Monday, 21 November 2011

Handing on the Baton

Tyson has mentioned the Bury Beer Festival  and Darren Turpin here. This used to be run by CAMRA for many years - in fact I've organised it more than once - but is now run by the hall owners themselves, on a different basis. CAMRA did run a small membership stall this year though and I did my bit on Friday afternoon, by spending a few hours there with my "Ask me about CAMRA" badge on. Quite a few did and one of the questions I was asked more than once, was "Why isn't CAMRA doing it now?"

There is no one answer, though lack of willing local volunteers was a pretty big factor, but my personal feeling is that for us, the event had run its course. We had done ourselves proud over the years and could now bow out, especially as the hall owners had their own thoughts about how the festival could develop and change. Also, clearly, one of the biggest expenses is the hall hire and that is something owners don't have to pay for and through letting out concessions to sell beer, they don't have to worry about the cost of buying it, or staffing the stalls, to nearly the same extent. In short, they have many advantages and have an ability to run things slightly differently to appeal to a different audience - in this case combining it with frequent live musical acts, but it could be anything.

When we started doing the Bury Beer Festival umpteen years ago (well over 20), beer festivals were the sole domain of CAMRA. Now others do it and Bury has quite a few. We blazed the trail and now many others are copying it, adapting it and taking the strain, as well as promoting cask ale to others. Is this a bad thing? No, it isn't. We in CAMRA campaign for real ale and if our campaigning has inspired others take the baton up and promote the same kind of beers we do, in their own particular way, at their risk, then surely that's no bad thing?

One thing though. Most of these festivals have a commercial element to them (as CAMRA's) festivals do.) Many support worthy causes and some, like Bury are run purely for profit, (though keeping the Met Arts Centre going could certainly be described as worthy). Beer festivals aren't the intellectual property of CAMRA, but often we are asked for advice and kit to help run beer festivals and we do give general advice and guidance, based on national policy. When we are asked for kit, we hire it. It takes effort to get the stuff from store and to clean it afterwards and CAMRA and its branches do still need campaigning money.

Beer is increasingly expensive to buy, and venues, in these difficult times are expensive to hire. Beer festivals can be a risky business when money is tight and you have to charge a fair old whack just to cover hall rental. When you have a town like Bury, with a healthy real ale scene, that can be a big ask of customers, who can get great choice at no entry cost in the local pubs. In short, the figures just don't stack up sometimes, so don't be too surprised if the odd, small, local beer festival is no longer run by CAMRA. I must say, I enjoyed my few hours at Bury, not having to worry about staff and whether we were going to sell enough beer to pay for it all.

At the other end of the scale though, larger festivals on a well established basis, like GBBF, National Winter Ales, Peterborough and the like in big cities, will continue to be CAMRA run, as indeed will very many small festivals. But there is a  place for a different approach in certain circumstances and where it happens, there shouldn't be too many concerns about that*.

* You will no doubt understand that I am stating a personal point of view here.


Bailey said...

Interesting for various reasons, not least that this is one more possible source of evidence for the debate about kegged beer at UK festivals: let the market decide.

Tandleman said...

Kegged beer is logistically difficult for a lot of venues and organisers. Demand is also uncertain, but if anyone that runs a private festival wants to try it, good luck to them.

Not sure where the "evidence" bit comes from though.

Bailey said...

Yes, exactly -- it wouldn't be CAMRA bearing the risk, or compromising its values, but lessons could still be learned.

It could provide more data for the discussion, both quantitative and qualitative, about whether kegged beer at festivals is (a) welcomed by punters and (b) actually sells.

If a private firm running a festival concludes, in response to the market, that British kegged beer isn't worth the bother, then it might make CAMRA's position re:GBBF more understandable to some.

RedNev said...

Bailey: I'm not sure why CAMRA has to justify its position on keg beer when its very name explains what it's about. The Cats Protection League doesn't have to make its position about not taking in dogs "more understandable to some".

That aside, I worked at the CAMRA Bury beerex for many years from 1987 to early 2000s and thoroughly enjoyed doing so, despite once being given a black eye by a drunken Man Utd fan!

I think you're right, TM, that CAMRA festivals are becoming more difficult - affordable room hire alone is a major headache - but I'm certain we wouldn't be having all these other beer festivals if CAMRA hadn't blazed the trail.

Bailey said...

