Generalisations about beer culture

Yet more thoughts on CAMRA

Below are a few thoughts on CAMRA. If you’re bored of reading people’s opinions on this, as many are, don’t bother going any further and save yourself a headache.

1. If Brewdog and other critics of CAMRA think they’re irrelevant, why do they keep going on about them? Could it be that they want their approval? These breweries are trying hard to make good beer, in their own way, but the venerable old man on the UK craft beer scene doesn’t like them. That must hurt a bit.

2. Why aren’t CAMRA seizing this opportunity to become bigger and more powerful? If people are begging them to be the arbiters of what is and isn’t good beer, they should do it.  It wouldn’t be a compromise — it would be growth. They could continue to champion real ale (before anyone points it out, yes, we know, the clue is in the name) but, alongside that, they could give out “CAMRA Gold Taste Awards” to keg or bottled beers, whether ‘real’ or not. We’d definitely try a beer if a CAMRA member-led tasting panel (like the ones they run in BEER Magazine) had given it the thumbs up. And that’s how you could judge “brewed for taste” — there don’t have to be rules.

3. Now we mention it, doesn’t BEER Magazine already present a vision of a future CAMRA? One where both sides of the debate are heard; where non-CAMRA writers rub alongside high priests of the campaign; and where being into beer is convincingly presented as a mainstream hobby that everyone can enjoy?

24 replies on “Yet more thoughts on CAMRA”

My real problem has been trying to learn about CAMRA from discussions defined by negative space. CAMRA execs don’t like bloggers, BrewDog doesn’t like CAMRA, bloggers don’t like CAMRA or Brewdog and, most annoying, particular questions always receive the response in one way or another that CAMRA could do that at a future AGM.

My recent few posts and pointed comments, however, have triggered discussions that have been unexpected – the importance of volunteerism creating a feeling of and opportunities for belonging, the sense of pride still in taking a practically dead product in the early 70s and making a scene out of it as well as the conservative pride in sticking with the focus that has brought them so far. This is the stuff I wish was far more to the forefront rather than the politics and the jostling for position. When I called it a club I was told that was demeaning. Frankly, it now all sounds like a club I would very much like to join.

I’ve given up on trying to understand BrewDog. I certainly don’t think it’s true that the venerable old man on the UK craft beer scene doesn’t like them – I think what CAMRA doesn’t like is brewers who keep saying that ‘real ale’ is a meaningless term, CAMRA is irrelevant and their own beer is better than anything CAMRA endorse.

That ‘brewed for flavour’ post is a case in point. They come very, very close to arguing that the definition of ‘real ale’ should be revised to include some (not all) of their keg beers. If they’d stuck to this position – “our keg isn’t old keg” – I would have a lot of sympathy with them, & I think it could open up a really interesting discussion with – and within – CAMRA. Instead they revert to slagging off real ale and advocating carbonation and chilling – “our keg isold keg and it’s great!” Predictably, the gear-change is covered by bluster and a bit of swearing (“Craft beer focuses on being fucking awesome regardless of arbitrary rules and out-dated distinctions”), because as we all know that shows you’re real, man. (And these are the same people who have just dismissed CAMRA as a whole as “tacky, conservative, old-fashioned.”) They really need to grow up.

I get the impression here and I must say just about everywhere else on the Blogosphere that CAMRA is some monolithic, remote, secret, closed to all, organisation set up in the the mists of time that has some kind of power over the “real ale world”.

Let’s just think about this for a moment, CAMRA is a few people who are promoting the kind of beer they like and without their action would have disappeared in the late 1970s, it is a consumer organisation of some 120,000 members of which no more than probably 10,000 take an active part. Fewer than those 10,000 dictate the policy and direction of CAMRA; they are also responsible for the information in the GBG and provide the free of charge labour at the GBBF. They run a few beer festivals to promote the kind of beer they like to drink, they are indulged by Government who naively think 120,000 members means 120,000+ votes, they are endlessly discussed by bloggers with nothing better to write about, …….err that’s it.

