Good Book, great subject; IN NORTH-East beer terms, it's the New Year. And it's the Year of the Animal. beer.
The 35th Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) Good Beer Guide has been launched, with several new entries from Tyneside and Northumberland bearing an uncanny resemblance. The Rat Inn at Anick, near Hexham, makes an appearance, as does the Elk's Head at Whitfield, Northumberland, plus Black Bulls in Haltwhistle, Corbridge and Wylam. The Twin Farms at Kenton Bank Foot, Newcastle, also builds on this bestially beery background.
The annual tome, which gets thicker by the year, is the nation's best guide to beer and pubs. It features tasting notes and details of every product from every one of 650 real ale breweries in the country with recommendations to 4,500 of our best pubs in towns, cities and rural idylls. Some are welcome new entries, others are favourite old haunts and, over its 35 publications, many have popped in and out of its 878 pages like social butterflies.
Karen Errington and Phil Mason are new to the pub trade - and even newer to the Good Beer Guide, having run The Rat Inn at Anick for barely a month. They previously operated the Green Room restaurant at Hexham station which is mentioned in the Michelin Guide - a pointer to the future.
Karen says: "We've got five real ales on at the moment; Deuchar's IPA, Mordue Workie Ticket, Marston's Pedigree, Hadrian & Border Tyneside Blonde and Centurion.
"Everything has started off really well, we're really busy and have a whole new menu. We extended the opening hours, particularly on a Sunday. We didn't know we were in the guide, but we're delighted - hopefully we can stay in for next year."
New entrants Reg and Gemma Garrett arrived from Somerset to run the Black Bull in Haltwhistle, Northumberland, in April. They saw the 16th Century pub advertised on a Monday, viewed it on the Wednesday, were interviewed by Scottish & Newcastle on the Friday and had confirmation a week later that the pub was theirs.
"Since then I've got a gold award from the Cask Marque Beautiful Beer scheme," says Reg. The initiative is designed to demonstrate that pubs have reached measurable standards of excellence in beer quality.
"We scored 100% for our beers on quality and 96% on cellar management.
We dropped points for not having one sign up and for our taps still lying in water rather than drying. We've got six real ales on, four regulars and two guests, and also got a music licence which the pub didn't have before.
"This was the 13th pub we looked at - and right away we said, 'this is it'.
Trade is fantastic; food has gone through the roof, though the beer has dropped off by about 10%, mainly due to the no-smoking regulations. But we keep pushing and pushing forward."
Malcolm Redman has run the Cottage Inn at Dunstan Village near Alnwick for 18 months and not only is this its first time in the Camra guide, it's also a new one on us. Malcolm diplomatically lets us off the hook.
"A lot of people miss it," he says. "It's off the road to Craster and even Alnwick people don't know we're here.
It looks like a restaurant but we also have a bar and 10 rooms at the back with 6.5 acres of land, a beer garden and woods.
"We usually have four cask beers which change regularly but during the winter that might go down to three. It's going well, though this summer started as a bit of a nightmare - the local caravan sites were waterlogged which affected trade. It's picked up now and we're doing quite a bit of food, knocking on 200 Sunday lunches, and regularly have 100 a night through the week."
The star is, of course, The Star Inn at Netherton in Northumberland, one of 10 pubs in the country to have appeared in all 35 Good Beer Guides.
That said, you'd think the organisers would be on the ball.
Pub owner Vera Morton-Wilson says: "Camra head office sent me the plaque for the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall. The courier came with it this morning and had to take it away again.
It would have been nice to have it for the day.
"The guide brings in a bit of extra trade and a lot of people wouldn't find you otherwise, so when they're in Northumberland they'll look you out.
We had two in from Essex last night and one from Carlisle on Saturday. But if they've driven a distance they can only have the one pint.
"Never mind, we can't do anything about that. We've still got Castle Eden Ale on gravity like we've always had; I just tap into the barrel. Mind, I have a bad back now and that doesn't help, but I'm closed two nights a week which gives me a break.
"Someone - one of the young whizz kids - came up with the idea that we should have a 1970s theme to celebrate.
(She laughs at the idea.) But we've never changed a thing since then.
We've still got our good local clientele and things just seem to tick over."
Good Beer Guide editor Roger Protz says: "Any pubs that appear in the Good Beer Guide have to have been nominated by their local Camra branch after serving consistently high quality real ale. For any pub to have appeared in every edition for 35 years is remarkable, and it is only fitting that we applaud their dedication to the best in British beer."
The North-East saw the "new year"
in this week at the Kings Arms in Deptford, Sunderland, the region's Pub of the Year 2007 and the venue for the Good Beer Guide unveiling. The pub was first mentioned in papers in 1854 and now sits marooned in a sea of DIY stores and warehousing across the River Wear from the Stadium of Light. Was it named after George IV (who ruled between 1820 and 1830) and who, according to The Chronicle of the Royal Family, liked "eating, drinking, women and gambling", or was it his successor William IV (1830- 1837) who had 10 illegitimate children by Mrs Dorothea Jordan and counted one of his great successes as "rescuing the monarchy from disrepute?"
Either way, they have unwittingly added to the charm of The Kings Arms and laid foundations for its present-day allure. The bar is glorious - in every shade of brown imaginable with a few reds and blacks to vary the routine. It oozes character and friendliness. The floorboards are stripped bare and the ceiling echoes the wooden theme with a coat of brown gloss.
"Being Pub of the Year is tremendous, it's just great," says owner Daryl Frankland. "It's been a lot of hard work by a number of people and it's nice to be recognised.
"We had one real ale last year - we're up to six now. We try and seek our beer out, often sourcing it ourselves; it's not like milk being delivered. We take advantage of all the good things going on in the real ale market which is good for the staff and good for the customers - a collective thing.
"Lately, the new Double Maxim has been flying out and Samson has done very well, too."
The Good Beer Guide 2008 features 53 new breweries and 1,203 pubs nationwide appearing for the first time.
Beer aficionados call it "The Bible", and, like most reflective people, we are on nodding terms with the King James version, the Coptic version, the Geneva and the Revived Standard.
This particular Good Book is beer lovers' spiritual governor and their basic index to life. It's a reference point, an adviser, a mentoring service and dogeared friend. And when you're listed in it - whether you're a pub, club, hotel or brewery - you are automatically elevated to a higher plane.
And, if you want some quiet contemplation in the North- East Pub of the Year, study The Gospel According To Sunderland, Chapter Deptford, Page 479.
The Campaign For Real Ale Good Beer Guide, edited by Roger Protz, is pounds 14.99.
TOP: The Kings Arms, Deptford, Sunderland, North- East Pub of the Year.