Saturday, 23 April 2016

Licking our wounds?

CAMRA’s current Revitalisation Project makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately much of the publicity surrounding it has given a completely misleading impression. The idea put across is that CAMRA has been forced to review its purpose because “real ale” has been knocked into a cocked hat by “craft beer”. One of the worst examples is the recent article in the Guardian entitled Craft beer: is it closing time for the Campaign for Real Ale?

The subtitle reads “The craft beer revolution has delivered quality ales to the masses, and created a crisis for Camra and its supporters”, which is about as far from the truth as it is possible to imagine. The juxtaposition of “craft beer” and “the masses” in the same sentence is particularly absurd.

Of course in the past fifteen or so years there has been a dramatic rise in beer enthusiasm outside the auspices of CAMRA, which has given many long-standing members cause for thought. “Is this good beer, even if it isn’t real ale?” But the extent of this “craft beer revolution” has been greatly overstated. It’s maybe not surprising coming from journalists who spend most of their time in Inner London, and only visit other parts of the country through excursions by train or plane to other big city centres.

Even within the North, I’ve written before of people “wending their merry way from the Port Street Beer House via the Grove to North Bar without apparently caring that the main A62 road linking those three points is lined with closed and boarded pubs.” It’s still the case that the reach of that revolution is very limited. Get out of the city centres and go into normal community locals and family dining pubs in suburbs, medium-sized and small towns, villages and the countryside, and you will see little or no sign of it.

Some cask beers can be regarded as “craft”, but “craft keg” is the epitomy of the movement on draught. And how many pubs offer anything on keg that isn’t either lager or nitro ale or stout? Even Spoons only have Devil’s Backbone and Shipyard Pale Ale, both brewed under licence by those notorious check-shirted upstarts Marston’s. I’d bet that “craft keg”, as defined above, accounts for well under 1% of the total draught beer market.

The same is true in the field of packaged beer. Yes, go in your average supermarket and you’ll probably see a shelf or two of Brewdog bottles and garishly coloured cans. But the volume they’re shifting is trivial compared with all the mass-market lagers and premium bottled ales. And punters may after a while get tired of paying more for less. Again I’d go for a market share of less than 1%.

Craft in the UK may have made a lot of noise, but it hasn’t remotely revolutionised the beer market in the way that its champions claim. Much of this comes from an inappropriate read-across from the US market to the UK. In the mid-70s, the US had effectively lost all its independent brewers, and the territory occupied by the current American craft brewers is very similar to that held by the UK’s regional, family and established new breweries.

CAMRA hasn’t lost any kind of battle against craft beer, and indeed in recent years cask has been about the only section of the on-trade beer market bucking the general trend of decline. It makes sense to take stock and review the organisation’s values and aims, but it’s certainly not being done from a position of defeat.

34 comments:

  1. Totally agree with you're sentiments, but will say craft keg should not be ignored,it is having an impact, certainly in London and from personal experience in Bristol,and I am sure also in many other cities.

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    1. That is true, and I acknowledge it in the post. But I don't see much sign of it going mainstream or threatening cask beer in the generality of pubs.

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    2. It's what I call the "Beer Communicator" Effect. Certain opinion-formers in large metropolitan areas almost exclusively visit places where The Craft is available. So lacking any other experiences, they assume pretty much everywhere is like that now.

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  2. Well argued, Mudge. Journalists, of course, are notorious for getting their facts wrong (often because they either don’t listen to what’s being said, or they don’t understand it in the first place). They also have a tendency to distort the facts in an effort to put across the story they want to sell, rather than actually telling it as it is.

    Craft beer is still thin on the ground in this part of the south east; despite our proximity to London. It’s available in as small number of pubs and bars in Tunbridge Wells, but not here in Tonbridge, and definitely not out in the sticks.

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    1. "Journalists, of course, are notorious for getting their facts wrong" Total – if I may say so – fucking bollocks. I would guarantee you that 99.9 per cent of the facts you read in a newspaper will be correct. But, of course, those won't impinge on your consciousness. Only the 0.1 per cent of errors are going to cause any comment.

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  3. A lot of the PBAs ARE craft beers.

    One thing they're definitely not is real ale.

    There is almost certainly more craft beer drunk in the UK than actual real ale.

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    1. Depends how you define craft beer, of course. If it covers all real ale, then obviously what you say is true.

