross. "And this, the Wheatsheaf". I looked sceptical. He drew a third cross and looked at me inquiringly. "Errrm, the Stratton House Hotel?" I asked tentatively. "Don't be fucking stupid, that place has been shit for years Simon. No, that is the New Inn Alehouse & Kitchen!" And then he drew a line going West. "And what is that?!" I exclaimed. "That is the bus route to the Cock at Broom. It has no bar. NO BAR!!!"
And then he vanished in a cloud of smoke, leaving behind him a scent of stale Charles Wells Eagle IPA. What did it all mean, the Bedfordshire Conundrum?