CAMRA bosses outline the organisation’s future

By Nicholas Robinson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Big change: Colin Valentine (l) and Tim Page (r)
Big change: Colin Valentine (l) and Tim Page (r)

Related tags: Beer, Cask ale, Camra

A need to know the whereabouts of the Campaign For Real Ale’s (CAMRA) ‘mojo’ immediately intensified following the consumer organisation’s announcement last month that it plans to recognise all ‘good-quality’ beers and ciders, instead of focusing on cask only.

Two years after the organisation set out on a mission to consult its 190,000 members on the future, through its Revitalisation Project, CAMRA has proposed dramatic changes to its focus and function. These include championing all good-quality beers, ciders and perries, as well as the establishments they are consumed in. This means CAMRA’s sole focus will move from the pub and into clubs, bars, restaurants and other on-trade outlets, as well as keg beer too.

With so many members, though, it is inevitable some unhappy campers will surface among CAMRA’s ranks, and perhaps beyond. This is something chief executive Tim Page and chairman Colin Valentine freely admit. Page and I met in a London pub shortly after the Revitalisation Project’s results were announced in January, and were joined over the phone by Valentine to discuss the future of one of the UK’s largest consumer organisations.

“I’ve been through many of these things, so I’m as prepared as I can be to see what’s coming,” says Page. “It will splinter the organisation, but you can’t make everyone happy – it’s an evolutionary change, not revolutionary.”

While Valentine says: “It’s exciting, nerve-racking and any other definition of those words, but I’m confident that our members will see the logic in what we’re doing.”

We’ve been very aware that there are a lot of people out there who have strong opinions and ideas for the direction CAMRA should take

– Colin Valentine, CAMRA

Critics have been quick to voice their opinions on the matter, the most recent of which is Tiny Rebel brewery co-founder Bradley Cummings. Not only does Cummings say he is frustrated about the past running of CAMRA, but he also has concerns about its future. This led him to announce plans to run for the national executive where, if elected, Cummings believes he will be able to make changes to the organisation and steer it towards a better future.

In defence, Valentine says: “We’ve been very aware that there are a lot of people out there who have strong opinions and ideas for the direction CAMRA should take – which was the very reason we launched Revitalisation.

“The changes proposed are reflective of the views of the majority of our members and every single member has the chance to have their say by voting on our proposed changes at our AGM – either remotely or by turning up in person.

“We’re a volunteer-led organisation and encourage anyone who has something to offer and wants to get more active and play a part – whether that’s at a local level, or standing for election to our national executive.”

Yet, before Cummings’ recent outburst in a blog post on the Welsh brewery’s website, Valentine was aware of some angst among the members about the Revitalisation Project. Statements have been made about him, yet not to him, claiming the soon-to-retire chairman is “bailing out” on the organisation. According to Valentine, critics claim he is retiring because he believes a grave mistake is about to be made.

CAMRA AGM in April

Valentine, who will step down at CAMRA’s AGM in April, is, however, “quietly confident” the Revitalisation Project will yield good results.

“I’d like to clear up the statement that’s been made of me,” he says. “Some people have said the reason I am retiring is ‘because he’s – [insert expletive] – the Revitalisation Project’, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

It was in 2015 that Valentine says he had decided with his wife not to stand for re-election, having headed CAMRA for the past eight years. “It’s time for fresh blood, we’ve got a very good [board] and it is going to get on with it,” he adds.

Critics of the Revitalisation Project may believe it was a knee-jerk reaction to the rise of craft beer, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, according to the two chiefs. The idea, claims the chairman, came about in 2015, before being announced in 2016.

The proposed change:

  • CAMRA festivals offering a wider range of quality beers, ciders and perries in all formats
  • CAMRA engaging with drinkers of all variants – with the hope of taking them on a ‘journey of discovery’ of why real ale, cider and perry is particularly special
  • CAMRA supporting members in their appreciation of beer, their ability to both recognise quality products and campaign effectively for them to be stocked in pubs and bars
  • CAMRA providing information about all kinds of beer, not just real ale, as well as opportunities for members to learn more about brewing and the different types and styles available to drinkers
  • CAMRA recognising a wider range of drinks and establishments in its local and national competitions

It was expected to take a year to gather the opinions of the organisation’s hefty membership but, after 12,000 responses from members were logged in the first week of the consultation alone, it was soon decided the results would take a further year to be compiled. The next step in the process is to have every member vote on the proposals (see box right) at the AGM this April in Coventry.

