Monday, 22 August 2016

Growing old disgracefully

Last Friday night, the local CAMRA branch did one of its regular monthly “Staggers” or pub crawls around the Shaw Heath and Higher Hillgate areas of Stockport. There were ten of us in the party, and I noticed, not for the first time, that, at 57, I was the youngest member of the party. This underlines the demographic challenge facing CAMRA, which I referred to in my post about the Revitalisation meeting. The active members of the organisation overwhelmingly come from the Baby Boomer generation, people born between about 1945 and 1965 and, as they fade from the scene, they are not being replaced. Clearly, with record membership numbers, CAMRA isn’t going to disappear any day soon but, without so many local activists on the ground, it will inevitably have to become a lot more centralised. To be fair, this is a problem faced by all kinds of other membership organisations, not just CAMRA, but few have such a bottom-up, democratic structure.

Whether or not CAMRA needs to review its basic principles to widen its appeal has been discussed at length elsewhere. But it has to be questioned whether, in an age of social media and hashtag campaigning, volunteering and “committee work” hold all that much appeal for the younger generation. At one time, this was often seen as a means of making social contacts, especially if you have moved to a new area, but, if you have Instagram and Snapchat, do people see that need any more?

It’s also the case, as David Martin points out, that younger people are increasingly turning their back on drinking alcohol, and going to pubs and bars, full stop. It’s not just that the particular variety championed by CAMRA no longer appeals. If that’s the case, they’re lost to you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Obviously it may be offputting for younger people if they turn up at a CAMRA event and find the average age is thirty or forty years higher than their own. But that’s the raw material you’ve got to work with, and attempts by august institutions to “get down wiv da kids” often just come across as laughable. It’s also a narrow and patronising view to assume that all young people want to sit on chromium stools in trendy bars drinking expensive craft keg.

Some types of events will appeal more to young people than others, but it may be that they’re not that interested in formal, organised events anyway. And it’s important to maintain a mixed economy of different types of activity to have an across the board appeal. Personally I can’t see the attraction of standing in a draughty industrial unit looking at stainless steel brewing vessels, but others do.

The whole concept of Staggers has also been called into question, with some dismissing them as a “route march” or “a soulless trudge”. Basically these are a set of organised pub crawls which, taken over a period of about a two and a half years, cover the vast majority of real ale pubs within the branch area, except for a handful that are out on a limb and can’t be fitted in to a feasible route. As Tandleman said here, back in the day “walking around a handful of pubs” was a common pursuit, especially on weekend evenings, but it seems to be much less favoured now.

In the past, the Staggers could be hard work but, as the number of pubs has reduced, and those that couldn’t keep real ale well have generally either abandoned it for keg or closed, they have become more manageable, and the average quality of both pubs and beer much higher. Of the five pubs visited last Friday, four – the Blossoms, Fairway, Sun & Castle and Red Bull – have been recentish Pubs of the Month, and the fifth, the Plough, while more of a plain, down-to-earth boozer, still managed to provide a perfectly decent pint of real ale. Very few require more than a mile’s walking through the course of the evening, which shouldn’t be too strenuous for delicate youngsters given that arthritic sixtysomethings can manage it.

I’ve always been fascinated by visiting different pubs, taking in their varying atmosphere and character, and seeing what’s new. Every pub is unique and has its own story to tell. Therefore, to me, the Staggers are probably the most eagerly anticipated events in the CAMRA social calendar, on a par with the annual Good Beer Guide selection bunfight. Certainly far more attention-grabbing than yet another “Meet the Brewer” talk from an identikit bearded clone droning on about New World hops. And it seems that one of my regular correspondents agrees with me:

If you’re interested in real ale, then the Staggers cover all the places that sell it. There isn’t some parallel universe of cool bars that they studiously avoid. So, if you dismiss them as old hat and something only suited to fuddy-duddies, then you’re dismissing real ale itself in the same way.

It’s also worth remembering that, insofar as there were any trendy bars in the mid-70s, they certainly weren’t places likely to serve real ale, or where CAMRA members would have been seen dead. We may have been young, but we were deliberately seeking out that funny real ale stuff in “old man pubs” in a way that, to many contemporaries, seemed perverse. Beer enthusiasm should be a journey of discovery, not having everything handed to you on a plate. Part of the fun is the thrill of the chase.

Incidentally, my write-up of May’s highly entertaining Offerton Stagger can be read in the August edition of Opening Times (Page 17).

