Saturday, 20 February 2021

A swift half century

Next month will see the 50th anniversary of the Campaign for Real Ale, which was started by four young English journalists in Kruger’s Bar in Dunquin in County Kerry, Ireland. Drinks writer Laura Hadland, who tweets as @Morrighani, has been commissioned to write an anniversary history, which is to be released to coincide with the actual date. It is promised to be “warts and all” but it remains to be seen whether that extends beyond a few mildly embarrassing anecdotes to a deeper examination of its objectives and achievements. I’ve pre-ordered a copy, but obviously it hasn’t arrived yet.

Since then, it has enjoyed great success as an organisation, reaching a record membership figure of over 190,000 before the Covid crisis deprived it of the opportunity of recruiting at beer festivals. It was described in the late 1970s as “the most successful consumer organisation in Europe”. However, if you look at the wider picture, during CAMRA’s lifetime both the share of real ale in the overall British beer market, and its absolute sales, have shown a dramatic decline, as has the number of pubs in the country. Obviously those trends are due to wider factors largely outside its control or influence, but at least on those terms its record cannot be judged as a successful one.

At the outset, CAMRA’s mission was very clear, and could be expressed as “to encourage pubs to sell beers in established British styles (overwhelmingly Mild and Bitter) in cask-conditioned rather than pressurised (keg, tank or top-pressure) form.” Yes, it was accompanied by assorted baggage in people’s minds about defending tradition and standing up to corporate power, which gave it an appeal across the political spectrum, but it was pretty unequivocal.

However, over the ensuring fifty years there has been a steady accretion of other objectives which have served to blur the organisations’s original single-minded purpose.

These include, amongst others:

  • Encourage pubs and bars to stock real ale

  • Promote traditional British beer styles

  • Encourage new breweries and innovative beer styles

  • Support the appreciation and preservation of traditional pubs

  • Lobby for the pub trade in general

  • Stand up for the wider interests of drinkers

  • Challenge the corporate power of breweries, pubcos and supermarkets

  • Organise beer festivals and social events

  • Offer a discount scheme for pubs and beer festivals

  • Doing all the above for cider and perry as well as beer
All of these are entirely legitimate areas of interest, even if they don’t necessarily float everyone’s boat, and it has often been said that CAMRA is a broad church from which people can pick and choose the aspects that interest them. However, it leaves its objectives as a campaigning organisation distinctly blurred. Who can say, beyond a vague “supporting pubs and beer”, what CAMRA actually stands for now? Some of them even have the potential to work against each other. I have come across some people within its ranks with whom I struggle to identify any areas of common interest at all.

A few years ago, CAMRA underwent a “Revitalisation” process which was supposed to make it more fit for the 21st century and free it from the narrow-minded dogmatism that had often characterised it in the past. However, it’s hard to see what difference it has actually made, and in some ways it seems to have only served to extend that dogmatism into new areas. Does anyone outside CAMRA actually care less whether keykeg beers are “keg-conditioned” or not? And CAMRA’s stance as a generalised campaigning organisation representing all beer drinkers, pubs and brewers is undermined if it refuses to give house room to the beers that most people drink.

Many members still remain blind to the existential threat to all that they hold dear posed by the public health lobby, and much prefer to direct their ire at evil pubcos and supermarkets. It is a massive pivot from assuming your main enemy is business to realising it is government, and one many have no intention of making. Indeed, while it may claim to be promoting something that is “fun”, CAMRA members often taken a very puritanical view towards anything outside their narrow definition. They are often very much anti-smoking, anti-“junk food”, anti-popular culture and anti-gambling, and signally fail to join up the dots. As I quoted in this blogpost,

... if you do a sociological analysis on the IanB Scale, a scale of Puritanism which I invented several seconds ago, CAMRA are a heavily puritan social formation. Puritans come in a number of guises, and can, on the surface seem to be promoting something notionally libertine, such as imbibing an intoxicant. Nudists are another example of a puritan formation that you have to look more closely at to see it. Try bumming a fag in a nudist camp and see the reaction you get.
Back in 2005, before the days of blogs, I wrote an assessment of CAMRA’s achievements to date.
In conclusion, if we take the view that CAMRA has not managed to curb the power of the major breweries, increase the amount of real ale sold in Britain, or stem the tide of pub closures, then it must be judged a failure. Many of the campaigns it has mounted on wider issues have been damp squibs, or have spectacularly backfired. But, to my mind, its lasting achievement has been to greatly raise the profile of beer in the UK, and to encourage the creation a network of producers, outlets and consumers where beer is appreciated in a way that was scarcely imaginable in 1971. Real ale undeniably has to an extent become a niche product, but it occupies a large and thriving niche. And it is the positive promotion of real ale – in all its forms – and the establishments that sell it, that should form the core of its activities in the future. If that means CAMRA drawing in its horns a little, then that would be no bad thing.
And perhaps that message of sticking to the knitting is one it would do well to heed today.

19 comments:

  1. Too Marxist for my liking, managed by twats and cunts.

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    1. How precious. I thoroughly enjoyed your cogent response and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

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    2. It is certainly a socialist organisation and it contains and welcome marxists, trots, pinkos, tankies, reds, commies and guardian readers though not a marxist organisation per se.
      In my observation it is managed by proud comrades and I would take issue with your insult.
      Maybe at 50 starting meetings with a rendition of the red flag ought be considered? Then a ritual burning of effigies of tory scum.
      It would encourage me to attend.

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    3. Some unconvincing multi-character trolling there, Cookie :P

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  2. Pretty good analysis Mudgie.

