CAMRA Members Vote for Slow, Difficult, Gradual Change

Hands

After several years of discussion and debate members of the Campaign for Real Ale got the chance to vote for/against changes to the organisation’s culture at the weekend and chose… A limited amount of cautious progress.

We watched news of the CAMRA’s AGM trickle in via Twitter while we were at the tail end of our holiday, feeling relaxed and slightly detached from it all. On the whole, we reckoned, the outcome represented a move in the right direction, towards a broader campaign about decent beer, if not quite the clean, decisive revolutionary change for which some were hoping.

We are not alone in this interpretation, and find ourselves agreeing fairly well with Roger Protz’s analysis, which also does a good job of explaining some of the foibles of this particular democratic process:

I voted for change. I would like CAMRA to be the voice of all pubgoers and to campaign to save pubs. While I will always drink real ale as my beer of choice, I recognise that many modern craft keg beers are of excellent quality and are worthy of attention…. But I also accept that, as a result of its founding aims, real ale must always be central to the campaign’s activities. No other country produces large amounts of cask-conditioned beer. It’s part of Britain’s history and heritage and it is to CAMRA’s great credit that it has been saved, restored and revived.

But other people read the same information rather differently: the defeat of one key proposal was either one in the eye for the craft beer usurpers, or a death knell for CAMRA, depending on prejudices and loyalties. Pete Brown’s thoughts, although we don’t really agree with the main thrust of his argument, shouldn’t be dismissed given his long background in the industry, and makes a good case for why this change, and perhaps further change, is necessary:

Year after year, research for the Cask Report showed us that there were no deep-seated objection to cask, not in significant numbers. any way. The main reason people hadn’t tried it was that they hadn’t been given a reason to. Cask needs to be made relevant to these people in the context of what they’re already drinking: if you like that, you might like this. Craft keg drinkers are a soft target for cask to convert – they’re half way there already…. Most drinkers just want good beer, irrespective of who made it or what it comes in. Most cask ale brewers now brew in other formats as well – cask now only accounts for 74% of SIBA members’ output, which puts CAMRA in the strange position of endorsing some but not all of the beer of the breweries it claims to support.

We think Ed is right to downplay the significance of the controversially defeated proposal that CAMRA should “act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers”. There’s a lot bundled up in that and we can imagine it lost a few votes from those who are irritated at CAMRA’s involvement with cider and perry, or who think that beer is more important than pubs, or worried that this would specifically mean CAMRA effectively supporting big brand lager — the main adversary for these past 40 years.

If we were dismayed by anything in particular it was the election of anti-Revitalisation candidate Lynn Attack to the National Executive, but even that, after a moment’s reflection, we concluded was just the hive mind deciding in its inscrutable way that it wanted checks and balances in place. The membership wants change, but it also wants it to be slow, and perhaps even difficult. That might seem frustrating but it’s how sustainable changes are made, and consensus reached.

A big, bold public statement in favour of change might have helped with PR, but change is happening anyway, on the ground. To some extent, Revitalisation was about formally approving what many individual members and branches were already doing. That is, appreciating, celebrating and supporting the kind of beer they want to see more of in the market, regardless of dogma. Ten years ago the main beef people seemed to have with CAMRA was that interesting breweries producing primarily keg beers were effectively barred from its festivals; that change has been forced through at various points in the front-line by volunteer organisers who thought it was daft, and through the deletion of a single line in a key document has now been official policy.

Anyway, as we have nothing much terribly substantial to add beyond that, we’ll finish with a round-up of links to what others have said:

Jim at Beers Manchester — “Yes. I ‘get’ that the majority of the Revitalisation agenda got through…. Yes. I ‘get’ that the sinister ‘Motion 8’ sank almost without trace…. But that’s not enough…. This vote was merely the straw that broke this particular Camel’s back.”

James Beeson, Morning Advertiser — “CAMRA members narrowly rejected​ the call to widen the organisations scope to promote other types of beer, cider and perry, and in doing so, sent a clear message to the industry. That message? ‘We’re not interested in adapting. We don’t want to change.’”

