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CAMRA. Shotgun. Foot. Again.

So CAMRA have been inventing new enemies again.

Zythophile informs us that, according to chairman Colin Valentine, beer bloggers hate CAMRA, hate cask ale and wish everyone would just drink keg beer.  We have no respect for history and can’t even define our beloved ‘craft beer’ properly.

What’s set Colin off is the growing contention that keg beer has changed over the last forty years, and that some brewers who create amazing cask beers now also produce amazing keg beers.  In Colin’s strange little world, the fact that one has some carbonation and the other doesn’t makes the one with carbonation evil.  Some bubbles make, say, keg Camden Pale or Punk IPA more similar to Watneys Red than to their respective cask versions.  And if we tolerate them, we’ll all suddenly want to drink really shit keg beer again.

“What’s Brewing, Mr Ludd?”

CAMRA chairpersons have form when it comes to creating imaginary enemies on which to vent their spleen and look tough.  One of my first ever blog posts saw me first try out my ranting style when Col’s predecessor, Paula Waters, thought it would be a good idea to use the one occasion when CAMRA has the ear of the national press to suggest that lager drinkers who might be curious about trying real ale were not welcome at the 2006 Great British Beer Festival.

But I’m not going to rant here.  I don’t need to.  As I tweeted over the weekend, it’s far more damning simply to draw attention to what these people say.

It’s just such a shame that when CAMRA is doing so much good, the chairperson – of all people – publicly says something that takes it back to the dark ages, that deliberately antagonises people who are by and large on the same side – people who are in total agreement when it comes to CAMRA’s stated aim: “CAMRA promotes good-quality [sic] real ale and pubs, as well as acting as the consumer’s champion in relation to the UK and European beer and drinks industry”.

The fact that as one of the more visible of those nasty bloggers who has argued passionately for good quality keg ale, I also write the annual Cask Report which has been credited with doing quite a bit to spread cask ale in pubs, is something which seemingly does not compute in this paranoid, binary ‘us and them’ world. For Colin and for Roger Protz – who has also recently attacked ‘noisome bloggers’ for daring to suggest that, after having largely achieved its aim in saving real ale, after forty years CAMRA might just be able to, y’know, evolve to take account of the fact that it’s not 1971 any more – we don’t want to encourage CAMRA to evolve; we want to destroy it and all it has achieved.

I really am not interested in going over the same old “the clue is in the name, idiot” arguments.  Instead, I want to make one observation.

Over the last four years, while I’ve been doing the Cask Report, I’ve spent a great deal of time reviewing research on the reasons why more people don’t drink more real ale more often.  Some of the most important pieces of research have been done with CAMRA.  We work very well together.

The main barriers to cask ale – according to the people who don’t drink it, or drink it only occasionally, are as follows:

  • Lack of knowledge – people simply don’t know where to start
  • Lack of confidence – linked to the above, not knowing what to order.  People regularly say that if samples were offered, they would try them.  The irony is that those who already know real ale are perfectly comfortable asking for samples; those who really need to try samples are not.
  • Lack of a reason – they’re perfectly happy with what they’re already drinking.  (To them, lager is not horrible ‘chemical fizz’, and you’re not going to convince them it is by telling them they have no taste.  And wine is a perfect drink when you want flavour, complexity, sophistication, and something to match with food.)  For most people, while many of the stigmas around real ale have disappeared, there’s nothing about it that makes them think they have to try it.  It lacks the social currency and image values that would make it a cool choice at the bar.  (Remember, this doesn’t apply for everyone – just the vast majority of people who don’t drink it).
  • Issues around quality – it’s inconsistent, and a bad pint can put off a novice for life
  • Image – from some.  It’s important to distinguish between two negative stereotypes here.  The geeky, socks and sandals image of real ale does not exist for mainstream non-drinkers – it’s only people who go to beer festivals already who worry about this stereotype.  But the other negative stereotype – which happens to be completely untrue when you look at the stats – is that it’s a drink for old men with flat caps and whippets.  In the words of one focus group respondent, drinking real ale on a night out is not going to help you pull. 
He’s actually far more likely to be drinking John Smiths Smoothflow, you know.
Those are the main barriers to “promoting good quality real ale” in pubs.  CAMRA know this – they are an active and vital part of the coalition that directs me to write the Cask Report, and some of this is from their own research.  So you’d think that these would be the issues that CAMRA would devote most of its time to addressing.
Instead, an admittedly unscientific trawl of press releases, online chatter, articles and speeches by people like Rog and Col, suggests that in many of their most visible interactions with the public, CAMRA mouthpieces spend most of their time addressing the following:
  • Cask breathers are bad – thou shalt not put a blanket of CO2 on top of thy beer to extend its life
  • Keg ale is bad – bubbles are dangerous
  • Lager is horrible chemical fizz – i.e., it’s bad
  • The tie operated by large PubCos is bad
  • Not being served a full pint of beer is bad
  • Big brewers of real ale buying smaller brewers of real ale is bad
  • Pretty much anything that’s not ‘traditional’ (whatever that means) is probably bad

