Economist JM Keynes is credited – although it was probably fellow economist Paul Samuelson – as saying, ‘When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?’
That rhetorical rejoinder at the end cements the strength of the thought. We live in an age where people gleefully attack a change of position as a U-turn, flip-flop, or selling out, as if a change of heart is only ever a sign of weakness, a betrayal of principles.
The weather forecast yesterday said it was going to be bright and sunny today, so I decided I’d wear a light fleece when I walked the dog this morning. But when I got up and looked out of the window, it was pouring with rain, so I put my big raincoat on instead. Look at me, selling out on my fleece-wearing principles.
Ever since I started writing about beer in the early 2000s, people have criticised the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) for its stubborn refusal to move with the times.
When CAMRA was formed, ale was either bitter or mild, lager was only ersatz versions of quality European brews, American craft beer didn’t exist and home brew in the US was still illegal. The late Michael Jackson hadn’t defined beer styles or discovered Belgian beer. Most beer was still drunk in pubs, and they were places women didn’t feel comfortable going into.
Is there a single member of CAMRA who truly believes that a set of principles supporting great beer then is still relevant today?
If so, I urge you to set up your own nostalgic group to reminisce about the bad old days.
The grandchildren of CAMRA’s original members are now of drinking age, and the organisation, after a lot of consultation, has taken the brave move to expand its remit to be relevant to them, proposing that it will promote and educate drinkers about all good-quality beer and cider, wherever they are sold – with real ale in pubs still acknowledged as being the best.
To those who worry that this broadening of scope may hurt cask: cask right now is hurting, really badly. It’s in such dire straits that since I stopped writing the Cask Report three years ago, that report no longer gives statistics for cask’s year-on-year performance, because it’s so bad. A quarter of the cask-ale market has disappeared over the past decade. Ask anyone who knows the market as a whole, and they’ll tell you the main reason for this is not the growth of ‘craft keg’ (if you really must still insist on calling it that) but issues with the quality of cask ale cellaring and dispense.
CAMRA’s stated aim to move from arguing over dispense to prioritising beer quality more broadly is precisely the thing that cask ale needs desperately to survive.
Helping the market as a whole
More broadly, despite the exciting dynamics that are happening within it, the beer market in general is also in steady, long-term decline. So is cider, only more so. By broadening its remit to cover great beer and cider more generally, CAMRA will now be helping the market as a whole rather than being pettily divisive within it.
If the whole beer market grows, led by the top end, then cask ale will grow with it.
If cask ale is part of a broader conversation about good beer, cask ale will seem more relevant than if it sets itself apart and says it doesn’t want to associate with the beers that people coming into the market are actually drinking.
The sad news that the There’s a Beer For That campaign will now be replaced by yet another campaign about beer duty makes CAMRA’s timing all the more pertinent. The beer duty issue is undoubtedly important, but every other industry body already has it as their main priority. As well as fighting cruel duty proposals, it’s also necessary to convince people why they should care about beer duty in the first place.
As an industry we’re great at warning people that they should use their pub or lose it, that they should care more about their national drink, without spending much time talking about why they should care about these issues. For a few years, There’s a Beer For That did a brilliant job of making beer seem relevant and interesting across a broader range of occasions than ever before.
Someone else now needs to do this job, and CAMRA – the most powerful consumer organisation in the country – says it’s up for the job.
If you really care about real ale, and you have a vote, I urge you to support these proposals.