The announcement last week of a consultation on the future of the Campaign for Real Ale is a big deal and deserves the attention it’s getting.
This isn’t something that’s popped up overnight – it’s another flare-up from 40 years of navel-gazing, internal tension external criticism and politicking. The last bout, we think, resulted in 2011’s Fit for Purpose review.
Back in the early 1970s, the brilliance of the campaign was in the simplicity and clarity of the message and the preservation of cask ale became a cause capable of bringing together conservatives, anti-capitalists, casuals, hardcore campaigners, connoisseurs and piss-heads. That’s how CAMRA gained 30,000 members in five years and forced a retreat from the Big Six.
But it lost momentum when that battle was felt to be won (see Brew Britannia, Chapter Four) and, by the late 1970s, the Campaign was already agonising over what to focus on next. Beer quality? Beer purity? Pubs? Cider? Mild? Tasting notes? Lager? Microbreweries? And so it did all of them, a bit, with the interests of sub-campaigns sometimes conflicting. Factions bickered, the public got confused, and membership dwindled. (Though it has absolutely rocketed in the last couple of decades.)
Personally, we think the battle over cask-conditioned beer has been won – most people who want a pint of cask ale in decent condition know where to find one, and the situation is better than that in many parts of the country. Sure, there could be more variety and better quality overall, but that’s all woolly, subjective stuff and hard for an organisation laser-focused on a single technical issue to tackle.
Meanwhile, there are battles that CAMRA has failed to win, such as saving mild. In fact, in that case in particular, the Campaign’s consistent stand against cask breathers has perhaps exacerbated the problem, making it less appealing for publicans to stock slower-selling beers in marginal styles.
We’ve long said that we’d like CAMRA to be less dogmatic, to find a way to support all good beer (however you want to define it).
To us, and others like us, it seems weird to be championing, say, Sharp’s Doom Bar over something way more interesting that just happens to be in a keg. That kind of thing has made it impossible for us to wholeheartedly shout in support of the Campaign, or get active, even though we’ve been members for nearly a decade now and have never felt the need to huffily tear up or burn our membership cards. (We are, famously, appalling fence sitters.)
But here’s the problem: we reckon they were getting there anyway, slowly, through back-and-forth at successive AGMs, without any threat of a shock to the system.
The quarterly magazine, BEER, has been quietly reporting on wider developments for some years now. (Disclosure: we’re paid to write for it on a fairly regular basis.) The Campaign’s publishing division has made gestures towards acknowledging craft beer (definition 2) with a profile of BrewDog included in the 2014 book Britain’s Beer Revolution. The technical committee has appointed some interesting new names and has found a way to permit certain types of keg at CAMRA festivals. And so on.
For hot-headed youths, or just the hot-headedly youthful, this no-doubt all seems a bit ponderous: WHY CAN’T THEY JUST SORT IT? But this is Britain where we don’t really have revolutions – we just carry out a series of compromises so slowly that no-one notices until, fifty or a hundred years later, accompanied by quiet grumbling, everything has got where it needs to be by something like consensus.
And then there’s the pub question.
We’ve come to feel that, yes, pubs are disappearing at a worrying rate, and that Something Ought to be Done. But there’s a chicken and egg question here – should CAMRA focus on saving pubs because that will help beer? Or focus on beer because that will ultimately benefit pubs? Our instinct, again, is that the focus on pubs is about right at the moment, with perhaps some tweaks to tone and the specific details of pub-related sub-campaigns – woe-is-me and nagging those who drink at home doesn’t help. (Of which perhaps more in a later post.)
So, going back to the consultation, we’re torn.
On the one hand, yes, we would like to see CAMRA finding a way to represent all beer drinkers, and lobbying and campaigning for a healthy beer culture, in which cask ale is of course important but not the be-all-and-end-all.
But, at the same time… Do you know, we’re just not sure a change of name or mission statement is necessarily required. If changes are made they are (a) bound to upset a substantial proportion of existing members and (b) probably won’t be the right changes, or sufficiently far-reaching, to convince many external critics of the Campaign to sign up.
We haven’t decided, in short, but the point is, we will be giving it serious thought before responding, not just reacting from the gut. And if you care about this at all, whether you’re inside or outside the Campaign, you should do the same.
The consultation is available on the CAMRA website and is open to both members and non-members.
By way of food for thought, there have already been plenty of opinion pieces and there will no doubt be more on the way. Here’s a selection of those we’ve noticed (with updates as and when):
- Adrian Tierney-Jones – it’s probably fair to summarise this as, ‘Oh, who cares?’
- Alec Latham at Mostly About Beer – a proud member but thinks it should be a campaign for all good beer
- Des de Moor – wants a campaign that support beer which is ‘flavourful and full of character, irrespective of whether it’s technically “real” or not’.
- Ed – enters into a religious fervour (tongue in cheek); thinks the Campaign is fine as is
- Martyn Cornell – CAMRA’s Clause Four moment; it must change or become irrelevant
- Paul Bailey (no relation) – on the fence, for now
- Pete Brown – cask shouldn’t be the exclusive focus (Morning Advertiser)
- Phil at Oh Good Ale – keep the focus on real ale (thoughtful, detailed)
- Pub Curmudgeon – says the Campaign should be less dogmatic about real ale, among many other points (actually from last October)
- Stonch – there’s no change that will make craft beer geeks happy
- Stuart at Train Beers – says more or less the same as us, but he said it first
- Tandleman – the battle isn’t won, pressure from change isn’t coming from within the campaign
- Tony Leonard (a publican) – saving cask ale was only the start for CAMRA (Morning Advertiser)