Britain’s largest consumer organisation, CAMRA, has just announced a major consultation into its purpose, aims and structure. For most organisations, this might be seen as an admission of failure, but the truth is, if CAMRA needs to adopt a new reason for its ongoing existence, it's more of a testimony to its overwhelming success.
In stark contrast to the seventies when the organisation was formed to fight against the extinction of real ale, cask beer has never been more widely available, of better quality and variety or its future more assured. The history of CAMRA is a remarkable story of a battle magnificently fought and spectacularly won!
But an organisation can’t move forward on past successes alone.
The ‘Revitalisation Project’ will listen to all interested parties with the promise that there will be no sacred cows and no options left unexplored.
Should CAMRA embrace all beers from independent British brewers and not just cask ales? With 27 pubs a week still closing, should the organisation shift its focus to protecting pubs? As the neo-prohibitionists increasingly set the government and media agenda on alcohol, is it time for a campaign to represent all drinkers?
As a CAMRA member, I welcome this review wholeheartedly. The truth is, the organisation has undergone something of an identity crisis in the face of victory.
New technologies such as KeyKeg dispense have provided amazing new opportunities for brewers and drinkers alike, but seem only to have provoked civil war within the organisation best placed to champion them. We’ve tied ourselves to a definition of real ale arrived at wholly in opposition to the nitro keg of the 1970s, that is no longer fit for purpose.
Some of us have forgotten that it’s all about the beer, always is, always was, and instead we’ve got lost in a muddle of outdated and unhelpful definitions. The tragedy is that we’ve tended to alienate a generation of young men and woman who really, really love beer. That so many younger drinkers regard CAMRA as irrelevant, or worse, an obstruction in the modern world of beer, should be a matter of great concern.
As a licensee, it’s no surprise that I think campaigning for pubs should be at the forefront of the work CAMRA does. Indeed, for many activists, this has been the main focus for many years now. But it has sometimes felt like our best efforts have been undermined by HQ or other branches.
Giving an (unvoted for) award to the very MP leading the parliamentary opposition against MRO certainly felt like a kick in the teeth and the sight of pubco recruitment stands at beer festivals is not only poor judgement, it’s a betrayal of any members thus ensnared.
What’s very clear to me is that if CAMRA really is going to rejuvenate itself, this review really does have to be a listening process. It’s time to stop telling young people that they shouldn't enjoy “cold, fizzy” beers and respect their choices. It’s time to stop assuming that CAMRA knows best when it comes to saving pubs and engage with the professionals who run them.
So far, it’s been a rocky start. CAMRA founder and the man charged with leading the Revitalisation Project, Michael Hardman, implied that he already knew exactly what direction the campaign would take in a car-crash of an interview on BBC Breakfast.
Chief executive, Tim Page, recently claimed that the only profit the pubcos earn on a pint of beer is a percentage of 22p (along with the licensee and the brewer.) Given the pubcos’ habit of charging double the market price for beer to their tied tenants, pocketing the wholesaler’s margin and the difference, it’s fair to say that this statement was met with the sound of more than one jaw hitting the floor. Innocent mistake? Undoubtedly, but also a clear indication of Camra’s urgent need to stop, listen and learn before it can go forward.
Nonetheless, I’m optimistic that this can be a whole new beginning for CAMRA. It’s time to look to the future. It’s very exciting to think that at some point, hundreds of thousands of members will be able to look back and think: “saving cask ale was only the start!”