Friday 8 April 2016

Carry On CAMRA

Tempting though it has been, I have refrained until now from writing about CAMRA's Revitalisation Project, but having read yet another treatise on the subject, I though I might as well chip in what I think. I'm not exactly an insider, you'll find that CAMRA has quite a few layers of influence above me, but I do know how many beans make five real ale wise and to some extent CAMRA wise, so here goes.

Firstly, what has prompted this consultation exercise?  Is it internal pressure to change? No, it is very largely external, but there is one vital change that has prompted this. It isn't the fanciful idea that CAMRA is frit about craft beer  - though there is a perception that's the case -  or that there is a membership concern about our lack of support for craft keg - there isn't  - and of course many of our members supplement their drinking by having the odd craft beer or three.  Crikey, even I drink lager and craft beer from time to time and apart from a small minority, I reckon most CAMRA members do.  It can't really be a hatred of keg then surely? Or non real ale - I repeat our members by and large drink it. So what is behind it?  My perception is that the answer, at least in part, is that we have a new Chief Executive (Tim Page) that wants to look at the Campaign with fresh eyes and ensure that under his tenure that CAMRA is doing the right thing, that it is taking its members with it and is fit for purpose.  Ah these words.  Some may recall that I was involved in the last review, the Fit for Purpose Review and I was pleased that Tim mentioned, when he spoke to me in Liverpool this weekend, that he had thoroughly read the Fit for Purpose Review document and its recommendations on taking up appointment and that he saw the Revitalisation Project as very much an extension of the work of that committee, of which I was a member. 

Bloggers have been banging on about this for a bit, but here's a thing.  By and large they don't really influence anyone but other beer bloggers and fellow travellers - aka readers.  Most CAMRA members aren't blog readers. Hell, I'm sure most of my 1800 CAMRA members have never read my blog despite me banging on about it from time to time. In short, we don't really matter and the pressure exerted by most of us, no matter how well written or closely argued, can safely be ignored.  CAMRA needs to set its own course and it is the members that are most important here and to whom this review is really addressed. Ultimately they will decide. It is their campaign, but that isn't to say that blogs haven't generated some interesting stuff. They have, but reading through some of the blogs on this subject, I am struck repeatedly that most people, CAMRA members or not, seem to lack any real insight into why most people within CAMRA don't just see the light and campaign for all beer. A Campaign for Good Beer if you like.  The answer isn't all that complex. It is simply that on the whole, by preference, they drink and support real ale, like it better and are worried that it will disappear without CAMRA.

So as it has all been done for me, I'll quote a few bits from blogs which I think get to the heart of things:

Oh Good Ale

Phil made this rather pertinent comment in his blog:

"At its core CAMRA is a single-issue campaign – and, despite how specific it is, ‘real ale’ is the best way to give that single issue a focus. But it’s a campaign, not a cult. What we want, if we’re members of CAMRA, is more, widely-available, good-quality real ale. That’s probably also going to be reflected in what we drink, given the choice – but if we do range more widely, frankly that’s nobody’s business but ours."

The Beer Father

Ed wrote:   A common criticism of CAMRA is that it was a big mistake to focus on dispense method rather than beer quality. On this, like so many other things, the critics are wrong.  By tying their definition of real ale to cask conditioning CAMRA made real ale easily recognisable in any pub in which it is served: just look for the hand pumps. This has served well as an indicator of what to drink in a pub for decades now, and continues to do so today. No specialist knowledge is required, and people with only the faintest interest in beer nerdery can easily pick out the real ales.

He went on to say, tellingly: "Craft beer on the other hand is in a horrible mess already. In Britain attempts at defining craft beer have been even less successful, and many beer geeks have had to settle for "I know it when I see it", which I'm sure if of great help to the average beer drinker.  In a local supermarket craft beer is now another ill defined category like world lager."

Boak and Bailey

Chip in with that most pernicious and incorrect of arguments: "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."

