|A group of middle-aged men sort out the future of beer|
I offered my own thoughts on what conclusions it should reach in September’s Opening Times. Basically, my view was that CAMRA should draw in its horns a little and stick to the knitting of its core campaigning priorities, but at the same time become less dogmatic and far more relaxed about recognising quality in non-“real” beers. I never really expected that to be quite the line actually taken, but it would be interesting to see how the two visions compared.
An exhaustive series of surveys and consultation meetings was carried out – the photo shows the one I attended at the Gateway in East Didsbury over the summer. Eventually, the project task force came up with their list of recommendations, which was released in December. There have been a number of complaints that there has been little reaction on the beer blogs or Twitter, but it has to be recognised that people have better things to do over the Christmas period, and it’s a long, detailed document that takes time to digest.
I’ve now had chance to read it and offer some random thoughts, although I don’t pretend it’s a fully considered response to the whole thing.
For a start, it’s refreshing to see an official CAMRA document admit that: “The volume of cask beer produced in the UK has collapsed drastically since CAMRA’s formation but has stabilised since 2010.” So often it is incorrectly assumed that real ale was in the verge of extinction in 1971 and since then has staged a dramatic comeback. I’m not saying that CAMRA spokespeople have said this as such, but it’s widely accepted as received wisdom.
I have to take issue with the statement that “CAMRA should promote the virtues of well-produced, well-kept, cask-conditioned beer as the pinnacle of the brewer’s craft.” This sadly represents the narrow-minded “cask exceptionalism” that has been one of CAMRA’s biggest flaws over the years. I am happy to celebrate and champion cask beer as a unique British contribution to the world of beer that, in this country, offers the best beer of any kind you will come across. But it isn’t intrinsically better than every other kind of beer, and I’m sure there are many brewers and drinkers in places like Germany and the Czech Republic – and indeed the USA – who would beg to differ.
One hoary nettle that is firmly grasped is to recommend that “CAMRA should adopt a neutral position on the use of cask breathers.” This is a long-running bone of contention, but surely it’s a classic case of the best being the enemy of the good. A pub with a healthy turnover won’t need to use them, but I’d much prefer cask beer stored under a cask breather than either stale, oxidised cask beer or none at all, and I suspect the vast majority of cask drinkers would agree. I assume this means that branches can happily turn a blind eye to the use of cask breathers when making Good Beer Guide selections or compiling pub guides. However, expect opposition from diehards muttering about “the thin end of the wedge”.
Another thorny issue is to recommend that “CAMRA should permit the stocking of British beers that do not meet the definition of real ale at CAMRA beer festivals.” Fair enough, but it’s more interesting for what it doesn’t say. Does that include bottled beers as well as draught? And does it extend to promoting such beers more generally beyond just stocking them at beer festivals? Plus it opens up the old question of “where do you draw the line?” While I don’t expect to see CAMRA branches rushing to stock Carling at festivals, surely they’d be perfectly within their rights to have a British Lager Bar featuring the likes of Leeds Brewery Leodis and Hawkshead Lakeland.
There has long been a widespread feeling that cider is given too much prominence in CAMRA’s activities, which was reflected in the survey results. However, perversely, the report recommends that the status of cider campaigning should be raised. While traditional British cider is undoubtedly a good thing, the problem is that it’s an entirely different product from beer and the read-across is more limited than many imagine. Most cider drinkers tend to stick to cider – there isn’t a large population of repertoire drinkers regularly switching between cider and beer.
And, given that it doesn’t enjoy a secondary fermentation, the definition of “real” beer cannot be used. Instead, CAMRA’s cider campaigners have come up with a complex and hard-to-fathom set of rules that fails to resonate with the drinker at the bar. I can’t say I ever drink cider, real or otherwise, in the pub, but I do sometimes enjoy the products of independent producers like Sheppy’s and Weston’s at home. Those don’t qualify as “real”, but I’m not really remotely bothered. It also has to be said that real cider has never gained much traction with the general drinking public. Anyone reading this blog could easily come up with a list of ten popular and widely-distributed real ales. Could they even name a single real cider? There has also been a marked rise in “craft keg” cider which seems to have completely passed the CAMRA cider community by, apart from perhaps to have a little sneer.
I would have preferred to see the role of cider campaigning downplayed to some extent, and APPLE instructed to come up with a much simpler definition of “real cider” that included many more real-world products.
It’s good to see a CAMRA publication acknowledge that “There is also a view from some that the Campaign has become unreasonably prejudiced against larger brewers and pub operators – for example, it has been suggested that certain branches favour microbreweries and independent pubs over more established competitors,” even if it doesn’t fully accept the point. There is far too much “tall poppy syndrome” in CAMRA, with popular beers from established brewers passed over in favour of the often mediocre and inconsistent products of tiny start-ups. No brewer deserves a free pass just because they are small, or are struggling to make a living. And, in some areas, the prime criterion for Good Beer Guide entry seems to be the stocking of obscure beers rather than actual beer quality as such.
I very much welcome the recommendation that “CAMRA should be at the forefront of challenging the anti-alcohol lobby”. It really is long overdue that this threat is recognised. However, they immediately piss in their own pot by adding the caveat of “and promoting the benefits of responsible, social drinking in the on-trade.” Sorry, guys, but you won’t get anywhere until you recognise that you are, essentially, on the same side as Tesco. There is still an all-too-common mindset in CAMRA that the anti-alcohol lobby do sort of have a point when they’re attacking the things that other people drink.
And, while it’s right to place a strong emphasis on championing pubs as the home of real ale, the recommendation that “CAMRA should champion the drinking of real ale in communal settings and should not increase its support for the off-trade” does come across as somewhat Canute-like. The tipping point has now been passed when over 50% of beer sales are in the off-trade, and that trend is only going to continue. Yes, ideally it’s better down the pub, but does CAMRA really want to accept that it has nothing to say to home drinkers?
I also find it disappointing that there is no mention of pub preservation or the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors. To my mind, this is one of CAMRA’s greatest achievements and deserves to be given much more prominence in its activities. It will endure when currently fashionable breweries, beer brands and crafty bars have long since bitten the dust.
The conclusion must be that the report is a good example of committee work that has to satisfy a variety of interest groups and stakeholders. Yes, it does include one or two controversial recommendations, but there is a general feeling of not wanting to frighten the horses too much. It may contain plenty of common sense, but it’s not going to encourage anyone to man the barricades, and I can’t really see it silencing those people who resent the fact that CAMRA doesn’t support their own particular hobby-horse or think it is stuck in the past.
However, while you may quibble with some aspects of CAMRA’s policies or campaigning activities, as a whole it is undoubtedly a Good Thing. As I’ve said in the past, not everyone has to be interested in everything. “Nobody can dictate what individuals embrace as leisure interests and enthusiasms.” So, if you like pubs and beer, and want to support them, you can pick and choose which parts of CAMRA’s activities you engage in, and which you let pass by.