In its 44 years of existence, the Campaign for Real Ale has had a more complicated relationship with lager than cries of ‘fizzy piss’ from some members might have you believe.
In the early 1970s, no-one in the Campaign was thinking much about lager at all, its energy being focused almost entirely on battling keg bitters from Watneys et al. The very first issue of What’s Brewing (WB), however, did carry an advertisement for an excursion to the Munich Oktoberfest organised by one of the founders, the bespectacled and hawkish Graham Lees.
Another keen traveller with a far from parochial attitude was Richard Boston, the author, from 1973 onward, of a weekly column about beer in the Guardian. Though highly supportive of CAMRA, at least at first, he also made a point of acknowledging his love of good lager, as in this passage from his 1976 book Beer & Skittles in which he recounts one of his formative experiences:
Some time around 1965 I went for a holiday which took me by train through Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria… To me [Prague] seemed delightful… The food was stodgy, low in taste and protein, but my God the beer was good. I had only intended to stay in Prague for two days: I knew no one there, I hadn’t much money and there was little to do. I stayed nearly a week, going from place to place drinking this wonderful beer and feeling more and more like the good soldier Svejk.
We are by no means uncritical of CAMRA but our instinctive reaction to the Tweet above was defensive: we’re rather fond of the Campaign, despite its oddities, frustrations and occasional missteps.
That’s why, despite having been tempted a couple of times, we’ve never let our membership lapse. (Or made a big fuss about cutting up or burning our membership cards on social media, as some others have.)
Keen to explore that gut feeling, we had a think about what specifically makes us like CAMRA as it is now, and came up with the following list.
1. Joining is a rite of passage — a way to show you’re on Team Beer. When we were just getting into beer, we wanted something like a fan club to join, and CAMRA was and remains more-or-less the only game in town. We didn’t know the ins-and-outs of dispense method politics — we just wanted a badge and a newsletter and a secrete decoder ring. It still fulfils this function today.
2. It gets beer and pubs into the news. CAMRA’s pub of the year awards gain acres of coverage, especially in local papers. When there is a story about beer, CAMRA is always asked for a comment: without them, business, government and the health lobby would have a monopoly over the conversation. It reminds the real world that people who are a bit more than passingly interested in beer exist, and in great numbers.
3. It makes beer part of the conversation in Westminster. You might not think it joins the right conversations, or takes the right line, but the fact that it is able to influence government policy at all is remarkable. Membership numbers are always entertaining to consider: CAMRA 169,000; Conservative Party 150,000; Labour Party 194,000; Liberal Democrats 44,000. (SOURCE: Wikipedia.)
4. Its history. The modern beer festival, with its tokens and dizzying array of weird beers, evolved from events like the 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition. The Good Beer Guide was the first book to prioritise drinkers and beer rather than breweries and food. CAMRA even helped to pioneer the ‘tasting note’, way back in the 1980s, when most people thought it was silly to talk about beer instead of just necking it. It didn’t single-handedly save British beer from mediocrity but it certainly played a huge part.
5.It offers something to react against. Breweries such as BrewDog and Meantime would not exist as they do today if they had not shaped themselves in opposition to CAMRA’s values and culture, as they saw them.
6.It is democratic. It’s an imperfect democracy — one that feels inaccessible and confusing to us in its current state — but it does give members the power to propose and vote on policy. The much-mocked letters page in What’s Brewing is currently a battleground between those who advocate a thawing of relations with ‘craft beer’, and those who want to send tanks in — but both voices are represented, in equal measure, without (as far as we can tell) any censorship of ideas.
7. It keeps cask-conditioned beer alive and relatively well. Though we’re pro-keg and -bottle, many of our favourite beers are cask-conditioned, and wouldn’t be half as good otherwise. We certainly think it’s a tradition worth preserving, and, without CAMRA’s constant stick-and-carrot pressure on the industry, it would be a lot harder to find outside specialist venues.
9. It is a national institution. The eccentricity, rituals, arcane rules and regulations, and the occasional pomposity, when they’re not infuriating, can seem rather charming. Like the College of Arms or Flora Day or cheese rolling, CAMRA is one of those things that makes Britain feel British: are we the only people who would voluntarily set up a huge national bureaucracy to organise debauches and moan about the heads on our pints, with occasional interludes of Morris Dancing?
Last and probably least…
10. It publishes, and pays fairly for, good quality long-form beer writing. (DISCLOSURE: including by us, if we do say so ourselves.) BEER magazine is one of few outlets in the UK for writing about beer and, despite its parentage, allows both criticism of CAMRA in its pages (though we can’t point to a specific example right now) and discussion of beers other than ‘real ale’.
