It’s worth reflecting on how we have arrived at this situation. For much of its lifetime, CAMRA was the only game in town when it came to “beer enthusiasm” in the UK. However, more recently, this has been challenged by a new wave of brewers, often influenced by the American craft beer movement. They have introduced a much greater amount of innovation in beer, and often done it by presenting their products in the keg format not approved by CAMRA. This has met with widespread success, especially amongst younger drinkers. And, very often, the narrative, most notably that of BrewDog, has been one of kicking against the established real ale culture.
There has been a growing amount of interesting, high-quality beer being brewed entirely outside the orbit of CAMRA, and in the process making the organisation look old-fashioned and stick-in-the-mud. So surely it should be looking at widening its scope to encompass all good beer and beer enthusiasts, rather than sticking within a narrow, pedantically-defined box. And thus was born the impetus for the Revitalisation project.
Now, I am certainly no cask zealot who doesn’t think any other kind of beer is worth drinking. I’m entirely relaxed about drinking non-real beers, and do from time to time, although in general I tend to visit pubs where cask is well-kept so there’s no need to. CAMRA has often been ill-served by the narrow dogmatism that bleats on about “chemical fizz” and “sealed dustbins”. It has always been much too reluctant to recognise merit in beers that fall outside its remit. But that isn’t the same as “promoting” or “embracing” them. On the other hand, I fail to summon up much enthusiasm for the new wave of “craft keg” beers, and to be honest my interest is more likely to be piqued by spotting obscure old brands of keg mild on the bar of trad pubs.
The basic underlying principle of CAMRA is that, for draught ales in the British tradition, cask-conditioning, when done properly, is the best way of presenting them. I’m entirely happy with that. But, in a sense, you don’t even need to sign up to that view to believe it’s a tradition worth holding on to. I have always seen CAMRA as essentially a preservationist organisation, stemming from the same wellspring of sentiment as steam railways and restoring historic buildings. It is about championing a unique aspect of British heritage – cask beer, the breweries that produce it and the pubs and other licensed premises that sell it. What it isn’t is a modern movement supporting “all good beer”, however defined, and to want to turn it into that would be for it to become something of a markedly different character. As one blog commenter very perceptively said:
CAMRA is a people-powered cultural heritage organisation in all but name. Traditional drinking culture is what links real ale, real cider/perry, historic pub interiors and community pubs. Embrace it! By all means show craft more respect (the same respect shown to Belgian beers and quality German and Czech lagers, for instance), but don’t water down the central purpose of CAMRA.That doesn’t mean you need to be against other forms of beer, just as the steam enthusiast doesn’t refuse to travel on electric trains, or the champion of Victorian architecture doesn’t do his best to avoid modern buildings. But they’re not something you want to pursue as a leisure interest. As I’ve said in the past, you can’t expect everyone to be interested in everything.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with wanting to be a modern, all-encompassing beer enthusiast, just that that’s not what CAMRA’s fundamentally about. And trying to fit both into the same big tent is likely to be fraught with problems and pull in different directions.
It’s not really as if modern keg beer needs campaigning for anyway – it seems to be doing perfectly well for itself as a purely commercial product. What exactly would CAMRA bring to the party that is any different? And, while it’s sometimes said that real ale has been “saved”, that’s a very complacent and blinkered viewpoint. The absolute amount of real ale sold now is far less than it was when CAMRA was formed. The only places where real ale can exist - pubs and clubs - continue to close at an alarming rate. And there are plenty of “real ale deserts”, often in places where, thirty or forty years ago, many of the pubs sold real ale. So there’s still plenty of work to be done without diluting the message. Arguably the biggest threat to real ale’s future is complacency.
We haven’t had sight of the precise wording of the motions yet. But my feeling is that I will be strongly inclined to vote against the main thrust of the revitalisation project. If you care about the protection of our beer, brewing and pub heritage, I would urge you to do likewise. CAMRA, in my view, should draw in its horns a bit and stick to the knitting of its core principles. I’m a Life Member, and to resign would just be an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face. But, if the resolutions are passed, I will need to question whether it is still an organisation that deserves a substantial chunk of my leisure time.
The whole process has already proved divisive, with a lot of fur and insults flying on CAMRA’s Discourse forum. Nobody knows what the outcome is going to be, and I can’t see the likes of YouGov carrying out opinion polls of CAMRA members to give us any idea. But there must be a risk that what was put forward, with good intentions, with the aim of saving CAMRA, could end up killing it, or at least permanently diminishing its influence and credibility. For example, Ian Thurman on his thewickingman blog has questioned whether it might expose CAMRA to hostile media scrutiny if it seems equivocal about its purpose.
It is a high-risk strategy on the part of CAMRA’s leadership. It’s not difficult to imagine the scenario where the Special Resolutions are passed by the necessary majority of the membership as a whole, but defeated in the hall by the physical attendees at the AGM, which would create a lot of bad blood. And, given that normal policy motions are simply approved by a straight majority of AGM attendees, it’s possible that “traditionalists” may seek to chip away at the revitalisation changes through future AGM motions. It could lead to more explicit “culture wars” in beer.
If the resolutions fail to win the necessary majority, or are even defeated outright, then there will a lot of egg on faces and serious soul-searching to be done. Will it be a case of “one more heave”, or trying to sneak changes in through the back door, or will there need to a fundamental shift to a more back-to-basics approach?
(The graphic, which seemed highly appropriate, was borrowed from Kirst Walker’s Lady Sinks the Booze blog.)