Nev -- CAMRA doesn't *have* to do anything but, if it wants to keep attracting new members, and keep members like us happy and renewing our membership, expressing the logic behind their policies clearly and persuasively (with evidence) wouldn't do any harm.

RedNev said...

Campaign for Real Ale. It seems clear enough to me. What's the hard bit?

Bailey said...

Nev -- I'm sure you've heard people ask, for example, why CAMRA can't find some way to campaign for real ale *alongside* supporting other kinds of good beer from around the UK. I'm sure you've also heard people ask why there are foreign keg beers at GBBF but not British ones (I know I have -- I'm bloody bored of hearing it). (I also know that the answer is to do with whether a country has a tradition of cask ale, etc. etc.). So, no, the intricacies aren't clear to everyone, even if they've read the definition of 'real ale' and agree with it.

Organisations which respond to well-meaning questioning from members with variations on "if you don't like it, fuck off" or "are you thick or something?" don't win friends and influence people. They look bad-tempered, insular and dogmatic.

Anyway, sorry to have tried to make a point about how evidence and experience might support a reasonable discussion re: the future of CAMRA. Realise I was being a dick. I'm out of here.

John B said...

RedNev said... Campaign for Real Ale. It seems clear enough to me. What's the hard bit?

Answer: Cider, perry and certain 'approved' continental lagers muddy the waters to the point where if a case can be made them it could be made for craft keg. CAMRA clearly isn't exclusively about real ale.

Tandleman said...

Now then Folks. I think there is a degree of necessity to explain policies, but it does boil down to "We campaign for real ale."

The issue of supporting other forms of dispense and types of beer is one that in the main only seems to worry certain beer geeks and bloggers, but I always justify CAMRA not doing so by the need to support an indigenous and unique way of drinking live beer that would be threatened by neglect and convenience if nobody did.

No harm at all in explaining that though.

Tandleman said...

John B - That is a reasonable point, but you are right of course. We campaign for real ale, but not just real ale.

If the members want to change that would be fine, but who would define "craft keg?"
Ah yes we do end up there don't we? What IS craft keg?

Bailey said...

TM -- OK, have stopped sulking.

I do get a bit fed up of this suggestion that bloggers views are in some way unique and unrepresentative: why would a blogger be more prone to liking kegged beer than any other beer drinker? Bloggers aren't aliens, they're ordinary people who've taken 10 minutes to sign up with wordpress or blogger. Personally, I think bloggers are the vocal part of a much larger group of punters -- punters who love and are interested in beer, and have no desire to see the end to "a unique way of drinking live beer" (lovely turn of phrase, by the way).

And if CAMRA doesn't take into account the views and opinions of beer geeks... well, blimey...

Tandleman said...

Bailey - Will answer that tomorrow. I'm (genuinely) off to campaign for real ale. I have a committee meeting in Oldham and a bus to catch

Bailey said...

TM -- I don't think CAMRA need necessarily campaign for any form of keg, just "support" it a bit. And the exact definition used doesn't matter, as long as it's one the majority of members can *live with*, just like we live with other aspects of the campaign we're lukewarm towards because, broadly, we support it.

But this isn't what your post was about. Sorry to have muddied the waters and brought all of this into the discussion, albeit by mistake and tangentially.

John B said...

I used to think there was an easy definition of real ale: a beer which undergoes secondary fermentation in the dispense container.

Seemed fine until I started to realise that breweries who racked from conditioning tanks left most of the sediment behind. What was marketed as real ale was effectively bright beer with the shelf life of such.

Then there are the breweries who rack from fermentation vessels. Unless they're very careful the first fills get lots of yeast. And, as an aside, may be the beers which tend to fob when pulled. The later fills won't have as much or any yeast and again should be classed as bright beer.

So now I'm confused about what real ale is.

To blur boundaries even more, most craft keg brewers wouldn't consider pasteurisation and only coarse filter on racking. I have seen it suggested that this level of filtration is of similar intensity to the filters in place on FV/CT outlets.

To really complicate things you could look at gases applied in the pub either for storage or dispense.
The boundary blurrers here are the key kegs where no pub gas is applied direct.

Seems to me that that the boundaries are so ill defined that they aren't boundaries at all. The only boundaries are in the mind of the believer.

To misquote someone else we should 'Walk in the Light'.

RedNev said...

