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Is this really the end of CAMRA?

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

The Great British Beer Festival: One of the foundation stones of CAMRA's annual events calendar
The Great British Beer Festival: One of the foundation stones of CAMRA's annual events calendar

Related tags: Cask ale, Beer, Camra

Established in 1971, the Campaign for Real Ale began as an organisation that helped save UK cask ale. Pete Brown looks at what lies ahead.

What a bold and clever move from the Campaign for Real Ale. Last week, CAMRA announced that, 45 years after its creation, it is embarking on a consultation with as many of its 177,000 members as possible to redefine (or reaffirm) what the organisation’s future purpose is.

It’s a move that should silence the organisation’s many critics — at least temporarily — but is also likely to infuriate the hard core of traditional members. Real ale and cask ale are synonyms for the same thing. The difference between them is that cask ale is a form of beer dispense in which live beer undergoes secondary fermentation in the cask, while real ale, for many, is an article of faith, a fundamental principle, a battle cry.

CAMRA’s formative years were a single-minded pursuit to save traditional British beer. Even the organisation’s harshest critics concede that CAMRA’s intervention saved cask ale from extinction. The big question for the past few years has been ‘OK, you won. Cask ale is thriving. Now what? What is CAMRA for?’

Hardman

Leading the project to answer such questions is Michael Hardman, one of the four founder members of CAMRA.

Hardman has always had a more thoughtful, considered approach to beer than CAMRA’s more militant, vocal wing. At times, the campaign has had a strident, hectoring tone, dismissing lager as ‘yellow fizz’, and the people who drink it as brainwashed simpletons.

In 2011, Hardman told the Financial Times​, “I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something... there may be some members who give a different impression and I apologise to the general drinking public for the fact that we’ve recruited those people.”

Open-minded

Such a measured, open-minded approach is key to any campaigning organisation’s hopes of success. In 2016, Hardman is saying of CAMRA, “Who do we represent now, and who should we represent in the future to help secure the best outcome for the brewing and pub industry?

“If we want to play a key part in driving the beer market back into growth and helping to create a thriving pub sector, do we continue with our narrow focus, or do we become more inclusive?”

Until now, CAMRA’s attempts to broaden its scope have been piecemeal. It became supportive of traditional beer styles from other countries that don’t meet its definition of real ale, but are just as important in those countries as cask ale is here. It began to campaign for real cider too. More recently, its focus has shifted from good beer to the preservation of the pubs that sell it.

Double standards

These moves have been welcomed by some and decried by others, and all sides have pointed to inconsistencies and double standards: if lager is worth supporting in the Czech Republic, why not here? How can you champion a beer from a brewer that’s in cask but remain ambivalent about the same beer packaged in keg? Or do any such considerations detract from what should be CAMRA’s single-minded aim of championing cask ale?

The consultation acknowledges that the beer market in 2016 is very different to how it was in 1971. Back then, cask ale was almost certainly going to be a better beer than keg ale — if kept and served correctly. That’s no longer the case. Considerations such as style, flavour, process and the skill of the brewer are more relevant to most drinkers than what the beer is packaged in. Cask conditioning is perfect for traditional British ale, but doesn’t suit craft lager at all.

Cask report

One reason I’ve quit writing the Cask Report after almost a decade of doing so is that cask ale now sits within a wider craft beer category. If the lack of a precise technical definition for that category bothers you, fine, but the reality is that cask conditioning — while it will always be the pinnacle of great beer for many and should always be championed — is no longer the single most useful or important criterion of judging or talking about beer quality.

I doubt very much that CAMRA will cease to be CAMRA as a result of this consultation.

I expect the arguments in some quarters will be fierce, and the organisation may well conclude that I and other modernisers are wrong. But it will be the membership that decides. Whatever side of the fence you are on, surely you can only applaud CAMRA’s decision to address its future purpose in this way.

Related topics: Beer

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