Sunday, 9 May 2010

What is wrong with CAMRA?

I drink a reasonable amount of cask beer. There are various reasons for this; partly because the pubs I like to go in serve good cask beer, partly because I want to improve my brewing abilities so I try the competition. I even drink my own sometimes so that I know when I get it right or wrong. I suspect that alone my cask beer drinking exceeds some government limit or other but unfortunately for my liver I also drink some keg beers and some bottled beers too. Some of this is pasteurised fizzy muck and a subset of that last group I actually enjoy, shock horror.

The biggest reason I drink cask beer is because I like it.

CAMRA has had a large influence on the beer and pub market in this country. Our craft beer market is dominated by cask beer. Small brewers like myself have been helped significantly by the small brewers discount on beer duty and CAMRA almost certainly helped this advance. There remains the question of what the craft beer scene would be like today if the infant beer consumer group had decided to simply campaign for flavoursome beer made by smaller producers. I think that one has already been argued out elsewhere and remains a rhetorical discussion until we discover time travel or a way to switch between alternative present day scenarios based on alternative past events.

What we do know is that CAMRA has over 100,000 members, is a voluntary organisation and has both vehement supporters and harsh critics. The organisation does have an effective PR machine that is able to get stories into the press and certainly has connections with members of Parliament enabling them to influence government, even if the magnitude of that influence is open for debate.

It still remains that amongst the beer loving world, contrary to the assertion of Roger Protz, there are a number of critics of CAMRA. The statement that CAMRA " .. is listened to with respect by all serious beer lovers" is certainly overconfident, and I hope regretted, as there are certainly people I know who are beer lovers who disagree with that. Again, the significance of this group of people might well be open to debate, but that group of people exist and some are CAMRA members.

This post is not written to explore the detail of what is wrong with CAMRA. I am writing this to explore the fact that there is this group of people who have various misgivings about the organisation. More importantly, this group of people are largely beer lovers who are also important to the overall beer industry.

There have been many posts in the blogosphere about what is wrong with CAMRA. There have been many counter comments that claim there is nothing wrong with it and anyway, bloggers aren't important, the rest of the world loves CAMRA, so there.

Recently Pete Brown has written about a couple of specific experiences. I want to support that particular article because I too have experienced similar annoyances from CAMRA activists. It's not exclusive and I know many CAMRA branch members who work very hard to support cask beer and pubs rather than having a narrow objective of finding the most economical way of buying a gallon of bland session beer in a pub somewhere.

Pub Curmudgeon has also written about his concerns over CAMRA policy. A piece that raises interesting concerns and appears to have some support from various bloggers. I too feel that there is a divergence away from CAMRA by a growing number of beer lovers. Perhaps this is inevitable due to the fact that CAMRA is all about cask beer so should not be concerned about anything else.

I've lost track a little bit of what's going on in the wider beer world over the last few weeks. CAMRA do not know my new address1 so I do not receive What's Brewing, for instance. I did, for a while, receive press releases direct by email, but as the URL I was using was sold on with the pub, I no longer receive these. I should check the CAMRA web site, I know, and I will....just as soon as I have completed this post, promise.

I understand from comments made on blogs by Tandleman that CAMRA, at their AGM, have agreed some sort of review. I dare say this won't include embracing cask breathers or proper real keg, that would be asking too much. I do hope that it looks at its image, as this is the real problem. It is the growing perception that something is wrong and that it no longer " listened to with respect by all serious beer lovers"


1Entirely my own fault, as I've not told them.


HardKnott Dave said...

Just found it on the CAMRA site here.


Motion 5 - Passed

This Conference agrees that with growing membership and status, CAMRA needs an objective, "fit for purpose review" of its role within a changing UK beer world.

This Conference instructs the National Executive to commission such a review, which as well as involving HQ and members, should consult outside parties such as BBPA, SIBA and others with an interest in what CAMRA does and should do.

The resulting report is to be produced in time for debate at next year's Conference. It should measure CAMRA's performance against its five main aims as set out on the National Website, as well as its success in campaigning, activation and lobbying and its prospects for the future.

Proposed by Graham Donning
Seconded by Peter Alexander

Pete Brown said...

Dave, it gets worse: It's going to start looking like I've got a vendetta here, but this coming out the same week as Burtongate was just a bit of bad timing:

John Clarke said...

As far as I can see, most of the vocal crticism of CAMRA comes from the beer blogosphere and this does of course beg the question - just how influential is the beer blogosphere?

I raise this point because it enables me to raise second point. I asked this on Pete Brown's blog and received no reply. We all know that the "influence" of beer blogs is apparently reflected by the Wikio rankings and these in turn are based on inter-blog links. However how many people actually read the average beer blog? How do you measure that - number of daily hits perhaps. Any idea of what these figures might be?

Curmudgeon said...

