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.