“Hopefully they will [vote in favour of the proposals],” says Valentine. “You can argue that we haven’t looked at what we’re ‘for’ since [we were founded in] 1971.” While Page adds: “One of the drivers [of the project] was an increasing sense that, although membership is growing, the number of activists at a local level was in decline.”

Many of the proposals centre around the need to engage with consumers on their own terms and to recognise they like to drink a variety of beers in

different establishments, rather than turn them away for not drinking cask, Page says. “That does not mean we don’t recognise cask, we will always put cask on a pedestal and the pub too.”

In essence, the proposed changes have come about following CAMRA’s recognition of the evolving beer market, and a new age of beer drinkers. “It’s sped up and has all sorts of different breweries,” says Valentine of the category. “The idea that everyone was going to be [completely] committed to real ale was simply not attainable.”

By opening up its remit to all beer categories, some would argue it now makes sense for CAMRA to consider a name change, however, Valentine hastily rules this out, saying it would happen “under no circumstances”.

“We’ve been called this for 47 years,” he says. “The organisation did start out as the Campaign For the Revitalisation Of Real Ale, but then we came up with CAMRA. It would be nuts to change the name.”

Many who know CAMRA will say there are issues running deeper than its future focus and name, which Valentine and Page are willing to explore and address. These issues include the stereotype of its members being male, of a certain age and dressing in a particular way. Valentine disputes the cliché that members are predominantly older, bearded men who walk around in sandals and socks, wearing bum bags full of coupons. That image “is redundant” he maintains.

CAMRA discount vouchers

He agrees, to a certain extent, there is a problem with CAMRA members using discount vouchers to buy the beers they proclaim to love at a reduced price, especially since many would contend cask ale is significantly under priced as it is. Yet, change could soon be expected. “At the moment, we’re working on things, but wouldn’t want to give any information away on that,” he says. “Some people, no doubt, join for those vouchers, but most people join for what we’re doing.”

He argues members are not pushed to use their vouchers, but if a pub is running an offer, then that is the pub’s decision. Yet, he believes most members aren’t using the vouchers and is adamant CAMRA is not a “cheap beer club”.

Members, however, are mostly men – three quarters of them to be precise – with an average age of between 50 and 55. So, does Valentine believe – or rather wish – that the results of the Revitalisation Project will bring down the average age?

“Hopefully it will get younger, but I’m not hung up on the age,” he admits. “I’ve been a member for 30-odd years and I’ve been active, but the idea of a lifetime activist is not attainable these days, given the modern pressures.”

With that in mind, Valentine’s next sentiment suggests he does not expect the average age of CAMRA members to shift too much in the future. “I want people to be active for as long as possible, but the age of active members is not a concern,” he says. “Hopefully, the average age will go down to the 40s and I think there’s a widening gap between male and female members. But we have a broad church when it comes to members.”

Both his predecessor, Paula Waters, and successor, current vice-chairman Jackie Parker, are women, he points out and says he hopes more women will enter the organisation with a strong female presence at the top.

Page adds: “Our beer festivals attract all ages and sexes, the trick is converting them – while they’re single and before their careers get serious – into members. We want to feed their knowledge and develop their interest of high-quality beer at an earlier age, so hopefully they will be active members later in their lives.”

Talk of an evolving membership and the issues that could come about after the implication of the Revitalisation Project’s proposals could, realistically, be redundant though. The future of CAMRA is in the hands of its 190,000 members, 75% of which must vote in favour of the changes in April before they can be rolled out.

Valentine, however, remains quietly confident things will change and says: “It makes a bold statement to members and the world listening, saying this is what we stand for and what we want to do.”

Inevitably, the question about CAMRA’s mojo will carry on in the weeks leading up to the AGM and beyond the results of the vote, whatever the decision might be. There is much deserved admiration for the organisation’s attempted bold step into the future, though, with few doubting the need for critical change to be made if CAMRA is to survive the next 47 years.

Related topics: Beer

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