CAMRA members who voted against a motion to extend the remit of the organisation think they did so to preserve cask ale. In reality, they’re killing it.
On Saturday, the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA’s) Revitalisation Project reached its conclusion. At the organisation’s AGM, members voted on a range of measures that would modernise the campaign and broaden its scope. All but one of these measures was passed, and there is undoubtedly cause for celebration that the campaign has resolved to promote the benefits of moderate social drinking, show more support for pubs, and think more about inclusivity. But the one proposal that would have really changed everything – that CAMRA should “act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub-goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers” – was not passed. 72% of CAMRA members voted for it, but it needed 75% to pass. A small minority of the organisation’s members have prevented the majority from moving it forward.
I’ll concede that this tweet, posted on Saturday night when I heard the news, was a bit melodramatic:
But I stand by the feelings of sadness and dismay that prompted it. I really didn’t anticipate that it would cause so much discussion on Twitter yesterday, with agreement and disagreement both being expressed passionately. The comments of many of those who delighted in the motion’s failure only deepened my feelings that both CAMRA and cask ale are in deep trouble. So I’m going to outline why here, in a lot more than 280 characters.
First, let’s deal with some of the predictable responses and get them out of the way.
1.”Real ale is the only beer worth drinking. CAMRA is right to fight for it exclusively because anything else is fizzy industrial piss.”
If you really think this, I have nothing to say to you. You might as well stop reading now. You know nothing about beer. Go and do something else.
2. “Duh – the clue is in the name! Its the campaign for REAL ale.”
No, the clue is not in the name. It’s not called the Campaign for Cask Ale. (Although CACA is perhaps a more descriptive acronym for the campaign at the moment.) Cask ale has a precise technical definition. ‘Real ale’ is a marketing and campaigning slogan created by CAMRA when it was already two years old. CAMRA invented the term and decided what it meant, and can change that meaning whenever it chooses. Leaving aside the campaign’s support for cider and perry, its commitment to pubs, and its arm’s-length support for traditional German, Czech and Belgian beer styles (so long as they stay over there) CAMRA already has changed the definition of what it considers to be real ale. It did so when it decided bottle-conditioned beer also counted as real ale, and again more recently when it declared key keg to be real ale. It has the freedom to apply the term ‘real ale’ to anything it wants, because it invented the term, and controls its definition.
3. “OK, I do like some other beers, but cask ale is always better so we should stick to campaigning just for that.”
No it’s not. Green King IPA is not a better beer than Westmalle Tripel. Doom Bar is not a better beer than Pilsner Urquell (although ultimately, it comes down to individual taste). British brewers are now making decent lagers and Belgian style beers, among others, that do not have cask conditioning as part of their traditional production or dispense. Is cask special? Absolutely. Does it deserve to be supported and campaigned for? Totally. But you don’t have to pretend it’s always better than anything else in order to support it. If you do, you sound like me and my fellow Barnsley FC supporters, standing on the terraces at Oakwell chanting that our club is by far the greatest team the world has ever seen, when clearly they aren’t.
4. “If you love keg beer so much, go and start your own campaign for keg beer.”
This is the most important and complex issue to address, and I’m going to spend the rest of this blog on it.
I suppose it’s easy to assume that the reason people like me want CAMRA to support a wider range of quality beers is that we want the the campaign to help what CAMRA drinkers insist on calling ‘craft keg.’ But for me at least, that’s not the point. And anyway, craft keg os doing just fine without CAMRA’s help. The point is that segmenting the market into cask and keg is no longer the most relevant and useful way of looking at things, if it ever was. There’s the obvious point that what ‘keg’ beer is has changed fundamentally since CAMRA was founded. But it’s about much more than that.
Cask ale’s health has recently gone into severe decline. Over the twelve months to February 2018, and in the twelve months before that, cask volume declined by over 4% each year – that means almost ten per cent of the entire cask market has vanished in the last 24 months.
It’s curious, perhaps, that this decline comes at a time when CAMRA’s membership is increasing. It’s easy to equate CAMRA’s growth with burgeoning interest in cask. Clearly, this is not the case. Cask ale has gone into steep decline as CAMRA’s membership soars. CAMRA does many fine things in support of cask, but the sum total as it stands is not doing enough to protect cask ale. So something has to change.
