June 2014

Chicken and Egg Situation

CAMRA needs to return to its founding principles as a champion of good beer, not just “real ale”

WHAT’S THE purpose of CAMRA? “To campaign for real ale”, of course. However, something that isn’t appreciated as widely as it should be is that CAMRA actually invented “real ale” as a concept – it didn’t spring into life to defend something that was widely understood but felt to be under threat. When the four founder members had their famous discussion in that pub in the west of Ireland, they had a general sense that something was going wrong with British beer, but they didn’t know exactly what. At first, the organisation was called the Campaign for the Revital­isation of Ale. It was only later, once they had looked into the subject more thoroughly, that the current definition of “real ale” was arrived at.

In the context of the British draught beer market at the time, it was actually a pretty good way of sorting out the sheep from the goats. But, even then, the wiser heads knew very well it wasn’t a universal yardstick for good beer. There was effectively no real ale anywhere in the world outside Great Britain, but that didn’t mean there was no good beer. For a period of thirty years, the concept of real ale went largely unchallenged, and even in 2000 there was little “good beer” available on draught in the UK that didn’t qualify. The introduction of nitrokeg “smooth” beers in the 1990s gave a new impetus to the real vs keg battle.

However, in the 21st century, beer has suddenly become fashionable again, and there has been a huge upsurge of interest in new and different styles and flavours, especially amongst younger drinkers. But a growing proportion of this new beer falls outside the definition of real ale, and thus presents CAMRA with a dilemma. Many of these young beer enthusiasts are happily mixing cask and keg in places like the Port Street Beer House or the RedWillow bar in Macclesfield, or even sticking entirely to keg in the BrewDog bar. If you want to get them involved in CAMRA, telling them that all keg beer is chemical fizz isn’t going to get you very far, and saying “that’s nothing to do with us, we campaign for real ale” isn’t much better. And to argue that keg Thornbridge Jaipur is no better than Watneys Red Barrel, or that Moravka lager is on a par with Fosters, is turning what was once a useful yardstick into blinkered dogma.

It is possible to overstate the scale of the issue – after all, many pubgoers will never encounter a “craft keg” tap from one month to the next, while you’ll struggle to find even a half-decent pub without real ale. But it isn’t going to go away, and is likely to grow in importance with the passage of time. In the long term, there is a risk that it will lead to a loss of credibility and marginalisation.

In reality, CAMRA has always campaigned on subjects well beyond real ale, such as opening hours, beer duty and licensing reform, and has also brought cider under its wing even though it has less to do with beer than whisky does. It presents itself as a champion of all beer drinkers and pubgoers, not just real ale drinkers. So, looking forward, surely it should adopt a more open-minded attitude to non-real beers while still retaining its core objective of protecting and promoting British cask beer. It simply needs to accept that CAMRA publications and spokespeople are allowed to discuss, review and praise non-real products rather than just pretending they don’t exist. As private individuals, many of its leading lights do just that, but officially it remains beyond the pale.

In the long term, though, this is probably going to happen through a slow but steady grass-roots revolt rather than by official changes in policy. It could be compared with the way a majority of Catholics have come to embrace contraception despite the official hierarchy of the church remaining dead set against it.

14 comments:

  1. Think you have it about right Mudgie. Good beer will out in the end but there is a long road ahead with a lot of twists.

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  2. Having just finished reading the current issue of 'What's Brewing' I was thinking along similar lines.
    Trying to justify that cider and perry are more relevant to real ale than 'craft keg' has rankled with me for some time.
    This argument will continue to rage down its blind alley for some time I feel, while the rest of us walk on by and go and find the nearest pub that has good beer in it, however it is dispensed.

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  3. Yes, the letter from David Sherman is a particularly bad example of that tendency. Yes, tradition is important, but at the end of the day surely quality is the most important factor of all. Criticising something because we didn't do it that way in 1971 is, as you say, a blind alley.

