Saturday, 5 May 2018

The craft coup

Despite some high-profile flouncing, there’s little doubt that the general thrust of the Revitalisation Project was carried at the recent CAMRA AGM. The fact that one Special Resolution narrowly failed to pass isn’t, in practice, going to change anything that CAMRA actually does on the ground. But it’s worth reflecting on why CAMRA felt the need to “revitalise” itself in the first place.

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.

26 comments:

  1. How Revitalisation plays out will differ greatly between branches I predict, with some of the more modernist ones running far beyond what even the creators of the project intended, and the more traditionalist ones changing nothing that they do now, it being very hard to centrally direct volunteers to do something they don't want to.

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    1. Thus giving rise to widely diverging messages from different branches.

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    2. I think the analysis of Matt is spot on here and I am witnessing the very different approaches of different branches, with some of the more traditional ones quite disheartened.For me I feel also as in the post, that the organisations aims are drifting away from my personal objectives.As usual a well written piece and reflection.

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  2. Revitalisation was about attempting to save a declining campaign. Sure it has plenty of "members" but frankly most are customers. Those campaigning / volunteering are older people doing it out of nostalgia and to maintain social links they have built up through life and would miss. They want to keep the friends they made so keep doing the events that link them all up together.

    The clue is in the numbers. Record membership is record subs money but the funds are drying up? So much that they are cutting costs on what the members get posted? Eh? How does that work? It works like that because ever fewer people have interest in beer festivals or beer guides.

    Both were campaigning tools back in the day. They were about spreading the enthusiasm and knowledge to more drinkers. Now they are no longer needed as such due to multi beer pubs, spoons & free internet info they are in decline. They are only kept going because of the revenue, a sorry reason if ever there was one.

    They hoped "Revitalisation" would spur a new generation of beer enthusiasts to sign up and keep it going. That's all it ever was. Now you gotta sit back and see whether it works or whether it was bandwagon jumping after the wagon passed.

    I hope the former. The beards are great. I hope they continue. Beer geekery would be a poorer and less fun playground without them.

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    1. Just being curious, I'd like to know how many CAMRA members are also steam locomotive preservationists, Morris dancers, and battle re-enactors.

      It might confirm or disprove a hunch that I have.

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    2. Mudge's comparison with steamers, superficially attractive as it is, is - IMHO- deeply flawed in that very few steamers would want to see steam traction become the mainstay of the railways again. They are content to travel in 100mph+ electric trains to get to an occasional nostalgia trip.

      Had CAMRA developed that way we would be enjoying keg beer most of the time and taking the odd weekend trip to Tadcaster or wherever to taste real ale making comments like "they don't make beer like this anymore"

      Liking and preserving old things is very different to defending a tradition. I, for instance, am very interested in old textile machinery but I wouldn't want to reintroduce the factory system in which they were used.

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    3. A very nice reply Cookie,
      I do hope that you and Peter get what you both like out of Camra,i would hate to see the craft lot hijacking Camra.

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    4. @Alan Fearns - especially in the early years, there would be a huge overlap between membership of CAMRA and involvement in things like steam preservation and canal restoration. They arise from the same wellspring of sentiment.

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    5. David essentially describes the situation in the US, Canada, Australia, NZ etc. (and, slightly differently, in Germany and Czechia).

      In these places cask beer survives as a non-mainstream curio or an occasional regional speciality - but keg is very much the norm and there is little appetite for challenging that. The idea of anybody drinking only cask would indeed be as odd as somebody who only travelled by steam locomotive or veteran car.

      I suspect there are a lot of brewers and drinkers who would happily have it thus in the UK too.

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    6. The other Mudgie !6 May 2018 at 19:56

      CL,
      Yes, indeed.
      Tim Page has hoped "Revitalisation" would spur a new generation of beer enthusiasts to sign up and keep it going.
      I am reliably informed “It’s all Tim” and “it’s all about growth”, that’s the “growth” of CAMRA although I keenly await seeing new hipster “craft” drinkers helping out at beer festivals and on committees !

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  3. Nice post. You really sum things up with this statement "Surely all beers should be judged on their own intrinsic merits." This view is getting increasingly lost as people use their beer selection to define their social roles and status. A connection that makes beer much more than it was ever meant to be and much less than it can be. Beer is so simple to coin a phrase...

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    1. Aye. I don't know much about the beer scene but I knows what I likes!!
      (Which is generally old fashioned beers like Abbot and Pedigree, but with a nod to Belgium and the odd glass of craft keg)

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    2. "...you've known it all the time, I'm learning it these days"

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  4. Looking over the landscape of London it is easier to find craft keg than cask nowadays

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    1. That's not representative of the country as a whole though (like much else about London). Is it even true of London outside the North and South Circulars? We went round a humber of pubs in Northampton yesterday and, while most had some form of craft keg tap, in only one was it given more prominence than cask.

