Thursday, 15 March 2018

Decision day

Last month, I wrote about CAMRA’s Revitalisation proposals in a post entitled Stick to the knitting, and expressed a considerable degree of scepticism about the project. I said: “We haven’t had sight of the precise wording of the motions yet. But my feeling is that I will be strongly inclined to vote against the main thrust of the revitalisation project. If you care about the protection of our beer, brewing and pub heritage, I would urge you to do likewise.”

The latest issue of What’s Brewing has now landed on my doormat complete with the full text of the ten Special Resolutions. Now, I don’t propose to bore the general readership with the fine detail – if you’re a member of CAMRA you’ll have the information anyway. Some of them have more merit than others, but I have to say my conclusion is just to vote the “straight ticket” and oppose the lot, as a general rejection of the principles of Revitalisation. Some might criticise this as a “scorched earth” policy, but all it does is to retain the status quo. Hopefully, if the proposals don’t pass, it will give the leadership the opportunity to formulate something that clarifies the organisation’s aims and objectives without needlessly antagonising substantial sections of the membership.

A further problem is that the proposals have been presented in a totally one-sided way, with no opportunity for any arguments against them to be circulated to the general membership. Surely this goes completely against the spirit of democracy. Would this be remotely acceptable for a national referendum on a major political issue?

As I said before, the exercise has created a considerable amount of ill-feeling, with harsh words being exchanged on CAMRA’s Discourse forum and bats being taken home. It is proving extremely divisive, and the risk is that, whatever the outcome, it will leave the organisation permanently diminished. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the whole thing represents pandering to a British craft beer lobby that initially set itself up in opposition to the perceived out-of-touch and old-fashioned attitude of CAMRA. And, at a time when real ale is under threat from multiple directions, shouldn’t the organisation be focusing on its core purpose rather than “embracing” competitor products?

But we will have to wait and see how events unfold in Coventry on Saturday 21 April before we know what the end result is.

56 comments:

  1. Change or Die.

    Death it is, then.

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    1. There are fates worse than death. Such as being a member of CAMRA

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    2. Some people would perhaps like it to be a two-way choice? As for lager, well, "Harp. Stay sharp. To the bottom of the glarp". HH

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  2. I have yet to read through the Special Resolutions, but I intend doing so at the weekend. I shall then vote accordingly.

    Odd that the Revitalisation Project should be proving so divisive; but strangely reminiscent of another issue which has split the entire country!

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    1. Ooh, a little bit of off-topic political axe-grinding there...

      But at least with that were were presented with both sides of the argument.

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    2. The comparison is strained. This is a members-only vote, and all have a clear understanding as to what the organisation is. The difference from the allusion on that point could not be more profound.

      For my money, (I'm not a member) all that is perhaps needed is a name change, to The Real Ale Preservation Society. HH

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  3. I have read the resolutions and it is clear that the aim is to overhaul the main objects of a 40+ year old company to make them more relevant to its place in modern society and to reflect how the aims of the company have changed,for example incorporating a reference to cider and altering the emphasis of its objectives for campaigning for pubs from the retention of traditional facilities to promoting pubs as part of the UK cultural heritage. The explanatory notes provide information as to the reasons for such changes and on the basis that the proposers wish to keep the company alive and its campaigning objectives relevant it is difficult to see how an argument can be presented against the proposals other than on the basis that life and society is unchanged since 1972 and there is no need for change. An informed and relevant argument against the proposals is difficult to present,the position is unlike,for example the referendum to leave the EU where informed arguments for both sides could be presented

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    1. "An informed and relevant argument against the proposals is difficult to present"

      Well, I've tried to do that in several posts over the past couple of months. Refusing to acknowledge that there is a legitimate counter-argument comes across as distinctly arrogant - rather like the diehead Remainers, in fact.

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    2. That analysis would be apposite if we were talking about a company: an organisation designed to make money for its investors. In the early 20th century a company making fittings for hackney cabs could only survive if it revitalised into a company making parts for motor cars.

      But we are talking about a campaigning organisation not a company. And an organisation at that time campaigning for the welfare of cab horses would have great difficulty in revitalising without a major change in its objectives, perhaps to campaigning for the welfare of race-horses. But such a change would alienate a lot of its supporters.

      And CAMRA seems to be facing a similar problem. Its raison d'etre - ensuring that real ale is widely available - has gone and if it wants to do a different job it would be better for it change its name and start again. Though it is doubtful how many members would cross over.

