Wednesday 7 October 2015

Turning the Page

Last year, Mike Benner left his post as Chief Executive of CAMRA to move across to SIBA. Mike was (and is) a very able and articulate chap and a compelling speaker. To replace him, CAMRA appointed Tim Page, a former Army officer who had extensive experience in other not-for-profit organisations, but wasn’t a beer industry veteran. He’s a rather avuncular-looking, middle-aged chap, and many people’s expectations were that he’d be someone who would keep things ticking over without unduly rocking the boat.

However, he seems to be made of sterner stuff, and has launched a “Revitalisation Project” which aims to take a root-and-branch review of CAMRA’s strategies, structures and organisation. A few years ago, there was a “Fit for Purpose Review” following a conference motion by two Greater Manchester members, but unfortunately this ended up just looking at internal processes and did not address the wider issues.

CAMRA now has a record number of members, but is assailed by doubts as to what its purpose is in the current beer world, and concerns about the ageing profile of active members, and lack of engagement of younger ones. I’ve been a member for 34 years, and a life member for most of that time, so obviously it’s something I’m concerned about, even if at times I have been critical of some of its stances.

So here are my thoughts as to what Tim’s review should address:

  • Produce a clear definition of what CAMRA actually stands for in 2015. “An organisation that campaigns for quality beer, consumer rights, pubgoing and the preservation of our pub heritage, with particular reference to the unique British tradition of cask-conditioning.” Doesn’t trip off the tongue, but that’s basically what it’s about.

  • Lance the boil of the cask vs keg dichotomy. There isn’t really a Manichean divide between good and bad beer, and most members recognise this. While accepting the primacy of cask-conditioned draught beer, CAMRA spokespeople and publications should be permitted to recognise merit in “non-real” beers. The motion against banning “anti-campaigns” was a start, but doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

  • Scrap the dogmatic championing of bottle-conditioned beers. When this policy was originated, bottle-conditioned beers were a tiny, irrelevant market sector. But drawing a direct parallel with cask vs keg is completely inappropriate. Yes, for the best, high-quality, strong bottled beers, bottle-conditioning is preferable, but for ordinary quaffing beers it just introduces uncertainty. This policy is a significant deterrent to the development of a thriving British bottled beer sector.

  • Return to putting more emphasis on pubs and pub preservation. This was a key plank of the original CAMRA, but seems to have been left behind in the current craze for new breweries and bars. But the National Inventory is one of CAMRA’s greatest achievements, and will endure when all the railway arch brewers have gone to the great mash tun in the sky. Create a spin-off organisation of “Friends of Historic Pubs”, possibly in conjunction with the National Trust. Also set up a register of the “next 5000” which still retain a broadly traditional layout and character.

  • But, on the other hand, accept that greedy pubcos and lax planning controls are not major causes of pub decline – it’s basically a matter of demand. This is a false narrative that allows people to hide behind a smokescreen, and in reality is damaging to the cause of pubs. Market Rent Option won’t remotely save the pub trade, and things like ACVs, while they may be useful in a local context, will make scarcely any difference to the overall picture.

  • Mount a much stronger challenge to the anti-drink lobby. This has been agreed at Conference in the past, but little seems to have happened. Going forward, this is far more of a threat than the big brewers and pubcos. But a problem is that many CAMRA members, despite campaigning for a “fun” product, are instinctively puritanical. The people who advocate banning McDonalds and taxing sugar are really not on your side. Unfortunately this may involve making common cause with campaigners who have been vocal opponents of the s*****g b*n.

  • Place a much higher emphasis on beer quality in pubs. This may seem obvious, but in recent years CAMRA seems to have been far keener to cheer on the expansion of handpump numbers in pubs and the ever-burgeoning number of breweries. Quality and quantity aren’t mutually exclusive, but if you have to choose one, it must always be quality. Too many pubs are serving up tired beer because they are stocking too many. There also seem to be more novice licensees who don’t seem to understand the basics. Maybe there needs to be a big roll-out of basic beer tasting courses amongst regular NBSS scorers.

