CAMRA, eh!

1 02 2012

After the experience of Andrew at his first CAMRA meeting, as outlined in his great blog Oh Beery Me, he asked me if I would post the following article.  It originally appeared in the inaugural issue of Hopaganda which we published to coincide with Newcastle Twissup.

It is nice to think that the article may, in some way, have encouraged Andrew to join CAMRA and take the leap into his first branch meeting.  I think it is also encouraging that we left our first branch meetings with the same thoughts, concerns and understanding that things need to change.

CAMRA, eh!

What is it good for?…

Absolutely nothing!

OK, so that’s your reaction provoked. Now before you all either set up a torch bearing lynch mob or carry me high through the streets praising me as some kind of prophet I feel you should know that I don’t think that’s true. But it might not be that wide of the mark.

Back in 1971 there were 4 chaps who decided it was too hard to get the sort of beer they liked easily. The majority of beer available was too fizzy, characterless and tasteless for them and they wanted to do something about it. Their response was to create the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. That I think you will all agree was a mightily fine thing to be campaigning for. I think the first problem arises with CAMRA when in 1973 they changed their name to the Campaign for Real Ale. Because it was easier to say.

All these chaps wanted was beer that was tasty, had something about it and wasn’t too fizzy. In order to define these characteristics they settled on what, in the early seventies, they thought was the only way to achieve this, cask beer. So now what you have is an organisation not looking to revitalise ale but one whose purpose is to promote cask beer at the exclusion of all others. No matter how tasty, character full or fizzy it is. Shame that.

Like some poor unsuspecting victim of the Master in Dr Who CAMRA now appears to be perpetually stuck in that early 1970’s timeline. They seem unable to accept that times have moved on and with that, technology. It is now possible to have a kegged beer that is unpasteurised, unfiltered, which undergoes secondary fermentation and requires no added CO2 for dispense. But that word keg is still like a red rag to a bull to CAMRA. Just Google “Colin Valentine You Tube” if you don’t believe me and watch the video clip posted by Alcofrolicchap. If you think poor Colin’s outburst may just be isolated it’s a shame you weren’t at the last branch AGM when he made an appearance, unedifying doesn’t even come close

Mr Valentine’s Luddite stand on the ‘Bloggerati’ and social media has to be one of the biggest turn offs to attracting young blood into CAMRA. By dismissing the mediums by which most young people now effectively use to plan, run and discuss their lives he displays startling naivety.
Sure there are some obnoxious, opinionated twats that use social media but CAMRA should be the last organisation seeking to use stereotypes in an argument. Used effectively social media can bring the world of great beer to a much wider audience. Used badly and it can leave you being seen as an irrelevance by the wider audience.

CAMRA may have a membership of 130,000 these days (me included) but how many of them are actually active and how many just want their free Wetherspoons vouchers thank-you-very-much? The recent flagship campaign to get members to contact their MP’s to “Help Protect Pubs!” has so far received support from less than 2.5% of its membership. A bloody poor show no matter how you paint it. Don’t get me wrong I think the volunteers at beer festivals etc are absolute stars. I certainly couldn’t/wouldn’t do it. But I don’t see much campaigning going on.

Just for fun attend one of the local branch meetings and count the number of people present who were possibly born after CAMRA’s formation (not me, just in case you were wondering). Don’t worry you shouldn’t need anything more than one hand and Primary School level maths. Like church goers we now appear to be part of an ever aging demographic. Given the size of the current membership there must surely be a large younger group of members out there. After all what student in their right mind wouldn’t see the logic of the free Wetherspoons vouchers? They just don’t seem to want to get involved in an organisation so resolutely clinging to the past and, frankly, do they need to?

Is there still a need for a national organisation campaigning for beer related matters? Putting aside my above concerns I think it should also be highlighted that the Campaign has been involved in lobbying for several changes which have undoubtedly helped the brewing industry and as a consequence drinkers. They include the reform of the licensing laws, the introduction of progressive beer duty and, err, getting the term Real Ale recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary. They have also failed in others like their attempt to break the Pub Tie and didn’t do much to try and halt the tax hike on >7.5% beers.

