Tuesday 10 November 2015

Revitalising the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale

Just over a month ago, veteran blogger The Pub Curmudgeon published a lengthy and well though out post about the “Revitalisation Project”which is being launched by Tim Page; CAMRA’s new CEO. The post has to date, attracted 50 comments with views ranging from “Yes, CAMRA does need to take a few steps back and look at itself closely”, to “CAMRA has had its day and is a total irrelevance in today’ rapidly changing beer market.”

Of course there were lots of voices raised from the centre ground as well, but having read and found myself agreeing with much of the sentiment raised, I find myself increasingly questioning the relevance of CAMRA to my life today.

I don’t want to go over the history of my involvement with CAMRA over the past four decades; although I will nail my colours to the mast and say that I have been a member of the Campaign since 1974, and an active branch member since 1979. During those years I have seen CAMRA change from a dynamic young person’s organisation to today’s collection of pensioners’ drinking clubs. Before anyone points the finger, I include myself in the later group, even though I’m not yet officially retired!

Since its inception, CAMRA has changed from a high-profile, self-publicising campaigning group of individuals, to a safe and staid organisation of largely faceless lobbyists – albeit a highly successful one. Along the way the campaign has become involved with all sorts of things which weren’t in its original remit; including full pints, beer prices, pub-preservation, licensing reform, publishing and, most controversially, a drink made from fermented apple juice, which is completely unrelated to beer!

Strange brew!
Now I have warmed to traditional cider over the years and recognise it as a fine drink in its own right; but it is those last four words “in its own right” which sum up my attitude to cider and make me, like hundreds, if not thousands, of others to question why the Campaign for REAL ALE is putting time, money and effort into campaigning for REAL (or indeed any) CIDER!

I realise it is regarded as heresy in many CAMRA circles to even question such an association, but surely the time has come for the CAMRA off-shoot APPLE to be spun off as a completely separate and autonomous organisation, rather than one which leaches time, effort and funding from a campaign which purports to promote our national drink, BEER!

I will await the findings of Tim Page’s “Revitalisation Project” with interest, although I very much doubt it will propose anything as radical as what I have suggested in the preceding paragraph. There are also several other questions I would like to see answered, and many areas of concern which need to be addressed.
Curmudgeon’s excellent post, highlighted at the beginning of this article, puts forward some serious, in-depth suggestions as to which areas the “Revitalisation Project” should be addressing. I certainly agree with most of  what Mudge is proposing, but whether the great and the good within the CAMRA hierarchy will see things the same way, remains to be seen.

On the positive side CAMRA has definitely recognised it is at a crossroad, even if it remains uncertain as to which direction it should be taking. I too, feel much the same way and with next year’s membership renewal fast approaching, and subscription rates being increased, do I cancel my long-standing direct debit or should I do nothing and let inertia take over so that my membership automatically renews for another year?

I will almost certainly do the latter, as in many ways it would be a crying shame to pour 40 years of CAMRA membership down the drain. However, on the other hand membership benefits, such as Wetherspoon’s vouchers and reduced admission to CAMRA beer festivals aren't sufficient incentive alone to keep me in the fold. For the record, I rarely use all my Spoon's vouchers and this quarter, with just over three weeks left to run, I haven’t used a single one!  

One thing I do look forward to is the quarterly Beer Magazine; a publication which is well worth reading from cover to cover, but apart from this, and branch socials (an activity I could still be involved in without being a CAMRA member),  there is precious little else within today's campaign which interests me. This leaves me with the following dilemma; should I remain a member and stay inside the tent pissing out, or should I let my membership lapse and find myself on the outside pissing into the tent?

Before deciding one way or the other, I will wait and see what transpires over the coming year as, I suspect, will many other longstanding CAMRA members.

One final point, the irony of the word “Revitalisation” in the title of the Chief Executive’s proposed project, will almost certainly be lost on much of today’s CAMRA membership. It’s almost ancient history now, but the “R” in the acronym “CAMRA”, originally stood for “Revitalisation”, back in the day when CAMRA was the Campaign for the REVITALISATION of Ale!