  • Sort out CAMRA’s relationship with cider. I’m not suggesting CAMRA should turn its back on cider, but APPLE often seem to be ploughing their own furrow with no reference to CAMRA’s wider aims. Cider is an entirely different drink from beer, and the definition of “real cider” is far more picky and obscurantist than that for “real beer”. And real cider never seems to have gained much traction in pubs. Every new family dining pub has three or four handpumps for cask beer, but none for real cider.

  • Take a serious review of membership activation, going back to basic principles. While CAMRA has a record membership, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in active local members, and many branches report a dwindling number of ageing activists. The way many branches operate still seems to be rooted in the 1970s, so could things be improved by a reshaping? Or do younger members simply not like any kind of organised events? Given its current membership level, CAMRA isn’t going to disappear any day soon, but at the end of the day it may need to look at becoming primarily a national campaigning organisation supported by local branches where they exist, as opposed to something that is essentially based on its branch structure.
There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm out there for beer and pubs, and the challenge for CAMRA is to harness that without unnecessarily alienating people. It also has to be recognised that different people will have different priorities within the overall organisation.


  1. How about increasing the number of spoons tokens?

  2. Allow people to use Spoons tokens for cans of Bengali Tiger and Crisp. Or maybe just for a nice pot of tea. That's what my mum usually wants in Spoons.

  3. They could at least allow you to use them for the meal deals.

    But remember the tokens are funded by Spoons, not CAMRA.

    It's not something I get particularly exercised about, but a lot of people feel that CAMRA should not be getting in to bed with commercial operators in this way as it could compromise their independence.

  4. Not surprising and I've said the same directly to Tim but this is the single most important initiative in CAMRA for a long time and just in the nick of time before our branch collapses due to apathy.

    The list here is a great starting point. I started an Evernote document recently whereby I'm making a big list of "good ideas" and gripes that I've had and others have vocalised to me over the years.

    As for the JDW vouchers & other trade related benefits or discounts they have to stop... very hypocritical to say we are trying to support pubs with one hand and ask for discounts in the other. Plus the JDW just puts us too much in bed with them.

  5. I specifically didn't say anything about energising younger members, as I think anything that comes across as "getting down wiv da yoof" is suspect and likely to be counter-productive. It needs a more broadly-based approach as to how people prefer to interact with CAMRA. If they prefer just to be passive members and let paid staff in St Albans do the work, then so be it. CAMRA will have to adapt and become more like the RSPB.

  6. Remind branches what CAMRA's current aims are; I'm certain some members have only a fuzzy idea, or their knowledge is out of date. Perhaps a handbook for branches summarising the basics, available in both paper and downloadable forms. No point in agreeing things at the AGM if most people on the ground aren't aware. It would also be useful to bring activists who deliberately flout policy back in to line.

  7. That's exactly what we *shouldn't* do - the problem of no new active members is not because the branches aren't following policy but that the very policy itself is not generating enthusiasm to get involved. Whilst I'm glad the review is underway, I'm not sure there is an answer. This is the "doom and gloom" view that the campaign has run its course and is looking for ways to justify it's ongoing existence.

    The idea that "Saving pubs" will enthuse new member's isn't as emotive as an entire industry and style of beer being wiped out and the whim of a handful of big breweries. We all know deep down that the pub will always survive albeit in reduced numbers. Speak to the infamous younger member about pubs and they may respond that the kind of pubs closing down aren't of interest to them and point to the new wave of town centre bars opening up.

  8. @RedNev - I think most members would struggle to say in a few words what CAMRA was now actually "for". It has policies and mission statements, but lacks a clear sense of purpose.

    I'm not quite sure what you're referring to when you talk of activists who flout policy, but surely, as with political parties, it's accepted that not everyone is going to sing from the same hymnsheet, and trying to "bring people back into line" will just tend to make the problem worse.

  9. When CAMRA says it want more active members, what it means is that it want more beer festival volunteers. I know this because in the North West there is about 1 a month and CAMRA send out requests for these.

    In 1970 whenever when “proper beer” was in peril or whatever I’m sure a branch got together to promote beer among the public and show publicans how popular it was. Maybe 1 a year if they could, maybe go join the neighbours branch one if they couldn’t.