Keith Flett — “The results indicate, in my view, progress but not enough progress…. I’ve been a member of CAMRA since 1975 (my thoughts on this are linked below) and I won’t be leaving. I was among the 18,000+ people who voted on the resolutions based on the revitalisation project. That is a several years long review of how CAMRA is relating to the modern world of pubs, beer and brewing. I was also one of the 16,000+ people who voted for 4 places on the CAMRA Executive. CAMRA has over 190,000 members. Food for serious thought there.”

Pub Curmudgeon — “Taking the results as a whole, nine out of ten Revitalisation resolutions were passed, as were ordinary Conference motions to adopt an officially neutral stance on the cask breather, and to allow the selling of non-real British beers at beer festivals…. So the results have to be seen as a mixed bag rather than a decisive victory for either ‘side’.”

UPDATE 11:30 24/04/2018 Adrian Tierney Jones, TelegraphAs a writer on beer and pubs and a CAMRA member, I am disappointed that the resolution fell, especially as 72.6% of 18,000 voters was deemed insufficient to pass it. My first thought was whether I wanted to remain a member — I am still not entirely sure.” (Behind a paywall; registration is free and entitles you to read one article per week.)

Disclosure: we are sometimes paid to write for CAMRA publications.

Thought for the Day: SIBA & the Family Brewers

St Austell Brewery.

Last week SIBA members voted not to permit larger independent brewers to join as full members, against the urging of SIBA’s leadership. And we reckon, well, fair enough.

Yes, family brewers are an endangered species and worth preserving. Fuller’s and St Austell are fine breweries whose beer we generally love, and a different breed from Greene King and Marston’s. They’re certainly a million miles from AB-InBev and are ‘goodies’ in the grand scheme of things. (Disclosure: we’ve had occasional hospitality from St Austell over the years.)

At the same time, Fuller’s and St Austell already have significant advantages over genuinely small breweries, not least estates of pubs which those small brewers are effectively locked out of. They also have national brands, apparently substantial marketing budgets.

If we ran a really small brewery and were struggling every day to keep our heads above water, competing for free trade accounts and scrambling for every last sale, we’d be pretty pissed off at the idea of those two breweries muscling in on what little benefit SIBA membership seems to bring.

And much as we admire Fuller’s and St Austell we don’t think either is perfectly cuddly. If they were keen to join SIBA as full members it was probably out of a (entirely reasonable) desire to secure some further commercial advantage. If we’re wrong, if we’re being too cynical and it was simply a matter of longing to belong, then they clearly have more work to do getting that message across.

Helping those small brewers to sell a bit more beer, without strings attached, would probably be the most directly convincing way to go about it.

Further Reading

QUICK POST: Same Old Song

"Are All Beers The Same?"

The other day we encountered a hazy pale-n-hoppy beer from a local brewery that was decent in its own right, and certainly well on trend, but something about it bothered us: it simply seemed indistinguishable to quite a lot of other beers from quite a lot of other breweries.

Maybe this has been on our minds because our attempt to pin down the definition(s)  of ‘craft beer’ resurfaced again lately. The first definition we provide there, with reference to Michael Jackson and Roger Protz, includes the word ‘distinctive’ as a key characteristic — a sense that an experienced palate could not easily mistake that beer for any other.

Now, there aren’t many beers that really fit that criterion, and we’d probably struggle to tell, say, Bass from St Austell Cornish Bitter tasted blind on most occasions, but, still, perhaps it has got harder still in recent years. When there were a few hundred breweries in the UK, each making a handful of beers, there were plenty of unique selling points to go around: this one does lager, that one uses Cascade, there’s one down the road making an imperial stout that smells of puke to a sort-of-historic recipe, and so on. Now, with going on for a couple of thousand, it’s obviously harder to come up with anything completely new that is also likely to sell in any volume in pubs, i.e. that is not completely bonkers.

Even so, we do wonder if the tendency to rely on the same handful of commercial yeast strains, the same broad families of hops, and to look to the same few highly-rated beers for inspiration, isn’t leading into a cul-de-sac.