      But I hardly think your average crafty will accept that bottled Unicorn or Spitfire are craft.

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  4. I'm not sure I've ever seen a craft keg beer ordered in a pub outside the few specialist beer bars like PSBH, Craft, Taps, Brewdog etc, which make up about 0.5% of the country's licenced premises. Plenty of the sales in those places aren't craft keg either, so your 1% seems to me along the right track.

    Greene King are one of the few pub companies to have a craft keg on their bars (Punk IPA) and even then only in a handful. Never seen anyone order that either and I'm very nosey.

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    1. I've seen Shipyard and East Coast IPA in a few pubs tied to or supplied by Greene King, but can't recall seeing anyone order them. Likewise in Spoons the Shipyard and Devil's Backbone taps don't see to see much action. A few weeks ago I thought I'd try a pint of Shipyard as part of a meal deal, but they'd run out.

      The other night we were in the Hope and the Magnet, the pubs in Stockport with the widest range of craft kegs. But I'd bet in total they're outsold 50 to 1 by cask.

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  5. Now that I've taken over the weekly CAMRA column in our local paper, I'm writing about a different real ale pub in or near our area every week, amounting to about 35 so far. I've obviously visited a lot more pubs that I haven't written about, at least not so far. I've found that there are a few stray fonts that might be deemed to be craft, but overall I have seen very little of it.

    Lazy journalists, or those with a specific agenda of their own, start with their preferred conclusion and then assemble a few random facts to fit. They make no reference to the mass of facts that contradict their preferred spin. A similar example to the one you quoted was a journalist who wrote an article in Guardian with the headline: "Twenty-five years of the gastropub - a revolution that saved British boozers".

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    1. Yes, I remember calling that article out on Twitter, although I didn't blog about it. It really was utter tripe. Journalists of whatever stripe rarely seem to acknowledge the existence of "small-town Britain".

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  6. Excellent well measured piece.
    Your observations are spot on as even in some of the Home Counties (especially those north of the Thames) craft keg, for want of a better label, is indeed thin on the ground, although it is making slow but gradual inroads into some of the newer pubs, and a few of the older ones too. What I have noticed is a shift in the bottled beers seen in the fridges behind the bar which has been adopted by many pubs and I'd guess is the compromise position at the moment.
    Pubs are closing but we are seeing new bars and micropubs opening too, many of whom sell exclusively cask-conditioned beer.
    One thing that I have been told is that 46 years ago (when I was born) the real ale was in a similar state with mainly city pubs, or certainly larger population areas, having the largest concentration of such pubs and drinkers. In an attempt to redress this balance and retain and grow cask-conditioned beer CAMRA was formed, whilst as yet (and CAMRA 'could' take this on) what is known as craft beer at the moment in the UK has no such pressure group that has lasted or been able to hit on a nerve felt by many. Maybe that will happen, but I'm not so sure.

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    1. Yes, but something that is in growth doesn't need a pressure group to champion it. CAMRA was formed because "real ale" (or a traditional view of pubs and beer) was perceived to be under threat. I entirely agree that CAMRA needs to stop saying all non-real beers are shite, but I don't see that it needs to actively promote them either.

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    2. Agree. It's an odd concept that you need a campaigning body to promote, say, Punk IPA, bottles of Cloudwater or Peroni. That's what advertising for, and pubs and breweries have budgets for that. Individual enthusiasts and bloggers can throw in their two penneth if they want.

      CAMRA is as important as ever in promoting quality real ale, perhaps with more emphasis needed on the quality in some branches.

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  7. If you're a middle class Londoner and spend all your time in "craft beer bars" & breweries, and so do all your friends, then I can see how you might form the view that "craft beer" is somehow taking over may be formed. It could be easy to forget that even in London, despite a silly number of new breweries, a vast majority of pubs & bars get by just fine on normal cask product & mainstream lager.

    Then outside of London the craftier★ venues are fewer and further between. The reason I cover such a wide area is that one needs to to sell what could be considered "craft" in a reasonable volume. And even then I still think it an uncertain market to be working in. It is changing, but not to an extent that puts the traditional & mainstream under any threat. Even a majority of new venues are more trad than craft. And mostly they need to be. New craft-centric venues are opening in bigger population centres, but time will be needed to determine how many of these work out.

