Thursday 6 May 2010

Diverging tracks

There’s been a right old ding-dong over at Pete Brown’s blog over what he perceives as the culture of entitlement in CAMRA. In the comments, CAMRA stalwart Roger Protz made the rather smug statement that:

The reason why CAMRA has 112,000 members, has the ear of government and is listened to with respect by all serious beer lovers as well as politicians and law makers, is that we have the muscle of a strong, growing and influential consumer movement that has saved Britain's unique beer style.
For a long time, this was broadly true, with little of interest taking place on the UK beer scene that fell outside the remit of CAMRA. But now things are changing with, for example, BrewDog having enjoyed great success which is mainly based on (non bottle-conditioned) bottled beers, and which owes relatively little to CAMRA. They’re even now talking about putting their beers in cans. We have a trade organisation for craft producers of British lagers. And more and more bars are putting high-quality imported beers (albeit keg) on draught – see my post about Pivo in York. CAMRA and “British beer enthusiasm” are becoming less and less synonymous by the day.

Campaigning for something can all too easily turn into campaigning against everything that doesn’t fit into that definition, resulting in a very blinkered view of the wider beer world. In particular, CAMRA has never really satisfactorily come to grips with the fact that other countries have different beer styles and traditions that fall well outside the concept of “real ale”. For me this was summed up many years ago by one individual dismissing a bottle of Kölsch – a classic German beer style and a top-fermenting one to boot – as “Europiss”.

I have to say, however, that amongst the various beer bloggers I have never encountered the dogmatic “four legs good, two legs bad” attitude that regrettably is still prevalent amongst many CAMRA members, including those in senior positions.

There’s more and more beer enthusiasm mushrooming outside CAMRA, and outside the range of what CAMRA officially approves of. If the organisation continues to plough the same hackneyed furrow it is going to look increasingly fuddy-duddy and out of touch. How can you energise a young person who likes drinking keg Duvel Green in a modern bar, and Punk IPA at home, if you’re telling her that these beers are unworthy of consideration?


  1. I think you may have as they say hit the nail on the head with your point about campaigning for something all too easily truning into campaigning against everything that doesn't fit the definition of "something" - Me, I realised that things were just "all gone completely wrong" when the worst of my two "locals", a truly wretched place where badly kept beer is served up in badly washed glasses by frankly disinterested staff, hung a big big banner outside which boasted "Find us in the Good Beer Guide!" Hm, I thought, what does that tell me about the Good Beer Guide?

  2. Although a CAMRA member of over 30 years standing, I couldn't agree with you more, Curmudgeon. Although CAMRA has achieved a great deal since its inception, there is a danger of it becoming side-lined if it is not careful by the welcome enthusiasm in all things beer that seems to be growing steadily.

    CAMRA should be embracing this trend and not worrying about dogmatic principles, such as whether pubs use cask breathers or not.

    ps. I read Pete Brown's Post with interest, and have commented myself on the issue raised.

  3. Stop being a CAMRA dissident and run for office. Turn the organisation you love into something that stands for what you believe in. Stop complaining and do something. That is not a criticism. It's encouragement. It's only beer, all of it is piss water.

  4. Spot on Mudgie.

    I heard that Colin Valentine couldn't see a time when 'the movement' took a view on whether it needed to change its outlook to include small brewers who don't brew mainly cask (I also heard he isn't personally fond of Marston's 'Fastcask'), so there'll likely continue to be this dogmatic tension.

    In the meantime, drinkers who know good beer, regardless of dispense, will leave them and their navel-gazing behind.

  5. Agreed. That's why I proposed the motion that called for a purpose review of CAMRA at the AGM.

    It was passed more or less without opposition. Maybe we are starting to push at an open door?

  6. It's a bit hard to see how CAMRA could engineer a "Clause Four Moment", and a lot of diehards would be dead against it. But surely the majority of its thoughtful members know that the proposition that no good beers exist that are not cask- or bottle-conditioned is indefensible nonsense.

  7. I truly thought this post would have some singing in it.

  8. As a former Labour Party member for many years, I can say the repeal of Clause 4 was something that many party members did not welcome. Okay, it was honoured in the breach more often than the observance, but its abolition signified the drift from political principle to political expediency, determined by spin doctors and focus groups.

    So Clause 4 isn't a good analogy for a renewal of CAMRA. In fact, more an analogy of why you're disaffected with CAMRA.

  9. The reason why Camra has 112,000 members is because they sign people up on direct debits and no one can ever be arsed to cancel the DD. It's entirely disinegenuous for Mr Protz to pretend otherwise.

    Does the US have an organisation like Camra? Does the US have a thriving beer scene? Is Camra necessary for a thriving UK beer scene? Discuss, using one side of the computer screen only.

