CAMRA Chameleon?

Posted by Stu on April 4, 2016

I’ve been drinking real ale since I was old enough to drink, and craft beer has been a natural follow on from being a) young, and b) a lover of interesting, flavourful beers. However, I’ve only been a member of CAMRA for just over a year, partially encouraged by my local bottle shop offering a discount to CAMRA members, but mainly because I saw the opportunity to make a difference from within CAMRA.

While my initial good intentions may have fallen by the wayside (I’ve not yet made it to a branch meeting due to children being ravenous eaters of time and energy), I was really excited to see the CAMRA revitalisation consultation go live.

I’ve been mulling over how to respond to the consultation, and there’s been a lot of soul searching and thinking about the nature of beer culture in the UK, which has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years. We’re now starting to see a far wider variety of beers in pubs, off licenses and supermarkets than we’ve ever seen before. But there’s still massive room for improvement, particularly in pubs, and I think CAMRA has a massive part to play in helping that.

These days, pretty much 95% of pubs have at least one pump offering cask beer, and this is in no small part due to the work of CAMRA over the past 30-odd years. However, of these 95% of pubs, I can pretty much guarantee that the vast majority of beers coming from those pumps are going to be substandard, bland industrial offerings put out by the likes of Coors (in the shape of Doom Bar), Marston’s, or Greene King.

Looking from the perspective of CAMRA’s current stated aim, this is still a win. Real ale has been saved, but in many parts of the country, consumer choice is still as bad as ever, and it’s my belief that this is having an effect on CAMRA’s other stated aim - protecting pubs. I have two pubs relatively close to me - A food-driven Marston’s pub who only serve cask beers from their stable (usually badly-kept Pedigree and Hobgoblin), and an Ember Inn, which is a bit more of a trek, and is very changeable in terms of quality of beer offering.

Because these pubs generally have pretty terrible to average beer, I tend to stay away from them, getting beers from my local bottle shop, online, or on my travels to London, and drinking at home. While my tastes are pretty niche, I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels this way. If CAMRA worked with the major breweries and pubcos to increase customer choice in pubs, as well as encourage pubs to hold beer-focused events, such as Meet the Brewers and tasting events, we might see more people who currently drink at home tempted out to pubs once more.

This brings me to the elephant in the room, craft beer. The letters pages of What’s Brewing are a depressing / funny affair (depending on my mood), with endless reams of contributors complaining about craft beer, mainly borne of the assumption that all craft beer is keg (wrong), and, by extension, anything in a keg is ‘fizz’ (the worst possible insult, according to certain sections of the CAMRA membership). The recent addition of key keg beers (which undergo a natural secondary fermentation inside the vessel, and don’t have any extraneous gas introduced during serving) to the Real Ale definition, has also caused a whole heap of controversy.

However, it’s really difficult to argue that this resurgence in British beer culture has been widely caused by craft beer, and CAMRA are letting that slide because of the obsession with serving vessel. Real ale is, and should be a vital part of British beer culture, but it’s not the be all and end all. If CAMRA had been formed by different people, at a different time, we could be arguing that real ale is not real ale if it’s not served from wooden casks.

From my point of view, CAMRA should be for all beer, with a focus on real ale. They should champion all British breweries, especially the smaller breweries, serve all beer (regardless of serving vessel) at festivals, and work with smaller craft breweries to encourage them to produce real ale alongside their steel keg offerings (be that cask or key keg).

With this in mind, I think CAMRA should look again at their technical definition too. Cask breathers caused a huge upset a few years back, with CAMRA deciding that they counted as ‘extraneous gas’, and so were not Real Ale as per the definition. Breathers introduce a small amount of CO2 into a cask after a beer has been pulled, protecting the remaining beer from oxygenisation and, therefore spoilage. This means the beer lasts longer and is particularly useful in low-turnover pubs.

If cask breathers were adopted by CAMRA, then maybe pubs would be more willing to take risks on increasing their cask range, or introducing something slightly different without the risk of being left with half a cask of vinegar by the end of the week.

I’m going to mull my response over a bit more, and attend my local consultation event before submitting (and I’d encourage you to do the same, whether you’re a CAMRA member or not), but I think all of these points add up to increasing consumer choice, supporting pubs and fermenting (huh huh) a vibrant British beer culture, which is what I think CAMRA should be about. There may be nay sayers and traditionalists, but I believe that the organisation has to move with the times, or risk being trampled into irrelevance.