Friday, 15 September 2017

Standing at the crossroads

Outgoing Good Beer Guide editor Roger Protz has called for CAMRA to embrace craft keg beers to ensure its survival into the future. It is certainly a widely expressed view that CAMRA needs to widen its original remit and, in effect “modernise or die”.

However, this raises a number of questions. The first is exactly what he means by “embrace”. It is one thing to accept that many beers that fall outside the definition of “real ale” have considerable merit, and few except a handful of diehards in CAMRA would disagree. The organisation should certainly be a lot more relaxed about praising non-“real” beers and ciders in an official context.

But to actually bring quality craft keg beers within CAMRA’s campaigning remit is something else entirely. For a start, how do you define them? Some people have suggested that you don’t really need to, and you know what is good and what is not. But you can’t seriously campaign for anything on such a woolly basis. “Real ale”, for better or worse, does have a clear-cut definition. There may be a bit of fuzziness around the edges, but broadly speaking you know what is real ale and what isn’t. Nobody can say the same about “quality keg”.

A further point is that real ale can be made by companies of any size, and indeed the old Big Six brewed some of the best real ales in the country. But, true to his Trotskyite past, there’s a lot in Protz’s interview about the threat from the giant multinational brewers, and indeed the official US definition of “craft beer” sets an (admittedly large) limit on company size. However, a beer doesn’t metamorphose overnight from good to bad purely through a change of ownership, and drinkers are unlikely to be impressed by someone judging beers on company size rather than intrinsic merit.

Closer to home, BrewDog have become a very big fish in a small craft pond, and must now exceed the production volumes of the likes of Greene King and Marston’s. Does that mean their beers no longer qualify as craft? And if they do, how about “craft” beers such as East Coast IPA and Shipyard from the established brewers?

Keg beers from the likes of Beavertown and Magic Rock are undoubtedly craft, but how about if Taylors produced a keg version of their highly-acclaimed Landlord? If that is approved, then surely that is accepting precisely what CAMRA was originally set up to fight. And if it isn’t, on what objective basis does it differ from the beers from the obvious crafties? And does that mean that cask Landlord should no longer be accepted as a quality beer either?

Maybe, of course, this is what quality craft keg needs:

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they are not things that can be airily dismissed with a breezy “you know it when you see it”. The risk is that you end up with a campaign just for “beers we happen to approve of”, which would not exactly possess much credibility. Plus there remains a lingering suspicion of a hidden agenda to cut adrift many well-known cask beers on the grounds that they commit such cardinal sins as being “popular” and “easy-drinking”.

It also has to be questioned whether the development of “beer enthusiasm” since the early days of CAMRA should be regarded as a straightforward onwards-and-upwards process. As I wrote here, in the beginning it was essentially a preservationist movement, seeking to defend a valued tradition that was seen as under threat. Over the years, however, it has grown and metamorphosed into something that would have been completely unrecognisable at the start.

It is entirely reasonable that many people are somewhat uneasy about this and feel that it has moved into territory where they really don’t want to go. It is not wrong, or stick-in-the-mud, it is just a different way of looking at things. You can’t expect everyone to be interested in everything, and just because some people aren’t attracted by something as a leisure interest doesn’t mean they disapprove of it. “Hey, I got into architecture to preserve mediaeval churches. I never thought I’d be expected to enthuse over all this weird modernist stuff”.

Plus, as Boak & Bailey have said, the British craft beer movement “rejected not only ‘mass-produced’ beer but also the trappings of established ‘real ale’ culture.” Given this, it isn’t surprising that there is a certain reluctance to embrace it. It’s sometimes argued that this is basically a generational divide that will be eroded by the passage of time, but that’s akin to the common fallacy that conservative political values will fade away as older people die off. In practice, it doesn’t happen, as each generation rediscovers them anew.

The result is to end up with two camps of traditionalists and modernists who are divided more by mutual incomprehension than dislike as such. On the one hand there are enamel-stripping DIPAs and gleaming, uncomfortable craft emporia, on the other, boring twiggy brown bitter and gloomy old man pubs. Each side just doesn’t get what the other sees in it.

A case could be made for splitting CAMRA into two separate organisations – one that concentrates on the preservation of a distinctive British tradition, the other that wholeheartedly embraces the world of modern beer innovation. There would be no reason why somebody couldn’t be a member of both – they are not mutually exclusive, just different.

