Yesterday I gave a brief introduction to the CAMRA Revitalisation Project; today I’m sharing my initial thoughts.
As I explained yesterday, CAMRA is conducting a Consultation Survey which asks who CAMRA should represent in the future: just real ale drinkers or all beer drinkers? Should cider and perry be included? Should all pub goers be represented regardless of their chosen drink? Or even all alcohol drinkers regardless of where they drink it?
As I also explained yesterday, I haven’t yet full formulated my thoughts, and don’t want to complete the survey until I have. I would therefore welcome any thoughts, arguments or views that you would like to challenge me with.
However, at the moment my thoughts are along the following lines.
As far as drinks go, I think that CAMRA should stick to beer.
For some years it has also sought to represent cider and perry, but I don’t think it should. Not because I don’t like cider and perry, but because I think it deserves better.
CAMRA members are overwhelmingly interested in beer. Cider drinkers are not motivated to join a club expressly dedicated to real ale. In my experience there are too few members with an interest in cider and perry for it to be taken seriously. It is tacked on as an afterthought.
The plight of cider and perry is worse than that of beer. It is often hard to find, often of poor quality and it is eclipsed by inferior fizzy products which often don’t even have a nodding acquaintance with an apple or pear. It needs a dedicated, enthusiastic campaigning body of its own, and CAMRA should get out of the way.
Things get more complicated – and even more controversial – when it comes to craft keg beer.
When CAMRA was formed the distinction was easy: cask, good; keg, bad.
Today craft keg beers are made with an equal degree of love, passion and fine ingredients as cask beers, so the distinction is less easy.
I think that CAMRA should accept, and even embrace, high quality keg products. But it should still campaign predominantly to preserve and improve cask ale.
Craft keg ale is currently very popular. I don’t think there is a danger that cask ale will become extinct as a consequence of this, but it may well get eclipsed. I think brewers need to be encouraged to continue to brew cask ale, and pubs need to be encouraged to continue to stock it, despite the fact that it is more fiddly, temperamental and difficult to keep and serve.
Cask ale is, after all, the authentic, original, traditional British product.
And the situation with cask ale isn’t as rosy as it may first appear. Despite the vast number of breweries turning out a dazzling array of real ales, the volume sold is considerably less than it was 40 years ago. The quality is also not as good as it should be – it is all too often served in poor condition.
Improving perceptions of real ale and encouraging better training in cellarmanship are both areas that a campaigning group could tackle.
And it may be because of my vast age, but I still consider it to be preferable to keg, no matter how lovingly crafted, because at the end of the day keg is still too cold and too fizzy for my tastes.
But I think that CAMRA should be less dogmatic about some of its more technical hang-ups such as the cask breather. By embracing – or at least accepting – keg craft ales they would need to drop this bug-bear as it would be glaringly inconsistent. This may then have the knock-on effect of enabling landlords to keep their ale in better condition for longer and encourage more of them to stock it.
So far then, I have come down on the option of CAMRA representing all beer drinkers (although some more than others), but I think it should also take an interest in the pubs in which it is served.
I am a supporter of pubs. They are community hubs and valuable social meeting places. They are also closing at the alarming rate of 27 pubs a week.
Even if a pub does not currently serve real ale, it may still be worth saving if it has historical, architectural or community value.
One of my favourite pubs in Gloucester is a good case in point.
The Pelican was a run-down, badly kept, unwelcoming back street boozer for years. Customers were few and largely undesirable. Its future seemed bleak, and no-one in the local CAMRA branch would have put up much of a fight if it was turned into flats as was expected.
That was before it was bought by Wye Valley Brewery in 2012. They breathed new life into it; turned it into a thriving, social, busy pub which has won the Gloucester CAMRA Pub of the Year accolade every year since.
So we should protect pubs.
To me, that means that CAMRA should not support the off-sale market as that would be a conflict of interest.
Don’t get me wrong, I like to drink a decent bottle of beer at home as much as the next man (or woman). And there are now a number of fine specialist beer shops and off-licences who I applaud for the quality and range of their stock. But I don’t think they should be CAMRA’s concern.
So where does that leave me?
I think that CAMRA should represent all beer drinkers, but with a specific remit in preserving the range, availability and quality of cask ales. It should also seek to preserve all pubs with any historical, architectural or community value.
That is not a clear option on the survey form and may not be a sufficiently clear aim for a campaigning group.
What do you think?