    Today’s festivals contain sod all of the public. They are professional events often not even run by CAMRA but using CAMRA volunteers that have been sold to the festival. They are one bunch of enthusiasts selling to another, the point being to make money to send to send to St Albans so they can afford professional lobbyers to put up the price of Tesco lager. That’s not worth a weekend’s effort or a day off work.

    Not to mention the difference in group dynamics. 40 years ago you were a group of young likeminded people forming these cliques and groups. 40 years later you want people to join yours rather than form their own, yet you didn’t go join the groups of your own parents?

    A couple of years back CAMRA had a large group of young enthusiastic people that thought beer was a “campaign” not a product. It told them to go form their own campaign. Now these people form a loose group think type club of bloggers and half arsed evangelists that either volunteer or drink at craft keg festivals like that there IMBC. You guys said a big NO to young active members over the fact that some of them liked a cold pint of hoppy fizz rather than a warm pint of flat fizz.

    CAMRA don’t want active members, they want people to come in and continue what has been done and decided for the last 40 years, even if the point of it is now lost.

    You can also take the beer guide. There may have had a point to the book when real ale was a rarity that people sought out. Now it’s a commercial book you are asked to contribute to, so it can be sold back to you. Your members discount is less than it sells for on Amazon. Yey let me volunteer for that, mister! I’ll go round pubs you tell me, write shit up and you then sell me a book? Cool!

    The last thing CAMRA want are young people with their own ideas of what they want to do and achieve. What CAMRA want are people willing to simply carry on with all the crap you’ve spent 40 years doing and never questioning whether it’s still relevant.

    Mudgies manifesto is what Mudgie wants others to go do. If CAMRA has any future beyond a drinking club, the manifesto needs to be written by those willing to go do it. Like a political party, it needs to unite the interests of the active member and casual supporter. Today’s example would be Cameron’s conservatives. Unfortunately CAMRA is more Corbyns Labour, with an active base that is irrelevant and scary to drinkers.

  10. Good points, Cookie. Maybe another question that needs to be asked is whether beer festivals have become an end in themselves, rather than a means of promoting real ale.

    And there is a huge amount of "not invented here" syndrome in CAMRA.

  11. I kind of like what Cookie says. I'm sending his comment to Tim. That'll be a help.

  12. Mudgie: Can you send me an email and I'll copy you in. Lost your email address when changing PCs.

  13. I think the problem is that for the vast majority of young enthusiastic beer drinkers and pub goers, many of them CAMRA members, CAMRA doesn't stand for what they would like it to stand for. So why WOULD they become active?

    I think there is something of a delusion within CAMRA inner echelons that because people are CAMRA members, they actually support the aims of the campaign in anything more than a very vague and half-hearted manner.

  14. It's not just festivals I'm having a pop at. It's the beer guide too. Not all beer festivals are irrelevant, just a lot of them. The beer guide is wholly irrelevant.

    A number of beardy festivals are rooted in their community and appeal to the public. If they make a surplus, great, but that's not the point is it? I'm thinking your Stockport one and Bolton spring to mind. Some none CAMRA community ones do a better job of it than CAMRA. You see people there enjoying themselves that otherwise wouldn't touch a pint of bitter. Young blokes asking if any of it is lager. Sometimes they get a helpful beard that gives them a beer they like and you have just educated, in the nicest possible way, a group of lads in the fact that some of this ale milarky is quite nice and not all filth. Sometimes you get a condescending beard and the lads leave early to go get a Kronenbourg down the pub. All that effort to fail at the last hurdle?

    Because I gave some time to a couple of festivals, I now get emails asking me to do others. Including the last one at the velodrome. A money grasping piss take where the beards that be think I and others are a resource you can sell for money. An in association with CAMRA festival where the volunteers are sold to the festival. You wanna see my actual commercial daily rates for work and ask me again? CAMRA can stick that up there arse and fuck off whilst they are about it.

    By all accounts this is good for CAMRA because there is no financial risk just a pay cheque for the campaign. Stick it. One month after giving up a weekend I have no intention of giving up another for St Albans bank balance. The occasional one is fun, you guys are great to knock about with from time to time, every month is a trial I have no intention of suffering.