What is your thing? What makes your beer different, and better, than Bloggs’s? If you can’t answer that then you probably won’t convince a pub or shop to take your beer over one that’s 85 per cent identical but twopence cheaper, or with nicer packaging. You probably won’t convince drinkers to develop any particular loyalty to your brand either.

If you’re not distinctive, aren’t you… generic?

Reflecting on Devon Beer

Vintage map of Devon showing Beer Head.

About two years ago, when we still lived in Penzance, we were approached by the editor of Devon Life magazine. He wanted to introduce a monthly beer column and reckoned we were the right people to do it.

We pushed back: we didn’t know Devon well, although Ray spent some time there as a kid and we’ve often visited; and the fee they were offering would barely cover the cost of researching the column. Still, he was insistent, and there was something interesting in the idea of focusing on one county and ferreting out what there was to be ferreted. So we said yes.

Over the course of 20 months we wrote about notable pubs, breweries, bottle shops, nuggets of history, and specific beers. We made special trips to Cockington, Exeter, Exmouth, Newton Abbot, Plymouth, Tavistock, Teignmouth, Tiverton, Topsham and Totnes, and convinced people from various other places to come to us at The Imperial, AKA our Exeter office. We don’t claim this makes us experts — you have to live in a place, ideally for years, before you can really say that — but it did give us a deeper sense of what is going on than we’d otherwise have acquired.

When the column came to an end at Christmas, we took a bit of time to reflect on what we learned, and to draw some conclusions.

Continue reading “Reflecting on Devon Beer”

Thought for the Day: Win-Win For BrewDog?

Cartoon: waiter, to customer -- "Don't worry, sir, it's an ironic fly."

BrewDog today announced the launch of Pink IPA, a product identical to their standard Punk IPA except for a bright pink label, and the fact that it will be 20 per cent cheaper for women in BrewDog bars, in reference to the gender pay gap.

Satirically dubbed Beer for Girls, Pink IPA is BrewDog’s clarion call to close the gender pay gap in the UK and around the world and to expose sexist marketing to women, particularly within the beer industry. This is our overt parody on the failed, tone-deaf campaigns that some brands have attempted in order to attract women.

The collective reaction to this, it’s probably fair to say, averages out to something like a pained groan.

Criticism ranges from suggestions of rank cynicism — they knew this would annoy people, thus generating coverage — to a sense that BrewDog (to whom the nickname BroDog has occasionally been applied) is the equivalent of “that lad from your A-level politics class who makes ‘get back in the kitchen’ jokes but it’s OK because he’s being ‘ironic’ and is actually a ‘feminist’”. (@alys_key) It’s juvenile, it’s tone deaf, it’s an attempt to co-opt a serious campaign to sell beer. And so on.

Now, from our point of view, the idea itself doesn’t seem so dreadful even if the execution is terribly clumsy. Yes, it might be time for them to admit that a very large, very successful business is not a great vehicle for social commentary or satire — the phrase, we believe, is ‘punching down’ — but we suspect this is intended sincerely, or as sincerely as a marketing stunt can ever be. We believe there are people in management at BrewDog, which remember is very much more than Watt & Dickie these days, who care about these issues and really are trying to find a way to use the company’s clout for good.

But those who are more troubled by this than us (and we don’t question their right to be) find themselves in a quandary. Do they ignore it, thus giving BrewDog a pass? Or do they call it out, thus giving BrewDog publicity?

We’ve long suspected that BrewDog’s marketing strategy is to embed itself into the minds of people outside the beer bubble because that’s the only way to make sense of some its more surprising decisions. We daresay they’d have preferred to go viral today because the reaction to this stunt was positive, but they’ll probably cope with the hurt feelings by reflecting on how they trended on Twitter, got parodied by other monster brands, and were the focus of comment after comment after comment in the global mainstream.

To put that another way, people might be saying, “BrewDog — what a bunch of wankers!”, but at least they’re saying BrewDog, over and over again.