Revitalisation: Compromise, Politics & Progress

Illustration: "FORWARD!"

Even though everyone is thoroughly weary of the topic there is a lot being written about CAMRA’s Revitalisation project so we’re going to highlight some of it here, and throw in some passing thoughts of our own.

The main event in the last week has been the publication of a manifesto by Bradley Cummings of Tiny Rebel brewery who is running for the CAMRA National Executive. Out gut feeling is that this feels like a PR move more than anything and we’re not sure brewers should be on the NE, though of course there are lots of historic examples of people moving back and forth from the industry to CAMRA. (Martin Sykes of the Selby Brewery was an early NE member; Christopher Hutt became a pub entrepreneur; Michael Hardman worked for Young & Co after leaving the NE; Chris Holmes founded Castle Rock, and so on.)

Here’s Mr Cumming’s manifesto (PDF at Google Drive):

Let’s face it: CAMRA isn’t very cool. How many of its nearly 200,000 members would end a sentence that starts “I’m a CAMRA member” with “for my sins”?

A new generation of beer fans is incredibly passionate, knowledgeable and energetic, but CAMRA has alienated them instead of seeing their efforts as consistent with CAMRA’s aims.

Let’s not forget – CAMRA was established to give consumers a CHOICE. But CAMRA has lost that forward thinking, progressive outlook and instead adopted a position of preference.

I do not believe for a second that the new generation of drinkers wish to remove real ale from the British beer landscape. On the contrary, I believe they want to get back to the roots of CAMRA and promote informed choice, and protect cask ale as an exciting and important part of our beer scene. I should know – I’m one of them.

Here’s a passionate, pointed rebuttal by Kirst Walker, our 2017 Golden Pints blogger of the year:

I’m dismayed at how little scrutiny has been given to some of the ideas beyond the banner headline of ‘don’t judge beers by method of dispense’. Yes, there are some wide ranging ideas, not particularly radical, which we can all get on board with. But there are also some chilling statements around the treatment of pubs and publicans which seem to have gone under the radar, and some bombastic messages which have gone unchallenged, such as ‘Brewers know beer best. That is undeniable.’…. Is it? I don’t think so.

And here’s a cautious almost endorsement from Tandleman:

You can pick and choose the elements you like and dislike and while there isn’t an awful lot that is entirely new, except perhaps that one of the brightest stars of brewing, in one of the most enterprising companies, actually wants to get involved with CAMRA and sees CAMRA still has potential. He wants to motivate members and get them directly involved in CAMRA’s democracy and is willing to stand for election to rummle things up a bit, which many (including me) will see as a positive…. On the other hand, personally, I am very wary and can’t reallyconcur with (possibly inadvertently) repositioning  CAMRA as a kind of offshoot of industry, though some closer involvement would be sensible.

In general, we’re inclined to agree with the general thrust of that argument. The Revitalisation proposals are by necessity a compromise between many subtly different positions, most of which shake out into two major camps: conservative and progressive. You might object to specific elements of language or like some parts while hating others but when push comes to shove, as in real world politics, you can only vote for the candidates on the ballot paper on the day and hope to nudge things roughly in your preferred direction.

For our part we’ll be voting in favour of the Revitalisation proposals or, rather, “to change the Articles of Association to allow the Campaign to enact the recommendations made by the National Executive”.

Whether we vote for Mr Cummings for the National Executive will depend on what the other manifestos look like; suffice to say, we’ll be choosing candidates who are broadly progressive, even if (as is almost certain) we don’t agree with their stance on every single issue.

There’s bound to be some muddle, argy-bargy and further disgruntlement, but Heading That-A-Way! and working out the problems when they arise seems to us better than doing nothing until CAMRA simply ossifies.

24 replies on “Revitalisation: Compromise, Politics & Progress”

From eight years’ experience in beer consumer organisations, I have never seen someone who wants to storm in from outside and shake things up get any traction from the voting membership.