In practice, though, it’s unlikely to happen as, rather like the present-day Labour Party, the risk of striking out on your own is too great, so uneasy bedfellows stay together. But, while some may claim to straddle both sides, it’s hard to deny that most people who have an interest in beer and pubs at heart identify with one camp or the other. I can think of very few whom I know either through personal acquaintance or as bloggers that I would struggle to place. No doubt in the end some kind of uneasy compromise will be arranged, but the underlying tension is not going to go away.

As an aside, later in the article old Protzy is still wittering on about “unfair competition from supermarkets”, which basically, as I explained here, is nonsense. The UK has some of the most expensive off-trade alcohol in the EU, and still has one of the highest proportions of beer consumed in the on-trade. And, realistically, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.

53 comments:

  1. A really good, interesting piece, with a lot of strands to it. A few points

    1) What does embrace mean ? Presumably adding key keg and keg beers to Beer Festival line-ups, though they were a feature at every Fest I went to this year.
    2) You rightly recognise the quality of the Big 6 beers (and family brewers).That's not a universally shared truth.
    3) CAMRA has metamprphised in to something completely different since the '70s and '80s. As the folk who joined then drop out there's a volunteer vacuum.
    4) No-one is stopping anyone starting a Campaign for Better Craft. CAMRA don't dictate what pubs and bars exist or sell.
    5) I like craft beers, by which I mean strong, chilled, lightly carbonated beer. That's why I'll go to IndyMan & the new craft bars. I'm not the only 50+ bloke.

    MT

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    1. Of course people can like both traditional pubs and craft beers. But nobody should be criticised for not liking both.

      And it has to be said that, for most of the attendees at IMBC, an evening spent in the Swan with Two Necks, Boar's Head and Arden Arms would seem like another world.

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    2. Heh. I was going to say that I like "enamel-stripping DIPAs" and "gloomy old man pubs", prefereably together :-)

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  2. Superb summing up of the current situation occurring within CAMRA. This post should be sent as an open letter to the NE, and read out at all future "revitalization" meetings.

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  3. Protz is getting a bit senile now. Time to put him in the geriatric home

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    1. The next problem is what happens if they give the editorship of the GBG to a raving "Craftie" ??

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  4. I think that the term craft has very much outlived its usefulness. I wouldm use a cycling analogy. In the early years of mountaing biking mountain bikers with their machines were a distinct subculture looking to California for their inspiration and scorning other cyclists. |But over the intervening three decades mountain bikes have come to be seen as just bikes - some good some rubbish. So craft beer is just beer - some good, some bad but in no real way different to the produce of the major breweries.

    And, to torture the analogy, asking CAMRA to embrace keg beers would be akin to asking the CTC (a major cycling campaign) to embrace mopeds.

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  5. It might be just down to incompetant sub-editing but Comrade Protz's stuff in the MA was all over the place. Incoherent, mixed messaging that lacked anything approach a cohesive point.

    Decent 'craft' keg beer - whatever arbitary criteria one uses to define it - clearly *is* an existential threat to real ale. And I say that as someone who drinks quite a lot of craft keg.

    'Embracing' in this context seems to amount to 'giving up, because we're not up for the fight and none of us are getting any younger are we'.

    I've written about this so many times and in so many places, but I'll say it again. CAMRA should be CAMPAIGNING FOR REAL ALE. Is that really so hard? The fact there are so many good keg-only beers out there now /should/ be a massive opportunity. Campaign to get these beers in cask, where they'd be even better.

    Instead, they accept a status quo where, increasingly, the good, interesting beers get put into keg. The bland, boring ones go into cask, and the format continues to decline in reputation not because it's inherently bad, but because of laziness, lack of ambition and sheer mindless conformity.

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    1. I'd agree that sometimes there is a lazy conceding of ground to keg.

      But the throughput issue is a fundamental limitation of cask. By definition, it needs to shift quickly to keep in decent nick, so it's not really suited to niche beers that are only going to sell in small amounts.

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    2. By embracing cider CAMRA ceased to be just a campaign for real ale. The logic that embraced cider can be extended to craft keg or, indeed, artisan gin.

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    3. But Mudgie, the most popular, biggest-selling beers in the country are keg. The most popular, biggest-selling beers in the world are keg. And the most popular, biggest-selling beers in the 'craft sector' are keg.

      I agree there is a throughput issue in theory, but I'm not sure it has become relevant in practice, or indeed if it ever will, at least in the current market. Witness how quickly the 'niche' US cask beer was sold at GBBF, for example.