    Greene King "craft" stuck on the bar in their pubs is bound to fail. The US IPA
    is more like John Smiths than what a BrewDog drinker would recognise. Installed in one pub I know under 30/70 and via a creamer tap. Nitro-IPA, GK being unintentionally überkraft. :) Whilest Punk in GK pubs is a welcome sight, normal GK punters aren't interested and it isn't going to attract folk in from the indy bar around the corner. It's a harder sell for the publican and I remain puzzled that Punk in GK is even a thing...

    (★And I'm using my own vague definition of craft that covers beers in all formats made by independent breweries in styles beyond what's recognisably "traditional".)

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    1. "Whilst Punk in GK pubs is a welcome sight, normal GK punters aren't interested"

      eh? Of course they're interested. Anything is better than the usual shit that GK churn out. Most people go to a GK pub despite the beer, not because of it. (If they live in East Anglia, they don't really have much choice). Something decent like Punk is bound to do well if sensibly priced.

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    2. Not what I hear from GK landlords who give it a whirl. Albeit mostly the ones who do so are trying to compete with a much better offering nearby. And Punk plus a handful of the cheapest cask they can fit into their free-of-tie volume doesn't do it. The Punk lingers.

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  8. I have recently opened a bar and I have 5 cask lines with 3 in permanent use and I am running 3 craft keg (key keg style) lines plus 2 60/40 gas keg lines. The 20-40 year olds are consuming the craft keg beers plus cask and they are the ones who travel to the nearest cities of Leeds, Manchester and even Liverpool where they visit specialist beer retailers. For my sales their consumption account for about 30%.

    I am the only bar in my catchment offering craft keg from the likes of Cloudwater, Buxton, mad hatter and others. I believe my reasonable catchment area to be 300,000 people and therefore my estimate is 0.0005%. A profitable 0.0005% but I agree with you, a battle has not been won and possibly the war may be likened to the joint fleet of the Vl'Hurgs and G'Gugvuntt attacking earth in HHGTG.

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  9. Your second-to-last paragraph is a gem, I may cite it in future.

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  10. This is all very no true Scotsman isn't it? Here's a pub with Adnams' Dry hopped Lager and another with Oakham Citra on cask. Both pretty much as craft as you can get. But if we all pretend that they don't count as craft, then no, of course very few pubs have craft beer.

    In summation, to the craft-deniers, craft will never be acknowledged as being a popular, widely spread product, because once a beer becomes popular and wide-spread, it no longer counts as craft to them.

    The reason craft keg is struggling to get a hold is not because its unpopular, its because it is ludicrously overpriced. People would drink it if was a sensible price, but who wants to pay £5.50 a pint for craft keg when the virtually identical beer is available on cask for £3.50? Even if its nicer, which most people would agree it is, its not £2 a pint nicer.

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    1. Most people would agree keg is better than cask? Really?

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    2. Well how much keg beer is drunk every year compared to cask beer, despite the relative abundance of both.

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    3. If you exclude lager, where by definition there is no cask equivalent, considerably more cask ale and stout is drunk than keg.

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    4. I agree about the price issue. Disagree that most think keg is better. Depends on the beer and the drinker of course.

      'Craft' will only go mainstream when the price comes down, if it ever does, and then does it cease to be 'craft'. Who knows. Doesn't matter I don't think.

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  11. I would think any craft (small) brewer worth his salt would his salt would embrace cask ale. Make it their own. The two concepts (cask and craft keg, craft cask anyone?) should not be mutually exclusive but should complement each other.

    I think beer drinkers having so much diversity of choice is a very good thing.

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    1. Many "craft cask" brewers are spinning down cask production because it is a shit market to be in. They're embracing the keg format. Which is great for good beer in keg as this means their keg product doesn't need to subsidise the cask equivalent any more.

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    2. Depends how one defines shit but if it's in terms of over supply and too many similar beers, then yes, I'd agree.