My main problem with the revitalisation project as it happened, is that it seems to have ended, whether by intention or not I do not know, seeking methods to prolong the existence of CAMRA.
For an organisation whose first 4 objectives are stated as:
1) to protect the interests of all those who wish to drink real ale;
2)to campaign for an improvement in the quality and variety of British real ale;
3)to draw to the attention of Members and the general public those places where real ale can be found;
4)to promote and foster activities concerned with the consumption of real ale

It would seem to me that any attempt to change the Campaign should be based on asking how to make sure that CAMRA can ensure that these aims remain relevant and achievable in the present and future.

Whichever way the vote on this goes, it seems almost inevitable that CAMRA is going to schism to some extent over the issue.

Scott – that’s a good point. Having said that, we do think CAMRA is worth preserving. Creating a new body to represent consumers from scratch would seem practically impossible at this point, or at least a waste of energy.

“My main problem with the revitalisation project as it happened, is that it seems to have ended, whether by intention or not I do not know, seeking methods to prolong the existence of CAMRA.”

Of course it does. What else would it do?

Is a schism really likely? Crafties have shown almost no inclination or ability for grass roots organisation so it would have to be die hard CAMRA traditionalists splitting off. Individuals would be isolated and even if whole branches went they wouldn’t take the inactive but paying membership with them so would have little funding and no professional support.

Full on ‘crafties’ don’t tend to be CAMRA members; what we’re talking about here, I think, is people who are already active in CAMRA but feel frustrated a lot of the time. They’ve already got the experience of running branches, putting out magazines, organising festivals… I don’t think it’s likely, but it *could* happen.

I’m really struggling with the concept that CAMRA’s Revitalisation project could possibly be about anything other than seeking methods to prolong the existence of CAMRA. That’s literally the purpose!

Assume Scott’s point (he may correct me) is that if Revitalisation is about self-preservation for the sake of it (CAMRA must live on, even if it means becoming a campaign against dog mess or in favour of improved pedestrian crossings or something) then that might be a problem. As long as it’s about preserving (or, er, revitalising) CAMRA so it can better represent beer consumers, which we think it is, then that’s fine.

I’m struggling with ordering all my thoughts about the whole thing, but I think that at least part of the difference in opinions between “traditionalists” and “the craft beer crowd” is that there are such different experiences depending on where you live. In my town, there’s not really any craft beer at all, and such keg beer as exists is utter rubbish; we have too many GK pubs, but that’s the biggest beer problem here, beyond sometimes mixed beer quality. In the nearby villages, it’s all about saving their locals. For people in these places, what CAMRA has always stood for is absolutely central to what they want. It’s not that they’re Luddites, but that they want to preserve what they have and make it a bit better. Craft beer is (currently, at least) irrelevant here.
In the city next door, it’s different. Big student population, lots of places to drink, and several craft breweries. Here it makes no sense for CAMRA to ignore good beer simply because of the method of dispense. What CAMRA really needs to do is to get people to understand these differences and be an organisation that fights for all its members – fight for beer quality, fight for pubs, but above all, fight for drinkers. I really don’t think Bradley Cummings is the answer, although he might be part of the answer.

Thanks for the link – I think this, plus Kirst’s article linked above, are very valuable contributions to the debate, because they grapple with the fact that CAMRA is not simply a movement, or a campaign in the narrow sense, but a living, breathing members organisation with its own structures, tools, technologies, metrics, platforms, codes etc. It’s an institution. Before you go about changing or revitalising that, you have to have a really good understanding of what binds it together. Vague imperatives of “progress” or “getting with the times” just seem to fly past this.

This is why accepting the idea of a “conservative/progressive” split in the beer world, while perhaps accurate in many ways, is so unsatisfying and frustrating. Could you not conserve the core purpose of CAMRA while adapting the means of delivering that purpose in radical, progressive ways? Or are we doomed to this reductive culture war of “progress/craft beer/online/young/inclusive/pubs are not the only fruit/vote with our feet” and “traditional/real ale/save the pubs/branch structure/trade union style/old/sexist pump clips”?

There is, whatever the outcome, a risk of disturbing the existing equilibrium and damaging the organisation as a whole, but only time will tell. I must admit the thought had already occurred to me of this potentially making “culture wars” more explicit in the beer world.

@OliverH – as natural fencesitters we’re also uncomfortable with polemical positions as can alienate the (no doubt vast majority) of people somewhere in the middle. It’ll be interesting to see who else steps forward.