      This week I've been enjoying an 11.5% Imperial Coffee Stout, in keg. Pretty much everybody with whom I've discussed it agrees that it would be better on cask. It's been a relatively - but not grindingly - slow seller; given the specialist nature it's not for everyone, but beers at that strength would last a lot longer on cask with no loss in quality (and indeed would likely improve over several days).

      This is why I just don't buy the throughput argument in these sorts of contexts - if it were the case, why isn't cask dominated by longer-lasting stronger ales, and keg by session beers rather than t'other way around?

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    4. "This week I've been enjoying an 11.5% Imperial Coffee Stout"

      What a very "beer bubble" comment that is. How much of that do you think they would sell in a market town local in Lincolnshire? The vast majority of beer, both keg and cask, is of moderate strength because that's what the vast majority of people want to drink.

      And the US cask bar was an example of something with obvious rarity value selling to a captive market of beer geeks - it holds no lessons whatsover for the generality of pubs in the country.

      Even now, one of cask's biggest problems is pubs putting on too many beers for the level of demand, with the inevitable knock-on effect on quality.

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    5. "By embracing cider CAMRA ceased to be just a campaign for real ale." Well said David C Brown, so why not indeed extend this logic to embracing craft keg?

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    6. Mudge, if they can sell 11.5% stout on keykeg in a small village in Surrey, they can sell it in a market town in Lincolnshire.

      The last time I drank in a market town in Lincolnshire was a few months ago, in Beerheadz Grantham. I don't think this beer would be out of place there.

      And it's brewed in Lymington FFS, hardly a hotbed of bleeding-edge hipsterculture.

      I get that it's not 100% mainstream, but I really don't believe this sort of beer, this sort of pub and this sort of beer drinker are quite as 'bubble' as you believe them to be. Not any more. I even got my dad to drink the stuff and he's about a decade older than you!

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    7. They're hardly going to sell much of it, though. And your suggestion that turnover shouldn't be an issue for cask because stronger beers keep longer comes across as py-like trolling.

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  6. 'Craft' by my way of thinking is supposed to represent a more modern culture of innovation. I enjoy a pint of 'craft' keg from time to time, and prefer it to a badly or even average kept pint of cask any time. CAMRA should be fighting to keep cask as a high quality offering, but their leaning towards promoting enthusiast pubs with too many pumps is only leading to a decline in overall quality which in time will no doubt accelerate the rise of quality key products to the detriment of cask, in an ever-decreasing cycle. BTW Mudge, BrewDog recently increased their capacity to 1m Hectolitres and were brewing around 200,000Hl in 2016. By contrast Marston's breweries produced 1.25m hectolitres a year before the Wells takeover.

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    1. Ah, I must have confused their output of bullshit with their output of beer. But still more than the vast majority of the family brewers.

      Do you have any more production figures for British brewers?

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    2. That is really funny, Curmudgeon. Great line. I had quite a laugh on that one.

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    3. Marstons is on a slightly different scale but compare with eg St Austell and Adnams who reached the 100,000bbl mark (163,000hl) in 2015 and 2016 respectively - I think that's roughly the capacity of the new Robbies brewery but their actual production is about half that.

      So by any standard Brewdog are the equivalent of a "big regional" now.

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    4. 90% of all the piss poor vinegary ale sold in the country is sold by pubs with either one or two handpumps, not the multi pump beer emporiums who are entirely reliant for survival on their reputation for quality beer.

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    5. Meanwhile, back in the real world...

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    6. I find it hard to believe you're being honest here. I'm so obviously right in what I say. You're trolling your own blog. Why?

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  7. Good points by BV and Electricpics. The only threat to the future of Cask IS Craft Keg. CAMRA should concentrate on improving the quality of Cask instead of ramming Craft Keg and other so-called "good beers", (whatever the fook they are), down our collective gizzards...

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  8. The impact of CAMRA not-campaigning for craft keg on craft keg will be zero. No-one really cares what CAMRA thinks anyway.

    The impact on CAMRA not-campaigning for craft keg on CAMRA will be terminal. The current generation of volunteers will die off, and won't be replaced.

    Cask ale will be just fine without CAMRA. It was doing fine before CAMRA came on the scene, shrunk rapidly whilst they were "campaigning" for it (aka inadvertently putting everyone off drinking it), and sales have picked up again recently through its rebranding as "craft beer".

    So be it. Maybe CAMRA's race is run. Maybe its for the best.

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    1. If it makes no difference to craft keg whether or not CAMRA campaigns for it, then what's the point in the first place?

