Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Two tribes

A couple of weeks ago I attended a CAMRA revitalisation meeting at Wetherspoon’s Gateway in East Didsbury, which was described by Martin Taylor here. The four people standing at the rear include Cooking Lager (1), me (2) and Martin (4). Photo courtesy of Matt from When My Feet Go Through the Door.

It was encouraging that the meeting felt that improving beer quality at the point of dispense needed to be a major priority for CAMRA, and that it accepted that social change, not evil pubcos and planners, was the major cause of the decline of pubs in recent years.

The picture gives a clear impression of the age profile of the attendees – of about 50 people there, only five admitted to being under 50, and I’d bet that, at 57, I was below the average. The ageing active membership is widely recognised as a problem for CAMRA, but it’s one they share with most other membership organisations.

It doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that diluting the organisation’s principles is going to bring in new, younger people, and the result might simply be to alienate the existing activists. Maybe this is not a comparison to take too far, but it has also been widely observed that, while religious observance is declining overall, the churches that do better are often those putting across a fundamentalist message rather than trimming to modern secular trends.

It was very noticeable that, within the attendees, there were two strongly conflicting points of view. On the one hand, some took the view that CAMRA really needed to get behind all these enthusiastic new brewers producing innovative, high-quality beers, even if they didn’t technically qualify as real ale. Others, though, felt that real ale remained under serious threat and no backsliding or compromise was acceptable.

I don’t really see that these standpoints can ever be fully reconciled. And, in fact, I’d say they are both wrong. Any formal endorsement of non-real beers would end up creating all kinds of thorny questions of definition and inviting accusations of beer snobbery. But the real ale purism all too easily slides into “fighting the keg menace” and a narrow-minded refusal to recognise merit in any forms of beer that aren’t “real”.

However, surely CAMRA should be able to regard the preservation and promotion of real ale, and the pub and brewery culture surrounding it, as its core campaigning purpose, while still being able to accept that there are many other high-quality beers around that do not qualify “real ale”. As founder member Michael Hardman famously said, it should be a campaign FOR something, not AGAINST something, and “real ale” should not be regarded as synonymous with “good beer”.

And the one thing that CAMRA should do is to drop the ludicrous fetishising of bottle-conditioned beers. They had effectively died out by the time it was formed and were irrelevant to what it was set up to champion. They are not the direct equivalent of cask-conditioned beers and should not be put forward as such.

29 comments:

  1. Curious: Cooking Lager looks nothing like the picture on his blog.

    I'm going to the revitalisation meeting in Liverpool this Saturday.

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    1. If they ask "would you rather have a good pint of craft keg than a bad pint of real ale?" respond by saying "that's like asking whether you'd rather shoot your granny or granddad" ;-)

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    2. Having met Cookie personally, I can attest that the Errol Flynn avatar doesn't do him justice.

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  2. There is no such thing as a good pint of keg. People are forgetting why Camra was set up. Don't believe all the hipster shite about keg. Anybody would think they have a monopoly on the word 'craft'.

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    1. Anyone would think you have a monopoly on the word "real".

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  3. Not sure about that. Keg Sam's is OK although I agree that some of the hipster keg beers are undrinkable and massively overpriced.

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  4. It's like a snapshot from the FBI's most wanted list.

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    1. Yes, if the Devil could cast his net.............

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    2. Apologies for not acknowledging the source.

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  5. Your experience of one of these CAMRA Revitalisation Meetings appears to closely mirror that which I experienced at the meeting I attended in Bermondsey, back in May. Opinion seems to be divided right down the middle, and with no clear consensus emerging as to “What is the way forward”; rather like the EU referendum, if I’m allowed to mention that again!.

    I don’t know whether your meeting ended up getting side-tracked and bogged down with minutiae; our certainly did, and I’m wondering whether despite the best of intentions, the whole navel-gazing exercise will prove to be a complete waste of time.

    I would like to think not, but the age gap, which you alluded to, and which I also experienced, only serves to highlight the differences between those who want to embrace all types of beer plus all means of dispense, and the die-hard traditionalists who believe that any beer which has so much looked at a molecule of “extraneous” CO2, is the work of the Devil and should be banished forthwith.

    Perhaps it’s because I’m no longer on my branch committee, but I’ve seen precious little feedback as to what exactly these meetings are turning up, so it will be interesting to see what is finally put before the NE, and ultimately the membership. I might just have to take myself down to the AGM at Bournemouth, next April and find out.

