I read with dreary, fatalistic resignation that James Watt, the High Priest of Brew Dog, claims that CAMRA is the devil incarnate - "I blame CAMRA for single-handedly holding back innovation in British brewing says he in an American on line magazine, Full Pint. Com.
Knocking CAMRA in this way was only a matter of time. (His relationship with CAMRA in Scotland is one of mutual distrust as I understand it, with not all the wrong coming from CAMRA.) Putting that aside there is a little context within his comments which softens these remarks somewhat, in that he mentions CAMRA's emphasis on "focusing on too few beer styles". Fair point maybe, but really when you stand this on its head, too few beer styles originate from British Brewers. If you don't have innovation in brewing, you can't really pick up on these styles and comment or support them can you? So really if you think about it logically, Mr Watt is actually complaining about the lack of imagination and vision, not of CAMRA, but of British brewing - of his fellow British brewers really, though no doubt he'd argue that CAMRA encourages their staidness. Rather more strikingly, James is complaining about the very gap in the market he is exploiting so successfully and on which he bases his future expansion plans. Like his brewing, his reasoning is rather innovative when you examine it more closely.
Now it has to be said that sometimes CAMRA doesn't help itself. Image has always been a problem as we all know and CAMRA sometimes seems to tread the wrong line. Roger Protz recently wrote about how golden ales shouldn't be pushing "traditional" brown beers out, both on the bar and in competitions, but to my mind, the main innovation in British brewing is at that "pale"end of the spectrum, not in the brown session market. I doubt if Roger meant to come across as a stick in the mud - and reading his excellently favourable article in "Beer"about oak aged beers, he gave no such impression - but it allowed the anti CAMRA brigade to have another swipe. Another point and one I have made before, is that basically Brew Dog are a bottled beer brewer who do the odd cask (and do the odd cask very well). CAMRA members are pub goers by and large, so James is blaming an orange for not looking like an apple, to some extent at least. It would be nice to see James pushing the cask aspect of his business a little more come to think of it.
Going back to innovation, British brewers by and large are the most staid and conservative bunch you could ever meet - with of course, honourable exceptions. (Try persuading a Regional Brewer to do anything different and you'll be met with hostility and usually condescension). Even micro brewers, on the whole are brewing incredibly dull mainstream beers, again with honourable exceptions. The real need for innovation comes at brewing level and one thing I think CAMRA should do much more of is to campaign seriously for that.
CAMRA has been a bit too easy on traditional ale brewers in this country and at both local and national level, we should try and correct that. There is indeed too much emphasis on "boring 4% beers, with boring hops". So come on brewers. Give the public 4% beers, but please give us choice too. Innovation isn't and shouldn't be the sole domain of smart young things. The market is changing and needs to be grabbed and reshaped. CAMRA needs to embrace and promote both tradition and innovation.
And finally Brew Dog is establishing its niche and I doubt really if James wants too many other brewers to steal his clothes by out innovating him. He wouldn't want to become mainstream, so maybe he should be careful that what he wishes for doesn't become "too" true.
See? I'm caught up in BrewDog whether I aim to be or not. Their stuff works on me too. They are part of the brewing and blogging scene now.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink. He also judges beer at both the International Beer Challenge and the World Beer Awards.
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