So there are, in my opinion, some good points about CAMRA and unfortunately quite a few bad points too. Me, I’m happy to remain largely quiet as far as CAMRA branch/national politics are concerned. I’ll chip away at the local social media possibilities and hopefully you may see a change for the good in that direction soon if it hasn’t happened by the time you read this. My membership provides me with free entry into beer festivals but I haven’t felt the need to volunteer at one yet. If I want to drink a nice keg beer then I’ll do so without any guilt. All in all I’m probably Mr Average CAMRA member. But what about those who are on the outside looking in?

If you feel CAMRA are now an anachronistic irrelevance and the beer world will get along as well or better without them then that’s fine. After all the brewing industry seems to be in good health and who need the Good Beer Guide when you can ask for guidance on Twitter? But don’t complain every time they do something you don’t agree with. After all you think they’re irrelevant, remember?

If you want to complain that they should be modernising and embracing new technologies then go ahead, but do so from the inside. Don’t stand outside making snide comments about the organisation, get in there and make a bloody difference. If you feel CAMRA should be tearing itself away from its 1970’s roots join up, say something and make your voice heard. It will take some doing but don’t be a lazy bastard and expect someone else to do it for you.

Andrew seems to have stirred up quite a reaction on Twitter and it’s great to see so many people wanting to be involved.  The thought encourages me to be more active, knowing I’m not alone.  However, I hope they understand that this is not about bringing CAMRA down but rather bringing it into the 21st Century.  It is something people should be in for the long haul and they should avoid trampling over what is good about CAMRA in a rush to get to the goal.


18 01 2011

I attended my first CAMRA branch meeting yesterday despite having been a member of several years.  I went along with my sister, Cider Tart Lambda, who is the branch Cider & Perry officer and Cider Tart Gamma who is my better half.  I’d never been to a meeting before for a number of reasons; I’ve never felt the urge to become actively involved beyond handing over my hard earned cash or to become embroiled in the perceived, and actual, petty politics that always rears its head in any organisation.

But anyway I went along to have a nosey and also because the meeting was being held in Gateshead’s recently refurbished Central Bar which I had enjoyed on previous visits.   I was expecting maybe 20-30 diehards to be in attendance but there were easily double that number and we had to blag some stools from an adjoining room in order for the Tarts to sit down.  I recognised perhaps 80% of those present although a few I hadn’t previously realised were branch members.  Plenty of younger (30’s and lower) folk were present which, I guess, also surprised me although I can’t rightly say why.

Was there any evidence of the previously mentioned politics? Sure, but it rather reminded of a school yard version of PMQ’s.  A bit of name calling, giggly pointing and pantomime heckles which were all a bit sad and it certainly wouldn’t change my mind about getting involved.  However, in spite of all that the meeting was informative and a valuable source of news concerning up and coming events.  The pubs of the year were also announced for the local regions with no changes from last year noted which means the Bacchus remains Tyneside’s POTY (with an increased majority – congratulations Andy).  Not a bad choice but in my opinion there are better out there (sorry Andy).

The format of the meeting was a little strange in that there was no open discussion allowed which the chairman later explained to me is done to ensure that meetings don’t just turn into a protracted knockabout between 50 people.  I’m not sure how this then enables members to actively engage in policy formation but perhaps the whole thing will become clearer if I attend subsequent meetings.  And there is the question; will I attend any further meetings? I think I probably will although I don’t think I would go out of my way to make sure I get to them.  I found some of it quite interesting and some of it quite depressing but I’m long enough in the tooth not to judge things totally on first impressions even if they are usually right.

For the record I had two pints through the night.  First up was Allendale Wagtail which I had not come across before and to be honest I wish I hadn’t.  It was a flat, lifeless pint of brown nothingness which is a great shame as Allendale usually produce some cracking ales.  Next up I went for safety and a pint of Thornbridge Kipling my beer of the year 2010 and it was all I needed to erase memories of the brown muck preceding it.