Wednesday 18 November 2009

Diversity and turmoil

It started with Pete Brown's excellent rant. How could I not be effected by that? It's troubling me quite a lot and I'm trying to understand it. I agree with Pete's sentiments about the fighting within the industry being counter productive to the overall benefits of the beer industry. However, I also care quite a lot about the issues that are being fought over. Be it the ability of the regular publican to make an honest living, the survival and perhaps growth of cask beer, the right of a brewery to make the strongest beer in Britain and not be criticised for it being so strong despite it being only the same strength as port. It also concerns me that the one consumer beer group confines itself to only one possible dispense method, and yes I know the clue is in it's name, let's not have that one again. I like good beer and like to see it prosper. I like pubs and likewise I am concerned with the difficulties the industry is having.

There is something in particular that Pete wrote which has gnawed at my subconscious since I read his post.
"So what do we do in 2009? Form a cross-industry lobbying group? Take pre-emptive action against tighter licensing restrictions and more duty rises? Fight back against the misinformation about binge drinking with a concerted, positive campaign about the benefits of moderate drinking and the truth of our wholesome pub culture?" - [No we don't]1
I realise that there isn't anybody to really represent me. CAMRA help me in their support for real ale, which continues to be the strongest part of my wet sales2. I'm a member of the BII, which seems to still be the best for me, but are a quiet ineffectual organisation as far as I can see. The BBPA of course represents the PubCos and regional brewers. The All Party Parliamentary Beer Group does a good job of lobbying but I can't afford to join them directly. I could join SIBA and there might well be some benefits there and I do keep thinking about it.

Then I look wider at my business. As with most pubs these days, the majority of my revenue is not in fact from cask at all3. I also sell keg beers, bottled beers, wine, whisky, food and accommodation. It is true that the cask beer is an expectation most of my customers have, but then they also have an expectation of clean sheets and toilet rolls.

I can see why Fair Pint are using underhand and possibly illegal tactics against the BBPA. Being run by the powerful major beer tie reliant companies the BBPA are a giant that Fair Pint are struggling against. Equally, the BBPA are there to defend their members, so the fight is inevitable. I can't help feeling that the BII and Federation of Licensed Victuallers Association are piggy in the middle and not really sure what to do. I don't really know the answer to this one, but it does look a little messy and it would have been better not getting to this stage.

Meanwhile, I look on a little bemused at the discussions that have developed over some lager being banned from a CAMRA festival. Oliver Thring has written an article on the Guardian website which has generated a lot of interest. Tandleman takes up the case for CAMRA in response;
".....the mistaken assumption that CAMRA is an umbrella organisation for beer. It quite simply isn't. CAMRA's role, as defined by its constitution, is to promote and defend the interests of cask conditioned ale."
You can't argue with that.

At this point I want to explore the position from the pub perspective. It is almost impossible, although I'll admit not entirely, to run a pub with no lager whatsoever. It is possible, although with difficulties, to run a pub with options of more diverse lagers. I know, because that's what I do. In fact it is more likely that if a pub majors in cask it is also likely to experiment with more unusual keg products too. I would argue this strengthens the position of the pub from a real ale point of view all the more.

I understand the opposition to any beers at a CAMRA festival that use bottled CO2, but perhaps there are some softer issues here. If at a festival a craft brewed lager is presented then it might have some effects that are beneficial to cask beer. Firstly, there is something there for the potential converts to try, those that do like something cold, fizzy and less challenging. Secondly, the beer fans will recognise and perhaps even try the product so next time they are going to that weird pub that doesn't serve any recognisable big brands with their reluctant mates they can reassure them that there really is a decent lager to try. And really, it will be cold and fizzy, not warm and flat. It's an easier move out of a comfort zone of the macro brewed fizz to craft lager than a straight jump to cask.

To return to the assertion that CAMRA is not an umbrella beer organisation I'd like to make observations. I think there is a need for this non-existent umbrella beer organisation and it's need is not going away, nor is it likely to. Meanwhile, CAMRA is the next best thing and I think will remain the focus for the void. Beer and pubs are intertwined and most pubs sell less cask than keg. CAMRA support pubs and so are even more likely to continue to come under scrutiny for their inherent and inevitable disdain of keg beer.

If I now try and look at this overall picture of the organisations on all sides of the beer world I see a very diverse mêlée of potentially confrontational perspectives. Is it perhaps an inevitable result of the great diversity in our beer and pub culture that there will be clashes of opinion. It is because we have an interesting and complex situation, which makes for an exciting world, that we will inevitably have diversity of opinion as well.

