Thursday, 1 September 2016

Doing what it says on the tin

The clue to what CAMRA should concentrate on can be found in its name

CAMRA is currently in the midst of a Revitalisation Project, which aims to take a root-and-branch look at the organisation’s objectives and priorities. One frequent complaint is that it is too dogmatic in refusing to embrace high-quality beers that do not qualify as “real”. However, that is missing the point of what it’s all about.

When CAMRA was formed, its core purpose was to promote and champion the independent breweries and their distinctive beers that had survived the takeover frenzy of the 1960s.That decade saw probably the most dramatic transformation in business structures, popular culture and the physical appearance of this country of any in the past hundred years. Modernity, progress and renewal were the watchwords, and anyone who sought to stand in the way was condemned as negative and fuddy-duddy. This, after all, was the era of the New Britain that was to be forged in the white heat of the scientific revolution, and was keenly embraced by both of the major political parties.

However, as the Sixties turned into the Seventies, the downsides in terms of the destruction of the traditional and familiar became increasingly apparent, and there was a backlash in popular sentiment. E. F. Schumacher’s bestselling book “Small is Beautiful” is often seen as epitomising this trend, and it gained wide public recognition in the TV sitcom “The Good Life”. CAMRA obviously was a major part of this, and there is a strong parallel with steam railway preservation, which shared many of the same motivations and personnel. It was as much about a sense of cultural loss as about a specific technical definition of beer. This was well summed up in a recent Internet comment from one Ian H who said:

“CAMRA is a people-powered cultural heritage organisation in all but name. Traditional drinking culture is what links real ale, real cider/perry, historic pub interiors and community pubs. Embrace it! By all means show craft more respect (the same respect shown to Belgian beers and quality German and Czech lagers, for instance), but don’t water down the central purpose of CAMRA”.
Arguably CAMRA went too far down the road of trying to tie down a precise definition of “real ale”, ending up excluding products and dispense methods that fitted the broader concept perfectly well. The outright refusal to countenance cask breathers is a prime example. The long-defunct Hull Brewery used to store lightly-filtered, unpasteurised beer in large ceramic cellar jars in its pubs. Now how quirky and traditional was that, but it was judged not to be “real”. Sadly, this gave rise to a widespread view that real ale was inherently superior to all other forms of beer, which was never really a defensible position and ended up causing a great deal of resentment.

But the problem with any formal embrace of “non-real” beers is that, once you abandon an objective standard, even if an imperfect one, then what are you left with apart from “beers I happen to like”? The famous 20th century writer and commentator G. K. Chesterton once said “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” It just opens the door for subjective favouritism and outright beer snobbery.

CAMRA is not, and never has been, a generalised campaign for All Good Beer. If some of its members have at times given that impression, they have been wrong. It is a campaign to preserve and champion a unique British brewing and cultural institution. The clue is in the name, and it does what it says on the tin. There are plenty of great non-“real” beers out there, and CAMRA members should feel no shame in enjoying and celebrating them. But they don’t need campaigning for. Real ale does.

(This is a reproduction of my column in September’s edition of the local CAMRA magazine Opening Times. I don’t normally publish these here, but thought this one deserved a wider airing)

47 comments:

  1. The "revitalisation of ale" (by which they simply meant beer, according to early accounts) seems quite a wide ranging remit to me.

    If you think about it, the "craft beer movement" and the "campaign for the revitalisation of beer" are basically the same thing.

    To dump the pointless and ill-informed obsession with outdated technicalities and wholeheartedly embrace craft beer in all its various guises would not be a betrayal of CAMRA's fundamental raison d'etre, it would be a compelling restatement of its founding principles. CAMRA has strayed from the purpose of its original inception and even as its numbers grow, it sinks further and further into irrelevance and decay. Only a profound return to its noble and original purpose can render it fit for the 21st century.

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    1. Belgian, German and Czech beers, made by traditional processes are as "real" as anything made in Britain but don't appear to meet the CAMRA criteria.

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  2. Agreed. CAMRA has a remit and a purpose with a clearer definition than most things in the beer world.

    Should the Soil Association expand its remit to include non-organic vegetables just because they taste nice? Should the Child Protection Agency start protecting vulnerable adults too? And so on. Arbitrarily expanding remits is rarely a sound strategy, however good the intentions.

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  3. Jesus wept, he's at it again. Py, you've managed to contradict yourself: How could CAMRA embracing Craft be a return to its 'noble and original purpose'? The original purpose was a single-minded sole focus on real ale.

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    1. No it wasn't: when CAMRA was formed, no-one had heard of "real ale". The term hadn't been invented. The original purpose of CAMRA was to promote and protect interesting and flavoursome beer; to "revitalise" the British beer industry.