    On the beer guide. I have no use for it. I might have bought one if I was a boozer 40 years ago looking for somewhere that does that real ale stuff I've heard about. I have no problem finding it now. I am prepared to credit the beards for that. Well done. I have no intention of giving up my Saturday to trawl around a list of pubs, writing up descriptions, so you can publish a useless book the only point of which is revenue for a campaign to put the price of Tesco lager up. Then you want to sell it back to me for more than I can buy it from Amazon? What the proverbial fuck?

    CAMRA is a nice social group if you want a monthly piss up with fellow beer geeks. It's not a way of life. A life is the other 30 days of the month.

  15. I’ve come to the realisation that CAMRA simply doesn’t care. They just want enough members to retain their super complainer status with no thought to what its branches or members actually need or do. This lack of control has been damaging for the organisation and decreases its ability to meet its core aims. I’m not even sure that its model even fits in with current trends, it certainly neither has the capacity or the desire to respond quickly enough to changes to claim.

    The social aspect including Beer Festivals and Trips are what many believe will attract new members, however with the primary marketing being financial, CAMRA is simply not attracting people who care for its core aims. To some degree people my own age and younger are struggling to relate with the antiquated views and misinformation (the likes of #murkgate ) which if anything further damage relations with the very people you’re complaining won’t activate; but why should they? If their views are not listened to, why should they even consider yours?

    Community on the whole is changing and in some places do not exist at all, yet CAMRA by its insistence on campaigning on the heartstrings of what made Britain great is simply missing what Britain is now. Even their online presence has become more of a battleground between old and new values and eventually people just walk away.

    I also have to levy a good deal of complaint towards branches themselves. Besides for the self-aggrandising flagship book the Good Beer Guide, branches really have next to no relevance. A lot of Local branches as well as the national CAMRA old guard are doing their best to put younger members off taking part. There are only so many times we have our ideas rejected for not being “CAMRA enough” before we lose interest.

    Finally with ridiculous bureaucracy affecting the time it takes to organize official CAMRA beer festivals I question whether even these are an effective use of CAMRAs time. They could actually generate money by assisting the many commercial and charity events, while helping improving the beer quality and campaigning at them, however I still question whether CAMRA should have branches at all. Besides mopping up national CAMRA’s, there is next to no reason for people to get involved with branches which are increasingly perceived as prejudiced private drinking clubs.

  16. @py - I think you'll find that members of most similar organisations have a vague warm fuzzy feeling about them, but would struggle to define exactly what their purpose was. I've seen surveys of members of political parties where most struggle to name more than one specific policy that their party advocates.

  17. I bet if you actually emailed every single CAMRA member and asked them a few simple questions about their opinions on a variety of beer and pub related matters, and then changed the official policy to reflect this, you'd end up with something almost unrecognisable.

    Of course the powers that be will never do this, because they know in advance that they won't like the answer. They don't even allow online voting for the carefully vetted AGM motions for fuck's sake.

  18. I'm sure I've read that it's the intention to introduce remote voting for the 2017 AGM.

  19. Except you can't email them because we don't have up to date emails for a large number of members despite an on-going project to ensure emails are up to date was a key recommendation from the previous fit for purpose review. If we can't even communicate with our own members, what chance do we stand ;-)

  20. As always, I like Cookies comments because he comes in all guns blazing with not concept of restraint ;-) Much of what he says is painfully true. I have said that if this revitalisation is to stand any chance of success, then we're going to have to be brutal.

  21. Disagree with Cookie on the Beer Guide - we do need annual guide to separate great beer from an increasing load of dross. Think branch allocations need urgent review though - Mansfield has 8 entries this year FFS.

    Agree with Mudge's points; think we need to decide whether NBSS scores are published which would justify role of CAMRA in collecting this.

  22. I turned my back on CAMRA when they turned their back on me, i.e. when they supported the smoking ban.

  23. The concept of a "Good Beer Guide" is sound but not *only* as a book which is really now just a coffee table/stocking filler/tourist guide. Accept this and it's current form is fit for purpose - just not maybe the purpose it *should* be which is what this review is really all about.

  24. I agree that the GBG in some form is a key part of what CAMRA does. It's important that we are able to say that "these are pubs we recommend, where good beer is kept well, and there's a welcoming atmosphere". There's plenty of scope for more integration with WhatPub?, and for introducing a more qualitative element into WhatPub? If you want to find "pubs with decent beer and evening meals within 20 miles of Borchester", WhatPub? is of little value.