    (Oh, and I've been a member of Camra for 33 years, I was once a branch chairman, I've known Roger Protz for about 30 years, and I've written for What's Brewing on a fair number of occasions too.)

  10. There are many people in CAMRA who fully apprciate the beer styles of other countries (and let's not forget, you're not much of a Belgian beer fan Mudgie) and can also appreciate "non-real" beer from the UK, the USA and elsewhere. I include myself in that category. At the same time I am happy to be a member of CAMRA and see no problem with that. I susupect many of the other enthusiasts for "non-real" beer you allude to may also be in CAMRA and enjoy cask beer as well. The two enthusiasms can sit side by side. This is only stating the bleedin' obvious.

    What I do fail to understand is why people think CAMRA should start promoting beers that are "non-real", be they bottled or draught. It's not what CAMRA is there to do - as Tandleman has said elsewhere, the clue is in the name. If there is a demand for these beers then they will thrive and prosper without CAMRA's involvement. AS for CAMRA being fuddy duddy and out of touch, you really should get out more I think - go into many very modern bars in central Manchester and yuo will see that cask ale is becoming the thing to drink - that's why places like Common, Black Dog Ballroom. 57 Thomas Street and Odd in Manchester's Northern Quarter sell the stuff.

    With 112,000 members (and so what if may join on DD - what organisation these days doesn't sign up members this way?) and cask ale being about the only growth category in the on-trade, CAMRA is hardly an organisation in crisis is it - despite sniping from a tiny number of beer bloggers who, as far as I can see, talk largely to themselves (as an aside it is not uncommon for some bloggers to bang on about what brewers say about CAMRA in private - you should hear what they've said to me about the beer blogosphere...).

    Yes, CAMRA is having a "fit for purpose" review but if you expect that to result in the organisation embracing "non-real" beer I think you are set to be disappointed. As I have said, no-one has produced a cogent argument as to why it should.

    In closing, can I suggest you finally lay to rest your old anecdote about Kolsch.It must be 10 years at least since you had that conversation and even at the time the individual concerned had a pretty good appraciation of some foreign beer you have little time for (Belgium again).

    And let's face it, if you are something of a hop head Kolsch can be perhaps a little too subtle. I have tried it several times and found it pleasant but dull - I guess it'd a beer style very much of its place and is best enjoyed at its point of origin than elsewhere.

  11. " should hear what they've said to me about the beer blogosphere"

    You should hear what some beer bloggers have said to me about the beer blogosphere......

  12. Ooh, I rattled your cage again there, Clarkey.

    Much of what you say is true, of course, especially the point that many of the enthusiasts for (and producers of) non-real craft beers are in fact CAMRA members.

    I agree there is no realistic prospect of CAMRA embracing non-real beers, but I would like to see it more openly accepting that (like wines and spirits) they are beyond its remit rather than clinging to the Manichean distinction between Good and Evil in beers.

    I have nothing against Belgian beers (indeed Duvel is one of my favourite beers) but some of its more esoteric manifestations do not float my boat.

    And the point about blogging is that, unlike professional journalism, it is not done for the benefit of an audience, it is essentially personal. So if people think it's crap, or pointless navel-gazing, that isn't a problem.

  13. Hal Bernstein8 May 2010 at 14:53

    "And the point about blogging is that, unlike professional journalism, it is not done for the benefit of an audience, it is essentially personal."

    If true, why not keep it as a journal in your desk?? You blog because you have ego, like all the rest.

  14. We blog so that we can have meaningful discussions like this.

  15. "I agree there is no realistic prospect of CAMRA embracing non-real beers, but I would like to see it more openly accepting that (like wines and spirits) they are beyond its remit rather than clinging to the Manichean distinction between Good and Evil in beers"

    You seem to be confusing CAMRA with its individual members. AS an organisation I don't think it has any particular view on this (I'll bring the internal policy document along the next time you are at a branch meeting so you can trawl through it and see). Indeed I think there is a tacit acceptance that they are beyond its remit, in which case I can't see where your problem lies.

    However I do agree that some individual members will have prehistoric views on this sort of thing - and let's face it, the membership of most organisations ranges from the traditionalists to the modernisers. I just don't think it fair to write off an entire organisation for the views of some of its individual members, and this was very much the underlying message of your original post, I think.

    Indeed looking back at your original message I am struck by your assertion:

    'CAMRA has never really satisfactorily come to grips with the fact that other countries have different beer styles and traditions that fall well outside the concept of “real ale”.' You justify this by a very ancient conversation you once had with a local CAMRA member of our acquaintance. You will have to do rather better than that to make your argument stand up - have you missed the foreign beer bars at many beer festivals?

    And finally...

