Saturday, 15 February 2014

Inside the big beer tent

Last weekend, I quoted from a letter by Tim Webb in the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing in which he called for the organisation to take a more accommodating attitude towards the growing number of high-quality beers that did not qualify as “real ale”. I think he has a point, but I deliberately didn’t comment at the time to see what others’ thoughts were. Since then, Paul Bailey and Tandleman have both produced thoughtful posts on the subject which have attracted numerous comments.

In the context of the time, the original definition of real ale arrived at by CAMRA in the early 1970s was a pretty good way of sorting out the sheep from the goats in terms of British draught beer. 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. 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 piss 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 if you try to explain to them why CAMRA beer festivals will happily sell German keg beers, but won’t allow similar beers brewed in the UK, then they might begin to question your sanity.

In reality, many of the most enthusiastic consumers of “craft keg” are actually CAMRA members, and the more broad-minded amongst them are well aware of the limitations of the concept of real ale. But the organisation prevents any kind of official expression of this wider beer enthusiasm. For example, one of the most noticeable trends in the current beer market is the growth of British-brewed craft lagers. But CAMRA’s magazine BEER can’t report on this or carry out a taste test because they are all keg beers.

Tim Webb is perhaps guilty of overstating the scale of the problem, as after all CAMRA is recording record membership figures and running many highly successful beer festivals like the recent one in Manchester. 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 the issue 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 I don’t see why it can’t 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 (I can think of three chairmen of local branches, for a start) but officially it is beyond the pale.

In the long term, I tend to feel this will be achieved through a slow but steady grass-roots revolt rather than by passing conference motions, stemming from the turnover of the generations as the dinosaurs muttering about “chemical fizz” retire from active involvement and are replaced by younger and more open-minded activists. 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. And the last thing CAMRA should be doing is attempting to come up with nitpicking technical definitions of which “craft kegs” can be deemed acceptable, and which can’t.


  1. It has starred creeping into beer but always as a secondary to cask ale and always mentioned in inverted commas

  2. Although I don't like keg beers myself, I think that CAMRA should review it's policy.

  3. I don't think anyone is suggesting CAMRA should get rid of the focus on real ale; but it would be good to come to an understanding that in inspiring an interest in beer among the young, craft keg is far more likely to bring people to real ale than it is to take them away from it, and with a bit of support from a large influential organisation like CAMRA it could do this much quicker.

  4. Thin end of the wedge, drinking this chemical fizz muck.

  5. Your last paragraph reminds me of Max Planck's famous quotation

    "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

    Just replace "scientific truth" with "definition of real ale"

  6. The bit I don't get is regarding the assumption that a new generation will eventually alter CAMRA is the assumption that CAMRA has any relevance at all to them. I'm not having a beardie slag off, but campaigning for better beer in pubs is a fairly bourgeois idea to begin with. As the market seems to be responding to consumer demand anyway why bother? Do 20 year old drinkers feel the need to campaign for it? If so why? The direction CAMRA appears to be going is one of changing into a pubs campaign rather than real ale which sort of makes sense. They just need to realise that isn’t the same thing as an anti tesco campaign.

  7. It always makes sense for likeminded consumers to get togeither and campaign for the products they like and enjoy, especially when they feel as strongly about them as people do about beer and pubs and when the products they like are constantly under threat from a variety of different sources.

    CAMRA was set up in the 70s to do exactly this, and succeeded. Mainly by accident, it has since transformed from an active political, economic and social campaigning organisation into a beer drinkers club.

    This is a shame, because although the old threats to beer and pubs have faded, new, more dangerous ones have come to the fore and are gaining ground.

    Unfortunately the powerbrokers in CAMRA have either failed to recognise this or simply don't care anymore.

    It would be nice if CAMRA could remember what the CAM stands for in their name and started doing something useful, I'm not really interested in a social club, I have enough mates of my own thanks, and they don't try to tell me what to drink either.

  8. Cookie. CAMRA is relevant to anyone, young or old, who likes drinking in 'spoons. Those vouchers are a major incentive

  9. The beer festivals are a big factor - I know plenty of people round here who are members who don't even really like real ale, but they do like getting pissed and it works out cheaper to buy membership than to pay full price for the beer festivals.

  10. “CAMRA has always campaigned on subjects well beyond real ale. It presents itself as a champion of all beer drinkers and pub goers, not just real ale drinkers. So I don’t see why it can’t 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. “

    To be fair CAMRA has started doing this already. Des de Moor’s CAMRA Guide to London's Best Beer, Pubs & Bars includes quite a few craft beer bars amongst its selection, and whilst it obviously concentrates on cask, it does also mention “craft keg” and brewery-conditioned, bottled beers. Granted it doesn’t give chapter and verse on these products, but at least it doesn’t ignore them completely.

    I firmly believe that the "softly-softly" approach will bring sensible reforms to the Campaign without the need for possibly contentious National Conference motions, and that these changes will happen sooner rather than later. Also, as others have pointed out, the last thing CAMRA needs is to tie itself up with definitions that are too rigid, and hence unworkable. After all, look what's happened to cider, and that's not even beer!

  11. I don't know, the majority of camra members have been saying this for years now, and every year the NE ignore us and carry on as before. I'm getting deja vu.

    Every year the same, beer sales falling, pubs shutting, the prohibitionists growing stronger and greedier, and CAMRA looking more and more irrelevant and out of touch. 40 years of hard work and dedication squandered.


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