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    2. My understanding was that CAMRA was set up to defend an endangered tradition. And I was historically a lot closer to it than you.

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    3. Indeed, and the craft beer movement's enthusiastic promotion of old recipes and beer styles is a clear revival of that movement. But the original CAMRA also promoted quality and variety.

      Read some of the very earliest CAMRA literature, it reads exactly like a craft beer manifesto.

      The craft beer movement is a lot more faithful to the original spirit of CAMRA than the current group of old, vexatious, technicality obsessed dinosaurs I'm afraid. And I speak as an unbiased outsider with no foot in either camp.

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    4. "And I speak as an unbiased outsider with no foot in either camp."

      Could have fooled me!

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    5. Which camp do you think I'm in? I'm far too tight and cynical to be a cutting edge hipster craft beer fanboy.

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    6. You're hardly unbiased when it comes to CAMRA, are you?

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    7. I don't think they're a particularly positive presence in UK beer circles and (unfortunately) frequently see reasons to criticise them, that's not the same thing as being biased against them. Having an opinion and having a bias are not the same thing.

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    8. If you're constantly knocking CAMRA it suggests a bias against them.

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  4. CAMRA reached 100,000 members in August 2009 after 38 years of existence. Seven years later, it has gained another 81,543, giving a total of 181,543 members now.

    I bet a fair number of other mass member organisations might envy that level of "irrelevance and decay".

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    1. I did say "even as its numbers grow". CAMRA membership is effectively just a discount club to local beer festivals, buoyed by direct debit apathy. There is no real reason to believe that members actually know or care about what the organisation purports to stand for simply because they are willing to stump up £25 as an alternative to paying 6 lots of £5 and skipping the hour long queue as an added bonus.

      There have been many, many comments recently about how the number of active members has fallen dramatically, and given the current age range of the remaining active members, as reported by Mudgie and others, there won't be any at all in 20 years time. That is "irrelevance and decay". No-one my age is willing to campaign for CAMRA, because no-one my age believes in its current stance.

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    2. The rise in Camra membership is almost entirely down to direct debit inertia.

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    3. Something must encourage new people to join in the first place, even if it is mostly a combination of beer festival discounts and Spoons vouchers. You don't gain any members through inertia.

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    4. Direct debit inertia has a contributory part to play in this as in setting up a DD for anything. As Mudgie says, you have to get them in in the first place.

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  5. Thank God we're not like this py character. CAMRA stands for The Campaign For Real Ale. That means real living ale having a secondary fermentation in the cask NOT so called craft beer with a silly name served as a keg beer.

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    1. You need to brush up on your history before you start throwing around the insults.
      Also:

      "Please be polite and remember to play the ball, not the man."

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    2. If you think pointing out that I have more personal experience of something than you do constitutes a personal attack then you are being ludicrously precious.

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    3. "Thank God we're not like this py character" is clearly a personal attack, no? It was not you that said it though.

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    4. Just how many "real ales" are cask conditioned now a days?

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    5. Camra initially stood for the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. The craft beer sector is doing much more to revitalise ale right now than Camra is. (Oh, and the only beers that have "a secondary fermentation in the cask" are those infected with Brett: the fermentation in the cask that happens in so-called "real ale" is a continuation of the original fermentation by the same yeast. But that's another argument …)

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    6. One person's revitalisation is just another's mucking about for the sake of it and not everyone wants beer that has been soured, vatted, had fruit added and been fermented in a feta cheese barrel with a late addition of pork scratchings or whatever, but putting that aside, it isn't CAMRA's job to "innovate". It is brewers and they are doing it. For better or worse and have grown a sector to support it.

      CAMRA is there to preserve traditional cask ale and the danger to that comes from those who think anything that hasn't been pissed about with and gassed up isn't worth drinking.

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  6. There are rather too many points to respond to here, so I will attempt to address some of them on my own blog; when time permits.

    For now, py is basically correct with his assertion that the Campaign for the REVITALISATION of Ale had no clear cut definition of what constituted a good pint, and what didn’t. In the early days, CAMRA was primarily concerned with methods of dispense, rather than what actually went on in the cellar and the organisation certainly had little idea about “cask-conditioning.”

    When I first joined CAMRA, back in 1974, it was very much a young person’s organisation; I had only turned 19 myself. Today, it is exactly the opposite, and unless it changes, and manages to attract new blood (and I’m not talking about those who join solely for the Spoons vouchers), then it will wither and die.