Well said there, Pete - and you being, by your own admission, a bit of a Socialist, can't be readily accused of being a lackey of the evil international capitalists.

Sid Boggle said...

Meanwhile, the latest 'What's Brewing' carried a small report from the recent AGM from Finance Direction Phil Kempton. Seems at least one branch used campaign funds to pay for accommodation, beer and food on a weekend social trip. He's attacked "renegade" branches for using funds for "private drinking and ticking clubs".

The piece doesn't say what action has been taken, just that CAMRA NE will bring in the disciplinary committee if necessary.

Which branches is he talking about, and do the members know?

Cooking Lager said...

As far as I can see, most of the vocal criticism of the beer blogosphere comes from John Clarke and this does of course beg the question - just how influential is John Clarke?

CAMRA has 100,000 members. Millions drink beer. You don't need a calculator to work out that most drinkers are not in the beardie gang.

I've nothing against CAMRA, I just wonder why so many do listen to it, rather than just consider the needs of the wider customer.

HardKnott Dave said...


According to my web stats, over the last 12 months, I get an average of 75 individuals visiting my blog per day.

Hope that helps.

Sid Boggle said...

@ Alan: I'm at the bottom end of readership - I get about 20 - 30 hits a day. I don't blog for that reason, I do it because I'm interested in craft beer and associated issues - personalities, beer politics, communities.

Sure, bloggers are vocal. It's what they do. But I don't for a second believe there's a vendetta against CAMRA. I've found myself wondering if my own thinking on beer still accords with CAMRA's principles and objectives. I don't hold CAMRA accountable for the stupidity and narrow-mindedness of many of its members. I do find myself wondering if CAMRA needs to find some way of re-defining its aims and to be less dogmatic in pursuit of them. It's no longer appropriate to follow a line that 'cask goo-ood, keg baa-aad'.

Perhaps the motion adopted at AGM will capture some of this and find a way to weave some new thinking into the organisation's raison d'etre.

Sid Boggle said...

Oops! I meant John...

Curmudgeon said...

As I posted in a thread on my own blog, mine typically gets about 100 unique visitors per day. Tandleman has 140,000-odd hits over 30 months, which is about 155 per day.

Returning to the original post, I would suggest that most of the people expressing misgivings about certain aspects of CAMRA's activities are themselves CAMRA members.

One aspect of the "fit for purpose" review should be to look at how the membership are consulted about policy-making. Currently if you are unable to attend the AGM you are effectively disenfranchised, which can't be right.

Ed said...

I've been pondering why bloggers, including I must admit myself, like to whinge on about CAMRA as I'm starting to find it a bit tedious.

I think the fact that CAMRA is the only game in town has a large part to do with it. It has a wide range of activities beyond the original 'save cask beer' so there's always something you can find that you disagree with, whether you're a member or not.

Cooking Lager said...

Here at the Campaign for Greater Cooking Lager Appreciation, we recognise that we have single handed saved cooking lager from extinction. It’s got nothing to do with the millions that drink it, its all down to the Campaign. Without the campaign there would be no fizzy lout. We have the ear of government, we do. Even if the country hasn’t got a government because the resounding voice of the people is “stick it”. If there was a government, the Campaign would have its ear. Having said that, A phrase springs to mind. A don’t agree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it. CAMRA can have whatever policies it likes. It appears from this outsiders view to be more democratic than other political campaigns. CAMRA can take whatever view it likes, seek to expand its membership and influence, and fair play to it. It is not representative of drinkers or even beer drinkers. It is representative of its members, and those members have as much a right to free speech and the freedom of expression as anyone.

Eddie86 said...

I joined CAMRA at a beer festival, in the hope of understanding more of it as a member.

What I've found is that there are HUGE regional differences. Speaking to other CAMRA members over the web, and indeed on their own forum, some seem to feel that a small group of people in their branch make all the big decisions, and some celebrate the true democracy of their GBG selection including postal votes.

The most common feeling I've heard expressed is that 'HQ' and 'the people' are at opposite ends of the spectrum. How can the grassroots people get their voice up to the people that have the ear of the government?

When it comes to re-joining, I'm not sure I will. I don't use the NBSS, as I don't think it's my place to rate other landlord's beer. I certainly have nothing to do with the local selection, apart from encouraging the group to get out and try more pubs. As a disparate branch covering a large area, it can be very easy to stick to the same old pubs.

Anyway, enough for now I've got a beer to drink...

RedNev said...

As a CAMRA member, I think that Cooking Lager has made the most relevant comment: it is representative of its members. If you're a member and you don't take part, how can it represent you? If you're not a member, why should it represent you?

CAMRA should do only what its participating members want it to. It began in a pub with four individuals. If you want a different organisation, why not follow their example and start your own? Or, if you're a member, why not take part, instead of whingeing on blogs?

HardKnott Dave said...

