CAMRA - shaping the future

For those of you interested in such things, CAMRA has launched a review and consultation into it's future. It could lead to a fundamental change in the organisation's purpose and goals, or even the end of it! More details on the CAMRA website.

For what it's worth I think it needs to embrace all beers and ciders, and focus on making sure that there are plenty of local producers and places to drink their products, and not necessarily just pubs but multi-function places that could be braodened to provide local services such as perhaps post office, arts venues etc. In Southampton we already have one micro brewery/pub based in an arts venue and another one that includes a book shop.
Hi Andrew - cheers for the heads up, Surprised no reaction yet - bit of a curate's egg is CAMRA, but it's surely a force for good, even more so if it's committed to self-evaluation and reassessment. I think UK beer's in Big Bang mode at the mo with craft beer, which should take us forward, but in what direction, who knows...
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It would seem CAMRAs original purpose is no more and their job is done - real ale / proper beer is safe - so to remain in any other state than decline they need to change. That of course assumes they want to: I'm sure it could remain as a viable entity for many many years as it is now. Their keg stand off mystified me as do most ideological arguments, so whilst I have no issue with them and would wish no ill to a group that have probably largely done good I don't really care where they move onto now.
Well, I never thought I'd see the day - I was a CAMRA member for a number of years, both in the UK and then when we moved to the States, but I finally called it a day a couple of years ago.

It wasn't because I had any issues with any of their campaigns; it was the "If it's not Real Ale then it's not Real Beer" dogma that finished off my relationship with them. I remember at one of their AGMs, there was even a motion to discuss what "Craft Beer" actually is.

The defining moment for me was when this one bloke (can't remember his name) was on the ballot to rival Tom Stanier for the Chairmanship. He said he'd recently returned from a visit to the States, where apart from a couple a beers, he found American "Craft" Beers to be largely "tasteless" (I still remember his quote). I wrote a letter in protest - which actually got printed in CAMRA's What's Brewing magazine - but the following issue was packed full of letters from a bunch of hardcore nutters attacking my argument, so I threw in the towel and left them to it.

Even then, there were newer members questioning whether CAMRA was still relevant and asking for a less biased view towards craft beer. I always understood that it was The Campaign for Real Ale and not The Campaign for Real Ale and Craft Beer, but their attitudes really did remind me of the "Flat cap and whippets" mentality that they were often being accused of.

Gordon Ramsay once famously said "Change or Die" and clearly CAMRA has reached that point. Thanks Andrew for alerting us to this groundbreaking news - I checked out the CAMRA site; let's see where it goes from here.
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There is little doubt CAMRA has played a major role in wresting the pub trade from the supplier and giving it back to the consumer. This has been through choice of beer certainly but also through a significant amount of lobbying to open the pub trade to competition, pressure to keep duty in check, preservation of historic and 'community' pubs as well as raising awareness of real ale.

To understand where CAMRA needs to go you need to understand how they arrived at the real ale vs craft dilemma. In the 70s and 80s real ale was a relatively rare product. In the 90s it started to become a premium product and increasing numbers of people were prepared to travel to find it and to pay a premium for it. This undoubtedly helped the trade and thus pubs were enthusiastic to stock it. Most importantly though was that real ale was appreciated across all ages, regions and, dare I say it, class. 1700 breweries and almost every pub in the land having at least one real ale suggests they succeeded.

Real ale is a unique product. Easy to make but with significant transportation and shelf life problems (although cask breathers have improved this somewhat). The rewards are a genuinely unique drink in the world of beer and cannot be readily served at home (again good for pubs). But let's not pretend people were drinking real ale solely because of the taste. There was an image associated with real ale drinking that in the 90s changed from 'beards and jumpers' to professional, traditional and even fashionable. CAMRA continued to innovate with LocAle and other initiatives but I suspect since the early 2000s CAMRA themselves have been riding rather than directing the beer revolution.

Real ale, as everyone knows is only one style of many hundreds of beers. There are many challenges left for CAMRA to deal with not least in keeping an eye on the big companies producing poor quality real ales and marketing them heavily (the curse of Doom Bar springs to mind). Keg beers (call them craft if you want) are easier to transport and last for months or longer but I believe that even the worst real ale stands head and shoulders above the depths to which keg beer can plummet. Quality in real ale can largely be maintained by ensuring certain rules in production are maintained, which is easily to police. With keg beer this is not so and the same process can be used to make both great and terrible beers: I suspect it would be impossible to maintain quality. I am certain that the second CAMRA backs keg beers, cask beer would start to drift towards keg with 'CAMRA says this is craft beer' prominently displayed. There are many pubs in Scotland that sell Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted on keg and I have seen Supreme Champion Beer of Britain on the tap even though the keg version tastes nothing like the beer in cask.