Now let me be the first to point out that beer festivals, particularly the Great British Beer Festival, the Good Beer Guide, campaigns like Mild Month and so on, do a great deal to promote cask ale in a really positive way.  A lot of what the professional arm of the Campaign for Real Ale does is excellent.  And there are one or two of the issues above that I actually agree with!

But I’m suggesting that what the campaigning arm of CAMRA talks about most is parochial, uninteresting to 95% of beer drinkers, and does nothing – absolutely nothing – to address what CAMRA knows are the biggest barriers to achieving its stated aim.

I’ve never heard CAMRA calling for a widespread campaign to give samplers out to novice drinkers.  I’ve never seen them effectively trying to address the image issue (please, no one even try to suggest the horrible ‘pint head’ thing does anything other than damage real ale’s image further.) In terms of education, one might argue the Cyclops scheme addresses this – except I’ve just been involved with two separate research projects among real ale drinkers and not one person in 15 focus groups across the UK has ever seen it.

MISSING: Have you seen this beer rating scheme?

Keg versus cask, cask breathers etc are of deep, passionate interest to the most committed, active, vocal CAMRA members.  They’re of no interest whatsoever to the average beer drinker – the potential real ale drinker.

Those advocating that CAMRA might consider evolving to reflect the reality of the modern beer scene do so because they recognise that CAMRA has a vital role to play in the promotion of good beer.  We do so because we recognise that setting up a ‘campaign for good keg beer’ entirely misses the point – it makes issues of dispense method and carbonation when these are NOT the issues, and it formalises an antagonistic relationship between two factions of people who are equally passionate about great tasting beer.  I don’t want to bring up the Judean People’s Popular Front again, but seriously, can you not see the parallels?

Whenever I or anyone else says anything like this, the same thing always happens.  Many CAMRA members write to say they agree with me.  One or two, Tandleman being the main example, usually disagree with me but do so in a way that is based on rational argument, engaging with the issues raised and challenging my view of things in a reasonable, constructive manner.  But the people with the loudest voices and the biggest potential to engage in constructive debate shy away from direct argument, retreat to their heartland and make tub-thumping speeches at conferences and in What’s Brewing where they seem genuinely offended and outraged that these newly-imagined enemies of CAMRA even DARE to suggest such heresies, because if CAMRA were to, I dunno, allow Meantime keg beers or Freedom lagers to be sold with gas at beer festivals, before you know it we would all be zombies drinking Watney’s Red – itself miraculously back from the dead.

These two beers are EXACTLY the same.  Can you not SEE that?

Guys – you are doing your campaign – and real ale – a grave disservice.  I know you’ll never agree with me, but can you not at least see that in making this post, I’m not attacking real ale?

Most beer bloggers are passionate real ale advocates – it’s just that we, like the public, judge a beer on how it’s made and how it tastes rather than how it’s served.  And for that, Chairman Col et al think we are the enemy.

The irony is that thanks to his hostile, knee-jerk approach, with this constant paranoid focus on the wrong targets, keg-drinking bloggers like Mark Dredge, Zythophile and RabidBarFly do more to usefully, truly promote real ale to new converts than someone like Colin Valentine ever will.