They are not the supreme arbiters of beer annointed by God, they have no power to dictate what beer brewers brew or what drinkers drink – that is why Carling is Britain’s favourite beer . Anyone can join for £20 (refundable via Wetherspoons vouchers) and change the way CAMRA operates.

If you don’t like their stance on beer, who cares; drink what YOU like.
If you think Brewdog should be at the GBBF then don’t go.
If you think craft keg is wonderful beer then drink it – don’t moan at CAMRA because they think differently to you.
If you want CAMRA to act differently then join your local branch and change it instead of moaning.


Alan – that’s really interesting. I think you’ve hit on two of the key differences between CAMRA and the craft beer scene. Firstly, CAMRA was founded as a campaign – a social movement with quasi-political goals – and still is that to some extent. The craft beer scene (like the BrewDog micro-scene) seems to consist basically of brewers and their fans: it’s a consumer phenomenon in a way that CAMRA still isn’t. Secondly, where ‘craft beer’ is part revivalist, part innovative, CAMRA is very largely conservationist (despite having a distinct tilt to the left politically – some things are worth conserving). These unstated starting-points have a big, and generally unacknowledged, influence on the debate between the two camps.

BEER certainly seems to espouse a more inclusive and tolerant view of beer than some of the dogmatic pronouncements sometimes seem from CAMRA representatives. They even do tastings of non bottle-conditioned beers and non APPLE approved ciders!

I’ve always thought much of this desired change in attitude is achievable by simply adopting a different tone within the organisation rather than through formal motions. After all, it’s not a disciplinary offence to say “I drank some British-brewed beer that wasn’t real ale and actually quite liked it.”

I am never quite sure what is so innovative about Brew Dog. Good recipes and technique (assuming they have both) aren’t innovative. What is though is taking an old idea (chilling and gassing beer up) and presenting it as something new and different.

The real innovation isn’t about beer, but marketing I’d venture. That and developing a fan club.

CAMRA does indeed have conservation at its core and its fundamental aims will inevitably exclude or make it wary of certain things. Cask beer being a live product, does have an inbuilt vulnerability that other beers don’t. That’s one good reason why CAMRA has a lot to fear from the thin end of the wedge.

Lastly I fear that the failure to reach agreement with Brew Dog will make CAMRA feel “once bitten, twice shy” and set the hopes of rapprochement back a fair bit.

Alan — know what you mean. We really, really try hard not to be negative and miserable. Hence the other day’s post on what breweries can practically do to improve their branding with no budget, and this one which was intended to be a constructive view of the current debate.

Phil and Tandleman — just to be clear, we certainly don’t think Brewdog are the second coming or anything. The line we keep using is that they “make *some* very good beers”. Lots of people seem to be similarly on the fence, which actually seems a very reasonable position. Instinctively, the idea that you’re either absolutely for them or totally against them seems weird to us. They’re only a brewery, not a political party or a religion.

Tandleman — I do understand that thin end of the wedge point. I don’t think Brewdog are it, but, e.g., Greene King IPA might be, because it’s shite, and steals a significant amount of business from beers which are actually good. I reckon if it quietly went keg-only next year, it probably wouldn’t lose that much of its market share.

Alun — not sure you read the post. It isn’t a moan. we’re suggesting that CAMRA is a great institution (something else we keep repeating) and a national treasure. Like it or not, it does have influence in the bit of the market everyone wants, viz. people who give a shit about what they eat and drink and so spend more on it. CAMRA is a household name. From where we’re sitting, it’s all but won the fight to preserve cask ale, and has a great opportunity to be something more. We’d like it to take that opportunity because it would be good if it lasted for many more years, which it won’t do if no-one under 20 can understand what the campaign is about.

Curmudgeon — yes, BEER Magazine has that exact tone of voice, I think, which makes it all the more fiendishly effective at promoting cask ale when it chooses to do so because it doesn’t come across as strident dogma.