RedNev, you are right, of course. However, in my experience there is significant hostility to people who go in and express their own opinion, especially if, like me, they are in the trade and therefore the enemy.

Barm said...

Several of my friends are serious beer enthusiasts, but not CAMRA members. Why is joining CAMRA unattractive to them?

Tandleman said...

Dave - I said it elsewhere and I'll ask it again now. Why on earth do you think CAMRA thinks the trade is the enemy? It is so hard to believe that this has basis in fact on any wide scale, given that CAMRA members are almost entirely dependent on the trade fore their "fix".

It may be you have had some bad experiences, but without knowing what your reasoning is, it is hard to figure you out.

As for expressing your opinions, I have said this before. If your CAMRA branch doesn't suit you, join one that will. You can come to mine and say what you like any time.

Tandleman said...

PS. Since I was the seconder of the motion, I will be keeping a close eye on the terms of reference and the membership of those who do the work. I expect to be commenting on it before t is set up.

Why shouldn't it look at everything? The motion doesn't rule that out. In fact it aims to have just this look, though I dare say you may still not like the outcome. I may not.

HardKnott Dave said...

Tandy, you might be right that a couple of bad experiences with individuals have poisoned my opinions. I'll give that serious thought. Even so, the last experience of this was when it was aggressively suggested that all those in the trade should leave the branch meeting as they were bound to be biased. All I can say is that I was grossly offended and have only attended one branch meeting since.

I have moved to another branch area now, so watch this space.

I might just take you up one day on the offer of a visit to one of your branch meetings, I suspect that it would be fun.

The motion is a great thing, and was pleased to see that you had seconded the motion. I suspect that bloggers and your blog in particular has been instrumental in the motion being brought. A result I'd say. I will also be watching it with great interest. Actually, I'd enjoy inputting to the review if that was an option.

RedNev said...

Okay Dave, I accept that you, as someone in the trade, may have had bad experiences. I don't believe CAMRA is beyond criticism, but no organisation is perfect. In my Branch, we've had the odd disagreement with a couple of licensees, because we inevitably won't see eye-to-eye on everything. In one case, it was a communication breakdown, which I'm pleased to say I helped resolve, and even got an advert for our local CAMRA mag.

But as the new editor of that mag, I've told our Branch that, as far as the mag is concerned, if we've got nothing good to say about a local pub or brewery, we say nothing at all. My reason is simply that beer is an interest for us, but a livelihood for licensees and their staff.

Lots of CAMRA members think similarly, but you'll always get the idiots.

RedNev said...

Your comment, "it was aggressively suggested that all those in the trade should leave the branch meeting as they were bound to be biased", was posted while I was typing my last comment. As a CAMRA member for 25+ years, I think that is an absolute disgrace.

If you're ever in Southport ...

Gavin Davis said...

While being actively involved with Camra locally, I came across some off-putting and negative attitudes that I wont go into here. However, on the whole, I find most campaigning positive. Negativity about the campaign can be habit forming, one becomes as negative as those one is criticizing without even noticing. On a national level I was disgruntled with much of Camra's direction on policy. I was angry that our members magazine had been turned into a puff piece to blow smoke up the arses of those in charge, stifling any debate. I was seriously considering if membership of the campaign was really a worthwhile commitment but then the results of the AGM votes renewed my faith. There is a lot wrong with Camra policy at the moment but I don't think embracing keg beer or allowing pressurised lagers at Camra beer festivals is part of the problem. Camra needs to keep focused on its core principles whilst aknowledging and respecting the wider world of beer.

Gavin Davis said...

In the Old Joint Stock in Birmingham, a Fullers pub, they sell keg London Porter. It seems quite popular and I sometimes wonder why Fullers don't just sell it cask conditioned. Its definitely not a patch on the Cask Porter but it is still a very good beer. Its presence on the bar offers a serious alternative to the Guinness drinker, and maybe those that drink it will try the seasonal cask when it is on. This may even encourage them to try a wider variety of Cask conditioned stouts and porters.
The ubiquity Of John Smiths Smooth is part of the failure of brewers to promote their own keg products where there is demand, and in places that just can't keep real ale. I would like to see a better choice and a better product in places that only sell keg. However, there is no benefit to the flavour of beer from pasteurisation, and applied Co2 does have negative effects on the flavour of beer.
The standards of other brewing nations, other consumer or producer organisations, are up to those groups, and are already supported by Camra. This does not mean Camra should abandon its core principles, Camra should always remain campaign for real ale.
I personally think the world would be a better place if you could still get Guinness poured from a high and a low cask, in at least some Irish pubs. Some Irish beer enthusiasts might disagree, and they are entitled to, but I am glad we had a campaign to save real ale and sad that they did not.

Gavin Davis said...

Curmudgeon, I totally agree about the AGM disenfranchising members from influencing policy direction. This a has been made worse by the choice of high cost tourist destinations and holiday resorts for the last number of AGM locations.