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    3. I don't agree that it can be said CAMRA's purpose has been achieved. As I said in the earlier post I linked to,

      "The absolute amount of real ale sold now is far less than it was when CAMRA was formed. The only places where real ale can exist - pubs and clubs - continue to close at an alarming rate. And there are plenty of “real ale deserts”, often in places where, thirty or forty years ago, many of the pubs sold real ale. So there’s still plenty of work to be done without diluting the message. Arguably the biggest threat to real ale’s future is complacency."

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    4. I have re-read your earlier post,if you look at the proposed amendments as a whole it is apparent that the aim is to secure the long term future of real ale,cider and perry by engaging with as broad a cross section of the drinking public as possible. Your earlier post supports this aim as it seeks to focus on not diluting the primary message of securing the long term future of real ale. The proposers of the amendments have exactly the same goals as set out in your earlier post and have in the remainder of the amendments set out the way in which they seek to achieve their goal. Whilst I do not wish to appear rude I believe that your earlier post does not present a counter argument as it refers to the same principal aim of securing the long term future of real ale,it is for this reason that I referred to the difficulties of preparing a counter argument.

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    5. The other Mudgie !16 March 2018 at 13:22

      Including a couple of sensible resolutions such as "incorporating a reference to cider" makes it more likely that many inactive members will just vote in advance for all ten Special Resolutions but if a Campaign for Real Ale effectively becomes the Beers That We Like Appreciation Society there will be no going back.
      Michael Hardman at a revitalisation meeting recently observed that only two out of sixty attending were under thirty years old and said that was why we needed change but I can hardly believe that people seriously think that youngsters will start joining CAMRA just because we tell them that there's now nothing wrong with the expensive trendy beers they choose to drink.

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    6. Yes, as I wrote here, the idea that Revitalisation will attract a new crop of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed new young active members is a very questionable assumption. Even Rob Nicholson seems to have accepted that it's not a magic bullet.

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    7. @John Lamb - well, I believe I've set out a coherent argument against the Revitalisation proposals over several posts. If you don't think they fit the bill, then it suggests you're not particularly receptive to the argument in the first place.

      Also don't forget that there is a lot about Revitalisation that is not made explicit in the Special Resolutions. In particular the move to in some way "embrace" non-real "quality beers", however defined, which opens up a whole can of worms. When combined with the desire to cut adrift "low-quality, mass-produced" cask beers it comes across as an agenda to cut CAMRA off from its roots and turn it into a rarefied beer snobs' club.

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    8. >Even Rob Nicholson seems to have accepted that it's not a magic bullet: I think you'll find I've never said it's a magic bullet (although I really mean silver bullet as in killing the werewolf) and has always carried risk of not working & causing a small number of (very vocal) active members to leave - possibly accelerating the demise of the branches - which is going to happen anyway unless we can find the real silver bullet of a new generation of volunteers to keep going for the next 40 years. Although personally I think that all CAMRA really needs is an operational & structural revitalisation - which might also happens when the branches collapse.

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    9. @Rob Nicholson - but you certainly have argued that one justification for Revitalisation is as a means of addressing the decline in activism, whereas I would contend that this is largely due to wider social factors rather than CAMRA's campaigning stance becoming "out-of-date". Realistically, it's probably inevitable that in the coming years it will become more of a top-down organisation rather than one based on local activism. This may make some of its current activities unsustainable.

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  4. Only absolute head in the sand idiots - or those that never venture further than their multi tap urban freehouse would think that the future of real ale is won. It absolutely is not the case.

    You outline the bones of the case above. I could add more and except for mentioning the quality elephant in the room, I won't add to it. Still plenty to defend and campaign for, so if that is the argument, I won't be supporting it.

    There is a wider case though. I haven't entirely made my mind up yet.

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    1. Do you have a genuine fear that in, say, ten years time real ale will no longer be avaialable?
      And does the CAMRA revitalisation project go a ling way towards removing that fear?

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    2. there are places even now, today, where real ale isnt available, or that actually still resemble a picture from 40 years ago, so what the picture will look like in ten years time I dont think anyone can really claim to know for certain.

      I can see a perfect storm developing of major breweries chasing ever small margins trying to maximise their profitability and marginalising real ale or real ale drinkers as not profitable enough.

      fwiw my impression whilst sampling a few beers at the current Wetherspoons beer festival was that frankly it cant be very profitable for them, since even with a strong CAMRA member presence, the vast majority of people in a busy pub were still drinking Stella, or ordering jugs of cocktails, bottles of wine,very few were tackling their cask beers. Tim Martin isnt about to drop real ale from his pubs, but he equally isnt the kind of person who props up something that doesnt make him much money and isnt sentimental about those decisions either. a revitalised CAMRA that feels its happy promoting all beer & all pubs, and drops the vouchers, might make a decision for Wetherspoons to to curb their real ale lines more comfortable. I dont know and I think none of us do, which is the real fear.

