CAMRA Obscura

This weekend the UK’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) had its Annual General Meeting. It was an unusually consequential meeting because it included a membership vote on wording to replace the existing “objects” in the organisation’s Articles of Association, as part of its ongoing “revitalisation” project. This was an opportunity to reaffirm or revolutionise the very purpose of CAMRA in public life.

In my view, while some progress was made, overall an opportunity to make CAMRA, and by extension cask-conditioned ale, more attractive to the modern beer drinker was missed.

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Much debate was focused on the proposed Articles 2(d) and 2(e). The first said that CAMRA should “play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type” (my italics), and it was narrowly passed. The second said that CAMRA should “act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub-goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers”, and this fell 2.4 percentage points short of the 75% required to pass.

This vote was correctly interpreted as a statement that CAMRA should inform the public about all forms of beer, but that it should actively promote only the drinking of “real” ale, cider and perry.

A number of arguments were aired, and have been aired for some time, to the effect that the exclusion of keg-dispensed “craft beer” from the objects renders CAMRA ineffective, obsolete or out-of-touch with the reality of modern beer. I think these arguments are unfair.

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One argument is that “good beer is good beer, regardless of how it is dispensed”. That is true, as far as it goes. Indeed, one could say further that there are some dreadful cask-conditioned beers and some sublime keg-dispensed beers on the market. I think that this argument disregards the distinctiveness of cask-conditioned beer, however, and its worthiness of protection and preservation.

In my view, the fact that advances in keg technology and the emergence of craft beer have made keg-dispensed ales more compelling for the consumer increases the need for a dedicated cask-beer advocate, rather than decreasing it: when the only other options in pubs and bars were bland, mass-produced International Pilsners, it made sense to equate “real ale” with “good beer”; today the case needs to be made that real ale is distinctive for it to survive against the competition of high-quality keg beer, and therefore it needs a dedicated voice in the market.

Another argument is that cask-conditioned ale cannot be protected effectively unless it is somehow hitched to the wagon of its currently more fashionable craft-keg cousin. Again, I would argue that the success of high-quality keg beer strengthens the case for a dedicated cask-beer advocate.

Similarly, a third argument claims that ignoring the craft-beer scene renders CAMRA “irrelevant”. If by “relevant” we mean, “having the biggest impact”, however, it seems to me that CAMRA can be more relevant if it focuses on its original object of promoting cask-conditioned ale, rather than wasting time and energy trying to promote an already healthy and fast-growing craft-keg industry.

In many ways, what I have written here echoes the more conservative voices among CAMRA’s membership when they say, “The clue is in the name: it’s the Campaign for Real Ale, not the Campaign for Nice Beer!”

There are those who counter that CAMRA has long included the promotion of “real cider” and “real perry” in its mission, and that therefore adding craft beer to the list should not feel like such a harrowing leap into the unknown. Again, I am readier to justify the conservatives’ position on this than some: real cider and real perry are, like real ale, distinctive and traditional British products that are never likely to achieve the market growth that keg-dispensed craft beer has. For both of those reasons they are worthy of a dedicated lobbying voice that may as well come from the same organisation.

There was also a procedural argument to the effect that 75% is an absurdly high threshold, leaving almost three-quarters of CAMRA’s membership in thrall to 28% on a bitterly divisive issue. It is true that this could present an existential threat to the organisation which would do the cause of cask-conditioned ale no favours whatsoever. While the objects that were voted on are absolutely critical to the essential nature of CAMRA, making a 50% threshold questionable, it does seem to me that anything over 66% could be considered an excessively tough hurdle to clear. Ultimately, however, because this vote was a special resolution, companies law mandated a 75% threshold.

Still, in essence I felt that the decision on the proposed Article 2e was the right one.

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Still, I did say that this felt to me like an opportunity missed. And while I say that “in essence” the decision on Article 2e was the right one, the animus behind that decision was, in my view, unhelpfully stubborn.

A lot of the exasperation of more progressive CAMRA members comes from a sense that the organisation is held back by an often ill-informed intransigence or purism about what constitutes “real ale”, or even, which is worse, “good beer”. At its worst, this can devolve into a sort of “little Englandism” that refuses to recognise the diversity of the world’s brewing culture – even when some of those beers from abroad would fit CAMRA’s official definition of real ale. But even at its most benign it can be finnicky, prissy, and pointlessly anti-commercial.

There were some breakthroughs against this culture at the AGM. There are now important statements about diversity and equality in the Articles, for example. The organisation at long last voted to take a “neutral” stance on cask breathers – often a vital piece of kit for rural or other less-frequented pubs that want to stock and promote cask-conditioned ale. It is scandalous that an organisation nominally dedicated to promoting cask ale and pubs stood against the use of cask breathers for so long, despite its own technical advice. It is disappointing that this motion passed with only 67% support from the membership.

The underlying intransigence was, in my view, exemplified in the 17th motion proposed, by CAMRA’s National Executive, on the second day of the AGM:

“This Conference instructs the National Executive to ensure CAMRA beer festivals, that choose to offer other types of beer, do so in a way that reinforces CAMRA’s belief in the superiority of real ale, and provide educational material about all beer types on sale.”

The motion was passed, and spun as a step forward in allowing “other types of beer” to be offered at CAMRA festivals. But what stands out about the wording is the insistence on “CAMRA’s belief in the superiority of real ale”.

Quite apart from being obvious nonsense, this claim needlessly antagonises huge numbers of craft-beer drinkers who might otherwise be sold on the idea of cask ale’s distinctive pleasures, and huge numbers of modern, popular breweries that might otherwise be encouraged by CAMRA to add some cask-conditioned products to their line-ups.

To my mind, this attitude fatally undermines the entire argument that beer lovers such as me try to make in defence of those who want to maintain the focus of CAMRA’s real-ale mission. I have long resisted joining the organisation because I regard British cask-conditioned ale as distinctive and worthy of preservation, but not “superior” to other ways of conditioning or dispensing beer.

In short, while I think it is perfectly reasonable for a CAMRA member to protest, “The clue’s in the name, it’s the Campaign for Real Ale”, my response will always be: “The clue is in the name, it’s the Campaign for Real Ale, not the Campaign Against X, Y or Z”.

3 thoughts on “CAMRA Obscura

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