This is the old CAMRA has done its job argument. It hasn't. Real ale is not in as much danger as it was for sure, but the continuance of real ale requires eternal vigilance. Paul Spearman writing a comment on Zythophile's Blog wrote a very good counter to that notion here and as I’ve argued elsewhere, all the pressure for change within CAMRA is external. I detect little real wish within, other than tweaking around the edges. And the battle for real ale is never won. We are just at a fairly high point in the war. Quality is still the key at both the brewing and dispense end of things and we still haven't got this remotely right.


Is taken with a notion expressed on Boak and Bailey's blog:" I was also much struck by this comment by Ian H on Boak & Bailey’s blog: "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. 

He is right to be so taken.  The link Ian outlines between the various strands of CAMRA is neatly summed up and  gathered into a cohesive whole as written above. Maybe, just maybe, CAMRA isn't nearly as far off the mark in its current campaigning as some allege. 

CAMRA started out as a single focus organisation, but has acquired many more bits and pieces as it went along. But it has never really lost that single focus and that's what gets on the nerves of those outside that say we should change. Most members say no such thing. It is focus that brings relevance and I am pretty sure that most CAMRA members will see it that way. The Campaign is its members and if the members want to continue that single focus that's just what we'll do. It is also worth pointing out that with nearly 180,000 members, CAMRA isn't going anywhere soon and members provide relevance by their sheer weight of numbers.  Focus on what you can identify, define and defend and you will gain followers. A woolly message doesn't do that. It is the single focus that has made CAMRA the organisation that it is. To change it might be suicidal. To paraphrase Mao about the French Revolution "It is too early to judge whether that single focus has worked or not!

Now of course my critics will say I have just chosen quotes to suit my own stance. Well too true I have, because they actually make sense. While it is certainly wise for CAMRA to review its activities from time to time and make adjustments - and I have been involved in the making of a few of them - but it is too glib to simply say CAMRA should campaign for all types of good beer. What is good beer? Define it. My best attempt will be "Beer I like" but if you include beer most people like - and why wouldn't you? - we'll have to include the most popular beers in the UK. Those are massed produced lagers. Unless you drink basic commodity lager, in the UK, you are a minority drinker. We shouldn't overlook that. 

Finally for now, I wrote this on Stonch's Beer blog and I'm happy to stick with it:

"All the pressure for change within CAMRA is external. I detect little real wish within, other than tweaking around the edges. I personally want to move CAMRA to be more concerned about the quality of real ale at the point of dispense and to protect traditional pubs and, yes cask conditioned beer. We shouldn't worry about the rest too much. And the battle for real ale is never won. We are just at a fairly high point in the war. Quality is still the key at both the brewing and dispense end of things."

So we carry on and if we eventually disappear up our own arseholes as we all die out, so be it. I've enjoyed the ride and so have most of our members.

Now of course it may not all pan out this way, but I reckon I won't be far off the mark. There is a possibility that the campaign may change in a way that will cause it to implode. What won't happen I'll bet, is that we become a Campaign for Good Beer. It isn't what the members want and in a members organisation, if you don't take your members with you, then you are scuppered.

And I repeat. Most CAMRA members drink all kinds of beer, but they campaign for real ale.  As always, the clue is in the name.  Should a major change take place, I imagine that a much weaker campaign for real ale would emerge. So maybe CAMRA is in a bit more of a cleft stick than Tim Page realises.


The Beer Nut said...

A very large number of members -- a majority, I would hazard -- are there through Direct Debit inertia, so there's no question of the Campaign imploding if it changes direction and broadens its focus.

My question is if, hypothetically, CAMRA does change and become an organisation campaigning for all beer culture and representing all beer drinkers, would you, personally, leave?

Cooking Lager said...

I get where you are coming from with "good beer". You'd expect it to find a market with or without a consumer campaign. Cask ale as a product is something many producers would like to get rid of, market badly and if people want to keep it and see it as part of their tradition and cultural identity, why not campaign for it? You've got it in many pubs but yeh, in many of them its a gamble

The results may be interesting. It's possible with ease for lots of retail members to vote on a question of who CAMRA represents without having to turn up. The 90% of members of branches you and any active type have never met. Be interesting if what they think is different from what the 10% of active volunteering turn up to things members want.

It has the capacity to entertain us beer blog communicator curator types.