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  12. Interesting points made in this debate; though there is a problem that people are defining 'craft' in different ways. Would hesitate to suggest in ways that would suit their particular line of argument ;-).
    To me, there seem to be a number of trends happening in beer, and almost all of them good. The trend in pubs is more of a mixed bag; but whilst the headlines are nearly always about pub closures, there are new pubs opening. In what regard as my pretty immediate area in this region of the 'Home Counties', seven new outlets have started up since the beginning of 2015. All are selling a mix of cask and keg. Keg predominates in three; pretty even in three; and cask predominates in the one that's a micro-pub. Five are completely new venues as pubs. Two have used sites that had been pubs, but not for years. In the same area, can only think of one pub had has closed down in the last year. (That said, could name around 40 pubs that closed for ever in the previous 20 years in the same area.) However, in terms of beer, what is noticeable is that only one of these seven is engaged in selling what would see as 'mainstream' brands.
    That connects to why am optimistic about beer, as mentioned earlier. Whilst overall beer sales are drifting down, that decline is concentrated in the mass production market. The vast majority of the small 'new boys and girls' are dedicated to producing both cask and keg. Brew Dog's ideological opposition to cask is much trumpeted, and gets headlines, but they are almost on their own. And sales of MY definition of 'craft' (any beers produced by small independent brewers), are defying the overall decline in beer sales. More than that, in response to this, the medium sized traditional brewers (with their tied houses) are upping their game. Worthy breweries who trundled out the same decent but unexciting half dozen beers, and a few seasonals, for the whole of my lifetime have recently begun to produce new beers, both cask and keg. Nope, they aren't likely to be hitting the market any time soon with the Saisons, Goses and Lambics etc. of the radical crowd, but they are upping their range and interest.

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  13. To go back to Mudgie's post, he begins by saying much of the publicity around ths Revitalisation project has been negative, or at least ill informed.

    Mainstream media outlets often handle beer poorly. That Graun article is no exception (though the journo has put the work in getting quotes from brewers, there is little sign of a BBPA voice).

    But what does CAMRA expect when it issues a press release entitled "Is this the end of the Campaign for Real Ale?"

    http://www.camra.org.uk/press-releases/-/asset_publisher/R16Ta0pf6w5B/content/is-this-the-end-of-the-campaign-for-real-ale-?_101_INSTANCE_R16Ta0pf6w5B_redirect=%2Fpress-releases

    You can see why Tom Stainer's team has gone for this - it's an immediate news hook and has, as intended, garnered news headlines, write-ups and calls from TV for interviews.

    It's simply not true that "all publicity is good publicity".

    If the only way CAMRA can think of to raise awareness of a welcome initiative is to throw the dead cat of an existential crisis onto the table, it may need to go back to the drawing board with its comms strategy.

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    1. Yes, it's backfired on them as the general impression has been "is it time for CAMRA to embrace craft beer?" which is only one small strand of the whole thing.

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  14. Jeremy Corbyns Left Nut25 April 2016 at 12:25

    The best way to save this consumer union will be to nationalize it. Then everyone has to become a member. Like a closed shop. We will do the same for trade unions and thus ensure survival.

    Not sure about it campaigning for alcohol though. We might have to change it into a campaign for vegetarian food and iced tea. That would be more inclusive.

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  15. The Grauniad piece is largely bollocks, but I think CAMRA do have a bit of worrying to do about Craft Keg. It may not be about to overtake cask sales just yet, but the sort of people who do enjoy the odd two-third of it from time to time have quite a crossover with the sort of people who CAMRA might hope to get involved in running branches and beer festivals and so on, and they're going to be put off getting more involved if they think it's all going to be out-of-touch zealots banging on about Watneys Red Barrel. On the other hand, they're gradually drifting that way anyway without needing a Revitalization Project.

    It seems like the far bigger problem for them is that people mostly only tend to get really motivated by an imminent threat to something that they care about. The imminent bit doesn't apply to real ale any more. Arguably it does apply to pubs, and that could be a bigger motivator, but CAMRA don't currently come across as having a credible plan on that front.

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  16. I think a major, major part of the problem that camra have in recruiting active members is that so many beer enthusiasts and existing members are simply uncomfortable with the statement that "real ale is best" and are unwilling to campaign for something they don't actually believe in.

    The problem with camra is that the vast majority of its members simply don't agree with its explicit mission statement. Once a member gets interested in beer and finds out a bit about it, they realise that the entire idea of real ale is a load of bollocks.

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  17. >The 20-40 year olds are consuming the craft keg beers plus cask.

    Isn't this the whole point of this exercise? Broken record but if CAMRA doesn't get a new generation involved then it's moot what our policies are if there is nobody to run the campaign in 10 years?

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