      as for Michael Hardmans comment about the revitalisation meetings age profile, I think hes taking the wrong conclusion from it, the biggest issue has been location of them, none of the meetings have been held anything but near enough 8hr round trips for me to get to and frankly Ive better things to do with the only leisure down time I get at weekends than spending 8hrs travelling to another meeting, and Im sure that goes for alot of people of working age still

      fwiw Ill probably vote against all the special resolutions, whilst noting if special resolution 1 passes, but the rest fail, CAMRA will have no objectives left in its articles of association

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    3. I don't think that a cheap food chain such as Wetherspoons is a good barometer of the way the real ale trade is developing. My experience in local wet led pubs is that over half the sales are of cask ale.
      And, in my travels I have rarely found a town where real ales was not available. The biggest bar to my buying real ale is the reluctance of pubs to open except for a few hours in the evening.

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    4. I think you're right - real ale is almost everywhere, but there aren't many wet-led pubs left and their numbers are falling every day. Much of the widely available real ale isn't very good though, either when it left the brewery or because of the treatment it gets at the pub, or both.

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    5. @DCB - No, I don't see much chance of real ale disappearing entirely. But it's not hard to se a perfect storm of factors that could lead to a signficant reduction in availability. Currently it's seen as a must-have in any pub, especially food-oriented ones, seeking to attract outside custom. Weaken that link, maybe by promoting easy-to-keep craft kegs, and we could see a lot of retrenchment.

      Will Revitalisation make mich difference? Probably not. But by reducing the focus on cask beer it could make things a bit worse.

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    6. Is the number of wet led pubs really falling if you take into account the number of micro pubs that have opened in the last few years.
      I know that you don't like them and I have a few reservations myself but they are generally outlets for real ale and many of them seem to be thriving

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    7. Yes, virtually all the pub closures in towns like Stockport have been wet-led - Winters, Waterloo, Grapes, Florist etc. And, while there may be a handful micropubs, there's typically only one in each town, and they're not situated where the traditional pubs have closed.

      While there are fewer areas now where it's difficult to find *any* real ale, there remain substantial beer deserts in former industrial towns in the North of England and South Wales. Often in places like Runcorn where most pubs served it thirty years ago. Plus it's largely absent from Scotland away from the tourist trail.

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  5. I'm halfway there with you mate; i'll be voting against the proposals, but unfortunately i'll have to vote remain again in the next eu referendum, as soon as nick clegg gets round to organinising it ;0

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  6. I'm firmly of the opinion that CAMRA needs revitalisation, but not by widening the scope of the campaign. Far from it: by narrowing the focus onto quality real ales and real pubs alone.

    A good start would be the NE pointing out to local branches that their encouragement for pubs to keep a wide range of beers to satisfy their enthusiasm is actually doing the overall objective of the campaign more harm than any 'threat' from other beer types, and is actually opening the door to them when quality inevitably suffers in all but the busiest pubs. I think members forget that they form a tiny proportion of the drinking public and the enthusiast pubs they frequent are no way representative of the general trade where almost fake real ales like Doom Bar and other national 'blands' have a firm foothold - they're as much a threat to decent real ale as any craft keg.

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    1. Plenty to agree with there - improving the quality of real ale at the point of sale, throughout the week, needs to be given much more priority.

      But IMV most so-called "national blands" are actually pretty decent beers. Normal drinkers don't want to have their heads blown off by extreme flavours.

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    2. Aside from the usual suspects (Doom Bar, GK IPA etc) there are lots of good, tasty real ales that are eminently drinkable and don't have extreme flavours. But, they're just not trendy any more, especially where CAMRA are concerned, having effectively dumped the family brewers and even some of the longer-established micros.

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    3. It is ludicrous snobbery to refer to the products of the larger breweries as "bland" just because they maintain a sensible balance of malt and hops. Not everyone wants every pint of beer to be a "challenging experience".

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    4. It's neither ludicrous, snobbery or a sensible balance of malt and hops. The blandness in most nationally distributed cask beers comes from a deliberate policy of ensuring the flavour of these beers is as inoffensive as supermarket white bread. Full-flavoured but well balanced and anything but 'challenging' beers are widely available - Sam Smith's OBB? Or if that's too tasty, A nice Bateman's XB, or maybe a Hook Norton Bitter, Harveys, Taylors, the list goes on... and there are micros out there that actually make tasty balanced beer as well.

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    5. I cannot accept your description of a beer like Abbot or Pedigree as bland, unless I misunderstand the meaning of that word. I enjoy OBB and the other beers you mention but would not consider them so superior to Abbot or Pedigree or Landlord.