Bailey: until now I had thought better of you and never expected you to put words into my mouth. I have never advocated being rude to anyone (you're the one who introduced the swearing to this thread) and as an active member of CAMRA, I've been very happy to explain on numerous occasions what real ale is to those who don't know. In fact, I did so even before I joined the campaign in the early 1980s.

But there are those, and I judged by your words that you were in that camp, who are fully aware of what CAMRA stands for and who berate the campaign for not also promoting craft beers, by which they mean keg. Such a view seems illogical to me, because if CAMRA did embrace the new keg, it would cease to be a campaign for real ale. The CAMRA AGM has time and time again rejected accommodating the new keg beers. That's its internal domocracy at work, and you can say what you like here or elsewhere, but if you want to try and change CAMRA policy, you have only one route.

And no: I've never been asked why there are foreign keg beers at GBBF but not British ones.

Bailey said...

Nev -- apologies. Hate having words put into my mouth so understand why that annoyed you. I did say "variations on" and wasn't specifically referring to what you said in that particular comment but to what I felt was a general message I'd picked up in comments across blogs, in CAMRA letters pages, etc. etc. Anyway, sorry.

We've suggested (don't think there's been much berating) a few times that, as members, we'd like to see CAMRA do more to support *good* keg beer, but I don't think it's been any more vigorous than that. I'm getting to accept that it won't happen for the reasons you've set out -- the campaign is what it is and there's no appetite to expand or change it amongst the active membership.

Which is a shame, because I think CAMRA is a great institution that will wither (gracefully, hopefully) if it doesn't channel into something else during the next 20 years or so the energy it put into saving cask beer in the last forty.

Anonymous said...

so why is it called The great British beer fest when it obviously only has real ales and not keg beers which im sure comes under beer. cheers john

Erlangernick said...

Bailey, please help a poor foreigner and new CAMRA member out. I thought I understood that membership has been on the rise, not in decline, in recent years. If this is so, where does this concern about withering come from?

And what does "support *good* keg beer" mean--specifically the "support" part?

And to anyone else, can we get CAMRA to not support *bad* real ale? Please???

Bailey said...

Nick -- maybe I'm worrying about nothing but I have a feeling lots of people join not knowing exactly what it stands for. For some people (e.g. all my former colleagues at my last workplace) "real ale" just means "not lager". They were surprise to hear that, e.g. Badger's bottled beers aren't considered real ale by CAMRA. Several were (extremely passive) members of CAMRA! So their renewal every year can't be counted on.

In the next few years, I can imagine more and more people who are enthusiastic about, say, Brewdog (dismissively referred to as 'fanboys' by some) deciding against joining CAMRA because, rightly or wrongly, they have the impression CAMRA is the bad guy. We certainly feel less sure about membership now than we did five years ago.

And some older members will, er, have their membership terminated in other ways as time marches on.

But maybe it's not worth worrying about that until (if) the membership numbers start dropping. (Definition of complacency?)

"Support", to me, suggests making occasional positive noises about good keg beer, however that is defined; ensuring that official policy is not to slag it off in, e.g., branch newsletters; and giving it a place at GBBF, even if with caveats to the effect that it's not real ale and that CAMRA still believes, overall, real ale is the best of British beer.

Of course, almost ever element of language is imprecise and unclear until there's a conversation to agree a working definition, or it's established through usage. (See the point about real ale above -- through usage, it could end up in the dictionary meaning just "British beer other than lager".)

Agree re: bad cask beer. That's the biggest headache for me and the thing that makes CAMRA policy re: cask ale seem so dogmatic and bureaucratic. Surely, at some point, someone needs to find a way to deal with the fact that some kegged Brewdog beers, even if not the best beers out there overall, are much better than cask-conditioned Greene King IPA? (Realise that's up for debate.)

Erlangernick said...

Cheers, Bailey.

And John B brings up good points IMO.

Tandleman said...

"Which is a shame, because I think CAMRA is a great institution that will wither (gracefully, hopefully) if it doesn't channel into something else during the next 20 years or so the energy it put into saving cask beer in the last forty."

The problem with that is that you assume traditional cask beer has been saved. I doubt if many active CAMRA types believe that. We want it to survive and thrive and that's why we do what we do. Keg, like taxes and death will always be with us. Cask only by eternal vigilance.

Tandleman said...

Bailey -
You'd have to be pretty woolly minded not to know what CAMRA stands for. We talk to people when they join, there are huge membership surveys continually taking place and everything CAMRA publishes to its members makes it plain what we believe in. Of course there are some that join for the benefits or because the vaguely agree CAMRA is good, or aren't that precise, but on the whole, members know what they are getting into.