Alun, do you like what the Conservative Party is up to right now? If you want the Conservative Party to act differently then join your local branch and change it instead of moaning.

Camra presents itself as the champion of the beer drinker, and if there are those who feel they disagree with aspects of what it does while trying to fulfil that role, they’re entitled to criticise – they don’t have to join Camra to do so, any more than you have to join the Tory Party to criticise David Cameron.

As it happens I am a member of Camra, but I don’t think that gives me any more or less right to comment on what it does.

The inclusive, thoughtful tone of BEER is in the long run likely to reinforce the position of cask beer in the marketplace, not undermine it. If you encourage people to think more about beer, it will tend to make them more interested in cask overall, whereas “why are you drinking that lager piss?” just alienates them.

it’s all but won the fight to preserve cask ale

Mmmyeah but… no. Take bread: I believe the Chorleywood process is an abomination and bread produced by slower, more traditional, less industrial methods almost always tastes much, much better; I’d go so far as to say that a properly-baked loaf is ‘real bread’, and most bread in the supermarkets isn’t. And yet I keep buying the sliced white, because it’s convenient and because I don’t want to switch to something with a label like Taste The Quality Spoil Yourself Suit You Sir Hand-Stretched Home-Baked Artisan Craft Loaf (and a price to match). As a baker was saying on the Food Programme today, there shouldn’t be anything elitist about proper bread – it should be the norm, not a luxury product.

Where bread is concerned we’re a long, long way from that situation. For beer we’re a lot closer, thanks very largely to CAMRA, but we’re not there yet. When you can walk into any pub in Britain and see a functioning handpump on the bar, doing more business than the ‘smooth’ tap, then we’ll know that CAMRA’s original mission has been accomplished and we can start to think about new and different ways of championing good beer.

The line we keep using is that they “make *some* very good beers”

I totally agree. The trouble with BD is that they seem more and more like a press office with a brewery attached – and the trouble with that is that the brewery will insist on making such bloody good beer. (I refer here to the cask beers, of course – not the Taste The Quality Spoil Yourself Suit You Sir range of weird things in bottles.)

Re the bread point, see this post.

“For example, I have no interest whatsoever in breakfast cereals. There are hundreds of different varieties on the market, but I eat the same one pretty much every day of the year. With the same type of milk and the same type of sugar on it. But I don’t think that makes me a fool.”

Regarding point 1. I’m a critic of some aspects of CAMRA but I certainly do not think they are irrelevant. The most annoying part of recent tussles is that it seems you cannot voice the opinion that CAMRA are making mistakes without being presumed to be “against” CAMRA — evinced by the “we’ll do what we like” and “set up your own festival then you ingrate” responses. Whereas I see CAMRA rather like a good friend who is making some crap decisions that might come back to bite him in the arse one day and I would rather not see him suffer. I think it can only benefit CAMRA to loosen up a bit on the GBBF, and it is potentially harmful to their long-term prospects if they don’t.

“The most annoying part of recent tussles is that it seems you cannot voice the opinion that CAMRA are making mistakes without being presumed to be “against” CAMRA — evinced by the “we’ll do what we like” and “set up your own festival then you ingrate” responses.”

I rather think that these kind of responses come with an “at the end of the day” caveat after rather a lot of jousting in between. Often though the requests for “improvement” from CAMRA are not supplemented by any helpful suggestions, but prefaced with “fat smelly beardies.”

To have credible debate, you have to debate credibly.

I find it so frustrating how personal this debate can get. There’s no room for the smelly-beardy-fatty jokes in my book.

Equally, though, I’ve avoided commenting on some posts or joining some discussions because I don’t want to get barked at for, e.g. liking some Brewdog beers, or being seen to criticise CAMRA.

Are we agreed that everyone needs to calm down a bit so we can air the issues and have a reasonable discussion? I’d love that.