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    2. Cask was doing fine before CAMRA came on the scene? Er, it really wasn't: the national brewers were on the verge of stopping production, and even the venerable Sam Smiths nearly went the same way. Sales of cask have actually risen steadily since the early 80's increasing its share of an overall declining beer market so how you can say sales have picked up again recently is remarkable. I have a suspicion that you take delight in deliberately trolling blogs like this as what you say is usually contrary to the facts.

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    3. Because of the rise of lager and the general decline of the on-trade, I wouldn't say cask has recorded any absolute increase in volume since the early 80s, indeed quite the reverse. In the past few years it may have seen a small increase in market share due to the decline of "traditional" kegs. I'd be amazed if "craft keg" even approaches 2% of the overall on-trade beer market.

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    4. Correct, Peter. Cask sales have shrunk calamitously under the watchful eye of camra. This is simply a mathematical fact, there is no point trying to deny it.

      In the last few years, good cask beer has been promoted as craft beer, outside of the remit of camra, and without their cold dead hand holding it back, it's actually started to grow sales for the first time in 50 years. Again, these are simply the facts, to deny them if the work of a troll.

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    5. You're both confusing volumes of production with market share. Volumes have been on a rising trend for a long time albeit with short term peaks and troughs , but market share has only recently started to show a sustained increase. One problem working out the true picture is that SIBA and the BBPA are extremely reluctant to share their members' production figures.

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    6. Given that on-trade beer volumes have halved since 1997, and the peak of lager didn't come until some way after that, it doesn't stack up to claim that cask volumes are rising. Yes, cask has increased its share of the ale and stout segment, and may have seen a very small absolute increase in one or two recent years, but that's it. My understanding is that, at present, the shares are something like 70% lager, 16% cask, 14% keg ale and stout. That means that cask amounts to just over 2 million bulk barrels a year.

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  9. What a load of crap in that reply.
    Before my drinking days in the early 70s real ale was on its last legs,you would have to try hard to find any real ale pubs in London and some counties were almost real ale desserts,like Northamptonshire, Devon and Cornwall.
    I started drinking in the late 70s and when in London real ale was still hard to find,only Youngs and Fullers but not many in central London,so if lucky you could have a drink of Courage Directors that tasted like doctors medicine.
    By the mid 80s Elgoods and other breweries had started to brew real ales again after years of keg only production.
    The Campaign for real ale got rid of Worthington E,Watney Red Barrel and loads of other keg beers.
    I would hate to think what it would have been like if it was not for the campaign for real ale.

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    1. The facts say otherwise, Alan.

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  10. A campaign looking for a purpose and wondering what you need to do to get the kids involved?#

    What if accepting the craft keg got the approval of the kids but no more interest in working your festivals?

    What if accepting the craft keg saw all the retired beardy old timers stand down because it's no longer their thing?

    Protzy though this through?

    Sadly when a campaign has to ask itself what its purpose is, it's game over. This isn't a bad thing. It means you kind of got what you wanted. Now turn yourself into a nice beer club with some nice curated pub crawls of the better pubs and enjoy yourselves.

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    1. "... when a campaign has to ask itself what its purpose is, it's game over..."

      Succinct

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    2. CAMRA has a purpose. Sadly it has allowed itself to be persuaded that it needs to "move with the times" and water down its original principles.

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    3. Camra has a purpose, to drive up the consumption of beer served from a cask in the UK. It's not a particularly logical or useful purpose and the organisation have proved themselves completely useless at fulfilling their remit. There's not really much else to add to that.

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    4. Other than the unassailable fact that had Camra not existed, there would be little cask, anywhere. But I suppose you'd have to be under the very strange impression that before it was formed, excellent quality cask was on sale in every pub in the land and brewery conditioned kegged beers and lagers weren't pushing cask out of most pub cellars.

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    5. Whatever the veracity of the self defined contribution CAMRA like to make in regard to its own contribution to the current diverse beer market the question is the future not the past.

      Would cask beer disappear if CAMRA packed up its bags? I doubt it. Have they anything more to say or do? It doesn't appear so.

      What do CAMRA actually do to keep cask beer alive? Wetherspoons do more and attract more curious members of the public through their own beer festivals than all the CAMRA ones put together.

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    6. Camra are now far to busy disappearing up their own hoop to worry about maintaining their position of the UK's biggest ever consumers pressure group. I'm no purist but straying from their course is surely the daftest thing a single issue fanatic group can do.