What I find most alarming is that no one in the cask ale industry wants to ‘fess up that there’s a serious issue here. This is a recipe for disaster, like the middle-aged man who won’t go and get that pain checked out at any the doctor because he’s scared of what he might hear, and anyway it might just go away. Last year. when I wrote about the quality issues around cask in London, I was comprehensively attacked from all corners of the industry, in a number of different publications. Now, the plight of cask is actively being covered up. From 2007 to 2015, I wrote eight editions of the Cask Report. Every single one of them contained a figure for cask ale’s value and volume performance versus the previous twelve months. The two editions of the report that have come out since I resigned from doing it have not contained this figure – because it’s so bad. The most recent edition of the Report stated that cask had declined by 5% over the last five years, which was in line with the overall beer market. The reason they gave a five-year figure is to disguise the fact that almost all that decline has come in the last two years.
It also disguises the fact that cask, for the first time in a decade, has begun to perform worse than the rest of the beer market.
One of the central arguments of the Cask Report since year one was that while cask ale was in steady decline, it was actually outperforming the rest of the on-trade beer market. This is no longer true. The total on-trade beer market is steadily improving while casks performance worsens.
The other thing that used to be true was that cask was performing way better than keg. It was strongly increasing its share of total ale as people turned away from smoothflow and traditional keg. While that is surely still happening, the arrival of craft keg finally seems to be having an impact on total keg’s performance. For a long time, keg was in seemingly terminal decline. Now, it’s outperforming cask. (Although it would be useful if craft keg could be separated from old keg to get a clearer picture.)
Now, I imagine that to some seasoned casketeers, this chart will represent a battle cry. “See? We were right! Evil keg is making a comeback, we must protect cask at all costs! Keg is or enemy!”
Well, good luck with that. It really was nice knowing you. You know those clickbait headlines that tell you you’ve been brushing you’re teeth wrong your whole life? To a non-cask drinker, that’s what you sound like., only more annoying. And if you want to save cask ale, you need to get more non-cask drinkers to start drinking cask. You can’t do that by going on about how awful keg is. Especially when it’s not true.
Year after year, research for the Cask Report showed us that there were no deep-seated objection to cask, not in significant numbers. any way. The main reason people hadn’t tried it was that they hadn’t been given a reason to. Cask needs to be made relevant to these people in the context of what they’re already drinking: if you like that, you might like this. Craft keg drinkers are a soft target for cask to convert – they’re half way there already, as this piece of research commissioned for Box Steam Brewery (which produces both traditional cask and modern craft beers) shows.
Most drinkers just want good beer, irrespective of who made it or what it comes in. Most cask ale brewers now brew in other formats as well – cask now only accounts for 74% of SIBA members’ output, which puts CAMRA in the strange position of endorsing some but not all of the beer of the breweries it claims to support. Most cask drinkers also drink other drinks. Back in my advertising days. I had access to a big survey database that asked pretty much anything you could think of. One attitude statement was ‘The only beer worth drinking is real ale.’ I took people who ‘strongly agreed’ with this statement, and split them to see what beer brands they claimed to drink ‘most often’. Top of the list was Stella Artois. Some cask drinkers switch to Guinness if they’re in a pub with nothing good on. Some Stella drinkers have a pint of cask with their dads when they go home to visit. Many drinkers I know make a choice based on style, ABV or brewery before they decide whether they want cask or keg. From both a producer’s and drinker’s perspective, saying you’re only going to support cask and keep it in some isolated bubble actually confuses things rather than helping get the message across.
To engage the occasional or non-cask drinker more often, cask needs to speak to them on their own terms, where they are, and in a way that’s relevant to them. In other words, in order to save cask ale, CAMRA needs to engage with and represent the interests of all pub-goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers – precisely the thing its most reactionary members have just voted against.
Craft keg is not the enemy. There are many reasons people are walking away from cask. Look at the graphs above – no sector is having a great time here. Pubs are closing, partly because we’re visiting them less often than we used to. We’re drinking less alcohol overall, which is being exacerbated by increasingly blatant lies from the anti-alcohol lobby. Within that shrinking market, we’re drinking more at home than we do out of the home. When we do fancy a drink, we’re increasingly likely to order wine or spirits – both of which are in growth at beer’s expense. And within this scenario, cask is doing worse now than any other beer style because of its appalling quality issues – which need to be saved by training and education as a matter for urgency – and because the price of this premium product has been depressed to such an extent that publicans can sell other beers – which are easier to keep and have less wastage than cask – for a lot more money. The are the main reasons cask is in decline. CAMRA’s leadership do of course recognise all this, and deserve huge credit for working so hard to moderniser the organisation. But while CAMRA members are still spending most of their time fretting about the kind of container beer comes in, they are not tackling these other, far more important issues as urgently as they could. Broaden the remit to good beer, establish cask’s relevance within that broader remit, and champion the bigger picture. You just might turn cask’s fortunes around.
Or you could just sit there and carrying on ranting like these guys, and fade into deserved irrelevance.