The beer market will change and as it does and many will find that they like other things too - as most CAMRA members already do - but there is a leap of logic to say that CAMRA is the bad guy for sticking to its knitting. Thatis just perverse to me. Why you feel less happy about being a member is your business, but our membership retention rates would indicate that you are not in a majority. And anyway the route to change is always open as Nev points out. I submit that most CAMRA members want to preserve real ale. Simple as. Some actively, some less so, but they all want that to be the case and most don't believe the battle has been won forever.

The march of time affects us all and it will cause change, but of what kind, I can't predict. But there is little doubt that we are all aware of change. Brewing practice and technology changes. Younger people like experimentation and fizzier beer - it was always thus. Us old CAMRA soaks have been drinking craft keg for years off and on. Who knows where current changes may lead us, but I doubt if it will lead to the approval by CAMRA of extraneous CO2. Not in my lifetime anyway.

Neville's Cat Protection League analogy is a good one. Do they make positive noises about dogs from time to time? I agree wholeheartedly that slagging keg off in some kind of generic way is absolutely wrong and wrote saying so in Beer Magazine. If there is eveidence of such slagging off, please let me know and I'll take it up with Mike Benner as I believe it is wrong and not in the interests of the Campaign.

Finally "bad" cask beer is not Greene King IPA. Millions like it even if I don't. Bad cask is poorly presented cask and we do need to root that out. The rest is just preference. I'll just say one last word on that "Distelhauser". :-)

Erlangernick said...

Just to further this along in the direction of keg vs cask, here's a guide to "draught beer" from the Brewers Association in the US:

Note that "draught" == "keg" to us Yanks. I've not read it, except for the bits on hygiene on pg. 49. What do you casketeers make of some of those points (to the rim is over-pouring, nozzle shan't touch the beer)?

(Bet most of us pronounce it "drawt" too.)

Erlangernick said...

If I were to see keg BrewDog whatever at the MAN airport Spoons alongside the usual cask GK IPA, I'd have a taste of the BrewDog, and if it weren't too gassy, maybe a half. If it were gassy, I'd have a GK, just for the sake of having my last beer before leaving the UK be real ale.

Unless the GK were shittier than it normally is.

jesusjohn said...

I'll take a moment here to leap in and say I believe there are valid points on all sides.

I agree wholeheartedly with Tandleman that we will only keep cask vibrant - both guarding traditional style brews and welcoming ingredient and recipe innovation - through eternal vigilance.

However, given the growing craft keg space*, I think many CAMRA members - myself included - would support moves within the organisation for the campaign to own that too and even push the segment to embrace real ale.

On Boak & Bailey's blog, I once suggested a motion might be put to CAMRA's AGM suggesting individual branches and GBBF could give beer festival consideration to unpasteurised craft beer (dispensed however) produced by brewers which *have a permanent cask offer*.

The motion would probably fall - I (like most) am not an active member, though I have volunteered and plan to do so in future. The cost of attending the AGM makes it an expensive pursuit.

But if it were to pass, it would nip in the bud accusations that the organisation is stuck in the past and might even persuade the likes of Meantime and Lovibonds to extend or create their cask offer.

* For more on whether craft keg will grow, see

RedNev said...

Bailey: perhaps we're not disagreeing quite as much as we both first thought.

I am a real ale drinker, and I've yet to come across any beer type that FOR ME is as good. However, my position is that I am firmly behind the CAMRA policy that ideally pub customers should have a choice which includes real ale. That policy tacitly acknowledges that some drinkers will choose other drinks: I respect other people's choices and in the CAMRA mag I edit, I won't accept criticisms of any other drink. I have seen stupid comments in other mags referring to non-real ale and lager as 'zombeers' or 'chemical fizz'.

The sensible attitude for a CAMRA member is: "I think this is good. Fancy trying it?" and NOT "Why are you drinking that rubbish." That's not being prescriptive, but simply suggesting how CAMRA's official policy should be applied. Members who insult other people's drinks are:
1) alienating, not persuading, people; &
2) acting contrary to the spirit of the campaign's policy.

The CAMRA Taliban who vociferously despise all other drinks are becoming quite a rarity, thank goodness. I recently described an encounter with a dyed-in-the-Arran CAMRA stereotype here but that incident was at least 15 years ago now.