I didn't start writing this as another CAMRA blasting article. I'm more hoping to illuminate why there is so much of it about. And we don't need more of the "it's in the name" replies to this, we know that one and presumably as CAMRA is a democratic organisation 120,000 people can't be wrong. Pete Brown says he's "sitting very closely outside the industry looking in" I feel I'm only just in the industry and the closest I've got to a useful organisation is CAMRA and that's not quite what I need. In fact, much of the time I feel I'm further from the centre of the industry than Pete is and I've also got one foot firmly outside.

In conclusion I feel I've asked more questions here than I've answered. I wrote this yesterday and parked it for proof reading this morning. It seems this blogs twin4 Pencil and Spoon might also be looking at the same issues. I need to stop writing and start reading.


1 Your right, Pete doesn't write "No we don't" at this point. He writes something far more colourful and rightly gives his true thoughts on the matter. But as I'll ask Ann to proof read this before I post it, I'm limiting it to these words.

255% of my total alcohol sales plus another 5% "cask" cider.

3Cask only makes up 16% of my total revenue.

4Mark Dredge started Pencil and Spoon exactly the same day as I started this one.


Tandleman said...

Interesting stuff. I need to catch a train to London now, but I'll comment from there later.

Mark, said...

I've commented on this issue at Barm's place . It's complicated but we should remember, as Tandleman's said, CAMRA have distinct objectives.

My personal opinion is that we should celebrate all beer and that there's nothing wrong with beer festivals that cater for all styles, no matter how they are conditioned. Perhaps an umbrella needs opening to cater for these more inclusive beer festivals?

Rob Sterowski said...

You've fallen into the trap here of treating proper lager as a kind of bridge to lure reluctant lout drinkers into the world of real ale. It doesn't work like that because firstly proper lager is as different from lout as real ale is, possibly more so. Secondly it is disrespectful of proper lager to view it as a less challenging brew useful for weaning people onto real ale. It can be a destination in its own right.

Cooking Lager said...

What the beer industry needs to do is show a united front against the anti alcohol lobby. It can have as much dissent, argument and infighting as it likes.

When it uses the anti alcohol lobby as a tool of infighting it weakens itself.

Thats the danger. That in a fight between on and off trade, ale or lager, craft lager or cooking lager, the only real winner will be the anti alcohol lobby so long as people think they are a useful tool to win a minor spat and the forget the biggest threat there is to a free Englishmans right to get pissed if he wants to.

Mark Dredge said...

Nice piece Dave (I'm interested what the 4 means by my name though?!) and interesting to hear it from behind the bar, as it were. I wrote my piece this morning and as I comment and read other comments more things come out, which is the beauty and immediacy of blogging.

My thinking is now that it's a cask vs keg mentality of he drinker and it's in a dangerous position. The original point of Oliver's piece has been taken further by us all and it's illuminating more issues for which I don't think there are any answers yet. CAMRA havetheir objectives, LOBI have theirs but what about the middle ground where they can exist side by side?

It's become an interesting topic!

The Beer Nut said...

Good stuff Dave. Can I add to your point about pubs and CAMRA that the same applies to breweries and CAMRA? CAMRA runs ads for breweries that churn out non-Real Ale and lager (much of it excellent) which also happen to do cask, without so much as a murmur of censure.

And I'd say it's a lot more feasible to run an all-Real brewery than an all-Real pub.

Unknown said...

Mark RAR, yes, I think that umbrella needs to happen.

Barm, points taken, quality lager is indeed a destination in its own right. Although I think your overall scepticism is a little misplaced. We have Lindeboom on the bar, which I'm told is fairly good proper lager. Many lager drinkers who drink that like it. Admittedly some prefer the Flensburger, which is a bland German 4% thing brewed for lout drinkers.

Cookie, can't argue with you there.

Sorry Mark D, you see even my proof reader didn't spot that. I think I'll have to find a more diligent version.

Cooking Lager said...

So you do have lout at your gaff, Dave. Well done fella, you are going up in my estimation.

Tandleman said...

"If at a festival a craft brewed lager is presented then it might have some effects that are beneficial to cask beer. Firstly, there is something there for the potential converts to try"

This just not so. The idea is bizarre. You are thinly disguising a veneer of keg with a cask excuse.Surely no-one believes good lager leads onto cask?