24 comments:

  1. Obviously I agree with all of that, but then I like going to different places full stop. Stockport has great pubs, modest hills, characterful branch members and decent beers. That wouldn't stop many folk preferring to spend the evening in the same pub, whether that was a multi-beer free house or a Holts boozer.

    Ten halves of bitter won't save a struggling pub, but does at least give the message to pubs that CAMRA isn't just about multi-beer free houses (that's right, isn't it ?).

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  2. I used to enjoy the old-style staggers with their "we do see life" aspect, but it has to be admitted they involved some pretty grim pubs and beers at times. It's rare now that any Stagger involves more than seven pubs in an evening.

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  3. I'm very conscious of seeing very few youngsters in pubs now. I wouldn't dismiss the effects of the health lobby, but I think social media is having a much bigger impact. Remember the things you did at 18, then imagine everyone around you having a good quality camera and sending photographs straight to all your friends and co-workers.

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    1. It's been mentioned by several people over the years that the relentless ID'ing of younger drinkers is a big turn-off too.

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    2. Or very conscious of not seeing youngsters is the pubs you frequent? Am regularly conscious of being oldest by 20 to 30+ years in some of the "Craft" beer establishments that are part of my mix of pubs. Doesn't deter me though.

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    3. This makes a good point. It's not that younger drinkers aren't going to pubs - they are just going to different pubs (or places that Mudgie and his ilk would not consider to be pubs).

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    4. Not so – there’s a wealth of reports about a sharp decline in young people drinking in pubs and bars. See here, for example:

      Dramatic decline in young people going for pub drink

      The fact that *some* young people continue to do so isn’t representative of the whole, and craft beer bars appeal to a fairly limited demographic.

      They’re also conspicuous by their absence in places like Offerton and Higher Hillgate. As I said, there isn’t some parallel universe of cool bars that the Staggers studiously avoid.

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  4. What I'm now asking myself is why, for a couple of decades, people were so keen to spend nights out with fellow CAMRA members rather than school/college/university pals, people they worked with, or members of their own family. Those are the kinds of people I usually go to the pub with and it often takes me to pubs I wouldn't go to off my own bat because they're not beer geeks.

    I do struggle to see the appeal of pub crawling with a bunch of strangers with whom my only connection is that we're all a bit obsessive about beer and pubs. If I moved alone to a new town, maybe, I guess?

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    1. Surely it's only natural that if you pursue a particular hobby you're likely to want to socialise with others who share your interest, and in the case of beer you can kill two birds with one stone.

      On the other hand, I've never really understood the appeal of socialising with work colleagues - don't you already see enough of them at work?

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  5. There is a of conceit here which is disingenuous and used only to support your view that the young do not like pubs or that those not joining you do not like pubs.

    You describe them as organised pub crawls. They are first and foremost beer surveying/scoring exercises, in so far as the purpose is to collect beer scores (for good beer guide selection). They are different to how you might organise a pub crawl if you were doing so with friends. Every real ale pub in a defined area must be visited.

    This distinction is important. It is why the stagger involves a half of Hobgoblin in a Toby Carvery, executed with haste. An establishment you would not take in on an evening with friends unless you wished to dine there. The area may have more pubs than a comfortable night out and become a route march of swift halves of mediocre beer to get the area done in an evening. The group leader setting a pace incompatible with an enjoyable evening.

    If there is ambiguity in the plan or not enough pubs additional pubs may be chosen but scoring comes first. An appealing pub will have enough scores, so the logic of the purpose lends itself instead to go score the poorer pub.

    To claim that by not enjoying one of your staggers is akin to not enjoying pubs or all the pubs visited is therefore disingenuous. Not enjoying your stagger is just that, not enjoying your stagger. You hint at this by accepting Staggers were once hard work. Enjoying a pub is never hard work, your staggers still can be.

    The age profile of the group is older but I did not find that off putting. You are all a charming group of people. The narrow appeal of an evening focused on campaigning duty rather than fun lends itself to meeting the more strident campaigner but again, more interesting than off putting. I can honestly say I’ve never met a CAMRA member that I disliked. Some I thought odd, but never disliked. Should the new face not like the beer in a pub and have a Guinness, he will meet the long standing campaigner that thinks keg is evil. A discussion of the man’s choice will ensue.