    I would strongly oppose publication of NBSS scores, as that would inevitably lead to licensees complaining "why aren't I in the GBG when the pub down the road is in with a lower score?" NBSS scores are important in informing GBG selection, and set a minimum benchmark, but they aren't the sole criterion. They are also open to manipulation if a pub has relatively few scores.

    There was a report in this week's Sunday Times that printed books were regaining market share from e-books. So I don't think that the demise of the printed GBG is going to come any day soon. People like to browse through printed books in a way they don't online.

  25. No argument from me there at all. WhatPub has a lot more to offer. Scores should *never* be published as we should aim for a flat a playing field as possible. And yes, as I say, it's not so much what to do with the GBG but that else we should be doing. I still buy reference books in printed form because Kindle reader is too small. Is the GBG a reference book? But once again, we need to be wary of anything from our point of view because we're not the target market.

  26. Wouldn't "making common cause with campaigners who have been vocal opponents of the s*****g b*n" be allying oneself with a bunch of (not to mince words) losers?

  27. So, Rob, my idea to remind people why they're in this campaign is a bad one? What a strange point of view.

    CM: people who flout policy? Example: articles in local CAMRA mags that slag off lager, smooth and craft beer even though negative campaigning is against policy. I never allowed it when I was an editor.

    Anon: you turned your back on CAMRA for the wrong reason. The Campaign did not support the smoking ban that we ended up with. Good job you're anonymous when you can't get basic facts right.

  28. People are in this campaign because it means free entry at the local beer festivals. £5 a session, about 10 days a year. Its cheaper to join CAMRA.

  29. @Stringers - or the people who pointed out the strong parallels between the campaigns against tobacco and alcohol, something which the latter are keen to recognise.

    And you would struggle to name any vocal opponent of the anti-drink lobby who favours the smoking ban.

  30. Regarding the Good Beer Guide - Last night I went to a gig in a town (Sale),some 30mins drive from my hometown (Wigan) - I checked the GBG - no entry at all in that town. We had tea and a pint in a GBG pub en-route (Urmston). Good beer. Result. On to the gig town - went into a pub near the venue, (not GBG remember) - shite pint. For me, at least, this is what the GBG is about. Simple really...

  31. Alternatively, I stopped at a GBG pub not a million miles from Wigan on Thursday night - and a branch pub of the year, to boot - and had a pint of vinegar. All the GBG does is improve the odds a bit.

  32. What's the betting the beards either

    a) Say Job done, and wrap it all up.

    b) Find a spurious reason the limp on with some stuff added about getting the kids more into the pong.

  33. You need to open a book on that one Cookie...

  34. Or (c) Decide that the future really lies with this 11% murky craft keg stuff that tastes like paint-stripper and costs you an arm, a leg and a whole pack of bogroll

  35. I don't disagree with one solitary point. If CAMRA acted on just half of your suggestions, I might even consider joining again.

  36. Tut tut Mudgie - anti-campaign....

  37. I think remote voting on agm motions is a bad idea simply because the debate around the motion is key to understand in detail what the proponents are for,what the arguments against are,it's not always a simple yes/no, I've read motions in the order papers and thought definitely voting no on that, but then been swayed by to vote yes because the debate highlighted I'd not fully understand the issue you won't get that remotely

    Member activation is difficult because you rely on a core branch committee group to encourage those new members however young or old to get involved,unfortunately lots of branches manage things like the drinking club the likes of Py actually wants to encourage more of having,you need members campaigning , promoting real ale, not just drinking the stuff in their favourite pubs.But the dichotomy is CAMRA executive can't enforce behaviour on the branches, it's a collective of autonomous branches who all work their own individual ways,there's not even guidance on how to organise a beer festival,what's best practice,how to register ACVs or how to progress key campaigns & promoting Camras aims.

    Personally I welcome the review,but Camra isn't broken it just needs to refine some of the way the branches operate to provide more of a standard way of operating,but good luck to anyone who thinks they can force change into being the campaign for jusy jolly good beer,keg is not cask and never will be.