Anonymous said...

Interesting piece Paul, and worth seeing what Tim Page makes of it all.

As a non-active Life member, I'm very grateful for the work of branches in providing pub news and directing me, fairly reliably, to the best pubs via the Good Beer Guide. I've no interest in beer festivals and the national campaigns, and have some reservation about ACVs and pub preservation for the sake of it.

The good news is that it looks like the Spoons vouchers are valid through December this year, though whether you'd want to brave the hordes of Christmas drinkers is another matter !

Curmudgeon said...

Thanks for the kind words, Paul :-)

As I'm a life member (£70 back in the 80s) I don't think I'll be going anywhere soon.

I would say the key issue for CAMRA now is defining exactly what it is *for*. Over the years, it has gathered a variety of activities and campaigns which don't necessarily fit well together and sometimes seem to be carried on just because they have been done in the past.

Most campaigning organisations, whether or not you agree with them, have a clear vision of what they're trying to achieve, but CAMRA seems to have lost that.

Is it?

(a) specifically focused on cask-conditioned beer
(b) a general beer enthusiasts' club
(c) a consumer body for all beer drinkers and pubgoers
(d) devoted to preserving pubs and beer styles

Cooking Lager said...

To what degree have CAMRA engaged the general membership in this process?

I doubt beer blogs are widely read.

The beards send me a newspaper every month, nothing in there as to how I feedback opinion. No branch meeting has invited members to submit anything.

How do I submit my idea that the beards embrace cheap supermarket lager?

Barm said...

The unpalatable truth is that there are not enough people interested in real cider to sustain a viable independent organisation. While it is very kind of CAMRA to offer an umbrella to cider activists, most members, especially outside the cider-making regions, have no interest in cider and no understanding of it. This is now becoming painfully obvious with the recent vote to recognise fruit-flavoured “cider” as real.

David said...

> and branch socials (an activity I could still be involved in without being a CAMRA member)

I imagine the reason why your branch allows non-members to attend its socials is in the hope of recruiting new members. Surely you're not suggesting that, if you did decide to leave, you might continue to attend the socials.

Cooking Lager said...

The cider element is an interesting part of the campaign. It is not a recent addition. I gather cider was adopted in the late 70's?

It has failed miserably to gain the traction that "real" ale has. In part because most in that club like cottage industry products made in barns with off flavours. Simply putting ingredients on alcohol products would ensure most cider was made of apples.

I don't see how the beer drinkers are subsidizing the cider drinkers, most things are self funded.

Curmudgeon said...

If we assume that "most members have no interest in cider and no understanding of it", then it reinforces the separateness of cider. I'd also say that some (not all) of the cider enthusiasts have little or no interest in beer or pub issues and in effect operate as a campaign within a campaign.

The definition of real beer is very simple - it's something that has a secondary fermentation in the cask or bottle. Cider doesn't have a secondary fermentation and the definition of real cider is much more complex and obscurantist. Many people will legitimately ask why you can put raspberries and bananas in real ale, but not in real cider. If APPLE doesn't want to be under the jurisdiction of the wider CAMRA membership then it needs to file divorce papers.

It's also the case that it hasn't proved possible to create a "real cider" that stands up as a mass-market product in the way that many popular real ales do.

Quinno said...

As a CAMRA member for a good few years and *gasp* still under the age of 40, I will say that most of Mudgie's points are good ones that I hope prevail.

However two things that are beyond any root-and-branch review:

1. Success means an organisation changes from its original start point. Young and angry becomes mature and rational.

2. Success means that people assume that CAMRA will just get on and do it without the need for their input. It's human psychology isn't it - if there's a massive issue in your face and few people to sort it, you're more likely to get involved because you know that you'll directly make a difference especially at a local level (1973). If there's a huge organisation that you join that's already doing things...well, they can sort it out as they're doing fine as it is, right?