CAMRA still have authority on real ale and they must work to protect this. And the dilemma is that if they are to promote keg beer, what next? Saison, gueuze, trappist and Kolsh? The message of quality will get lost in a multitude of styles and inevitable commercial pressure will lead to a deterioration in the quality of both keg and real ale. We are all acutely aware that fashions can be started by big and clever advertising campaigns and in a flash we find keg Doom Bar is the only beer in the pub. There is no reason for CAMRA to oppose other styles (I can't think of a beer festival I have been to in the last few years that has not had a craft and continental section) but CAMRA has a strong core message that it needs to work more than ever to protect. It's great that many more styles of beer are becoming available and appreciated by more especially younger drinkers. Even the enfant terrible of keg, Brewdog, want to start producing lambics. Bravo! But let these easily stored and transported products run their own course. CAMRA look out for pubs too: it is inevitable that its aims will overlap with those of other drinks in the industry and it should be able to work with other groups. However real ale will always have challenges and needs a dedicated organisation to ensure its success for the next 45 years.
Thanks Kinley, well put (better than many a blog post on such subjects) and also goes to show the difficulty a body such as CAMRA faces in getting that message over to members, drinkers and pub lovers.
Really good comments above

If I had to suggest a future for CAMRA, it would be:
  • Continue to promote and campaign for real ale
  • Make a more obvious campaigning 'arm' for the protection of the history, tradition and culture of pubs in the UK (and equivalents in each country worldwide - perhaps addressing in the process the abomination of 'Irish theme pubs' worldwide). This has been there in the background for CAMRA for decades, but now the threat to pubs is massive.
  • Recognise that they can (and already do) selectively support other good quality drinks such as cider and perry, continental beers, and to include within that secondary 'affiliated support' craft keg beer. Perhaps even encouraging quality / interesting soft drinks. Such drinks included at CAMRA events in a selective manner. By supporting cider as they currently do, they are no more supporting Magners/Strongbow, as a recognition of Craft beer would result in them support Watneys keg bitter
By supporting cider as they currently do, they are no more supporting Magners/Strongbow, as a recognition of Craft beer would result in them support Watneys keg bitter

But that's exactly the point. They promote real cider and perry which has rules governing production. Magner's and Strongbow are filtered (maybe even pasteurised), back sweetened and carbonated, not real cider. It is easy to distinguish the two. CAMRA have (correctly in my view) stayed out of quality control hence the rise of Cask Marque: I cannot see how they can realistically do so. The Good Beer Guide and festival awards is as far as quality control should go. Instead the passion of most brewers (and many publicans) keeps quality up.

Craft beer needs a similar organisation, funded by drinkers and not the industry. Where and how it proceeds to protect quality keg beers though I have no idea. I think awards of 'Craft Beer UK Quality Award' for beers, or more realistically breweries, might be a start. Using the established cell system of CAMRA would be a nice way to police it but I suspect it would have to be financially independent from CAMRA.
I joined Camra in 1975 after drinking a pint of Wadworth's 6X at the Tally Ho! in Hungerford Newtown. I was convinced. It was a defining moment in my life. After 8 years of lager and lime, Gibbs Mew's keg beers, Watney's Red et al. This was my first real ale! I was hooked from here on, seeking out brewers of whom I had never heard and a multitude of beers that actually tasted of something. The GBG and local guides accompanied me on trips as I searched for handpumps or a stillage of casks by peering through windows.

However, this is 2016 and much has happened since the 70s. Real ale is almost universally available, but there are still "beer deserts". I believe that Camra needs to represent all types of beer drinkers (arguably cider too, but I'm not totally convinced) as even the most hardened Fosters drinker may one day try a pint of real ale and experience the life changing moment I had in that Berkshire pub 42 years ago. I see "representing" as not endorsing, in my view Camra must never campaign for keg beer, but some of today's "craft beers" are in a different league to the likes of Watney's Red.

Camra has been involved in so much more than it's original brief of wanting at least one real ale on the bar. Beer duty, full-pint measures, guest beer availability, preserving community pubs through the ACV scheme are just a few of the many battles that face the pub goer.

Camra needs to evolve and I see the Revitalisation Project as a positive way forward to ensure it does.
Perhaps the Campaign ought to be for:
  • pubs, which, as the only place (really) where it can be drunk, would automatically promote Real Ale.
  • education - both of consumers but also publicans. I'm sure most lager lads and lasses had the same kind of experience I had when growing up - never touched a lager (except on foreign hols) until awful pint after awful pint in poor pubs & nightclubs led me to Bud - better to taste neutral than rancid, bitter & sour, having sat there for a fortnight.
I think Nigel's epiphany says it all about Real Ale though: it's the same story you'll hear time and time again on the wine forum - a life-changing experience which you'll never get from pasteurised, big company, law-of-averages megabrands. It's alive! You can taste it!
Camra has today closed down its original forum, instead concentrating on the new, members only Discourse forum. This deals mainly with branch campaigning and the more serious side of the campaign. For those of you who might have followed the old forum and wonder what's happened to it, some of the former contributors have moved to a new forum where more lighthearted comments are welcomed, alongside comments on beers and pubs and other related (or not so related!) matters.

Beer and Pubs Forum

It is not in competition with this forum, so I hope you don't mind me posting this.
Oh dear, is this an echo of the Squires forum on E-bob, where the defensive walls went up to exclude anyone who wasn't a paying member and anyone who disagreed with his-bobness and his faithful hound?

Discussion forums are one way to give prospective members an insight and a way to dip a toe in the water.

I'm not surprised an open forum was established, people don't enjoy having their conversations constrained.