Saturday, 13 July 2013

Packing away the pieces

In amongst the facts and figures of the "tour statistics" post I mentioned that the tour ran for a total of 367 days (or 1 year and 1 day if that makes it easier) and it's possibly worth revisiting why for the last 12 and a tiny fraction of the 13th months (see there's always another way of presenting statistics) I and the other tourists have been ploughing around doing this.

Obviously there are the reasons of gaining the Cask Marque prizes and the inbuilt nature of the male which seems to need to satisfy the obsessive nature of being able to collect something but I'd like to think there was another reason, that of believing in something that as a country we're blindly starting to lose and something we'll probably not really realise what we might be risking until it has gone. And that of course is the great British Pub.

I'm not going to get drawn into the minutia of figures and statistics again (see the last post if you want those!) but the pressures and hardships that are being faced by our pubs might never have been so great and I think even the most seldom of pub visitor cannot be unaware of the frightening rate of closure of both town and rural pubs.

Writers who managed to make a living from scribbling summed up the wonders and joys of the British pub much better than I ever can, so I’ll keep my eulogy brief and just say that the unique institution is surely something far too precious to thrown onto the scrap heap?

So to sum this sentiment up, if there's anything I hope I've achieved by running the tour is that the tourists themselves have also rediscovered and enjoyed a visit to the pub and possibly away from these rather silly nights out they'll continue to support their locals.

Back to the nature of the tour again though, it was the Cask Marque tour and we should focus a little bit on what being a Cask Marque pub means. Obviously Cask Marque are in the business of promoting good quality cask ale and as such with their close scrutiny of the standard of ale being served in their accredited pubs it's a very handy way to ensure that when in a unfamiliar area of town, you're pretty much assured a fairly decent pint. And if your pint isn't decent, well at least you have another course of recourse by virtue of the fact you can raise the issue with Cask Marque themselves, who'll deal with the pub themselves. 

I know only a little of the hoops that must be jumped through to gain Cask Marque accreditation but I know they're not simple, so there was one thing that had me scratching my head harder and harder as the tour went along. Why go to all the hard work of attaining the certificate and then not bother to display the certificate? I totally understand that some places might not have had them up on the wall for perfectly legitimate reasons (change of landlord for example) but far too many place seemed either completely indifferent to it ("oh I think it's in the office somewhere but I don't know exactly where") or hadn't a clue what we were going on about. The second point could possibly be dealt with by staff training but the first is a little more serious.

I wonder if it has something to do with how Cask Marque is perceived by the pub industry and how the pub industry is organised in the first place. 

As mentioned in the last post, it was no surprise to see the majority of Cask Marque pubs we visited were dominated by 4 massive pub chains. But even following on from that, the next groups of pubs were all chains as well. It's rather scary to see from my evidence that only 2 or 3 pubs seemed to be either free houses or tiny 3-4 pub chains.  

Now don't get me wrong, there was nothing wrong with the chains (I'm not going to touch on the whole issue of the beer tie or anything) per say, most were well run and the beer quality good but I wonder if gaining Cask Marque accreditation is as much of a boon for the single free house as it is for the chain? 

How Cask Marque goes about dealing with this is a puzzler for Alistair and the gang but I hope they continue to make gaining accreditation just as worthwhile and possible for every pub and not just those being run as part of a chain.

 But a further word about those chains, again referring back to Counting the Scores we saw that the "winning" chain, if that's the right expression was TaylorWalker with 26 pubs appearing on the tour; this was closely followed by Nicholson’s with 22 and Fuller’s with 19 and Greene King with 15. There's a well documented issue with chains in that they usually try to stamp a corporate brand onto all locations sometimes without a care for the origins of the pub or building, but I think I can happily report that maybe the days of someone like Watneys coming in a painting everything that moves “Watney Red” have now gone. Most of the chains still try to do a uniform decor job but I saw many fine examples where this had been done around and in harmony with the history of the pub and it was actually quite comforting to know that some of our very valuable pubs are safely in the hands on such caring companies. Want an example? Well how about the Ye Olde Mitre Inn which Fullers are obviously lavishing care and attention on, or the Argyll Arms whose fantastic ceilings and huge mirrors are polished lovingly by Nicholson’s. And in that analysis we see the two companies who I felt were doing the best jobs from the 4 majors. Now if Taylor Walker took on a “no blaring music policy” and Greene King a much more “extensive guest beer policy” then they could possibly catch up! 

But if we really want to give out prizes for the best places, then we need to "GO" back in let me take you on a journey......a magical journey....just close your eyes......(to be continued)

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