Our Obligatory CAMRA Revitalisation Two Penn’orth

Various books and magazine from the last 40+ years of CAMRA.

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.

John Simpson's depiction of middle class student CAMRA members, 1975.
John Simp­son’s depic­tion of mid­dle class stu­dent CAMRA mem­bers, 1975.

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.

Make Mine Real Mild -- CAMRA, c.1980.

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.

Illustration: moody London pub.

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):

24 thoughts on “Our Obligatory CAMRA Revitalisation Two Penn’orth”

  1. Real ale, real cider/perry and pubs are the red squir­rels that actu­al­ly need CAM­RA’s pro­tec­tion. Craft – a pre­mi­um prod­uct which I buy all the time- stands on its own two feet.

    I think of my CAMRA mem­ber­ship as an invest­ment in the cul­tur­al infra­struc­ture of tra­di­tion­al British drink­ing. As the recent blog­post from Rob Lovatt at Thorn­bridge shows, real ale is just that lit­tle bit more fid­dly to make, trans­port and dis­pense, but worth con­tin­u­ing “just because”. My CAMRA mem­ber­ship, I hope, helps to ensure that I will always have the option of buy­ing a pint of cask in the future should I want to. The craft beer indus­try just does­n’t seem to be cry­ing out for my help in the same way.

    I wor­ry that the whole “how can you cham­pi­on Old Fausty over Wiper & True” ques­tion is a MASSIVE red her­ring when it comes to deter­min­ing the future of CAMRA. I just don’t think we need a mass mem­ber­ship organ­i­sa­tion to cham­pi­on ALL beer or “rep­re­sent” all beer drinkers.

    As I’ve argued else­where, 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.

    1. I think it’s a big prob­lem that CAM­RA’s notion of “real” cider and per­ry is entire­ly its own inven­tion, and not a preser­va­tion of a tra­di­tion­al prod­uct. They’ve just tak­en the def­i­n­i­tion of real ale and applied it to cider, inap­pro­pri­ate­ly and harm­ful­ly, IMO.

      1. Thanks – it’s some­thing I need to edu­cate myself more about. I’ve not­ed that in recent years, even in West Coun­try cities like Bath, good qual­i­ty local cider is far more preva­lent in pubs than it was 10–20 years ago. Per­haps I jumped to con­clu­sions – I sup­pose this is prob­a­bly more attrib­ut­able to the Mag­n­ers effect than the “real cider” effect.

      2. BN: Not that I would know the answer, but how so? I rather thought that Farm­house style cider made from whole apples was in the same dire posi­tion as real ale. That is it was being swept away by arti­fi­cial­ly car­bon­at­ed prod­ucts made with apple pulp and indus­tri­al alco­hol? Prob­a­bly more to it than that, I dare say,but that’s what the cider wal­lahs tell me. Is that not the case?

        1. The prob­lem, as told to me, is that you can make blos­som-to-bot­tle cider from whole apples grown on your farm with no oth­er ingre­di­ents, and CAMRA still won’t con­sid­er it “real” if the car­bon diox­ide comes from the wrong place. Mak­ing extra­ne­ous CO2 an issue in cider is forc­ing it to con­form to a norm invent­ed for beer.

          1. Arti­fi­cial car­bon­a­tion is part of tra­di­tion­al cider mak­ing? Is that what you are say­ing?

          2. Like some of the oth­ers (I sus­pect) I’m a bit baf­fled by your CO2 ref­er­ence. Could you expand a bit on this one please? As far as I under­stand it cider and per­ry come basi­cal­ly in two forms – a prod­uct that is essen­tial­ly fer­ment­ed and apple and pear juice which is served au naturel or a prod­uct that is processed to some extent by fil­tra­tion and/or pas­teuri­sa­tion. If I’ve missed some­thing here please let me know.

        2. Yes any point­ers would be help­ful, I’ve had a quick scan and I can’t see much dis­sent online to the real cider def­i­n­i­tion. And at a time when the mar­ket is being flood­ed with non-apple-based alcopops mas­querad­ing as cider, it seems appro­pri­ate to reassert what “cider” has tra­di­tion­al­ly meant (although that may be my own West Coun­try chau­vin­ism).

          Of course there will always be dis­tor­tions and unin­tend­ed con­se­quences from the move­ment of trans­la­tion between “just how we’ve always done it” to “a tech­ni­cal def­i­n­i­tion we pub­lish and defend”, just as there were/are with “real ale” – but equal­ly, look at how strong that tech­ni­cal def­i­n­i­tion has made CAM­RA’s net­work. I’d want to see evi­dence that actu­al cider-mak­ers were com­plain­ing about the “real cider” def­i­n­i­tion. Not say­ing that evi­dence does­n’t exist.