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    7. Isn't the problem that CAMRA has essentially fulfilled its purpose? When it was founded, cask beer production was at an all time low and there were only a handful of breweries producing the stuff. Today the record number of breweries and the large number of pubs offering cask ale suggests that it has rather been successful in it's mission to promote cask ale. I think it does need a new purpose, and in my opinion that should be the improvement of the quality of cask ale in the UK.

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    8. Not so. As I wrote here, when CAMRA was formed, real ale wasn't anywhere near as endangered as the myth would have you believe. Maybe the founding four got a misleading perspective from living in London, where it was very thin on the ground. And, due to the rise of lager and the general decline of the on-trade, there's far less real ale sold now in volume terms than there was in the early 70s.

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    9. No, CAMRA hasn't fulfilled its purpose.

      If it had, I wouldn't be regularly drinking beer from an evil keg.

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    10. I still think your perception of how much cask beer was produced in the early 70's is skewed. You haven't mentioned the fact that vast quantities of keg beer were being produced long before the rise of lager brands and that's what knocked cask off bars. Lager then started knocking keg beer off the bar while cask was maintained in the strongholds of the Midlands, North West and Yorkshire. When I started drinking in the early 80's, the North East, for example, was a cask desert with few pubs selling it, and even fewer selling it well.

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    11. It's the North-East that was the exception in England and Wales, plus to some extent London and the Home Counties. As I said in the post, real ale availability was more patchy than it is now, but it was thick on the ground in the North-West, Yorkshire and the West and East Midlands. Plus don't forget there were many pubs shifting huge volumes of it in a way you just don't see nowadays.

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    12. I have fond memories of a Blackpool pub (Marine?) on a Sunday in the mid 80s where one member of staff was solely occupied constantly pulling pints of Boddies bitter, and a few mild. Outside was a decent stack of empty hogsheads. Volume like that just doesn't happen any more I suppose.

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    13. Actually, my view is backed up by CAMRA's Revitalisation Report, which admits that “The volume of cask beer produced in the UK has collapsed drastically since CAMRA’s formation but has stabilised since 2010.”

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  11. You talk about a suspicion of cask being cut adrift for other reasons,but one thing not mentioned is the possibility of brewers cutting it adrift because it's easier to do keg. I have come across one brewer who when they realised some beer festivals had key keg fo example instantly turned round and looked at the casks and said'oh then I can get rid of that then'. On craft,yes spot on it cannot be categorised on size of brewery alone,that doesn't make sense,in terms of quality per se or anything else. Of course the early days when larger breweries were less interested in that part of the market were fine,giving small craft brewers a free run.But those days are over,and this is why the word runs into trouble.

    On a final front,provided there are over 800 brewers or so(and we are nearly double that) I don't think the cask supporters need to be fretting as much as they do,because some of the big number left will always specialise in cask,just as keg,just as beers in the wood now etc. I feel outside the consumer groups,all the internal industry musings are because of positioning. There is simply too much overall product for the size of the market,and many will inevitably sadly not survive. This is a great time to be a consumer,but remarkably tough for a producer given the fierce competition. -I seem to have broken every rule in the book by commenting on several issues,but there we go!

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  12. I agree that a spade should be called a spade, and if you call yourself a campaign for real ale, you should be a campaign for real ale. Nevertheless, there have been many big changes since CAMRA started. Surely one possible answer - which no one seems to mention - is for it to diversify and really 're-brand' itself, I mean by actually changing its name? To something like 'Campaign for British Beer, Pubs, and Bars'. Though possibly someone could come up with a better acronym!

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  13. Oh dear, little py pooed the bed last night.

    I keep telling him he shouldn't go drinking those murky craft beers, but will he listen?

    What a silly boy!

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  14. Whether I like it or not a huge measure of value in the current world is advertising. I am currently reading through a foot high stack of local CAMRA magazines. (Generously kept and filed by county for me. Individual will remain anonymous. Great reads of high quality I will add.) As I read through the magazines I amazed by the amount of advertising from pubs, brewers and others. These people would not place these ads if they did not believe there was a valuable market being reached. The fact the advertising exists is a testament that something of value is going on and there is a purpose to it.

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    1. Or, as good ale needs no bush, it could be a measure of desperation on the part of the advertisers

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    2. No, specious argument. Advertising is the first cost cut. Desperation is the limited hours...

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    3. i've not paid for half of the adverts ive placed because i didn't get invoiced

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