    I know what you mean about common interest as you find some for whom real ale is only of peripheral interest.

    I kind of look as expanding our purview into other areas as a sorat to catch a mackeral,in that you need to embrace the drinkers of non real ales to bring them into the camp. Others maybe not so much.

    There is always a dichotomy between sticking with the knitting and embracing change. Has CAMRA got that balance right is the question.

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    1. What I mean by the lack of common ground is that there seem to be some members of the organisation whose sole interest is weird craft beers in trendy bars, and who recognise no threat from anti-drink policies which in their minds only threaten the plebs. If you organise days out that omit excellent pubs simply because they sell no unusual beers then you have lost me.

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  3. Must re-read posts before clicking send, but hopefully my point is clear.

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  4. I must agree CAMRA adopting dialectical materialism and endorsing the dictatorship of the proletariat was a mistake. No, hang on a minute, I'm not a complete loonspud. Ignore that.

    Cask beer is more widely available, of more variety, and better quality than when I started drinking and I'm happy with that. I don't really care that in a large organisation that's been around for 50 years at times people have used it to further their own particular interest.

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  5. Usually what people do when they no longer share the aims and objectives of an organisation is to leave it.

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    1. And miss out on the Spoons vouchers and free entry to beer festivals?

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    2. Indeed, though surprising. My guess from reading through a number of posts would be the vanity of remaining a regular contributor to your local CAMRA magazine kept you in the fold. Happy to be corrected. I had assumed the "benefits" for things you did not appear to enjoy would be negligible and not of appeal to someone that disliked wetherspoons or beer festivals and preferred traditional pubs. It is fascinating to see how a life membership is less a bargain and more a trap. A fair warning to those considering it.

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    3. As a Life Member, I wouldn't resign my membership except on a serious issue of principle. I would have done so had CAMRA decided to actively support the smoking ban which, despite what Lucretius1 says, they didn't. I wouldn't have over their ludicrous support for minimum pricing, although there are one or two other touchstones of aligning with the anti-drink lobby that might prompt such a decision.

      I continue to value the social activities it provides and also its work on pub preservation through the National Inventory. On balance, despite the outbreaks of silliness, it does a lot more good than harm.

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  6. Camra is anti smoking and did not support smokers in 2007 when the smoking ban came in. Consequently I and many other long term members left.

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  7. As I've said previously, had I taken out life membership of CAMRA, when it first became available, then I would still be a member.

    It will be interesting to see how the organisation re-groups, when we are finally allowed to meet up freely with our fellow citizens, after the pandemic.

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    1. Normal CAMRA activities won't really be able to resume until all social distancing rules have been scrapped.

      And I suspect it will be a very long time before beer festivals can return to what they were before, as many people will be reluctant to venture into crowded places.

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  8. CAMRA Is Brilliant22 February 2021 at 12:04

    Enjoy CAMRA for what it is not what you wish it to be. Are you retired? The kids left home, the wife busy with none shared interests? Want some beer snob drinking associates at the pedantic end of the scale with odd rules about acceptable drink? Sign up & enjoy some mediocre pub crawls, some decent enough beer festivals and some boring meetings and be part of something! Don't knock it till you've tried it.

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  9. It is unfortunate that since Cookie locked his twitter this is the only way I can see his numerous 140 character piss-takes.

    As for CAMRA. I really liked hanging around the committed ones in my former branch, they were insular in a way that benefits the aims they all originally signed up for.

    CAMRA is now spread to thinly and a non-entity that has some brand recognition because it hosts beer festivals and even hosting them it can somehow tie itself up in knots about which way it goes, in a cultural sense.

    Having said that, witnessing the clusterfuck of the last year highlights just how pointless and useless all beer/pub/brewing associations and representatives actually are. They really are nothing more than "Angry from Tunbridge Wells" except they have membership fees to serve as nest feathers.

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  10. Mild Drinker Matt23 February 2021 at 16:00

    There are those that choose to criticise CAMRA for reasons of their own bitter internal narcissism, but it is important to defend CAMRA when these apostate heretics emerge. My journey with CAMRA began when I saw an advertisement in Opening Times magazine for a “mild challenge”. Visit pubs, drink mild, collect tokens, claim a t shirt and most important of all SAVE MILD. It didn’t work but that is not the point. Something needed to be done and they were doing something. Next year they did the same with the same results but at least they were doing something. What was everyone else doing? Nothing.

    Mild’s decline continued. Year on year mild slumped in volume. It disappeared from pubs, it suffered quality issues of low turnover but every year I knew something must be done so I did it and so did CAMRA. No one wanted to drink mild anymore as it was a bland wishy-washy sort of beer, but it needed saving and nobody else was trying to save it. My wardrobe filled with t shirts recognising that in this battle I was a soldier. Did I ever believe we would win this fight? Not for a minute but that’s not the issue. We were there for the fight.

    The more mild declined the more successful our mild challenge became. As more pubs took part and sold mild for a month and more people joined in the battle and collected their t shirt token. The challenge was renamed magic at one point but that didn’t quell my enthusiasm it enhanced it. At the peak of our success Robinsons discontinued mild as no one drank mild anymore. Not even us to be honest. We all agreed this much improved the mild magic as Robinsons mild was a dull tasteless drink, what with it being mild, and the new micro brewed milds that were not really milds in any real sense, just low ABV flavourful hoppy ales, were much nicer milds. This was the mild we are now saving as they don’t make actual mild anymore.

    So, I ask you CAMRA critics. Without CAMRA who is there to save mild? What are you doing to save mild? I’m doing my bit, are you?

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    Replies
    1. You know, you really ought to start a blog :P

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