      3. Yes – cider just isn’t the same kind of drink as beer. For a start, it does­n’t expe­ri­ence a sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tion, unless you make “cham­pagne cider”. I make no claim to being an expert, but the impres­sion that I get is that the def­i­n­i­tion of “real cider” is far too obscure and com­plex, where­as cask ale is straight­for­ward.

        Oliv­er H’s post above is excel­lent, btw. “CAMRA is a peo­ple-pow­ered cul­tur­al her­itage organ­i­sa­tion” – very true.

    1. Cheers, Peter!

      I think the only thing I want to add is that I don’t see the Cam­paign for Real Ale as a cam­paign against any­thing (unless you get clever and say it’s a cam­paign against the removal of real ale). So if any­one is “cham­pi­oning, say, Sharp’s Doom Bar over some­thing way more inter­est­ing that just hap­pens to be in a keg” – in oth­er words, if any­one’s say­ing that we should all drink cask beer on every occa­sion, what­ev­er the cask beer is and what­ev­er the alter­na­tives are – I don’t think they’re giv­ing an accu­rate reflec­tion of what CAM­RA’s about. CAMRA is about the wider avail­abil­i­ty of cask beer – and when that bat­tle’s been won (which I don’t believe it has) CAMRA will be about the wider avail­abil­i­ty of good qual­i­ty, well-kept cask beer. But it’s not about con­demn­ing any­one for drink­ing any­thing else.

      That said, those inter­est­ing keg beers are a bit of a red her­ring. If a keg-only craft beer bar takes out one of its keg lines and instals a hand pump, that is some­thing to cel­e­brate, because cask beer is dif­fer­ent. Putting on cask beer rep­re­sents a com­mit­ment to a kind of beer that can’t just be hooked up and tapped till it runs out: it behaves dif­fer­ent­ly, matures dif­fer­ent­ly, and gen­er­al­ly needs more care­ful and inten­sive han­dling, and it repays all this extra work with lit­tle more than the knowl­edge of a job well done. (The one word that would sum up the dif­fer­ence between cask and keg, iron­i­cal­ly, is ‘craft’.) And that’s not to men­tion the supe­ri­or­i­ty of some (most?) cask beer, at least when com­pared to keg ver­sions of the same beer. A hand pump in a keg bar rep­re­sents the pos­si­bil­i­ty of Jaipur or High Wire on cask; in terms of wider avail­abil­i­ty of good beer that’s some­thing to cel­e­brate, even if the imme­di­ate effect is to replace Neck Oil with Doom Bar.

      1. CAMRA is about the wider avail­abil­i­ty of cask beer

        Which is com­plete­ly the prob­lem. That’s a stu­pid thing to cam­paign for. Cask beer is already avail­able in far too many places, hence the issues with qual­i­ty. One more tap of vine­gary piss is noth­ing to be cel­e­brat­ed, it will just put peo­ple off drink­ing beer.

        Once again, the cam­paign for real(ly shit) ale are doing every­thing they can to destroy the UK beer and pub indus­try. Is it incom­pe­tence or arro­gance? Who knows.

        1. Show me where I said I was in favour of bad beer dri­ving out good, py, and that com­ment will be worth answer­ing.

          1. Eh? What a bizarre straw­man. Pro­mot­ing cask ale in cir­cum­stances when keg ale would be more appro­pri­ate and pro­duce a bet­ter end prod­uct for the con­sumer, then pro­mot­ing cask ale is pro­mot­ing bad beer.

            If that is what cam­ra should be doing, as you argue it should, then you are clear­ly and unam­bigu­ous­ly argu­ing in favour of pro­mot­ing poor qual­i­ty beer, because cask beer in those cir­cum­stances is bad beer.

            If you can’t under­stand that, I don’t real­ly know what you tell you.

          2. I’m not say­ing there aren’t any “cir­cum­stances where keg ale would be more appro­pri­ate”. But you seem to think those cir­cum­stances apply very wide­ly indeed, includ­ing many exist­ing cask out­lets (“Cask beer is already avail­able in far too many places”). I don’t; I think more pubs & bars could take cask beer than do so, and many more pubs & bars could serve good cask beer in good con­di­tion than do so. So I don’t see any con­tra­dic­tion between pro­mot­ing the avail­abil­i­ty of cask beer and pro­mot­ing beer qual­i­ty – even if the first beer through a new hand­pump is noth­ing to write home about.