Thanks – yes, and what particularly bothers me is the “bunching” of positions – if you believe X then you also believe Y – because it shuts down progressive possibilities in favour of a binary backwards/forwards choice.

There are many different ways that CAMRA could progress and become stronger, more resilient and fulfil its mission better (and in fairness the Revitalisation survey did present various pictures of this to members). It just means asking different questions.

Is including craft within CAMRA’s mission *really* going to increase the active membership? (I doubt it). If I love craft (which I do, Tiny Rebel included), is it *really* so important to me that CAMRA includes craft within its mission? Is CAMRA *really* a consumers’ organisation, or is it more of a cultural heritage organisation? If so, where is it needed most, where can it do the most good?

If the active membership is in terminal decline, what are the other ways that CAMRA can further its mission of protecting and promoting real ale, pubs and cider? What other uses can it make of its massive membership (which seems to grow by another 1000 each time someone on Twitter dismisses CAMRA as irrelevant)? Are there ways to activate members other than beer festivals, branch meetings, scoring pubs etc? Etc Etc.

TL;DR: Fencesitters of the beer world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your splinters.

I hope I can persuade you guys that it’s not just PR – though I guess that side of things is unavoidable with my place within the industry.

The talk about the split in the beer world is interesting. I’m also not a fan of polemical positions – producer and consumer are not mutually exclusive.

Thanks. That certainly helps with several points, but I do think you’re absolutely wrong with the line that brewers know beer best. It comes over as arrogant, overbearing, obnoxious and patronising, and I certainly don’t believe it’s true. After all, Michael Jackson wasn’t a brewer, and probably knew beer better than anybody. I think it’s highly doubtful you would be brewing without his influence, for a start. Further, if brewers know beer best, does that mean that AB-Inbev know it best of all? Brewers know production best. They probably understand their market best, although that’s open to question. What they don’t know best is how their product compares to the competition; drinkers know that best, by definition. So ultimately, it’s drinkers that know beer best – the proof of the pudding being in the eating, not in the cooking or selling of it. So no, brewers do NOT know beer best, and it’s not exactly a smart move to tell a consumer organisation that their views are less important than the manufacturer, is it?
Try a line like “nobody knows beer better than brewers” and you might get away with it, though. Just don’t try to push the hegemony of brewers over drinkers.

It’s really not “method of dispense”! Hand pumps vs the metered electric pumps they used to have in some Manchester pubs – that’s “method of dispense”, and that is irrelevant. The definition of ‘real ale’ is all about the active yeast; you can put RA in a key keg and serve it from a keg font – you can even chill it if you want to – and it’ll still be RA. (I’ve seen a “CAMRA says this is Real Ale” sticker on a keg tap. Why not?)

Obviously Bradley knows all this stuff inside out, so I was disappointed to see his suggestion of “focusing on quality rather than dispense”. Dispense is trivial; live yeast isn’t.

Live yeast certainly isn’t trivial; I guess the ultimate question is “is it the be-all and end-all of good beer?”
My view is that if you can’t absolutely say that, 30 years ago or more it was certainly just about the best indicator. Sure, there were some decent bottled beers without live yeast, but pretty much only Guinness had any sort of claim to being a drinkable beer on draught without live yeast. Now, though? I’m not so sure.
Are there other processes that are important for beer quality? Pasteurisation, for instance? Strikes me as potentially having more impact on the flavour of beer than the source of carbonation. Cold filtering? Dry hopping? Maturation?
My view remains that in general, naturally-conditioned beers are better than artificially conditioned ones, but that there are plenty of other factors in beer quality that I’m not prepared to be totally hung up on that one. I’m a photographer, and lots of photographers get hung up on technical details to the detriment of aesthetics – burned-out highlights, for example. My view is that if a photo looks good, it IS good regardless of technicalities, and I take the same view with beer.

If you think you can tell the difference between bottle or cask conditioned beer and brewery conditioned beer with 100% accuracy, you’re completely delusional.

If you think you can tell the difference between margarine and butter with 100% accuracy, you’re completely delusional. But that doesn’t mean butter isn’t a more wholesome and natural product.

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