For many years, CAMRA was the only game in town when it came to beer enthusiasm in the UK. Yes, it was accepted with varying degrees of enthusiasm that there were beers in other countries that weren’t real ale, but still qualified as “good”, but as far as this country was concerned, good beer and real ale were synonymous. However, it the early years of this century, this view was increasingly challenged by a new wave of craft brewers. The US craft beer movement had taken a great deal of inspiration from the real ale revival in the UK, but the nature of the US market meant that pretty much all draught beers were keg of some kind, not cask. Then the flow of ideas reversed direction, as British brewers drew inspiration from American craft beer to challenge what they saw as a fuddy-duddy real ale scene.
More and more, these beers were being produced in keg form. Perhaps the brewers wanted to reflect their American influences, perhaps they saw keg as offering a distinctly different flavour profile and drinking experience, perhaps they wanted to offer a wider range of draught beers that weren’t restricted by a short shelf-life. In some cases, undoubtedly, it was seen as a way of cocking a snook at CAMRA. But, for whatever reason, for the first time in thirty years, there was innovative, small-batch beer in the UK that wasn’t cask. Initially, this started with breweries like Lovibonds and Meantime that barely registered on the overall radar. But then it was enthusiastically taken up by BrewDog, a key element of whose schtick was having a go at CAMRA and the culture it represented. And now we have highly-regarded breweries like Beavertown, Cloudwater and Buxton who produce either no cask at all, or very little.
Initially, CAMRA’s reaction was to set is face firmly against this trend. A few years ago, the then Chairman, Colin Valentine, said “We decide what we will campaign for, not the bloggerati, and while I have anything to do with it, we will remain the Campaign for Real Ale,” and urged the craft keg enthiusiasts to go away and form their own organisation. However, as more and more members of CAMRA were seeking out and drinking this new, innovative keg beer, this stance came to be portrayed as dogmatic and stick-in-the-mud. Surely CAMRA should embrace this new world of beer rather than shunning it.
Hence the genesis of the Revitalisation Project, from which arose the report that stated:
There has been a blurring of boundaries. There is no doubt that, on the market today, there exist some keg and other non-cask beers that are high-quality products – brewed with first-class ingredients, often matured over long periods, unfiltered and unpasteurised. Some of these products, by most measures, are far superior to some of the lower-quality, mass-produced cask beer common in pubs – some of which, it is alleged, may be subject to very minimal, if any, secondary fermentation despite being marketed as real ale.And this was the gist of Revitalisation – that CAMRA should at least to some extent, recognise these “high-quality” non-cask beers rather than simply pretending they don’t exist. This has been accepted, at least implicitly, by the changes in objectives that stemmed from the project. At the same time there was a growing willingness to dismiss many of the beers than CAMRA had enthusiastically championed in its early years, especially if they were produced by substantial companies and enjoyed wide distribution. They were sneeringly lumped together as “boring brown beers”.
So, in a sense, what has happened is a kind of coup by the British craft beer movement. Rather than setting up its own organisation, it has succeeded in capturing CAMRA and turning it into something very different from what it originally set out to be. It isn’t an engagement with the wider beer world of lager and premium bottled ales, it’s a concession to a narrow but vocal craft lobby. And, looking across the overall pub landscape, how much penetration does “craft keg” achieve anyway? What is hard to deny is that what CAMRA actually stands for has become much vaguer. It’s half real ale and half “all good beer”, however defined.
The craft beer movement is also far more snobbish and élitist than CAMRA ever was in its early days. While CAMRA was keen to criticise the market dominance of the “Big Six”, and many of their policies, it always accepted that they did produce some excellent real ales. But, to listen to many craft beer enthusiasts, once a brewery has sold out to one of the global giants, it has gone forever and its products are no longer worthy of recognition. They have become “macro craft” and a kind of fraud on the consumer. And this exposes another flaw in the case for craft – you can define real ale, but “craft” means whatever you choose it to mean. Surely all beers should be judged on their own intrinsic merits regardless of the size of the company that produces them. Small isn’t intrinsically good; big isn’t intrinsically bad.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a blogpost in which I drew a distinction between those things you buy or use as a consumer, and those you are actively interested in as a leisure pursuit. The fact that you’re not actually interested in something doesn’t mean you’re against it. Many people still seem to struggle to grasp this point.
My view of CAMRA has always been essentially a traditionalist one, seeing its prime purpose as preserving and championing a unique and distinctive British tradition – cask beer, the breweries that produce it and the pubs that sell it. I’m not against craft beers and trendy bars, and may occasionally drink or visit them as a consumer, but they’re no more something I wish to pursue as a leisure interest than gin or dance music. CAMRA is a broad church, and contains many different threads of enthusiasm. But it has to be said that, following the recent vote, its overall vision and ethos aligns less well with my own personal interests than it did before.