The biggest mistake that Camra made, I fear, was to change its name in 1973 from the original “Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale” to “Campaign for Real Ale”. The second-biggest mistake was to have ever used the word “ale”, rather than “beer”, in its title.
Am I serious? Surely coining the phrase “real ale” was a superb marketing tactic, enabling the campaign to put across its message simply and effectively: that it supported traditionally brewed and served British beer against the tide of over-carbonated keg ales and lagers that threatened to destroy this country’s drinking heritage. Would an organisation with similar aims, to stop cask beer disappearing, but called, I dunno, “Anti-Big Brewers Alliance” or “Confederation Of British Beer Lovers and Experts” have risen to become what the National Consumer Council declared as early as 1976 to be “the most successful consumer organisation in Europe”?
Maybe. But as the campaign approaches its 40th anniversary next year, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that its name, and the mind-set that name creates, makes Camra today part of the problems facing beer in Britain, as much as it may still be part of the solution.
That name, and it its baggage, means that Camra seems to feel obliged to concentrate narrowly on defending “real ale”, defined as cask-conditioned beer served without extraneous carbon-dioxide, when there is a very strong argument that, as the self-appointed consumer group for beer drinkers, it should be supporting ALL types of artisanally produced craft beer, regardless of methods of storage or dispense. In addition the word “ale” positions Camra as effectively anti-lager when its more enlightened members and fellow travellers have no problem drinking cold-fermented beer, when it’s well-made – even if the best lagers are often artificially carbonated.
By concentrating on the nature of the dispense, in fact, the Campaign has become as product-oriented as those big brewers it was set up to campaign against. It also means that, as with the debate over cask breathers, Camra sometimes gets into arguments that make medieval theologians look like broad-brush generalists, arguments that are as much interest to the ordinary pub-goer as the obscure philosophical debates over the precise nature of the Father and the Son between Homoianists and Homoiousianists in the early Christian Church were to the ordinary worshipper. Camra seems too often to have forgotten that there is only one question the concerned consumer has about the beer she or he is poised to consume.
Does it taste any good.
Outside the island of Great Britain, this is the criterion by which beer is judged, rather than the Camra-led shibboleth of whether or not it has been subjected to “artificial carbonation”. That’s one important reason why the North American beer scene is so much more innovative than the British one, and why defenders of the British scene find it hard to put up many contenders in any “cutting edge brewer” championship compared to, say, even the American West Coast. Instead of encouraging the wider availability of good-tasting beer, Camra is in fact holding back progress, by insisting that nothing that has happened since the 1950s should be allowed to interfere with the delivery of beer from cellar to glass.
But the mistake Camra makes is to forget why artificially carbonated, “keg” beer was introduced: not, as Mike Benner, Camra’s chief executive has claimed, because it’s easier and more profitable for the big brewers (come on, Mike, think a bit, don’t just autopilot the anti-capitalist line) but because too much draught beer served in Britain’s pubs in the 1950s and early 1960s was undrinkable: poorly kept, sour, stale, vinegary. When keg beer arrived in pub cellars, around 50 per cent of beer sales by value was in bottled beers, because, although more expensive, it was better tasting than the draught stuff. And the Fremlin’s logo in the taproom today is that in the 2010s, too much cask beer served in Britain’s pubs is still undrinkable, poorly kept, sour, stale and vinegary. THIS is the problem Camra should be addressing and, frankly, as far as I can see (and taste), it isn’t.
What will happen to Camra if it doesn’t reinvent itself as the beer drinker’s friend instead of the narrowly defined cask ale drinker’s friend is that, despite rising membership (caused by what The Spectator calls “direct debit inertia” – you sign up at a beer festival, and then, because the membership fee leaves your bank account by direct debit every year it takes an active effort to quit, so you don’t), it is going to become increasingly irrelevant to the real concerns and desires of keen younger drinkers unfettered by a too-rigid application of the tenets of the Founding Fathers. Instead it will become a beery equivalent of the Royal British Legion, the only active members those at or approaching bus pass age. (The ‘”ageing active membership” problem has already caused my local Camra branch to scrap its extremely popular beer festival, because there weren’t enough people feeling up to organising it any more.)
Let’s look again at what those four friends who sat in Kruger’s Bar on the Dingle peninsula (not actually a very nice pub, to be honest; the only reason to visit is that it’s the westernmost bar in Europe) in 1971 and debated the state of beer in Britain decided: it wasn’t just that keg beer was over-fizzy, but that it was over-sweet and bland. The big brewers had cut out the risk from ordering a pint, at the expense of the product.
For the past 35 years or so, Camra has failed to avoid giving the impression that it doesn’t mind how bland, or disgusting, a beer is, provided artificial carbonation in no way assists that beer into the glass, while nectar that the fussiest God of Beer would grade 11 out of 10 will be rejected if it contains even one molecule of CO2 that wasn’t produced naturally.
However, with an increasing number of beer drinkers born long after Camra was founded, there’s a smaller and smaller proportion of people in the UK who care about beer that also care about exactly how it gets into the glass: they just want it to taste as great as possible. And that’s true of an increasing number of brewers as well, people such as Lovibonds in Henley. Camra’s great threat is not the return of “keg” beer – it’s that in ten years’ time it might have 200,000 members, but be completely irrelevant to what is happening to 2020’s UK craft beer scene.
Oh, and I joined Camra in 1977, I’ve been a branch chairman, organised Camra beer festivals and written for What’s Brewing and the Good Beer Guide.