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Pete Brown has stirred things up a tad with his piece about CAMRA and dogma. It contains a few assertions that I'd sum up as "CAMRA should change to encompass the new wave of brewers and brewing practice". Pete also says "Because this is the nub of the debate: the Campaign for Real Ale was founded from a genuine belief that cask ale tastes better than other beers". Well, sorry Pete, it wasn't. It was founded as a protest against the poor quality keg beers that had by and large replaced cask beers. A small but significant difference. It also explains the Campaign's long distrust of keg in a way that your assertion doesn't. Now let's examine the issue in two ways: firstly this new wave of brewing sweeping the country and then: CAMRA itself.

The New Keg Revolution

There is a new wave of approximately three keg brewers sweeping the er, well, not country, but two or three selected outlets. Of these only one (Lovibonds) is actually a solely keg brewer, one of the other two (Thornbridge) sometimes kegs the same beer they put in cask or one off specials and seems to do it, not as as you might imagine, for those "hard to put cask in" places, but for the gratification of beer geeks, side by side with the cask version, where lots of other keg beers are sold. The other, BrewDog adopts a policy of saying their beers are better in keg. Go and try that theory out at Wetherspoons. Oh you can't. It's all cask BrewDog there, so somewhat confusing. Now at this point you'll be saying "Hang on Matey" you've just said that there is lots of keg beer being sold in some of these outlets". I did and there is, but it is all imported keg beers. Apart from British brewed smoothflow beers, British keg beer is as rare as hen's teeth. Quality British keg is even rarer. To all intents and purposes, as a nationwide drink, it doesn't actually exist, as you'll never come across it. Hold that thought. It is important when we come to part two.

CAMRA's Aims

What aims does CAMRA have? I'm guessing here that most readers don't have a clue. I'm pretty sure most CAMRA members are unsure, but here they are:
  1. Protect and improve consumer rights
  2. Promote quality, choice and value for money
  3. Support the public house as a focus of community life
  4. Campaign for greater appreciation of traditional beers, ciders and perries as part of our national heritage and culture
  5. Seek improvements in all licensed premises and throughout the brewing industry
The fact is that CAMRA has grown and changed from the organisation that was dreamt up by its founders many years ago. This has been an evolutionary process, democratically decided by its members. An important point, which I'll return to later. Some (mostly outside CAMRA) call for a return to those heady days, where a few fought the many to give us back decent beer from the tide of poor fizzy keg that prevailed and brought about the Campaign in the first place. These are the siren voices that suggest CAMRA needs to widen its base to include all craft beer.

CAMRA's Real Ale Success

You can of course argue that the main problem that CAMRA was founded to tackle has been completed. It has to the extent that we now have more breweries than for centuries, more cask ale availability and more consumer choice. CAMRA has always been about choice and it is still there firmly in aim number two above. Less appreciated is that CAMRA has always agreed with the right of keg beer to exist, while campaigning for wider availability of cask. That has always been policy and conflating the anti keg views of individuals with CAMRA as a whole doesn't alter the official position one bit. The Campaign isn't won though. As Pete Brown pointed out in the Cask Report, 3000 new outlets stocked it in the report period, which presumably means that before then 3000 pubs and bars stocked keg product instead, most likely John Smiths, Tetley or Boddingtons. As an aside, they sure as hell weren't selling quality craft keg. Why? To an overwhelming extent, there isn't any, that's why.

The Cask Breather

So we move on to the arcane arguments that seem to fascinate non CAMRA members and bother most CAMRA members not one little bit. The most contentious of these being the aspirator or cask breather. Now this is a complex argument but the main points run thus:

  • You don't need them
  • You need them sometimes
  • You always need them
  • Nobody can tell the difference anyway
Now if you sell enough cask beer and turn it over quickly, you don't need them is the clear and obvious winner, as otherwise you'll just be wasting your money and indulging in a pointless exercise. This is countered by those that say, "well, it extends the life of the cask and helps slow turnover beers." So does the Race spile which uses the CO2 produced within the cask to do the job. That's how the mild is served in our pub and it works. No argument with CAMRA, job done! In any event CAMRA will not exclude any pub from the Good Beer Guide on the basis of a slow moving mild or strong ale, or whatever being put on an aspirator. It will merely say along the lines of "Note: xxx Mild utilises a cask breather." There is a corollary to this, which goes along the lines of "if you need a breather on all your beers, you probably shouldn't be selling cask". I agree. Even a breather won't keep cask going forever. Quality will suffer.