Tandleman said...

BN: A reasonable question. The answer is that it would depend on exactly how that is defined. I campaign for real ale because it is an indigenous style I want to continue, so the answer is maybe, maybe not. Good beer isn't under any real threat but real ale (cask conditioned) always is.

The direct debit inertia is a fair point, but the Campaign is growing.

Tandleman said...

Cookie: I would remind you that this isn't a vote.

Cooking Lager said...

Ah, so the active minority of various layers of committees reserve the right to ignore the result?

That would be an altogether different sort of ruction.

Consider me signed up for any splitter TAND centric coterie

Tandleman said...

The result of the consultation exercise and I assume the NE recommendation will be put to members according to the constitutional requirements.

Words like kick and long grass come to mind!

DaveS said...

"Cask ale as a product is something many producers would like to get rid of, market badly and if people want to keep it and see it as part of their tradition and cultural identity, why not campaign for it?"

This, for me, is the heart of the matter. What I'd ideally like CAMRA to be is an organization that campaigns for real ale - or specifically cask ale, to be honest - not because it's intrinsically better than any other mode of dispense for all forms of beer, but because it's good and potentially more at risk.[1] Re "the battle for real ale being won", I'd see it more like pushing a cart up a hill - you can get it a long way up but that won't stop gravity trying to pull it back down.

On the other hand, I'd also like them - at an organizational level at least - to treat good British keg beer as a compliment to good British cask beer, not a threat to it. For instance, I don't really understand why it makes sense to allow mead, wine and foreign keg at a beer fest, but not British top-pressure keg. I'd like to see "good beer generally" as something that they don't actively campaign for, but are happy to accept.

[1] nearly wrote "under more pressure" there...

Curmudgeon said...

I agree with DaveS that CAMRA should go further than simply banning "anti-campaigns" and be entirely relaxed about recognising merit in beers that do not qualify as "real ale" - quality lagers and brewery-conditioned bottles as well as craft keg ales.

I know that in practice this is the attitude many, probably most, members take, but there is still a view that any favourable mention of non-real products is in a sense attacking real ale. For example, I'd like to see BEER do a review of British craft lagers.

Things like mead and wine are completely separate from beer and so I don't really see any problem with having them at beer festivals, although preferably sold by third-party stallholders rather than CAMRA itself. Likewise I wouldn't have a problem with a hypothetical craft gin stall at a beer festival.

Curmudgeon said...

Interesting question as to "would you leave?" I don't know whether Tandleman is, but I'm a life member (for which I paid £70 many years ago) and so leaving would basically be an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face. Having said that, I can think of one policy, that was once proposed in an AGM motion, that certainly would result in me telling them where to stuff it.

If I had been an annual member, I might have considered not renewing at the time when CAMRA seemed to be engaged in appeasement of the anti-drink lobby. Apparently this blogpost - which I fully stand by - did not go down at all well in St Albans. But things like Tandleman's successful motion on minimum pricing would probably have led me to rejoin.

Cooking Lager said...

We must fight tooth and nail to, er, maintain the status quo, because, er, the fight is never done and it faces constant peril.

A war cry if ever there was.

Matt said...

The "craft keg" thing really is a red herring. While I mainly drink cask beer, when I do drink keg it's invariably non-craft stouts or lagers from global brewers, which I'm sure is typical of most CAMRA members.

Anonymous said...

You're correct about how limited the audience is for beer blogs. I've long thought that, but I find it interesting that you do too even with your blog's much greater reach. The problem is when people think they are addressing the beer world as a whole, or putting the 'beards' in their places, when they put comments on real ale blogs. In reality, they're doing neither.

I tend to think of beer blogging as an extension of having a chat in the pub to people with similar interests.

Neville Grundy said...

I don't know how that came out as anonymous: it's me!

Cooking Lager said...

I long suspected Anon was you. It's all clear now.

But there's blogs and there's blogs. There's TANDs blog and then there's all the others.

It may be that 99.9% of all blogs are irrelevant but that other bit is the TAND blog and anyone who is anyone reads the TAND.

The Beer Nut said...