Paul Bailey said...

Thank-you all for your feedback; I will try and answer the points raised so far.

It may sound incredible now, but I couldn’t afford the £70 Life Membership Fee, back in the 80’s, I would have been quids in by now if I could have stumped up the readies. I also wouldn’t be debating whether or not to renew my membership - now priced at £29 a year for a husband and wife.

Thanks for the tip about the Spoons vouchers, Martin. I just assumed that like in previous years, they wouldn’t be valid in the run up to Christmas. I’m not too bothered about the “amateur” drinkers which seem to emerge from the woodwork at this time of year, as most of my Wetherspoon’s visits tend to take place when the outlets are relatively quiet.

You’ve hit the nail on the head, Mudge about CAMRA needing to define exactly what it stands for; side issues such as full measures, prices, licensing reform and pub preservation only serve to muddy the waters further and having a campaign within the Campaign banging the gong for a completely different drink is a total nonsense.

It is also interesting to note that there are other campaigning sub-groups within CAMRA. I am talking about the Young Members Group and the Lesbian & Gay Real Ale Drinkers (LAGRAD). CAMRA rightly claims to be an all inclusive, “broad church” organisation welcoming people of all ages, from all walks of life, all political affiliations irrespective of their sexuality, so why has it permitted these various splinter groups?

Cookie, apart from the occasional survey (containing carefully scripted questions), CAMRA is extremely poor at engaging with its membership. Try writing a letter to “What’s Brewing”. The chances of it appearing in print are virtually nil, unless your name is Keith Flett, or it’s a very brief letter containing a safe and non-controversial topic.

Returning to the cider issue; if as you point out Barm, there are not enough people interested in real cider to sustain a viable independent organisation, then so be it. It should not be for the beer drinking majority within the Campaign for Real ALE to be subsidising a cider campaign and the issue you raise about the addition of fruit Mudge, goes to show that APPLE are taking the proverbial by abusing the generosity of the majority of the membership. If CAMRA is to maintain its credibility, APPLE should be given its marching orders.

David, I was indeed suggesting that were I to leave the campaign I would still attend the odd branch social. We do sometimes have the odd non-member turning up but, more to the point, I have many friends within my local branch and I would not expect any of those friendships to be broken if I was no longer a CAMRA member. Also, as a member of the general public I am quite entitled to drink in any pub I choose and to associate within any group within said pub, so long as the group (CAMRA in this instance) is not holding a private meeting.

The points you make Quinno, about the majority in an organisation, leaving the donkey work to a small minority are very true, but they apply to any voluntary organisation. Perhaps CAMRA has become a victim of its own success, but I think the general malaise within the campaign runs much deeper. Active members are becoming fewer with each passing year and, as discussed above, CAMRA has picked up all sorts of baggage along the way. It is unsure of itself and is no longer certain which direction it should be heading in. Tim Page has certainly got his work cut out trying to sort things out and get the campaign back on track.

Cooking Lager said...

It would be an interesting test of your beardy friendships to leave the beards and test how welcome you'd be. I'd guess less than you think. Your act of leaving is a form of rejection from you to the group.

As for getting the kids involved. So long as you think in terms of getting the kids to do things you have decided on, you are going to be disappointed. If you think in terms of handing it over to the kids for them to decide, you might have more luck. But you beardies did make a point of telling all them craft keg drinkers to bugger off and form their own campaign.

Cider isn't being subsidized in any meaningful way. It is as Mudgie suggests a campaign within a campaign and a pretty ineffective one. More a group of people that like off tasting grog with little interest in how they might make all apple cider a common drink.

Curmudgeon said...

I would agree with Cookie that anyone who made a point of not renewing his CAMRA membership would not find himself entirely welcome at official CAMRA events. The membership fee is effectively the price of admission. Obviously if you socialise with these people outside of CAMRA then I don't think they would be too bothered.

Curmudgeon said...

