Sunday 14 November 2010

Baby and bathwater

There has been a huge kerfuffle in the beer blogosphere in the past week or so about the role of CAMRA and whether it shoots itself in the foot by defining good beer too narrowly. The charge was led by Pete Brown, eloquently backed up by the Zythophile, and their charges were passionately rebuffed by Tandleman. Now, I will happily place myself in the “revisionist” camp, but my complaint really is not that CAMRA defines what it campaigns for too narrowly, but that, all too often, it seeks to campaign against anything that isn’t “real ale”.

My personal view is that, while I am happy to support “real ale”, as the supreme exposition of British draught beer, it is a definition that doesn’t extend beyond that sphere, and there are many other quality beers in the world that don’t conform to that definition. And even, on occasions, I might drink a pint of cooking lager, and will regard it as a refreshing, rather bland, industrial product, and not some kind of vile filth.

Tandleman says “CAMRA is a broad church, but it actually the moderates that prevail. These are the guys you bump into in Bamberg, Brussels and Prague, or at the Great American Beer Festival, or wherever. They seek out beers to enjoy whatever the provenance and are comfortable with being CAMRA members and the odd dichotomy.” That is true of Tandleman, of my local CAMRA branch chairman, of most of the beer bloggers, and of many CAMRA members I know. But it is far less dominant than he suggests, and it is all too common to see the old unreconstructed attitudes surface – not least in the opinions of the most prolific contributor to the CAMRA web forum. The generalised “campaign against lager” and the broad-brush view that bottle-conditioned bottled beers are without exception far superior to their brewery-conditioned counterparts are two prime examples of this. And, regrettably, while it is often ignored at the coal face, these things are enshrined in CAMRA’s official policies.

More worrying, though, is the attitude expressed by one respondent to Pete Brown’s post:

As I've mentioned recently elsewhere (mainly Twitter & other blogs) I think that there's an argument for CAMRA to tighten or at least clarify its definition of what is 'real'.

To my mind, the campaign was launched to try to preserve good British beer, made with decent ingredients, by a quality brewery & beers that had not been overly processed.

For me, there are now many beers that are classed by CAMRA as 'real' that don't fit with various parts of that broad description (& some that do, but aren't classed as being real!).
Is that likely to lead to a redefinition of “real ale” as stuff produced by obscure small breweries and consumed by pretentious middle-class tossers?

Surely two of the great virtues of “real ale” are that it has a crystal clear definition, and that it is something that is available to ordinary drinkers in ordinary pubs.

The risk from that approach is that you may end up casting aside the brews upon which the real ale revival was founded, such as Wadworth’s 6X, Marston’s Pedigree and Greene King Abbot Ale, and that you also end up casting aside the pub in favour of the specialist urban yuppie craft beer bar.

I have no problem with CAMRA being a campaign for “real ale”. I have no problem with the definition. I just wish it didn’t, so often, present itself as a campaign against all other forms of beer. Does the Alfa Romeo Owners’ Club oppose all other marques of car? I don’t think so. Why not say “We like beer, full stop. But British draught real ale is something very special that is worthy of campaigning for”?


  1. As a CAMRA member for about 26 years, I'm happy with the definition as it stands. It cannot stand for the quality keg beers that I occasionally read about on blogs but never come across in real life, even though my drinking is not confined to one pub or even one town. I suggest a new term for such a product; "craft keg" would seem to fit the bill.

    Both Pete Brown and you report coming across prejudiced CAMRA dinosaurs who demonstrate bad manners by insulting other people's drinks. I never seem to meet them, even though I drink with CAMRA members from several branches. In my experience, the bigots are few and far between.

    As Tandleman pointed out, choice is one of CAMRA's aims. Members who denigrate beers they don't like are thus not acting in accordance with those aims. It's therefore a good job there aren't many of them.

  2. If you look at CAMRA publications, there still are far too many generalised denunciations of lager, as such, and of brewery-conditioned bottles. It's not just a few dinosaurs.