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    1. As I said in the post, it's not a simple issue of progressives vs diehards. CAMRA is a Campaign for Real Ale, and I would say that, if it formally embraces non-real beers as part of its campaigning remit (as opposed to being willing to accept they're not all the work of the Devil), it will be signing its own death warrant. See this blogpost.

      As G. K. Chesterton said, “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”

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    2. What a strange quote. [...ignorant colonist googles Chesterton...] Ah, he converted *to* Catholicism. Nuff said.

      But I agree with your first paragraph.

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    3. I'd say it's making a general point that someone who abandons a particular principle, of any kind, is then likely to be susceptible to any kind of old guff.

      I'm not a particularly religious person, but Chesterton talked a lot of sense about pubs, and valuing our heritage.

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    4. That seems a fairly patronising view WRT people leaving abandoning religion. People I know who've left a particular religion or other behind seem to have abandonded dogma for open-mindedness.

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    5. I prefer GK's wayward cousin AK Chesterton, me.

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    6. I think you mean the fascist anti-Semite.

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  6. There was several more under 50s than that at the Birmingham Revitalisation Meeting. Which was in quite a small room so was rammed.

    I think I was was one of the few - or maybe the only? (not quite sure which side of 30 some fellow regulars are) - under 20 (and I'm 29).

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    1. I think you mean "under 30" there ;-)

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  7. I havent been to any of the revitalisation meetings, and not planning to, mainly because the nearest ones to me are basically a near 3hr train journey there & back, and Ive got better things to do with my time :) though Id qualify as firmly an under 50, even if Id be less likely to back the views of my age group.

    but whilst its right for organisation in its 45th year (not been much celebrating of that by CAMRA HQ has there ?) to reflect/pause/take stock on what its doing and should be doing, Id say CAMRA are pretty much doing what the 2nd to last paragraph says, we accept there are other beers, but we campaign for real ale.

    the problem I think is the current CEO hasnt got that part yet, or understood CAMRA is only able to do all the things it does because of an active membership, why the activation of newer members is declining is another topic IMO, and whilst the national trust may have more members, and more members may well plug some of the financial holes that perhaps are glossed over at AGMs, national trust members dont tend to do much campaigning for anything.

    oh well Ill fill in this 2nd survey at some point.

    as for RAIB, its a tough one, it should be possible to do right and do well, they manage it in Belgium, and the problem isnt that RAIB is a bad idea, its just its executed poorly and I dont know how you fix that really

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    1. The issue with RAIB is not really one of quality, it's that it had effectively died out long before the early 70s and was pretty irrelevant to our pub and beer tradition.

      It's fine for strong speciality beers, but to argue that all bottled beers should ideally be bottle-conditioned is just ignorant dogmatism.

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    2. As someone who "grew up" beer-wise with microbrewed American beer in the 90's (after a decade of pre-microbrewed American sex-in-a-canoe-beer), the idea that bottle-conditioned beer is *not* better than bottled bright beer is strange to me. Yes, it's still not proper cask beer, but it's certainly been a step higher than the latter on the beer quality ladder, at least in my experience.

      But I suppose there are fundamental differences between American bottle-conditioned beer and British or something, something which I've not experienced, having had precious few b-c British beers.

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    3. I don't see that bottle-conditioning adds anything to a 4% bitter apart from inconsistency. As I said, fine for strong speciality beers, but wholly impractical for everyday quaffing ones.

      Also cannot be applied to lager.

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    4. Have enjoyed a few 4% (or even lower) b-c ales from the likes of Mallinson's. I see it as the same difference between keg & cask, just on a smaller (oy!) scale. And b-c beers certainly keep better IME, but again these would be American ones at higher strengths.

      It saddens me to learn that b-c has fallen out of favour in the US market, with the perception that a natural presence of yeast diminishes hoppiness.

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    5. I guess American micros do bottle conditioning ...erm... better than British ones do. Maybe it's that they've all sprouted up since 1980, and getting bottle conditioning right is part of the ...ahem... craft. Then again, I can't think of a single 4% (or lower) BCA from an American brewery that I've ever tried.

      OTOH, as someone who's brewed 170+ 22-litre batches of 3.6% pale bitter at home in recent years, I'm a bit biased towards bottle-conditioning.

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  8. A couple of years ago I went on a CAMRA pub crawl of Didsbury, which is a somewhat young and trendy neighbourhood of Manchester. Of about 10 attendees, I was the youngest.

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  9. I think you've got it slightly wrong - real ale should (in a perfect world) be synonymous with good beer, but good beer shouldn't be synonymous with just real ale.

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