    Leaving aside the issue of an increasingly aging membership, the biggest challenge the Campaign faces is poor quality beer. However, the same charge could be laid against “Craft Beer”, as I have had some absolutely appalling glasses of heavily yeast-laden, unbalanced beer which do no-one any favours, and risk bringing the whole beer movement into disrepute.

    Both camps have much to learn from each other, and need to work together to ensure all beer drinkers are served with beer of the highest quality, instead of some rancid, oxidised slop which has lain in the cask for a week or more, or some overly fizzy glass of totally hop-driven beer masquerading as an IPA, with sufficient suspended yeast to keep Marmite in business for several days.

    Time to get real people; see through the “Emperor’s New Clothes” and expose the fakers in both the cask and the craft movements.


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    1. "I have had some absolutely appalling glasses of heavily yeast-laden, unbalanced beer which do no-one any favours, and risk bringing the whole beer movement into disrepute."

      Isn't it meant to be like that? ;-)

      Clarity and basic brewing competence are so passé, don't you know?

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  7. "No-one my age is willing to campaign for CAMRA."

    Factually inaccurate, whatever your age is (although you don't strike me as young particularly), because CAMRA has active members of all ages. I'd agree that most are in the older age brackets, but you said 'no one', not 'few'.

    I think we've all got the message that you don't like CAMRA. I presume you're not a member, so may I politely suggest you cease repeating the same points over and over again about what CAMRA ought to do. It belongs to its members, and it's up to them what it does, and your approval, or otherwise, is of no relevance.

    For the record, I'm not a 'CAMRA right or wrong' member, and sometimes have criticised the campaign - locally and nationally - on my own blog, as have other members such as Tandleman and Curmudgeon. We argue from within - you sit on the outside whingeing.

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    1. I don't really see the distinction between members "arguing" and non-members "whinging"? So a non-member is disbarred from expressing an opinion?

      Surely you should just concentrate on arguing against the content of the argument, and not allow your personal prejudices to cloud your judgement. As Mudgie says, "Play the man, not the ball".

      CAMRA has very, very few active members under the age of 40. I'm trying to explain to you why that is. If you have to resort to quibbling over semantics, (no-one vs few) its simply an indication that you don't have a more substantive argument.

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    2. I'm with Py here - picking holes in what is largely an accurate statement is half the darn problem. We've become so transfixed with the details that we're not seeing the wood for the trees anymore.

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  8. Not the Chesterton line again! Such obvious nonsense, but I suppose "When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes in something else more feasible" doesn't have quite the same ring.

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  9. py may be right in a way about the beginnings of CAMRA, but he conveniently ignores that once it understood what made the beer they liked better than the beer it didn't like, it rapidly concentrated on real ale. He also forgets or chooses to ignore that we aren't the Camapign Against anything and that has been emphasized more and more recently.

    Like Mudgie I like this "“CAMRA is a people-powered cultural heritage organisation in all but name. Traditional drinking culture is what links real ale, real cider/perry, historic pub interiors and community pubs. Embrace it! By all means show craft more respect (the same respect shown to Belgian beers and quality German and Czech lagers, for instance), but don’t water down the central purpose of CAMRA”." It sums up pretty neatly what I believe in and have openly argued for for years.

    As for being dead in the water eventually, maybe, maybe not. I am constantly amazed, as someone who has worked at GBBF for more years than I care to remember, that there are so many young members working there. Of course most are older, but there is a healthy enough sprinkling and after all, us oldies have the time.

    I'd like to see us being able to overcome this more at local level, but hey, maybe it is enough to just believe in the general thrust of the Campaign and do what you can, when you can. If that changes the local structure, so be it.

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    1. "once it understood what made the beer they liked better than the beer it didn't like, it rapidly concentrated on real ale" - very true. But would Camra have happened if the keg beers they were battling – uniformly rubbish – had been as good as many of today's craft keg beers? In no other country in the world has the rise of the craft beer movement led to a rush to "real ale" brewing, not even in the US.

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    2. My point entirely Martyn. It just so happened that one type of beer was generally better than another type of beer in one particular country at one particular point in time. The unfortunate invention of the concept of "real ale" was an unfortunate historical coincidence that has done more to hold back the quality and variety of British beer than any other conception in the past 100 years.

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    3. Because they didn't, unlike Great Britain, have an existing traditional of real ale brewing.

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    4. I've never cared for the term 'real ale' and usually say 'cask ale' or 'cask beer' But I think py is wrong. I have the utmost respect for the brewing traditions of other countries, particularly Germany and Belgium. That said, British (most commonly English) cask beer is, when done properly, the best drop on God's green earth. The idea that it was ever at risk is astonishing and, whatever my personal gripes may be, it is to the eternal credit of CAMRA that it preserved and 'revitalised' this unique and important aspect of our culture.