    Our local CAMRA magazine "Opening Times" is an honourable and laudable exception to this - well done to the editor :-)

    Let me give an example - yesterday I attended a non beer related function at a Beefeater/Premier Inn. I was staying overnight so didn't need to curb my alcohol consumption, although in the context getting ratarsed wouldn't have been good form.

    At lunchtime, there were a couple of handpumps that were turned round. So I had a couple of pints of cooking lager - Carling and Beck's Vier. It was pleasant and refreshing, no more. Ironically, I thought the Carling was better than the Beck's, even though the latter was 20p more for a pint.

    In the evening, they put the 6X on, and very good it was, far better than cooking lager. From that example, Good Beer Guide standard.

    In a British context, good real ale is always better than keg or cooking lager. But keg or cooking lager are still far better than Coke ;-)

  3. I've never met a 'CAMRA dinosaur' either but I guess they must be out there are as a few people seem to have been wound up by them.

    I can see the point about not campaigning against other forms of beer but I think people like to have an enemy to hate, I've seen such things in few non-beer related areas.

  4. Is that likely to lead to a redefinition of “real ale” as stuff produced by obscure small breweries and consumed by pretentious middle-class tossers?

    I've been dancing around saying something like this in various comments sections for the last week - thanks for spelling it out!

  5. Did CAMRA's Technical Advisory Group sign off on FastCask, and are TAG's decision subject to ratification anywhere within the CAMRA structure?

    Your step back gives us a thoughtful counterpoint to the various views. Nice one Mudgie 8-)

  6. I don't think CAMRA will ever change there definition of 'real ale' and to be honest they probably shouldn't. maybe it's time for a new group - CAMRB - the campaign for 'real beer'. I think they shoot themselves in the foot nowadays by limiting themselves to only one 'style' of beer.

  7. What would 'real' mean, though? As I said over on Dredge's blog, any alternative definition would end up being a Campaign For The Kind Of Beer My Mates And I Like (And Not The Kind We Don't) - hardly an improvement!

  8. Yes, Phil, precisely my point. How can anyone define "craft beer" in any kind of waterproof way?

  9. "In a British context, good real ale is always better than keg or cooking lager. But keg or cooking lager are still far better than Coke"

    In your opinion. Whilst I'm a lover of real ale and tend to agree with you, I know many friends who'd argue the exact opposite. And it's not just perception, they've tried real ale with me and don't like it as much as lager, or coke for that matter.

  10. Mudgie

    I hardly think that Richard English is representative of anyone but himself. He is unreconstructed and always has been though I only know him from his internet rantings. I'd still say "so what?" Name some others and where to find them?

    And the "campaign against lager" (whose?) is NOT enshrined in any CAMRA policy.

    I like your reference to pretentious middle class tossers though.

  11. For my money, my favourite bit of Dicky English logic was Pete Browns earlier critic of CAMRA and the culture of entitlement vis a vis asking for discounts. Without sense of shame, Dicky made the point that those that had incurred the wrath of Pete Brown were in fact pretending to be CAMRA members.

    I love Dicky, he's the best bit of the CAMRA forum. More power to him. I have come to the conclusion that he isn't typical of your beer club, but he is vocal enough to make a strong impression of it.

    Without Dickie I doubt the Campaign for cooking lager would even have coined the term pongy ale.

  12. The CAMRA publication I edit never criticises lager or non-real ales. The magazine is distributed in pubs for anyone to read; most readers aren't CAMRA members - many not even real ale drinkers. I'm not going to persuade them to try cask ale by insulting what they're drinking.

    I also read as many other CAMRA local mags I can get my hands on in the hope I might pick up useful ideas. I simply don't see this ranting bias that you seem to come across so often.

    I can think of only one explanation. You and Pete Brown share a similar characteristic: you both generalise from isolated incidents. As a result I find this unconvincing because your reported experiences and his are so seriously at odds with mine.

  13. Just looked at the CAMRA forum - ta for the link Mudgie. It is umm......interesting and I can see why Cookie likes it so much. Such polite CAMRA people who seemingly don't notice they are having their plonkers pulled.

    Oh and Richard. He is priceless.


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