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    2. It's certainly not true of Greater London in its entirety - at least if we're talking about *all* cask but only a fairly narrow subset of keg. There are still a whole lot of 'ordinary pubs' for 'normal people' where there might be 2-3 mainstream cask beers available but nothing most people would consider to be craft keg.

      If, however, we phrase it 'it is easier to find craft keg than *craft* cask nowadays', I'd be inclined to agree!

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  5. It's interesting how quickly craft has become commonplace. As recently as five and a half years ago I could honestly write on my own blog, I don't have a problem with the existence of craft beer, including keg, and wouldn't refuse to try it, if I knew anywhere I could buy it, but the nearest place I'm aware of is in Manchester, 40 miles away. I expect there were closer places, but I didn't know them. Now I could name several pubs and bars just in Southport where I live.

    I have tried craft, and some of the beers are obviously carefully made and full of flavour, but I find them to be like drinking bottled beer, which is very much second best for me.

    In the short term, I don't think the resolutions passed at the CAMRA AGM will make much difference on the ground, but I'd hesitate to predict what may happen in the long term. I don't altogether dismiss the possibility that they may actually put the Campaign into decline - an unintended consequence if ever there was one.

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    1. Yes, the loss of clarity as to what CAMRA is actually *for* may well come back to bite it in the future.

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  6. "And now we have highly-regarded breweries like Beavertown, Cloudwater and Buxton who produce either no cask at all, or very little. "

    And yet, when these breweries first started out, they did indeed produce substantial quantities (as a % of output) of cask beer. So did Brewdog in fact.

    All of these successful breweries arguably got a leg-up from doing things the old-fashioned way. The cask way. The CAMRA way. Only once they reached a certain size and achieved a certain level of market recognition did they decide to about-turn on cask, in some cases very loudly and deliberately, effectively biting the hand that watered them.

    I didn't hear this argument made often enough during the debates around Revitalisation - why should CAMRA endorse those who actively rejected what CAMRA stands/stood for? It would represent a hostile takeover at best.

    The crack-smoothing guff about 'whilst still recognising cask ale as the pinnacle of the brewers art' is disingenuous and unworkable - if that was really the prevailing view, brewers that turn their back on cask would've already been called out and rebuked for doing so, not offered the hand of appeasement once they'd already told CAMRA to fuck off!

    Usual caveats, no dinosaurism, I regularly drink lots of craft keg etc. etc. etc.

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  7. Without being too fanciful one could compare what Beavertown, Cloudwater, Buxton and the like are doing now to what Watneys, Whitbread, John Smith were doing fifty odd years ago. Abandoning cask in favour of the much easier to handle keg and using their market recognition to persuade drinkers that keg is better.

    But fifty years drinkers rejected it and formed CAMRA. A CAMRA which now wishes to embrace the very keg it was formed to oppose.

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    1. But surely the only similarity is the ease of cellarage? The old keg beers were low quality and low taste whereas many of these small batch keg beers are generally brewed from top quality ingredients and quite tasty. But, accepting that they're sometimes quite tasty is different from embracing them because to do so would certainly mean accepting that real beer is just another style rather than a centuries old traditional method.

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    2. But, in the early days of CAMRA, most of the keg and pressurised beers were identical to cask ones in terms of recipe and production process. The only difference was that some were keg, and some were cask.

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    3. I remember back in 1964 when I turned 16 and started tasting beer (under strict supervision of course :-) my untutored palette much proffered the fashionable keg beers to the murky Tetley's bitter drunk by old men.

      More apposite, my father's - a discerning if modest beer drinker - complaint about Red Barrel was the price. I distinctly remember him exclaiming "I am not paying two shillings and fourpence for a pint of beer!" This when Tetley's bitter was one shilling and ten pence.


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  8. A well-reasoned post. I agree that different CAMRA branches have diverging ideas. The South Herts is very conservative about what it campaigns for, the mid-Chilterns branch is much more modern and they rub shoulders at the catchment edges. The results of the Rev Proj will won't alter that. A branch can really just book down to its chairman.

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  9. The other Mudgie !7 May 2018 at 18:25

    Peter,
    Can we expect a sequel, "The craft soup" dealing with those new "intentionally hazy" "craft" beers ?

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  10. CAMRA is very much part of the craft movement especially as it has been using the term regularly from at least the 2004 GBG, and also its endorsement of a particular keg beer in the 1990 GBG.

    So these divergent views have always been some part of CAMRA. The divergent did start to take a slaughtering, in my view, around the millennium when the cask only message was being driven through.

    Will revitalisation deliver new volunteers? I don't know but I think CAMRA needs to start advertising this problem. It needs to start putting signs up in festivals that volunteers are needed, or the festival/branch may fold.

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