In an interview with The Morning Advertiser, The 78-year-old said the major threat to good beer came not from keg beer but from the influence of “big lager brands” buying up craft breweries.
“I think they (CAMRA) have to embrace modern keg beers,” he said. “A lot of them are very good. Too many CAMRA members think there are two types of CO2; good and bad. No, there's only one CO2. I went to Beavertown Brewery in Tottenham Hale last year, and I thought their Bloody 'Ell beer is one of the nicest beers I've drunk for a very long time.”
“Unless CAMRA can attract younger people, it will gradually lose its core,” he continued. “Next year's annual conference will decide whether we are going to embrace other types of beer. I make the point that I edit the Good Beer Guide, it's not called the ‘good real ale guide’.”
“The threat to good beer is not craft keg, it is factory beer; Stella, Budweiser and Coors Light and the companies that own them who are now starting to muscle into the craft market. There's enough quality around but my worry is that the big lager brands will move in on the craft sector and my concern is that the beers change when they are taken over by big breweries. It's all about cutting costs and using cheaper ingredients.”
Despite his criticism, Protz insisted CAMRA has been “misunderstood” as an organisation and the good work done by its volunteers ought to be recognised.
“People misunderstand CAMRA as an organisation,” he said. “Last weekend, I went to the hop festival in Faversham, [Kent], there was a CAMRA stand there with beers from local breweries. They were there for two days, run totally by volunteers who gave up their weekend to do that.”
“I think people don't understand just how hard CAMRA members work to promote beer. I don't think people understand either the amount of organisation that goes into a beer festival; they've been planning them for six months in advance in many cases. You've got to order the beer, organise the food and the entertainment, get all the certificates from health and safety. It's an incredibly demanding job done by people who get no money from it.
“The critics of CAMRA don't understand that, without CAMRA, people like BrewDog wouldn't exist because there wouldn't be a market for it. Without CAMRA, we'd all be drinking lager and keg beer and nothing else.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Protz said that beer duty, unfair competition and business rates are the three biggest challenges facing pubs in the 21st century, and accused Chancellor Phillip Hammond of increasing duty on beer “by the backdoor”.
“It's a real worry that there are still 20 pubs a week closing, not helped by the Government jacking up business rates,” he said. “I live in St Albans [in Hertfordshire], where there are 50 pubs but there is a real worry about how many of them will be forced to close because of the incredibly high business rates.
“I'm not certain the Government has set out to penalise traditional pubs, but the pubs in the city centre have seen rates going up, whereas the Sainsbury’s just outside St Albans on a greenfield site has had its rates cut. If you're not in the city centre, you've got no worries but, if you are, your rates go up. It's very, very unfair because pubs are the heart and soul of communities; you can't have pubs on greenfield sites because nobody would go to them.”
“The other factor is unfair competition from supermarkets,” he continued. “Particularly now with the weather still being so warm you can go into a supermarket and see great slabs of Stella and its £1 a bottle, the same price as a bottle of water. If you go into a pub, you pay £4.50 for a pint.”
“A lot of the problem is duty. With the exception of Finland we are the most heavily taxed beer country in the EU. We pay an extraordinary amount of tax on beer, not just duty but VAT and other taxes. We are penalised in this country by tax and that is the major thing. We had the beer duty escalator under Labour, which George Osborne eventually, under pressure, stopped, but then Hammond brought it back by the backdoor in his last Budget. He said he wasn't but then you found out he had!”
Pubs must diversify to survive
Protz admitted that pubs needed to do more to diversify their offerings but lamented the demise of the traditional wet-led pub.
“The decline of wet-led pubs is very sad,” he said. “Not everybody wants to go into a pub to eat. I was in Wolverhampton a few weeks ago and went to a Greene King pub and every table was set out for dining with a number on it. It was 3pm so it wasn't that busy but I would have felt uncomfortable at 1pm if I wasn't eating. All I wanted was a pint. There must be a place for people to just go and have a pint of beer after work.”
“On the other hand, yes, I think pubs need to diversify. So many pubs are doing their own mini-beer festivals, they're doing meet-the-brewer evenings and food and beer matchings, which I think is very important. All too often people go out and have a bottle of wine with what they are eating when beer might be a better match for their food.”
Protz has announced that he is standing down as editor of the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA’s) Good Beer Guide after 24 editions, but the 78-year-old remains a passionate advocate of cask beer.
“Cask beer is the wine of the country,” he said. “No other country in the world produces cask-conditioned beer like we do; its a unique thing and we should cherish and make more of it. I think people should be prepared to pay a premium for it. Having said that, what do you define as a premium? I was in the Rake pub on Tuesday and I had a pint of Moor Hoppiness that was about £7 a pint!”
“In this country, we are not very imaginative when it comes to glassware, it’s either a pint of a half, whereas you go to Belgium and every beer has its own glass. We should encourage people to drink less and drink better.”
Protz is currently promoting his latest book, IPA. He said that “colour and hops” were the two main reasons that the style has had such longevity, and that there “has never been a more exciting time” for beer worldwide.
“People are brewing beer with great passion and commitment,” he said. “As well as there being a lot of new styles out there, there are also breweries going back into old recipe books and looking at ageing beer in unbelievable things. I went down to Siren Craft Brewery a couple of months ago and had to edge my way in-between all these great big wooden barrels.
“You look at the choice available and the change has been unbelievable.”