Mudgie, every active and engaged CAMRA member I know is a life member, and I think these are the people most likely to object loudest to any change to the organisation's remit. That gives the instigators of change a big safety net: life members are more likely to stay in, and even if they all depart en masse, the financial cost to the organisation is minimal. If a change slowed the rate of recruitment that would be a big argument against it, but find it difficult to believe that it would. If anything, I reckon a wider remit would attract more newcomers.

Tandleman said...

Well you know me and I ain't one John. PAYG. As for a wider remit, what would they campaign for?

Neville Grundy said...

I'd close the life membership category to new applicants if I could, but I see little point in proposing such a measure because I don't think it would have any chance of success.

The Beer Nut said...

Well pardon my lazy assumption! As treasurer of a sister campaign I say good man yourself. A steady income is any organisation's heartbeat.

Of the 13 full members of EBCU, only the UK and Ireland have organisations with a remit for some beer not all beer. All the rest engage in campaigning for drinker's rights against the worrying growth of the anti-alcohol lobby, for better consumer information, for fair pricing and taxation, against anti-competitive practices and monopolies, for better quality through local and national awards programmes, and for a fairer shake for beer in the food media where wine tends to dominate the discussion. CAMRA is no stranger to these areas and there's always plenty to be done in them.

Curmudgeon said...

@Nev - why? I think the rate is set at slightly above what it should be on a strict actuarial basis, so CAMRA actually benefits financially. Plus it gets more money upfront. When I paid £70, the annual membership fee was £7, although about to go up to £9. But interest rates were over 10%, so at the time I would have been better off leaving the money in the bank.

Of course there is the entirely respectable argument that you wouldn't want to become a life member because the organisation wouldn't suffer financially if you decided to resign. This is more applicable to CAMRA than a largely non-controversial organisation such as the National Trust.

@Beer Nut - do the other EBCU members have anything like the social and festival-organising side that CAMRA does? If so, surely they are at least a bit choosy as to which bars they frequent and which beers they stock.

The Beer Nut said...

The bigger groups like Belgium, Netherlands and Denmark certainly do have a very similar social and festival culture like CAMRA. I'm not sure what you're getting at with the choosiness, but at Belgium's national festival I was amused to see AB-InBev with the same size stall as every other exhibitor. Until recently, Carlsberg hosted the Danish national festival and exhibited all its brands there. I was very glad when Heineken had a big stand for Heineken Extra Cold at the Copenhagen gig in 2008 because it meant there was always an empty space to rest my beer when the hall got crowded.

The emphasis in these groups does tend to be on the smaller breweries and artisan (or whatever term you prefer) beers, but it's not intrinsic to the organisations' identities (except for us in Ireland) the way that a particular type of beer is intrinsic to CAMRA's.

PY said...

They say new ideas become accepted because people change their mind, but because the stubborn adherents to the old, discredited ways of thinking simply die out and their arguments are immediately forgotten and ignored.

Clearly, we still have a few years to wait on that issue, the question is whether CAMRA dies out with this particular group of angry, slurring, red-faced old men, or whether the modernisers manage to prise control of the organisation from their cold, dead fingers in the nick of time.

Tandleman said...

Quite a few years I'd venture.

Phil said...

CAMRA life membership is currently set at the equivalent of 18 years' subs, so you got a bargain with a 10x multiplier, Mudge.

Even 18 years' worth would have been a bargain if I'd joined, well, 18 years ago. At the hoary old age of 55 it starts to look like a bit of a gamble...

py said...

What discount rate are you applying to calculate the NPV, Phil?

Curmudgeon said...

@Phil - but interest rates were much higher then. Also to some extent it's giving a sign of commitment to CAMRA over and above paying the annual subs.

I also put in many hours of unpaid work for CAMRA and have left them a modest sum in my will.

Phil said...

I'm assuming that the inflation-adjusted equivalent of £24 will be worth precisely as much to me in any given future year as it is now, as well as purchasing precisely as much (100%) of an annual CAMRA sub and precisely as much (1/18th) of a lifetime sub. These are clearly very naive assumptions, but I can't be arsed to refine them.