CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, has been described as "the most successful consumer organisation in Europe". Since its formation in 1971, CAMRA has not only saved traditional cask-conditioned ale (Real Ale), from almost certain extinction, but has been responsible for the establishment of hundreds of new breweries here in the UK, and a huge explosion in the numbers of new and exciting beers that are available to today’s drinkers.
This success has not been confined purely to these shores, as spurred on by, and in many cases in imitation of, the huge rise in interest in traditional beer styles, thousands of new breweries have commenced operation around the world, most noticeably in the United States. There are now in excess of two thousand craft breweries in America, and an unimaginable number of different beer styles and variations. A country once notorious for its bland, big brewery lagers, is now home to some of the most tasty, interesting and diverse types of beer anywhere on the planet.
The four young journalists, who, whilst on holiday in Ireland back in 1971, set up the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, as CAMRA was then known, could not have dreamt their fledgling pressure-group would be so successful; neither could they have imagined their efforts would have so much impact. Today, some 43 years on, CAMRA is a highly professional consumer organisation, with a paid staff, offices in St Albans and nearly 160,000 members, and yet at a time when the campaign has never looked so successful, just how relevant is the group today? Is CAMRA still fit for purpose in today’s increasingly diverse brewing industry?
I ask that question because around five years ago, the brewing industry in this country changed. The change happened imperceptibly at first, but then slowly gathered momentum until today it is like a juggernaut, almost out of control and who knows where it will take us next? I am talking of course about “craft keg”, hipster bars, and a virtual explosion of different tastes, ingredients, styles etc. In short it seems that in this short space of time the whole world of brewing, pubs and beer appreciation in general has been turned on its head.
Prior to this, virtually all the new concerns established in the wake of the “real ale revolution” were breweries that offered a standard range of several bitters, with perhaps a golden ale, complemented by a few seasonal brews such as a porter or a strong ale. The beers would invariably be cask-conditioned, and whilst some were stunningly good, many were shall we say mediocre, or even on the borderline of being boring.
There were a few exceptions to this cask only rule, such as Lovibonds and Meantime, but these companies were on the whole regarded as mavericks, particularly by the CAMRA fraternity. However, things were about to change. I am not intending to relate the rise from nowhere of "craft keg", as I don’t know enough about the subject to do that. In addition there are others, far more qualified than me to undertake such a task, but having said that I don’t think anyone in the industry was quite prepared for what happened next, particularly in London. There are now around 50 new-wave breweries in the capital, and the new ones seem to be springing up all the time.
This explosion in breweries and beer styles, coupled with an unfamiliar means of storage and dispense caught CAMRA off-guard, and there was certainly a great deal of suspicion surrounding the latter on behalf of the campaign. The very mention of the word “keg” was like a red rag to a bull, so far as many die-hard CAMRA activists were concerned, and I must admit that even a broadminded member such as myself, took a bit of convincing.
A letter in the current, (February) edition of the CAMRA monthly newspaper, “What’s Brewing”, by the renowned and well-respected writer, Tim Webb (he of Belgian Beer Guide fame, amongst several other fine publications) makes the point that the world has moved on since the early days of CAMRA, and there are now some very good beers which, whilst not falling within the campaign’s definition of “real ale”, are still excellent beers in their own right.
I think this is something many of us have known for quite some time; especially those of us who have travelled abroad and enjoyed the beery delights of places such as Bavaria, Belgium, Bohemia and the United States. It is also something known to anyone who enjoys a bottle or two of decent beer. Yet again though, if the latter are not “bottle-conditioned” they will not fit in with CAMRA’s strict definition of “real ale”, but I defy even the most die-hard, died-in-the-wool CAMRA traditionalist to argue they do not taste as good!
I am sure the majority of members feel the same too, and yet, as Tim Webb points out in his letter, by using the term “Good Beer Guide”, CAMRA has boxed itself into a corner, because only those pubs serving cask-conditioned ale can be considered for the Good Beer Guide, and by definition pubs or bars which don’t can be deemed as NOT selling “Good Beer”.
To be fair, CAMRA has recognised this paradox and taciturnly admitted that there are many other forms and styles of beer, which are equally as “good” even though they are not “cask-conditioned”. Over the past decade or so the Campaign has published “Good Beer Guides” to Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany and the West Coast USA; and very good guides they are as well! More recently it has published a guide to London pubs and bars, many of which also serve “craft keg”, foreign ales and lagers along with other “non-approved” beers. Des de Moor’s excellent “CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer Pubs & Bars” is an essential companion on visits to the capital; although the beer scene is changing and evolving so rapidly there that the guide is in danger of fast becoming out of date.
So should CAMRA now stop concentrating solely on cask-conditioned “real ale”, and embrace other styles? I’ve already demonstrated that to a certain extent it has, but should it go further? Is there a danger that in doing so the campaign loses its way, as after all exactly what constitutes a “good beer” is open to interpretation and can be somewhat subjective anyway. Answers on a postcard please. Alternatively just post them on this blog!
With acknowledgements to Curmudgeon who has written his own, albeit short, post on this subject. His post though was primarily responsible for me writing this one.
I have been a CAMRA member since the mis-1970’s, with an un-broken subscription; as witnessed by a membership number in the low 3,000’s. Over the years I have made many good friends through the campaign, have visited numerous breweries and countless pubs. On top of that of course, I have drunk and enjoyed an untold number of beers.
I have been actively involved with the campaign for many years, including over 25 years on the committee of my current local west Kent CAMRA branch, where I have served as secretary, chairman and Brewery Liaison Officer. These days I’m content just to go along to socials and other branch events, although I have recently taken the job of sourcing and ordering beer for our Spa Valley Beer Festival.