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    5. cask ale consumption has fallen consistently and steadily under the watchful eye of CAMRA. Since the craft beer revolution has started to promote cask ale as a young person's drink, full of flavour and sophistication, rather than stigmatising it with the dull old-mannish image that CAMRA project, consumption has finally started to increase again.

      Tell me, who really deserves the credit for the preservation of this beer style? CAMRA have been thoroughly neglectful and incompetent.

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    6. Wrong again. The main reason for the volume decline in cask beer was the Beer Orders and the subsequent loss of direct control of pubs by very large breweries and their ability to control quality. Then compounded by PubCos and debt, incompetent pub operators encouraged by PubCos, then changing social and drinking habits etc.etc.

      The growth of craft beer post dates the decline in sales driven by the above and pre dares craft beer as a growing area.

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    7. Sorry Py but alcohol consumption is falling in every developed country, across all drinks categories. Cask beer is actually outperforming the market in general and has consistently increased market share for some years.

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  10. Although much is written about how to recruit and enthuse new members, the organisation is moribund. While membership numbers are often used to challenge dissenters the number of active members is very low indeed. Those who are active all seem to know each other and decision making is arcane and held at events that, not purposely, preclude mass participation.

    CAMRA is very important, its been hugely successful in reversing the destruction of a key part of our culture. Without CAMRA Britain would be a poorer and duller place. That said, I and others have found it to be a rather unfriendly and undemocratic body. Dissent is unwelcome and there is a distinct tone of 'if you don't like it you can .... ..f"

    Collecting subs and dishing out vouchers is not the same thing as an active mass movement. CAMRA is in stasis. I regret that but I fear that it won't change. Enthusiasm for beer and brewing is very high and undoubtedly CAMRA will continue to do well in terms of membership numbers.

    The final straw for us was when CAMRA awarded the MP of the year award to Andrew Griffiths. I don't remember voting for that. The first we heard of it was when What's Brewing arrived.

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    1. Well some of us don't see it that way. We try and change what we don't like and often succeed. CAMRA does things that I don't like too. All organisations do.

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  11. I've had many ghastly pints of so called 'craft' ale but i never get a bad pint of Timothy Taylors or Harveys.

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    1. Timothy Taylors Landlord IS craft ale and as a result it has had a real resurgence over the past few years thanks to the craft beer revolution. This is the entire point.

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    2. I remember Landlord being pretty popular in the free trade twenty-five years ago, so I don't think much has really changed. Would you also consider, say, Felinfoel Double Dragon and Wadworth 6X to be craft ales?

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  12. The term 'Real Ale' was coined quite soon after the campaign started and was a stroke of genius. It was one of the biggest single factors which was responsible for the success of the campaign and I wouldn't meddle with definition, while accepting that some craft ale, of which there is no clear definition, can be good beer.

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  13. >Leaving aside the issue of an increasingly ageing membership: isn't this the core problem? A reluctance to accept that this is in fact the biggest elephant in the room? It'll all be moot if there aren't enough active members to keep the organisation running. And working for a beer festival is not a good indication of active membership (although it's most welcome). We have no problem getting people to devote five hours to work on a bar as it's a fun activity. But ask them to devote more time regularly over the year and it's "stare at the ceiling time".

    Sadly though I don't think there is an answer to active membership and it's almost a given that the organisation will have to change structure radically over the next 10-20 years. Sure stick to what it says on the tin, but in doing so please accept you send CAMRA down a very certain route. And as I don't tend to like hanging around failure, I'm not sure I want to go along for the ride :-(

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    1. Ask yourself why all those young people joined the campaign so enthusiastically 40 years ago - because the campaign stood for something they believed in.

      This is simply no longer the case. The campaign says one thing, but the membership no longer really agree with it, if truth be told. Certainly the only people still obsessing about these irrelevant technical details seem to be in their 60s and 70s.

      If you want to save CAMRA, you need to start campaigning for something that young people actually believe in and want to campaign for. Its a really simple and obvious solution.

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  14. "That decade [the 1960's] saw probably the most dramatic transformation in business structures, popular culture and the physical appearance of this country of any in the past hundred years. Modernity, progress and renewal were the watchwords, and anyone who sought to stand in the way was condemned as negative and fuddy-duddy."

    If you look at other groups intent on resisting the modernising trend of the 1960's and preserving traditional practices (the Victorian Society for architecture, the Latin Mass Society in the Roman Catholic Church, the steam preservation/heritage railway movement with trains) although all have achieved their aims in ensuring that the thing they loved didn't disappear, CAMRA has been the most successful: you can go to any large town or city in England and find well-kept cask beer, but the other things are less likely to be available.

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