It's often said that CAMRA has been a victim of its own success in terms of saving real ale. But it can't be said that all is well in the world of beer and pubs, and so CAMRA needs to define its purpose in terms that can be seen as more ongoing.

Organisations like Cats' Protection and the CPRE will never be seen as having achieved their purpose, as there will always be cats and countryside to protect. The same would be true of a Pub Protection Society - although I'm not saying that's what CAMRA should become.

It's also questionable to what extent CAMRA has actually "succeeded". What it *has* done is stimulate an unprecedented boom in interest in beer, the number of breweries and the variety of styles produced. But, because of the decline of pubs and the switch to lager, there's a lot less real ale being brewed now than in 1973, even though it's in a higher proportion of pubs.

While not belittling CAMRA's efforts in the 1970s, it was to some extent pushing at an open door. There was already a reaction against giant, faceless corporations and bland, homogenous products towards something more small-scale and individual, and some kind of return to popularity of "traditional" beer was always likely. Most successful campaigns of any kind are tapping in to a public sentiment that already exists.

Plus, once they looked into it more deeply, the Founding Four discovered that, across the country, there was a lot more real ale being sold than they thought from their experience in London, albeit much of it in the Midlands and North and dispensed from electric pumps. Real ale wasn't in any imminent danger of disappearing and many of these were well-run, forward-looking companies who had reached the conclusion that that way of brewing, distributing and serving their beer made business sense.

Anonymous said...

Is there really LESS real ale being brewed (and drunk presumably) than in '73 ? Sure you're right, but the CAMRA "story" is that real ale was pretty much dead outside of a few industrial heartlands. I always assumed that the first Beer Guide was pretty much all the places that served the real stuff !

Curmudgeon said...

@Martin - yes, definitely, and by a huge margin. The thing people forget is the rise of lager - 10% of the one-trade beer market in 1973, 70% now.

In 1973, the British brewing industry produced 34.7 million bulk barrels. Assume 10% of that is off-trade, and 10% lager, it leaves 27.8 million for on-trade ale. At a very rough guess, about 30% of that was real ale, with maybe another 10% being real ale that ended up being served under top pressure. So the amount of real ale served as such was 8.3 million barrels.

Compare that with 2014, when total on-trade beer sales were 13.5 million barrels, of which real ale accounted for about 2.2 million barrels. So it's only a quarter of the 1973 figure.

Looking at the 1977 Good Beer Guide, which for most brewers won't represent a huge change since 1973, we find:

Banks's - 800 tied hourses, the vast majority of which sell unpressurised beer
Bass Worthington - thousands of pubs across the country sell Bass Worthington products, often in true draught form
Boddingtons - All 270 tied houses sell real ale
Home - 380 out of 400 tied houses sell real ale
Robinsons - 317 out of 318 tied houses serve the beer without pressure
Shepherd Neame - 210 of the 220 tied house sell real ale
Tetley - real ale is available in many of the 2,200 tied houses on both sides of the Pennines

plus plenty of others.

The big beer desert had been London and parts of the Home Counties dominated by the Big Six.

I grew up in Greenall Whitley Land, but south of the Ship Canal the majority of their Cheshire pubs sold real ale, plus all the Wem ones. And at university in Birmingham most of the M&B pubs had real ale, albeit usually dispensed from freeflow electric pumps that were hard to tell from keg dispensers. You wouldn't really go out of your way to drink Brew XI and M&B Mild, though.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mudge - really enlightening. So beer quality has probably become more consistent at least, but 40 years of CAMRA have seen real consumption plummet, pubs become cleaner but less welcoming to all, and prices increase well above inflation. There you go.

Sorry for hijacking your post Paul !

Curmudgeon said...

I did a blogpost about this back in 2013 called The World Turned Upside Down.

Paul Bailey said...

Cookie and Mudge, I would like to think that the friends I socialise with – often outside of any official CAMRA events, are true friends, rather than fair-weather ones. However, I will not be putting your theories to the test (not for this year, at least), as I will allow my membership to automatically renew next month. I would like to see some real change within CAMRA though, rather than just window-dressing.