      The comparison with supermarket white bread is specious. The reason why "steam baked" sliced bread outsells handcrafted wholemeal granary bread (and the reason Wall's sausages outsell independent butcher's venison and sage sausages) is not because the purchaser prefers a bland and inoffensive product; it is because they are very much cheaper

      The same is not true of beer. Your so called bland beers are often more expensive than a hand crafted explosion of hops and are certainly always dearer than Sam's OBB

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    6. Apart from (arguably) Doom Bar I'm struggling to think which beers fall into this category of being bland and inoffensive.

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    7. Well the opposite of inoffensive is offensive which according to my OED means "disgusting, ill-smelling, nauseous, repulsive": not qualities I look for in a beer (or a loaf of bread come to that)

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    8. David C Brown, I said most. Pedigree and Abbot aren't at all bland although they've certainly been tuned down over the years. I think my comparison with supermarket bread is spot on. It's made from cheap ingredients in a process that generates an enormous margin. The reason national beers tend to be more expensive is down to marketing, not because they cost more to produce. Far from it.

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    9. So which amongst the Top Ten cask ales are "bland and inoffensive"?

      Doom Bar
      Greene King IPA
      London Pride
      Abbot Ale
      Deuchars IPA
      Pedigree
      Wainwright
      Landlord
      Tribute
      Old Speckled Hen

      And, as I've said many times in the past, the main factor determining price across the bar is the mark-up applied by the individual pub. Few cask beers can really command a price premium against others of similar strength on the next-door pump.

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    10. I reiterate. The comparison with bread is deeply flawed. Chorleywood process bread is cheap to make and it has little taste. But because it is cheap to make it sells at a low price so people on a budget buy it.

      Beer is not the same. None of those bland beers is made from cheap ingredients in a process that generates enormous margin. All cask ales cost very much the same to make but sell at prices totally unrelated to their production cost for reasons which 'mudge can explain.

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    11. All cask ales cost very much the same to make?! The economies of scale work massively in favour of large brewers. Try telling the owners of even a large micro that they can make beer for the same as, say, Marstons and they'll laugh, or cry, and even Small Brewers Duty Relief doesn't entirely make up for the differences.

      Mudge, all of those beers are inoffensive in that they don't taste of grapefruit or melons or whatever but since they became nationally available every one of them, with the exceptions of Landlord and Abbott, has had flavour dialled out and don't have anything like the character they had. Wainwright excepted because that's always been discreetly flavoured. Nothing wrong at all with any of them but they're just not what they were.

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    12. But something not being what it used to be doesn't mean it's no good. And I'd question that claim about Tribute, given that it's a relatively new beer.

      Plus the point has been widely made that perceptions of beers having their character dialled down may be a result to them often being given insufficient cellaring time.

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    13. Or, more likely, to ageing taste buds :-) :-)

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    14. Large brewers do have the economy of scale but they also have a higher cost of distribution. And since the cost of manufacture does not much influence either the wholesale or retail price the idea that big brewers are dumbing down their beers to save a few pennies is hard to believe.

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    15. Again, economy of scale works in national distribution: The bigger the distribution network the lower the cost of distribution per unit of beer so while their overall costs are much higher, they're less of a proportion of the wholesale cost of beer. And there's a point where it becomes more cost-effective to have K&N or DHL TradeTeam ship your containers around the country unless your fleet is of a comparable size, like Marstons. For smaller operators the choice to outsource isn't available because they can't offer the volume to the haulier, and when it boils down to a man in a van delivering a few dozen firkins, the cost to deliver per unit is far higher. Anyway, in any large-scale manufacturing process dumbing down ingredients to save a few pennies always adds up to actually saving hundreds of thousands or millions. Most breweries aren't interested in the retail price as long as they can get their wholesale price competitive to gain market volume, and (with the exception of Sam Smiths) if they have a tied estate they make a retail margin in addition to the wholesale margin so they can't lose.

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  7. The problem with the "national" brands is that they end up as the default choices in bars who really don't care about real ale at all, but which have to have them. I'm sure there are pubs in the South West that have still keep a perfectly fine pint of Doom Bar, having done so since it was first brewed. The fact a pub chain forces a manager in central London to stock it when he has no interest in it, and doesn't keep it well, helps nobody.
    The prevalence of modern cask beers which drop bright and can be sold in a matter of hours also hinders more traditional ales. I'm fairly sure most pubs keep as tight a cellar as possible these days, and beers which traditionally sat for weeks don't get that sort of tender loving care anymore.

