Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Diverging tracks

When CAMRA was founded forty years ago, the UK beer landscape was very different from today. Off-trade sales accounted for less than ten per cent of the total, imports were virtually unknown and in pubs the choice was between cask, inferior pressurised versions of the same thing, and weak, ersatz keg lagers. An interest in real ale was pretty much synonymous with an interest in beer, at least within the confines of the British Isles.

Nowadays, of course, things are very different. The proportion of beer sold in the off-trade has steadily grown and is poised to overtake the on- trade within a couple of years. Within this market, CAMRA’s campaign for bottle-conditioned ales has signally failed to gain traction with the general drinking public in the way cask vs keg did. The quantity and variety of imported beers has steadily grown too, and many of the beers most celebrated by enthusiasts are imports. And the draught landscape in the pub is increasingly being transformed by premium and “craft” keg beers – Krombacher, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Duvel Green, Innis & Gunn, BrewDog – which may not be at the cutting edge as far as the beer geek is concerned, but are symptomatic of a much more adventurous and eclectic approach to beer drinking. The idea that a typical pub sells cask mild and bitter, John Smith’s Extra Smooth, Carling, Stella, Guinness and Strongbow is increasingly outdated.

There has been a recent series of postings on various beer blogs on the issue of cask vs keg vs bottles vs cans, and the general view on what makes for good beer has been a long way from the received wisdom of CAMRA. See, for example, this posting by award-winning blogger Mark Dredge, in which he says “Keg beer. Oooh, sexy keg beer, Craft Beer in a Keg. It's the Future!” and “I don't need to start on cans. We all know how I feel about them. GIVE ME GOOD BEER IN CANS! Yippee. THAT’S the future. Maybe.” Of course he’s laying it on with a trowel for effect, but you get the point.

The result is that there is a large and growing territory in which CAMRA and “beer enthusiasm in Britain” no longer overlap. This in future may well become a problem if potential recruits with a wide-ranging interest in beer are put off by the fact that the organisation ignores and indeed sometimes denigrates many of the brews they appreciate and enjoy drinking. In the beer landscape of twenty years hence, CAMRA could have become an irrelevance.

This is not a suggestion that CAMRA should reinvent itself as a “campaign for craft beer” (however that is defined) or suddenly decide that keg beers are part of its remit after all. But anyone responsible in any way for the public face of CAMRA would do well to reflect on the wise words of founder member Michael Hardman in a recent Financial Times article:

“I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something,” he says, as measured as a well-poured pint. “There may be some members who give a different impression and I apologise to the general drinking public for the fact that we’ve recruited those people.”
The future of CAMRA must lie in accentuating the positive, not waging a war over a line in the sand. Many thoughtful members of the organisation already take this on board, but, unfortunately, all too often its public image and pronouncements still don’t.