    "So if people think it's crap, or pointless navel-gazing, that isn't a problem"

    Just as well, really.

  16. John, I am not writing off an entire organisation - as I'm sure you know - merely pointing ut that some aspects of beer enthusiasm are passing it by. CAMRA as a whole undoubtedly does far more good than bad, but it shouldn't be seen as above criticism.

    I am sure the internal policy document says what you say it says, but it remains all too common to see CAMRA publications talking of "converting people from lager" and making sneering references to "fizzy processed beer" which suggest that many people still perceive the beer world in terms of that Manichean struggle. You know there is one local publication (not OT) that is repeatedly guilty of that sort of thing.

    As you were asking (maybe not in this thread) my blog gets about 100 unique hits a day - I'm sure others such as Pete Brown and Tandleman get a lot more than that.

  17. John C - 'if you expect that to result in the organisation embracing "non-real" beer I think you are set to be disappointed.'

    If Camra can't officially recognise that there is more to good beer than cask ale, excellent though cask ale is, then it's doing more harm than good.

  18. I think CAMRA could do that without compromising its core commitment to cask beer. After all, that's what most of its more sensible members (including John C) believe.

  19. My problem with CAMRA as an organisation, rather than with some CAMRA members I serve regularly, is that they supported minimum pricing.

    One of the things I value most about my job is that if someone deserves it I can show up with a firkin and say thank-you to them. With minimum pricing, I would no longer be allowed to give my beer away, and that annoys me because it's very valuable to a publican to have that capacity. The law is aimed at supermarket promotions, but will miss because they have lawyers who are very good at dodging; instead it will limit my choices, and that's counterproductive.

    It's a big-corporate law, and I'm a small-freehouse publican. CAMRA have started talking at the organisational level as though they were on the same side as the big corporate brewers they were invented to protect us from. Perils of success and all that.

    Like any organisation, branch makes a difference. My current CAMRA branch are great. They've done a lot to help my previous employer (and then me) develop a significant real ale pub in Hackney Central.

    Where I'm moving to (should have moved yesterday; lawyer wrangling is problematic) the local branch is ... semi-invisible, at least from the POV of the internet. 600 yards away is a different county, a different branch and a vast amount more activity and visibility. And I'm still going to join my local branch.

    Because then I can try and get it working as well as its neighbour. Because I think the campaign for real ale is worth supporting, even if I think the CAMpaign for Real Ale has a rectocephalic problem at times.

    {continued next comment due to char limit}

  20. WRT the great lager debate, it appears to be about the exact definition of 'real'. Wrt ale, that means 'cask'. Wrt lager, that probably doesn't; to me, 'real' means traditionally brewed to craft standards. Vitis Wines' Tournament is a 'real' mead by that definition; Lindisfarne's tourist offering not so much.

    Surely CAMRA members could support real lagers, such as Freedom's offerings or Taddington's Moravka. They're craft-brewed, un-pasteurised, and they certainly taste great. I don't like lager as a type, I drink very little that fizzes of any sort, and I still drink them as well as serving them. By comparison, a number of imported lagers are masturbation in a canoe [1]. And for me, one of the most important things about them is that they're brewed in Britain.

    I will admit to wearing sandals from time to time, and I do have a beard. I care about British, craft-brewed beers. Personally, this is because they taste good, and partly because it's a good move for our economy to be producing independent, quality products locally, selling them domestically, and then exporting them internationally.

    Politically I care because I want the beer I sell to travel as little distance as possible before installation in my customers. As soon as I can learn how and get some kit I intend to brew on site. Longer-term, my ideal is to grow the barley and hops on my brewing site as well. I believe in British brews [2] because I live in Britain and value British products. I believe in craft beer because it's higher quality, more creative, brewed with love, and just tastes better. When I drink beer it's nearly always real ale. But I also love to sell, and drink, real ciders and craft lagers.

    Where CAMRA has failed to represent me as an organisation, and lost the interest of many new real-ale drinkers who're under 40, is in recognising that what needs promoting and protection is quality British craft brews. Whether they're ale, lager or mead, Gloucester ciders, Kent wines, new London gins... As a publican and as a drinker, I support British craft brewing (and distilling). I can't see why the beer egos cannot co-operate as well as our politicians are trying to.

    Let's have CAMRA at its best; promoting a vigorous and creative craft-brewed ale market. Lets have LOBI doing the same for craft-brewed lager, be it keg lager or cask. And lets have them working together to promote British craft-quality booze. That can only be a good thing.

    [1] fucking close to water only less so, and you wake up alone and sticky.

    [2] Hmmm, accidental slogan there.

  21. Very thoughtful and stimulating comments, John - worth putting up as a post on your blog, maybe?


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