  2. Isn’t the glo­ry of CAMRA found­ed in its process? The fact that you have a con­sul­ta­tion… dis­agree­ment… and an effort to express the inter­ests of con­sumers is so envy-induc­ing when viewed from a con­ti­nent mired in brew­ery own­er fawn­ing. Those not being excit­ed by what is unfold­ing may speak to a bit of famil­iar­i­ty and even rea­son­able tedi­um but CAM­RA’s past net suc­cess­es are enough, it seems to me, to for­give the fail­ures and antic­i­pate an unex­pect­ed unknown. Wish it was in my town.

  3. Actu­al­ly, what you do need is a con­sumer organ­i­sa­tion as large as pos­si­ble ded­i­cat­ed to what­ev­er you need. The num­ber of mem­bers CAMRA has is one of the rea­sons it can have things like par­lia­men­tary meet­ings and has at least some polit­i­cal clout. I imag­ine the oth­er Euro­pean equiv­a­lents can only look on with envy at the back­ground influ­ence that CAMRA has. Do any of the oth­er EBCU mem­bers get reg­u­lar­ly asked for press quotes? Per­son­al­ly I’ve always though that it does­n’t real­ly cam­paign enough; one thing though, Craft brew­ers have been at least slight­ly aid­ed (thanks to the cam­paign) by pro­gres­sive beer duty, regard­less of whether they pro­duce cask or keg.

  4. I have to agree with much of Oliv­er’s orig­i­nal com­ment. My own very per­son­al con­cern though over CAMRA becom­ing a force for “all beer” (dis­claimer – I run, and self-finance, a non-cam­ra, non-cask, beer fes­ti­val) is that at least in rela­tion to beer fes­ti­vals they will actu­al­ly reflect in their own behav­iour one of the key things they came into exis­tence to oppose – the homogeni­sa­tion embod­ied by the big 6, as opposed to the vari­ety (and qual­i­ty) pro­vid­ed by small­er tra­di­tion­al pro­duc­ers of a dis­tinct prod­uct. If CAMRA beer fes­ti­vals become all encom­pass­ing then the new wave of inde­pen­dent, keg-led events is in dan­ger of being eclipsed by the “big 1”. I fear the poten­tial for demand for the niche events being at risk as what they offer becomes less unique, mak­ing the already dubi­ous eco­nom­ics of run­ning an inde­pen­dent fest even less con­vinc­ing. And for me (per­son­al­ly at least) this is at a time when sig­nif­i­cant pri­vate invest­ment might just be about to start turn­ing into a mod­est first prof­it (though still some way yet from break­ing even over­all). If the locall CAMRA fes­ti­vals all expand to offer a keg range, even if it is a poor­er ver­sion of what we strive to cre­ate the temp­ta­tion to throw in the tow­el and write off that inde­pen­dent invest­ment will be great. There­by los­ing the sort of inde­pen­dent spir­it that has, I am sure, helped to show CAMRA what it has been miss­ing.

    Do I see that as like­ly? No, but I do see it as pos­si­ble. And I feel an ele­ment of what I imag­ine it must have felt like for some involved as the big 6 swal­lowed up and con­sumed tra­di­tion­al cask brew­eries 40+ years ago. The fear of what I, and oth­ers, have worked hard for and paid hand­some­ly for in time, effort and mon­ey being swept away by the infe­ri­or mass prod­uct.

    I’d rather CAMRA focused on qual­i­ty of cask beer and the pubs that serve it, but of course that requires a greater lev­el of pro­fes­sion­al­ism to influ­ence where­as the sim­ple “cask is good, keg is bad” mantra can be han­dled much more eas­i­ly by an enthu­si­as­tic but untrained mem­ber­ship out “in the field”.

    Anoth­er dis­claimer – I’m also a CAMRA mem­ber amd am hap­py to have a foot in both camps.

  5. There already seems to be far too much empha­sis being put on cider in this debate. CAMRA is the Cam­paign for Real ALE. The clue is in the name! No mater what the virtues of tra­di­tion­al cider and per­ry are (and I admit there are plen­ty), and no mat­ter how endan­gered these tra­di­tion­al drinks are (nowhere near as much as they once were), these two drinks are noth­ing to do with beer; nev­er have been and nev­er will be.

    If peo­ple are con­cerned about the future of these prod­ucts (as many obvi­ous­ly are), then I humbly sug­gest they either start their own, entire­ly sep­a­rate cam­paign, or spin-off APPLE from its cur­rent posi­tion with­in CAMRA.

    I sus­pect that when the sur­vey results are in, the lat­ter option will be inevitable, as the vast major­i­ty of CAMRA mem­bers I know, are of the same opin­ion. Good luck to the cider enthu­si­asts, but after all these years of hid­ing behind CAMRA’s apron strings, it real­ly is time they stood on their own feet.

Comments are closed.