"CAMRA support pubs and so are even more likely to continue to come under scrutiny for their inherent and inevitable disdain of keg beer."

No,they aren't. You are making the mistake of thinking that what we bloggers see, is what others see. Most people think no such thing I'd venture. The scrutiny if it exists, which I doubt, can only arise because of the void you identified, not because CAMRA actually knows what it stands for and defends that position.

"It also concerns me that the one consumer beer group confines itself to only one possible dispense method, and yes I know the clue is in it's name, let's not have that one again."

No.Let's have this again and again and again until people actually understand it. Why does CAMRA's view - if it exists - about keg beer concern you anyway? It probably makes not a jot of difference to your business, while CAMRA's view of cask probably benefits you a lot.

This just doesn't add up Dave. It is disappointing scapegoating. You have changed your blog to mention CAMRA negatively in your intro. Seems you are indeed becoming a CAMRA basher.

Tim said...

@Tandleman - I don't think its CAMRA bashing as such, but more of a nudge saying your policies are inconsistant and why are you continuing to keep your head in the sand.

I know CAMRA isn't a one man band and every member has their own politics etc. But what is CAMRA trying to achieve collectively? To save (strike)real(/strike) cask ale?? Eyes open, it doesn't need saving anymore.

Anonymous said...

Time to start the Society Of Beer Appreciators, the point of SOBA being that its members appreciate all kinds of beer, in moderation ...

Mark, said...

Zythophile, I couldn't have come up with a better acronym. Count me in!

The Beer Nut said...

The Kiwis are already using that one. And they know how to fight trademark infringement ;)

I'm still trying to figure out what "thinly disguising a veneer of keg with a cask excuse" means. I think it only works if you come from the fundamentalist perspective that cask is always better than keg, and that keg is a pejorative term. Otherwise, I don't understand it.

Unknown said...

Ouch, Tandleman, that was a stronger response than I expected. I really am trying not to CAMRA bash.

Maybe I should have been more explicit in saying that just because there is a void does not mean there is a need for an organisation to change its core beliefs just to enable the void to be plugged. Also, I am a CAMRA member and I am not considering giving that up just yet.

I become more sceptical about CAMRA as some individuals, bearing the CAMRA flag, upset me. Perhaps I am too sensitive.

It seems obvious that there is no point arguing that CAMRA should change. It isn't going to any time soon.

So, let's move on.

Zythophile, I basically think it is time, yes.

TBN, SOBBA? doesn't quite work I know but - Society of British Beer Appreciators? For me, I'd include the whole of Ireland. Actually, I'd include anybody who upheld the belief that all type of beer are worthy of appreciation. As for the moderation bit, well.....

The Beer Nut said...

"SOBBA" conjures images of people crying into their pints.

Unknown said...

TBN, Good point. Any better ideas?

The Beer Nut said...

Oh no you don't. I'm busily engaged with our own pre-nascent national beer consumers' lobby. I'm not doing yours as well.

Sat In A Pub said...


I can understand why you'd want an umbrella organisation, but why would you think you'd ever get one? After all, the beer and pub game is just like everything else-full of competing groups. For example, I'd expect petrolheads to have just one organisation to reprent their interests as (to me) it would appear simple. However, there appears to be several such groups. I think the best you can hope for is a broad alliance against the anti-alcohol lobby as CL suggests.

Poor Camra. I almost feel sorry for it-it does come in for some stick. It seems a lot of hot air is generated by people puzzling over its aims and telling it what it should be doing. Anyone would think its in trouble instead of going from success to success.

Call me a sceptic, but it appears that these critics want Camra to become what they are unable/unwilling to do-setup a organisation that represents broader interests. But as you say, Camra isn't going to change any time soon and I've actually yet to hear any sound reasons why it should.

Tim said...

It's been mentioned that on average there are only 2 CAMRA members per pub. I think it's fair to say that the majority of drinkers in the pubs (ie the non CAMRA members) have not asked CAMRA, nor want CAMRA to campaign on their behalf.

Yet CAMRA still does this on a number of non R#$l Ale related matters.

Tandleman said...

Tim. That point has already been explained. Dave = it was a robust response, but I really felt it needed one.As for individuals, treat them as such is my advice.

PS. Belgium was good, but bloody expensive!

Penny said...