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  4. Myself and a couple of other 'young beer enthusiasts', as you put it, actually had a conversation exactly along these lines in Port Street last week - two of us, CAMRA members (though not particularly active), the other, a person who found the vibe of 'real ale good, everything else bad' so repugnant that he disagreed with CAMRA as an organisation. We two CAMRA members spoke about all of the good work of the campaign, but agreed that the Real Ale element of the campaign is a battle which has been won. Pretty much every CAMRA member I know personally is very happy to drink good keg over mediocre cask. When faced with the choice, to pick 'towing the party line' rather than choosing flavour would be counter to the heart and soul of the campaign. Those chaps favoured hand pulled cask beer because it tasted better, not because they had some chip on their shoulder about tradition. As you say, CAMRA needs to accept that other methods of dispense are not the devil, or a good, useful organisation risks fading away into irrelevance, becoming an increasingly obscure drinking club with no power at all. The focus must shift.

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  5. I'd been given a sneak preview of this article before it came out and just found myself nodding all the way through. CAMRA has to adapt otherwise it will dwindle away and loose it's all-important voice as a consumer organisation. I'm getting fed up with younger drinkers looking at me like I've lost the plot when I point out that "this is real ale" and "this isn't" (e.g. non-BCA vs BCA). The lack of new blood into the organisation is the biggest battle for CAMRA over the next ten years when the final wave of "younger" CAMRA members (i.e. those well over 40) decide they've had enough as an active member.

    Right now drinking beer (any beer!) is seen as cool - we need to ride that wave NOW. I've just worked my little booties off helping out at the Bollington Festival bar. I've never seen real ale (from Bollington Brewery) and lager (from Moravka) fly out of the pumps so fast. We had to change the lager twice in 20 minutes and the cask ale wasn't far behind. Wine makers were doing pretty well too ;-) I worked the bar from 6pm to 11pm serving non stop.

    But the most important thing that people thought came from festival? The way the festival and beer tent brought the community together - they really enjoyed meeting up with friends.

    Is that not what we're all about? Good beer in good company in good pubs? But isn't "Good company in good pubs" actually most important? Good beer is a big plus of course, but not the be all and end all.

    Cheers, Rob.

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  6. Obviously I agree, but haven't we been having this same debate for the last 3 years now? The same sensible people say the same sensible things, everyone agrees that they're correct and every other CAMRA member they know also agrees with these sensible points... and then we all go away to talk about something else and nothing happens.

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  7. We have discussed this endlessly on blogs - the difference is that this article will be appearing in a CAMRA magazine with a circulation of around 7,000. And the editor is one of those "leading lights" to whom I refer ;-)

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  8. Bang on Mudgie. It would be a useful small step to the campaign eventually accepting the finest british beer tradition of all. piss poor cheap as chips cooking lager.

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  9. I couldn't agree more.

    One thing that perhaps needs drilling home is that when the CAMRA guys say "real ale” what they actually mean is "cask ale", nothing more, nothing less. "Real ale" is an insidious, weasly term designed to imply that anything else, including some of the stunning new beers to be found exclusively on keg, are fraudulent and evil. Which is utter nonsense.

    So I tend to think that those of us who just like bloomin' good beer should probably not perpetuate the propaganda by just casually using the term, at least without that clarification.

    "Campaign for Cask Ale" would sound silly, but at least it would be honest.

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  10. Agreed Simon, I don't ever say "real ale" outside of quotation marks in blogs. As a youngish bloke, it makes you sound like a right twat. If asked what I like to drink I say beer. If pressed, I say mainly ale, preferably something pale and hoppy, although I don't mind the odd lager. Never use the term real ale at all, nor do I specify cask or keg, which is about as relevant to my generation as specifying what kind of glass you like to drink it from.

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  11. 'Good beer' is subjective, vague and the definition thereof varies starkly from one individual to another. How on earth can CAMRA campaign for that?

    I'd rather drink keg beer I consider tasty than cask beer I consider unpleasant, but at the same time, I passionately believe that, *everything else being equal*, cask will always trump keg. (I don't buy the argument about certain styles being better suited to keg, because I've tasted thousands of pints of evidence to the contrary).

    There are already people who take completely the opposite view to me and who like completely different beers to me who are also CAMRA members. Making the aims even vaguer (basically anybody who likes beer) won't strengthen our position.

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  12. Better to be vaguely right than unequivocably wrong.

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  13. @Ben Viveur - nobody is suggesting changing or watering down any definitions.

    The issues are that

    (1) CAMRA lays claim to a much broader remit than just "campaigning for real ale" and
    (2) It refuses to publicly recognise merit in any beers that do not conform to the definition of real ale

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  14. Well apart from all the foreign keg muck flogged at beardy festivals. You wanna wanna include domestic keg muck too?

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