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07-10-2015, 15:51
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Last year, Mike Benner left his post as Chief Executive of CAMRA to move across to SIBA. Mike was (and is) a very able and articulate chap and a compelling speaker. To replace him, CAMRA appointed Tim Page (http://www.camra.org.uk/-/camra-appoints-tim-page-as-new-chief-executive), a former Army officer who had extensive experience in other not-for-profit organisations, but wasn’t a beer industry veteran. He’s a rather avuncular-looking, middle-aged chap, and many people’s expectations were that he’d be someone who would keep things ticking over without unduly rocking the boat.
However, he seems to be made of sterner stuff, and has launched a “Revitalisation Project” which aims to take a root-and-branch review of CAMRA’s strategies, structures and organisation. A few years ago, there was a “Fit for Purpose Review” following a conference motion by two Greater Manchester members, but unfortunately this ended up just looking at internal processes and did not address the wider issues.
CAMRA now has a record number of members, but is assailed by doubts as to what its purpose is in the current beer world, and concerns about the ageing profile of active members, and lack of engagement of younger ones. I’ve been a member for 34 years, and a life member for most of that time, so obviously it’s something I’m concerned about, even if at times I have been critical of some of its stances.
So here are my thoughts as to what Tim’s review should address:

Produce a clear definition of what CAMRA actually stands for in 2015. “An organisation that campaigns for quality beer, consumer rights, pubgoing and the preservation of our pub heritage, with particular reference to the unique British tradition of cask-conditioning.” Doesn’t trip off the tongue, but that’s basically what it’s about.

Lance the boil of the cask vs keg dichotomy. There isn’t really a Manichean divide between good and bad beer, and most members recognise this. While accepting the primacy of cask-conditioned draught beer, CAMRA spokespeople and publications should be permitted to recognise merit in “non-real” beers. The motion against banning “anti-campaigns” was a start, but doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

Scrap the dogmatic championing of bottle-conditioned beers. When this policy was originated, bottle-conditioned beers were a tiny, irrelevant market sector. But drawing a direct parallel with cask vs keg is completely inappropriate. Yes, for the best, high-quality, strong bottled beers, bottle-conditioning is preferable, but for ordinary quaffing beers it just introduces uncertainty. This policy is a significant deterrent to the development of a thriving British bottled beer sector.

Return to putting more emphasis on pubs and pub preservation. This was a key plank of the original CAMRA, but seems to have been left behind in the current craze for new breweries and bars. But the National Inventory (http://www.heritagepubs.org.uk/home/home.asp) is one of CAMRA’s greatest achievements, and will endure when all the railway arch brewers have gone to the great mash tun in the sky. Create a spin-off organisation of “Friends of Historic Pubs”, possibly in conjunction with the National Trust. Also set up a register of the “next 5000” which still retain a broadly traditional layout and character.

But, on the other hand, accept that greedy pubcos and lax planning controls are not major causes of pub decline – it’s basically a matter of demand. This is a false narrative that allows people to hide behind a smokescreen, and in reality is damaging to the cause of pubs. Market Rent Option won’t remotely save the pub trade, and things like ACVs, while they may be useful in a local context, will make scarcely any difference to the overall picture.

Mount a much stronger challenge to the anti-drink lobby. This has been agreed at Conference in the past, but little seems to have happened. Going forward, this is far more of a threat than the big brewers and pubcos. But a problem is that many CAMRA members, despite campaigning for a “fun” product, are instinctively puritanical. The people who advocate banning McDonalds and taxing sugar are really not on your side. Unfortunately this may involve making common cause with campaigners who have been vocal opponents of the s*****g b*n.

Place a much higher emphasis on beer quality in pubs. This may seem obvious, but in recent years CAMRA seems to have been far keener to cheer on the expansion of handpump numbers in pubs and the ever-burgeoning number of breweries. Quality and quantity aren’t mutually exclusive, but if you have to choose one, it must always be quality. Too many pubs are serving up tired beer because they are stocking too many. There also seem to be more novice licensees who don’t seem to understand the basics. Maybe there needs to be a big roll-out of basic beer tasting courses amongst regular NBSS scorers.

Sort out CAMRA’s relationship with cider. I’m not suggesting CAMRA should turn its back on cider, but APPLE often seem to be ploughing their own furrow with no reference to CAMRA’s wider aims. Cider is an entirely different drink from beer, and the definition of “real cider” is far more picky and obscurantist than that for “real beer”. And real cider never seems to have gained much traction in pubs. Every new family dining pub has three or four handpumps for cask beer, but none for real cider.
Take a serious review of membership activation, going back to basic principles. While CAMRA has a record membership, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in active local members, and many branches report a dwindling number of ageing activists. The way many branches operate still seems to be rooted in the 1970s, so could things be improved by a reshaping? Or do younger members simply not like any kind of organised events? Given its current membership level, CAMRA isn’t going to disappear any day soon, but at the end of the day it may need to look at becoming primarily a national campaigning organisation supported by local branches where they exist, as opposed to something that is essentially based on its branch structure.

There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm out there for beer and pubs, and the challenge for CAMRA is to harness that without unnecessarily alienating people. It also has to be recognised that different people will have different priorities within the overall organisation.

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