One could take Tandleman’s well-judged suggestion to omit denigration and insults from reasoned debate rather more seriously were his blog posts and subsequent comments not of this ilk:

An honest and intellectual debate along the lines of what Bailey calls for is exactly what is needed, and with some urgency. Let’s not forget that it is not “real ale” alone that is (still) under threat in the UK (which Phil elegantly points out), but beer itself, as the depressing quarterly British Beer and Pub Association statistics appear to suggest — just look at the miserable fourteen year decline:

Rather than sawing the lifeboat in half as the tides rise, we’d do well to all jump in it together.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’d be overjoyed if the line coming from the ‘craft’ camp was “if there’s live yeast in there, and if there’s no CO2 in contact with the beer, then what is the problem?” It might be an easy question for CAMRA/the GBBF/Colin Valentine/whoever to answer, or it might put them on the spot, but at least there would be an actual question to discuss. At the moment what we get seems to alternate between “why do you bar us when we just want to bring the people good beer?” and “we don’t care if you bar us, we never liked you anyway”.

Here, Tandleman – an actual suggestion!

I think a good way for CAMRA to score here, in much the way Boak & Bailey suggest (and I might add I agree with them and Mudgie that BEER’s line seems a good model), might be for the organisation to grant beer fest status – and, of course, wider consideration – to craft keg from breweries that *also commit to doing cask and have a permanent cask range*.

This would keep CAMRA’s necessary commitment to cask – with which I am in 100% accord – while allowing it scope to give a nod to well-made beers outside of its remit.

If CAMRA is seen as supporting the full gamut of beers from breweries that do cask, it might persuade – for example – Lovibonds to do cask range (even if one beer), much as Meantime have in recent years.

After all, CAMRA prizes do a lot to get beers on the guest ale pumps in pubcos.

Certainly, those breweries that do a kegged range alongside their cask offer are likely to be a lot more CAMRA friendly and a lot of the poison would be drained from a debate that – while small now – will only get bigger as craft keg grows (as it will – cf. Meantime fonts in London’s Punch pubs, keg fonts in Nicholsons joints, UK imports of tankered Brooklyn for keg distribution, etc.).

I think that’s an excellent suggestion from jesusjohn myself. I’d also like to echo the praise for BEER (the magazine, not the alcoholic product, though I like that too). Got my copy through this morning and as ever it looks like a good read, very well produced and generally nice and modern seeming.

Just to be clear – and as my 4 year old tells me pretty much daily – Daddy is smelly and beardy and fatty. We who are mid-life beer loving big hairy men whose fragrant days are past should also have a sense of humour about ourselves.

I don’t directly relate that to Tandleman’s comment “[t]o have credible debate, you have to debate credibly” but I do see one similarity. I am not having a debate or an argument about this or about much else I write about beer. I am exploring and inquiring. I like to use humour and am happy to make fun of myself to the end of figuring things out.

I don’t understand why CAMRA elicits the (perhaps) defensiveness and (definite) seriousness that I might equate with something like the Green Party movement the Tea Party movement or other lecturers. By comparison, the BeerAdvocate heavy metal presentation might go to the other extreme but at least it’s telling me that there is some fun being had. What I have enjoyed about the lead up to the GBBF this year is that sense that under all that “cause” there is actually a lot of communal fun – that I suspect is the actual core of what is going to happen. I wish that could come out more.

I’m not sure Martyn’s Conservative Party analogy is entirley valid, but to run with it a little more; I doubt I would moan about the Tories on the grounds that they’re not the Socialist Workers Party. That is what appears to be happening in the currently fashionable CAMRA bashing. Anyway most adults in this country can vote against Tory policies without being party members.

Why do bloggers act as if CAMRA are the official arbiters and controllers of beer in the UK, they’re not – they’re a private club open to all.

To some extent, CAMRA do present themselves as “the official arbiters and controllers of beer in the UK.” There’s certainly no other remotely comparable organisation of people who are interested in beer – CAMRA is really the only show in town.

Someone could start another organisation from scratch, but it seems a shame when, with a bit of give and take, CAMRA could do it so well.

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