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    1. Doom Bar has become a shit beer no matter how well it's kept. That's the problem with it. I remember when it was a great beer and then it was taken over and they promised nothing would change and hey presto... It's now bland tasteless dishwasher! I wish people would stop focusing on how well kept a beer is and maybe consider how good a beer is!

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    2. I have to say I struggle to find much to praise in Doom Bar, but I think that's an odd one out. All the other widely-distributed beers on this list, even GK IPA, can be enjoyable if well kept.

      And I'd strongly disagree with your last comment. Even the finest beer in the world is undrinkable slop if kept badly, and I'd say in choosing Good Beer Guide entries many CAMRA branches put too much emphasis on which beers a pub sells, or how many, rather than how well it keeps them

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    3. Just on that last point, my own Branch starts with NBSS scores gathered over the year, leavened with the number of scorers and number of scores. Then we will select say 6 out of the top 12 to go in the Guide

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    4. The other Mudgie !19 March 2018 at 09:07

      Doom Bar has never been one of my favourite beers but, well kept, I find it no worse than when drinking it on Cornish holidays in the ‘noughties, Sharps never being anything like as good as Skinners or St Austell.
      I certainly don’t consider “shit beer” or “bland tasteless dishwasher” to be appropriate descriptions of Doom Bar.

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    5. I've just had a pint of (flat) Doom Bar poured straight from the barrel at the Drapers Arms in Peterborough, a longstanding Spoons GBG entry. While not quite nectar (not enough takers while their fest is on) it was much drier than usual and rather pleasant. A miracle !

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    6. Treat yourself to a pint of Marble or Arbor or Dark Star or Oakham or Thornbridge and then tell me Doom Bar isn't bland and tasteless...

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    7. Doom Bar used to have depth and character. Now it is bland and boring. Maybe thats the point? It's all about the brand. Make something accessible and inoffensive and market the shit out if it and you are on to a winner? Fuck flavour. Fuck character. Profit. Profit. Profit. That's all that counts right?!

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    8. Err, I don't think the swearing really helps your argument there. In fact, given that it was posted at 00:18, your comment comes across as a touch "post-pub" ;-)

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    9. The other Mudgie !20 March 2018 at 14:38

      If the Revitalisation proposals were accepted CAMRA “would play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer” and I could then just imagine “Anonymous” going round his local pubs proclaiming that Doom Bar is “shit beer” and “bland tasteless dishwasher” but not offering an opinion on the Worthington or John Smiths smoothflow, er, that’s if “Anonymous” is actually a CAMRA member.

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    10. I believe the NE have now arranged for a large red bus to be stationed outside the University of Warwick next month, the side if which will be emblazoned with "Vote for Revitalisation and save CAMRA £350 million per week - all to be provided to members as Wetherspoons vouchers".

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  8. I've mostly voted against the proposals, even though I don't think they're particularly radical or interesting, on the basis that they'd make CAMRAs overall stance even more wishy-washy than it currently is and I see no benefit to that.

    I drink keg beers fairly regularly, not because I love their keginess, but because of the lack of cask choice and availability in these beer styles. It strikes me that the most likely real-world impact if the Revitalisation proposals are all passed, is that my current drinking reality would simply become CAMRA-endorsed.

    But I don't want that - I'd like CAMRA to be actively campaigning *for* cask so that I don't have to drink keg whenever I feel like a monster DIPA or a blueberry sour or a coffee bean Kolsch. Or indeed any beer from the increasing number of good breweries who have just stopped putting their beer into cask, of course...

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  9. As my children used to say "that was then, this is now "!

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  10. >Far from it: by narrowing the focus onto quality real ales and real pubs alone: you are aware that many CAMRA branches are struggling with volunteers to run the branch and without them, that CAMRA collapses in its current form? If you are, I ask the same question as I always ask - why will narrowing focus/back to basics will suddenly reverse this trend? See post above that changing equally isn't a guarantee that this decline will be abated.

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  11. The other Mudgie !21 March 2018 at 16:32

    Rob,
    Most of us realise there is no way of reversing the trend of a decline in active branch members.
    CAMRA telling youngsters that there’s now nothing wrong with “high-quality” pressurised beers wouldn’t get many of them joining and becoming active, certainly less than those leaving because it was no longer a proper Campaign for Real Ale.
    There is going to be a time when we must accept that CAMRA has had its day, and that could be very soon. Some might even argue that CAMRA had done what it had to do in its first ten years and some big ‘successes’ since then, such as the Beer Orders and Progressive Beer Duty, have NOT been in the interests of ‘the ordinary drinker’.
    The fundamental problem with the Revitalisation Project is that it has been all about the future of CAMRA with scarcely a thought about the future of Real Ale.

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