The points raised about the size of the cask ale market during, CAMRA's formative years, by retiredmartin which have been answered admirably by Curmudgeon, do expose a common held fallacy. I don’t think it’s any secret that research for the first 1974 Good Beer Guide was very sketchy in places and rather hurried overall.

There was a tale that shortly before the guide went to press, the editors realised there were no entries for the now defunct county of Huntingdonshire. A couple of researchers (one of who may have been Michael Hardman) were hurriedly despatched to track down a few entries. If you look at a map you will see that four of the five pubs chosen are all on the B645 road; the result of a hastily rushed job. They appear as virtually a straight line on the actual map in the guide!

CAMRA members were few and far between, back in those early days, meaning knowledge of the number of real ale pubs was very patchy, and in some locations was practically non-existent.

BTW Mudge, I remember those free-flow electric pumps which were present in many Bass-Worthington and M&B pubs. It was virtually impossible to distinguish them from keg dispensers!

Curmudgeon said...

Bizarrely, the only pub in Stockport in the 1974 GBG was the now-closed Nicholsons Arms, which even then was a fairly grotty estate-style pub next to the dodgy Lancashire Hill flats. I think what happened is that someone drove out from Manchester and included the first Robinson's pub they found.

Paul Bailey said...

No problem about the “hijacking” Martin, as the demographics of real ale in the early days is a fascinating topic. Thanks also Mudge for the link to your “World Upside Down Post”. I wondered why I hadn’t remembered seeing it, until I realised I was in Norwich, for the CAMRA AGM, at the time it was published. How ironic is that!

Mudge, your “drive-pass” survey theory for Stockport, fits in nicely with my Huntingdonshire story. It seems the editors really were “winging it” with that first guide. It’s also worth noting that the Manchester city-centre entries included a keg outlet, in the guise of the York; a new Wilson’s pub on York Street. Definitely a rushed job, but still a ground-breaking publication in its day.

Curmudgeon said...

John Clarke has inherited the 1974 GBG previously belonging to the late Rhys Jones, complete with annotations.

Ian Worden said...

It is worth remembering that CAMRA didn't have branches in the early days so pub selection for the GBG would have been a bit haphazard. Even with branches, I remember being surprised when first going to local branch meetings in the early 80s that a pub could get in on the basis of one visit by one member.

The 74 GBG was not the first - there was something in 1972 which I understand was duplicated sheets (remember duplicators?) stapled together. I've never seen one but a friend of mine was one of the very early CAMRA members and recalls it to have been good if your travel plans included Henley and Southwold but rather less useful anywhere else. It would be a great public service if anyone with a copy (lurking in an attic somewhere?) could scan it and put it on an appropriate forum on the web.

To go back to the original point of this thread, I would like to see CAMRA focus on quality not quantity, and I also doubt if any review is going to suggest downsizing St Albans. On the other hand, as a no-longer-active Life Member, it doesn't really bother me. Most of my friends who were members have lapsed their subscriptions anyway.

Paul Bailey said...

Ian I am old enough to remember duplicators, including the spirit-based ones which schools used to use (rows of pimply school kids sitting there sniffing the freshly duplicated sheets. No COSHH or Health & Safety in those days!)

I have heard of the 1972 CAMRA Beer Guide, but in all my years of involvement with the campaign, have never come across a copy. I agree it would be good if someone with access to a copy could scan it and publish it on line.

With regard to your first paragraph about GBG selection, I would venture that it is still haphazard in the case of some branches, and as for a pub being selected on the basis of a single visit – well????????

Rob Nicholson said...

Cookie asks why he hasn't been asked for his opinions yet. Simply because that hasn't happened yet. Progress in CAMRA is often measure in geological time frames but Tim has said he wants to ensure that no member has any grounds for saying they haven't had chance to engage in the debate.