    Where you ought to be concerned is the new face who as Bailey points out may be looking for a social group to join and think you guys are just on a pub crawl. Men make friends at school, university but rarely middle age. That guy might become part of the group and volunteer for a job at your next festival. He might also wander off. It is possible to put that guy off further involvement if the evening isn’t actually a decent night out. If it is hard work it isn't a decent night out. Maybe end the conceit that it is a social event, just a pub crawl?

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    1. Don't agree. The collection of scores is only an ancillary purpose, and it also needs to be borne in mind that all the scores given on a stagger are aggregated into one for GBG selection purposes. The good pubs don't need it, while it will make no difference to the pubs that aren't candidates anyway.

      I'd say the objectives are:

      1. Maintaining coverage of the pubs, so that each pub is visited by CAMRA on a regular basis. This feeds into WhatPub as well as providing general news.

      2. Providing a regular article for "Opening Times".

      3. Offering a social event which many enjoy. It gives people an opportunity to come together, whereas branch meetings are dominated by formal proceedings, and at Pub of the Month presentations people tend to sit together with their usual companions.

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  6. 1. and 2. are fair enough. I'd suggest it's pushing bit to say that "many" enjoy the Staggers. It's normally a hard core of old stagers. Nor are branch meetings "dominated" by formal proceedings (unless you've been going to different ones to me). Indeed locally we have made a conscious effort to reduce the amount of formal business and have other events such as a quiz or one of those dreaded "Meet the Brewer" nights which, despite your quite insulting dismissal, are popular and continue to be a positive attraction.

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    1. Maybe "structured proceedings" would be a better term.

      And I don't see that my comments go beyond the usual banter about "crafties" and "beardies". You're taking them much too seriously.

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  7. Interesting piece. But exactly why think CAMRA needs to re-evaluate what it is about. Being of that generation (born 1956), most of my membership was spent trying to save "Real Ale" through the dark days when it was becoming more and more of an effort to find it. But those days have past. Now "Real Ale" (the quality can be disputed) can be found almost everywhere. Currently beer (in its many guises) is fashionable, in quality if not in quantity. And that is something to embrace IMO. So where should CAMRA head? Move on from the nit-picking 'what is real beer', and focus on the survival of how it is best delivered - through the pub.

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    1. Has real ale been "saved" though? There are still many keg deserts, and in many of the places it is available quality can be very iffy. Plus the absolute volume consumed is far less than it was when CAMRA was formed.

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    2. The decline in "real ale" volumes (absolute, as well as by proportion) continued well into the first decade of this century. Only then did it stabilise somewhat. So, yay! Well done CAMRA.

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    3. Yes, lager's market share seems to have peaked at around 70%, and within ale/stout segment keg has lost share due to smoking ban and older drinkers dying off.

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  8. Lord Egbert Nobacon23 August 2016 at 06:35

    My 19-year-old kid is at Uni.He and his mates drink nowhere else but Weatherspoons.It's all they can afford plus they have free wifi which,he tells me,a lot of pubs STILL don't have.His local Spoons is also quite happy to have students loafing around all day which a lot of pubs aren't.It's a fallacy to say young people don't go to pubs any more.They just go to different pubs than the ones their Dads go to.

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  9. If you pay a visit to Newcastle, Durham, Sunderland, Middlesbrough or perhaps Manchester city centre on, say, a Friday or Saturday night, your theory about young people not drinking will be thoroughly debunked. They just don't want to drink what you drink, when you drink it, or where you drink it.

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    1. I never said young people had stopped drinking, but all the evidence is that, across the board, they're doing it markedly less. Weekend nights in Northern industrial cities are probably the time and place where it's least noticeable.

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    2. Fair point, but I was in Bournemouth recently - possibly the UK capital of oldies - and there were plenty of young'uns out on the lash and I doubt they were there on holiday. That said, the people I was with who ranged from mid 20s to 50s, were all reluctant to have more than a couple of beers or a glass of wine. Maybe drinking as a hobby is in its sunset years?

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  10. From talking to students at Keele there is a marked polarisation ( as with so many other issues ) whereby there is still a hard core of what one might call "traditional" students whose social life revolves around pubs and bars ( another distinction which in itself spawns a further debate ), whilst others' focus is the electronic device .
    The big event , however, still brings them out, the Union at Keele can still attract 2,000 through the doors for the key events.
    For those of us who know who we are, the pub is/was the default option but that is no longer the case. I suppose if your focus is tapping at a small screen, the joys of your surroundings are less relevant.

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