  38. @Stono - yes, that's the "steady as she goes" case, but there's a widespread view that CAMRA really needs to sort out what it is actually FOR.

    And I take the point about AGM debates being influenced by speeches in the hall, but it's fundamentally undemocratic that such decisions are taken by those who have the time and money to be able to travel to Eastbourne or Edinburgh. Either we have universal voting (as the National Trust does) or we have voting confined to official branch delegates.

  39. I'm not 100% sure but the remote voting may only be for the national executive vote. But if it is for the motions, then they also need to broadcast the debate and that was a sticking point many years ago when I suggested it - speakers would be too scared to stand up if it's been recorded. I'm not sure I entirely agree with that as it takes a certain kind of person to stand up and speak in the first place. But if one can vote on the motions, then it would also be useful to be able to debate than in advance online.

    CAMRA isn't exactly broken but it's showing all the signs of breaking in one simple area: lack of new active members to run the campaign. Unless that is resolved, CAMRA will have a very different shape in the future.

  40. "Tut tut Mudgie - anti-campaign..."

    But I thought crafties believed that high price, extreme strength, challenging flavour and laxative properties were desirable features ;-)

    And this blog does not speak on behalf of CAMRA - indeed I removed all mention of being a member after apparently my references to Mike Benner being a useful idiot for the anti-drink lobby caused ructions at St Albans.

  41. "I've read motions in the order papers and thought definitely voting no on that, but then been swayed by to vote yes because the debate highlighted I'd not fully understand the issue you won't get that remotely"

    If you're not capable of fully understanding the issues before attending the AGM, then you probably aren't capable of voting at all.

    Its not like anything is ever discussed at the AGM that hasn't already been said 100 times over on the forum or on blogs. The older more active Camra members are generally about 5 years behind the rest of us in most things.

  42. Your problem with sending delegates to the AGM is one of cost and representation.

    On representation, not all branches are the same size, so you would have to have a number of delegates per branch based on the branch membership. Or should a branch of 200 have the same votes as a branch of 2000?

    On cost, each attendee is currently a self-funded member representing themselves. Why should a member pay their own hotel bill to vote how the branch tells him too?

    Some form of postal voting may be worth an experiment. Recently the North West region sent a postal vote out to all North West members asking them to vote on the formation of a Manchester branch. This was ignored by around 99% of recipients.

    Some had the view this was apathy, I formed the view the letter and options were a badly thought out and implemented plebiscite only idiots would come up with and a better response might have been had with more coherent options.

    On whether the beards are looking for active members or foot soldiers, attend a branch meeting or two of your local beards. That’s all that’s needed. Report back whether they asked you for input into this revitalisation project or whether they wanted you to take some forms out to a pub to be filled in.

  43. PS. You probably need to lump "cans" under the section on BCA...

  44. If anyone is interested in carry on the debate on the CAMRA forums, the link is here:

    If not, then maybe apathy does reign supreme ;-)

  45. The CAMRA forum? Otherwise known as Dickie's Mental Asylum. Good God NO. let it die!

  46. If enough other people took part in the forum, then either Dickie would be drowned out, or his brain would explode from the sheer number of nits he felt obliged to pick.

  47. If people join the beards, you want their initial experiences to be positive one they would repeat right?

    Steer them well clear to Dickies Nut Club.

  48. Alex Wright, new member of the NE, has posted a few times which is just what we need. Communication trigged on the forums by the NE and central committees (hate that word). It doesn't actually need them to engage in the debate all the time if they are worried about not towing the party line, but to know they prompting debate and listening would be a step forwards.

    The forums are for more in-depth debate over a longer period of time. Facebook is far more suitable for flash-in-the-pan debates but not the official one as that's mainly read-only. There are more mobile friendly forum type systems but I don't think CAMRA is going to consider best of breed. Ho hum.

  49. Cookie is quite right that if you attend a meeting you're far more likely to be volunteered for something than asked for your input. That's probably why some people make a point of avoiding them. Dare I suggest that our local branch occasionally takes this a bit too far?

    It's like joining a political party out of burning conviction and ending up sat in a church hall stuffing envelopes.

  50. CAMRA doesn't actually make or sell any beer so most of it's debates, apart from those on the Beer Guide or Beer Fests, are totally irrelevant.


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