The Hated Keg

CAMRA hates keg we are told. Well as I explained earlier, there is/was a good reason for this. That reason still applies in the main, though the beer sold as keg these days, tends to be nitrogen pushed and smooth. It is still, usually, pretty grim stuff though and apart from excess fizz, fits why CAMRA was founded "CAMRA was founded in the most Westerly pub in Europe - Kruger's Bar in Dunquin, Co Kerry, when four young men from the north west of England, Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Bill Mellor and Jim Makin were on holiday. Fed up the increasing bad quality of beer in Britain that was too fizzy, no character and no taste they decided to form a Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale."

In any event CAMRA supports choice. The National Inventory of Heritage Pubs includes keg pubs; CAMRA recognises that certain non real ale types of beer such as bottled barley wines have particular value and should be supported; we recognise different foreign brewing traditions and support non cask brewers such as Budvar; we sell foreign non real beer at our festivals to promote diversity, awareness and choice; we campaign to retain threatened pubs even where no real ale is sold; we campaigned against closure of breweries even where no cask ale or very little was produced. I could go on, but you get my drift I'm sure.

The Need for Change

But modern keg isn't like that smooth stuff we are told. How does anyone at large know this? It is virtually unobtainable. CAMRA should embrace it all though and change its stance say some. Now why would we want to include a miniscule set of keg brewers and muddy our message? Who would that help? A strong message from CAMRA about what it believes in, is as needed today as it was when CAMRA was founded. If these new keg beers are that good - and I look forward to trying some - then they must stand or fall by their own merit. If they gain widespread acceptance, who knows? CAMRA can change its stance any time the members want it to. Those that aren't members have no legitimate say in what we believe in. Join and change it if you care so much about these things I say. That's democracy. (At least the Trots did join the Labour Party to steal it from its members - some want CAMRA to fall on someone else's sword? Why on earth should it? Its the members that decide.)

What Pete Brown Said

"Some CAMRA people argue that things like cask breathers, and FastCask from Marston's, are "the thin end of the wedge" - that if we accept this, we'll see a gradual erosion of real ale until it doesn't exist any more and, by stealth, CAMRA will have been defeated. "

The thin end of the wedge argument is perfectly valid. One thing can lead to another. That's not to say that every CAMRA members agrees with it, but keeping your definitions tight gives a reasonably straightforward message. Real Ale was slowly but surely being lost when CAMRA was founded. Who is to say it can't happen again?

Pubs that start using cask breathers are promptly dropped from the Good Beer Guide.

Not true Pete, but see above

I believe craft beer bars like the Euston Tap demonstrate that the definition of quality craft beer has changed an awful lot since 1971. I don't think your hardline attitude does anything to help beer drinkers, CAMRA's image and credibility, or even cask ale itself. While I'm a champion of cask ale, I obviously love other beers as well - as I think do most drinkers. But this is an issue that won't go away, and the Tap has thrown it, for me, into sharp relief.

But let's focus on the hardliners, the people who propose motions at AGMs, who campaign most actively, who write stuff like this on Cambridge CAMRA's official website:

Hmm. Who are these hardline people that I never seem to meet and Pete does? (The fact that this was a personal opinion from 12 years ago seemingly is neither here nor there to him) And why is the Euston Tap so important that it redefines things? Well it isn't of course and it doesn't do much more than sell the sort of beers, mostly foreign that CAMRA has quietly supported for years and that are mostly available elsewhere if you know where to look. (Look at the GBG again and you'll see frequently entries such as " Also sells a solid range of imported draught and bottled beers". We are already doing it Pete.

Have a look too at the latest Opening Times magazine, here in Manchester. An editorial supporting foreign non cask beers and a front page headline about them. CAMRA is a broad church, but it actually the moderates that prevail. These are the guys you bump into in Bamberg, Brussels and Prague, or at the Great American Beer Festival, or wherever. They seek out beers to enjoy whatever the provenance and are comfortable with being CAMRA members and the odd dichotomy. Why should they vote to change? You'd need a more persuasive argument than Pete puts forward I'd venture.

Others agree that cask is (almost) unique to this island and praise us for it and copy us. So, if you want a campaign for new keg, found your own, or join us and change us democratically. Don't carp from the outside.

Anyway, I'm running out of steam now. I hope Dear Reader that you will see that there is another side to the story and that CAMRA is about other things apart from cask beer and arcane definitions. The CAMRA focus on pubs is particularly important when there are so many closing. If there is one thing that Pete and I can agree on I'm sure, it is that pubs are important and beer matters enough to write about it. I still don't agree with his views on CAMRA though, for the reasons I have outlined. But if you do want us to change, join us and argue your case. I'll look forward to the debate.

Love us or hate us, its our Campaign and I somehow doubt if we'll be changing on account of a few emerging brewers, whose beer, by and large, nobody has heard of or tasted. But if the arguments are strong enough, I have outlined how to do it. That's democracy.

Hopefully this is better than my pissed comments last night!