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.