Our Obligatory CAMRA Revitalisation Two Penn’orth

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 replies on “Our Obligatory CAMRA Revitalisation Two Penn’orth”

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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