Have you ever wondered about how pubs get into the Good Beer Guide (GBG)? Unlike those guides where paid individuals submit reviews, GBG entries are compiled from beer scores submitted by CAMRA members. Every single CAMRA member has the opportunity to contribute to the GBG, by submitting quality scores for the beers they have drunk.
While the concept of sitting at the bar with a notebook giving your beer a points score might seem a little obsessive, in fact beer scoring is a vital tool of CAMRA's ongoing campaign for good beer and good pubs. There are over 150 pubs in our branch so we need members from across the region to help us gather information about them year-round.
The scores are on an 11 point scale (0-5, by half-mark):
0 = No cask ale available.
1 = Beer that is anything from barely drinkable to drinkable with considerable resentment. Includes beer taken back as being poor and not taken off.
2 = Competently kept; drinkable but doesn't inspire in any way. Below what is expected for the GBG.
3 = Good beer in good form. A GBG user (i.e. you!) would not be disappointed with it. You may seek out the beer again in the same session.
4 = Very good: Excellent beer in excellent condition. Exceeds expectations.
5 = Probably the best beer you are likely to find. A seasoned drinker will award this score very rarely.
Don't give a pint 5 just because it’s (say) Doom Bar and you happen to like Doom Bar. Think: in your experience is this beer in front of you a really good example of a Doom Bar, or a pretty poor one? And don't give a pint 0 because it’s a stout and you happen to hate stouts. If in doubt, don’t score, or maybe ask a friend what they think. Most people can tell the difference between a beer that just happens to have a flavour that "isn't for them" and a beer with actual defects.
Gradually, as you walk around pubs, you’ll accumulate scores and begin to develop your own method of making comparisons. It’s like riding a bike. Soon it becomes second nature.
Some people do find beer scoring confusing and are unsure as to the ‘correct way’ to record a beer score. But you don’t need to be particularly knowledgeable about every beer you might come across! The great thing about real ale is the diversity of tastes. Here are a few things to take note of when evaluating an ale:
1. Look: Assess the colour, clarity and the foam of the pint. Golden ales should appear bright and clear while darker beers, such as stouts and porters, possess a richer colour and often a thick, creamy head. As a general rule of thumb it’s best to base your view on whether it looks appealing. If it’s got bits in it, or looks very flat (no head) it’s looking like a duffer.
2. Smell: Smell is an important part of the drinking experience. Take a short sniff of your drink to assess the aroma. If it’s immediately repulsive – smelling of vinegar or chemicals – then it’s a fair bet that the pint you have is poor.
3. Taste: Take a sip and let it flow around your mouth before swallowing. Beers can reflect many taste sensations. The intensity of the flavours and the finish (the ‘aftertaste’) make up the whole taste. Give your taste buds a few seconds to register all the differing sensations. Has the publican kept the beer well enough to allow the flavour to come through fully?
4. Mouthfeel: How does it ‘feel’ in the mouth? Most well-kept ales will have a light carbonation and feel ‘alive’. Well, they are! They should be served at cellar temperature – that means cool, not cold. Ales that are warm and/or as flat as old dishwater are definitely not good. ‘Flat’ beers can often indicate that the beer has hit the end of the barrel (imagine the dregs left in a bottle of cola that has been open a few hours) – this is a natural part of the cycle of the barrel’s lifespan and a good publican will be happy to check if you suspect an ale is at ‘bottom’ and replace it with a fresh pint from elsewhere.
With thousands of ales to choose from, everyone has their own personal favourites and things that they don't like, so please try to give an honest account of how well-kept a particular beer is. If you aren't sure then try to do your scoring based on beers that you know that you normally like when they are in good condition.
It’s up to you how you record your scores while in the pub - scraps of paper, notebooks, or on a smart phone, whatever suits you.
So how do you submit them? The easiest way is to log onto CAMRA's whatpub.com. The default login details are your CAMRA membership number (without any leading zeroes) as username and your postcode (in upper case with no spaces) at time of joining as password. If you have difficulty logging in, there’s help on the screen. In fact, there’s plenty of help for all steps in getting your pub scores entered!
So much for submitting the scores, what happens next?
All the scores recorded for our local pubs are collated and entered into a master spreadsheet. This contains an agreed algorithm that compresses bulk scores and produces the overall figures for multiple-level scores, amongst other things. At the end of the year, those pubs which have scored 80% or above scores of 3+ and have been ‘visited’ at least 20 times (exceptions are occasionally made for our more rural pubs) are presented to the GBG selection meeting. This is part of a general branch meeting so any card-carrying CAMRA member may attend! Usually, the top 10-14 are waived through blind; if they’re this good on the beer quality, they must go in. The rest are then opened up to a general debate to the floor, from which follows a vote to decide the remaining places. Surveys are taken, entries are submitted to CAMRA HQ and then they appear in the following GBG. Simple.
So, your vote does count. Judging the best pubs in Britain is something you are uniquely placed to do. Please take the time to beer score and make your contribution to the Good Beer Guide!