I'm not sure I follow your logic, Tim. Lots of organisations campaign in areas that they feel impact on their members interests, even though non-memebers will also be affected by the campaign. WHICH is a members led organisation, but are seen as speaking for all consumers. And in the motoring analogy, the AA does exactly the same. I haven't asked the AA to campaign on my behalf. Have you?

So I don't think you can blame Camra for acting like any other campaigning organisation. And is it really true most drinkers don't want them to campaign on their behalf? You may not, but I would think most are indifferent or, as with the AA or Which, actually grateful if they achieve something that benfits both members and non-members.

(Not a Camra member herself, but friend to some who are)

Whorst said...


Barry said...

Penny, don't try to make any sense out of Timmy's comments. He is just a troll who likes to stir things up. He wouldn't know logic if it came up and bit him on the arse.Expect to be summarily dismissed, called a twat and then possibly impersonated.

Unknown said...


I've got an evolving train of thought re CAMRA which I'm about to share possibly prematurely and no doubt at all from an uninformed perspective.

The thing that irritates me about the 'it's in the name' argument is that CAMRA bends this rule when they see fit. If it's all about real ale, why do we see them campaigning for real cider, supporting Budvar in the Czech Republic, and weighing in on the PubCo tie? I'll admit the last one has some direct impact on cask ale. But the other two fall firmly into the category of 'stuff that people who like real ale and campaign for it are also likely to feel passionate about'. That's fine. But if it's an admissible criterion for these two, why not for UK craft brewed lager? Or traditional ales that are not bottle conditioned? Who gets to decide when the 'real ale only' rule is flexed? Because it is in some cases and not others. (This is a genuine question rather than an attack masquerading as a rhetorical question btw)

But my main point - and again I'm asking as a non-member who is not privy to inner workings - is this: CAMRA has doubled its membership in the last ten years. It now speaks for way more people. Is anyone sure that the constitution still reflects the opinions of the majority of its members? I'm about to suggest a stereotype for which I apologise if I'm mistaken - but my hunch is that policy is still decided by the old guard of CAMRA members, the seasoned campaigners for whom the fight to save real ale is a primary motivator, who genuinely believe that the only beer worth drinking is real ale. But I know - because I've seen the statistics - that the vast majority of people who drink real ale also drink lager, speciality beer etc - they just enjoy great-tasting beer. That's why the foreign beer bar is usually busier than anywhere else at GBBF and grows in size every year. Does CAMRA policy still speak for the majority of its membership? My hunch (again) is that the majority are silent, passive members, so their views are not necessary the organisation's views.

The organisation can change its constitution if it wants to. Things change. Remember - it was formed as the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. In one sense that would have a broader remit because it's not all about real ale. Things have moved on on the last 38 years - cask conditioning has never been a guarantee of quality - now it's a strong indicator of quality, but by no means the only one.

This has started to sound like CAMRA bashing. Tandleman, I know you don't speak for the whole of CAMRA, but as someone who seems to be positioned firmly in the old guard and is - unlike some of your colleagues - a reasonable, bright and incisive commenter on these issues, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tandleman said...

Pete. Not a lot I disagree with at all. I don't actually think I am in the old guard. I still say the clue is in the name, but I'm not averse to change if that's what people want.

I do drink non cask beers from time to time and always I suppose,when abroad. As I recall, CAMRA has a sort of "get out clause" which says it can campaign for things that aren't cask where there is an over-riding reason to do. Who decides? Ah well, I suspect there is an inner circle that does that, though of course they can be called to account by the AGM should the members feel strongly enough about it. The members like any voluntary organisation are lead by those who turn up and vote - I don't - like most people. That's democracy - of a sort anyway, but see below for more.*

On a final point, the calls for change all seem to be coming from outside CAMRA. The members though seem content, as I would guess most just have a vague wish to support traditional beer.It's the niche they care for, that's all.

Personally, I am on record as saying CAMRA as it gets bigger, needs to review itself. Unless it does the calls from outside will start to have more and more validity, as the current inconsistencies are exposed.

*For the record here, I'm have no idea what happens at the top of CAMRA really. Like most local CAMRA members I am concerned about the availability and viability of cask ale in my local pubs. What I say here really is all my own thoughts, though I chip in when I see unfairness.Would I like tom see change? Depends on what it is.

The Beer Justice said...

I have been away and come to this late. I also posted similar on Pencil & Spoon but the question that I have wrestled with for a year or so as my beer drinking knowledge flirts away from real ale from time to time is IF there is room for a new consumer organisation, what does it need to achieve ? - is it just a celebration of good beer ?