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Of course we could easily argue against ourselves on each of these points. For example, why should CAMRA be the de facto voice of beer drinkers, given that it doesn’t represent all of them? What’s the use of cask ale everywhere if it’s only lip service — dodgy Greene King IPA and Sharp’s Doom Bar? And doesn’t government have more important things to worry about than beer and pubs? But this was about exploring our gut feeling — that CAMRA is a good thing, for all its flaws.
We’ve switched comments off on this post because we can’t quite be bothered to moderate the argument that we suspect might ensue. If you’re desperate to Speak Your Brains, email us at email@example.com and we’ll perhaps publish some comments in a follow-up.
He argues that, on the whole, ‘backward facing motions were defeated, while progressive motions were passed’. Among those carried was Motion 15:
This Conference instructs the National Executive to investigate a labelling scheme for naturally conditioned Key Keg beer, which would allow customers to identify which beers, at the point of sale, conform with the CAMRA criteria for real ale.
This is significant, as we understand it, because it paves the way for beer in ‘key kegs‘ to appear at CAMRA beer festivals, as long as they meets certain technical criteria — that is to say, that they are unfiltered and unpasteurised, contain a certain proportion of live yeast, and are carbonated without the addition of CO2 from an external source. (Key kegs use gas, but the gas doesn’t actually come into contact with the beer.)
This is not a wholehearted embrace of keg beer, overturning 40+ years of principles upon which the Campaign was built. Nor is it ‘CAMRA goes craft’. And we suspect it will take a long time for the results to be evident in the wild, too, with much bureaucracy to negotiate.
But it is important as a gesture, like that simple handshake between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro last December.
The letters page in next month’s What’s Brewing should be fun, though, while those passionate craft beer types who CAMRA has already alienated, will probably regard this, sourly, as too little, too late.
@BoakandBailey To be fair, real ale served via key keg was approved by CAMRA's TAG some time ago – motion was more about clear labelling.
CHAOS LOOMS AS KEG SITES FORGE AHEAD said a front-page story in the January 1978 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s newspaper What’s Brewing.
Two of the Big Six brewers are to go ahead with plans to build two giant keg-only breweries… The two new breweries — Whitbread’s lager factory at Magor in South Wales and Courage’s fizz-only brewery outside Reading — will cost almost £100 million… The brewers are gambling their customers’ money on the evidence of the huge upsurge in lager sales during the two freak summers of 1975 and 1976. But at least one form of City stockbrokers… say lager sales cannot be expected to carry on climbing.
But carry on climbing they did, and how:
That amazes us every time we look at it: from 7 per cent to 74, with the only pauses coinciding with periods of recession in the early 1980s, 90s and late 00s. (Something to explore in a future post, perhaps.)
Making predictions is difficult at the best of times, but it’s even harder when your prediction is really intended to influence the outcome; and/or if your prejudices make it difficult to be objective, e.g. about the intrinsic appeal of cool, easy-drinking, pretty-looking, fizzy beer.
(Of course none of this is going to stop us attempting a prediction in tomorrow’s post…)
We’re researching an article which has given us an excuse to chat to several Campaign for Real Ale veterans.
One of them, Anthony Gibson, was a press officer by trade and, through his London CAMRA branch, got involved in publicity for the Campaign in the 1970s. He told us this story as an aside:
I think it was the first or second day of the Great British Beer Festival at Alexandra Palace [in 1978]. We were all in the staff room trying to work out how to get more publicity – it was going well, but we needed a big crowd to make it viable. We’d already done things like stage a procession of brewers’ drays. Then I was walking back from the loo when I thought, why don’t we organise a competition? Let’s find out which is the favourite beer of all the people drinking here today.
The way we did was that I put together a short-list by asking people working on the bars which were their best-sellers. Then I went round and approached ‘specially selected’ members of the audience and got them up on stage to blind taste the beers on the short-list, which were organised into categories. We didn’t have specialist judges – just ordinary punters. We compered it and made a spectacle of it and it was very successful.
Within an hour of having the idea, I had a press release out. It was the start of something which is still going today.
The joint winners were Thwaites’s Dark Mild and Fuller’s ESB.
It’s funny to think that, these days, in the wake of the inevitably outrage-inducing result of the Champion Beer of Britain competition at GBBF, people crawl all over the process looking for evidence of impropriety, incompetence or bias. In 1978, they’d have had a field day.
Over-thinking beer, pubs and the meaning of craft since 2007