It could be all change for CAMRA as it brings forward its Revitalisation resolutions. Will it be breezy progress to a brave new world of ‘quality beer’ or could it be the start of a perfect storm for the organisation?
If I worked at CAMRA HQ I would be worried for my future on a few fronts.
- reliance on CAMRA beer festivals for HQ income
- lack of CAMRA relevance for members on both sides (and no side) of the real ale v keg divide
- declining active membership for a committee-based voluntary organisation
- branches having very different viewpoints selecting entries for the GBG post-Revitalisation decisions
- a media that tastes blood on the ‘so what is quality’ story
CAMRA beer festivals
It’s a world of harsh competition for CAMRA, whether it’s ‘Indy’ beer festivals or alternative opportunities for the leisure pound. Every pub worth its salt seems to have a couple of festivals every year and many have cottoned on to the benefits of offering more drinks than real ale to attract a wider range of people.
In August, CAMRA put in place cost saving measures given that income was likely to be below forecast levels, with issues such as membership numbers and festival income reported by the CAMRA Chairman, Colin Valentine. My view is that as the competition hots up, these issues will become more of a threat in the future and that would result in more severe cost-cutting.
The battle lines on Revitalisation are already being drawn on the inclusion of keg in CAMRA’s definition of quality beer and there will no doubt be tears. Whilst some such as PubCurmudgeon raise the problem, of defining quality, calmly and logically others seem ready to man the trenches.
Witness the CAMRA Hertfordshire’s Pints of View letter in December, headed ‘Campaign against beer in sealed dustbins’. “Hearty congratulations on your (the Editor’s) demolition on key kegs and their contents (in a previous issue). Sadly it seems not all Camra branches share your well-founded scepticism.”
The letter went on to describe the disgrace of the CAMRA Leeds’ branch having key kegs at their festival. Evidently the CAMRA Leeds’ newletter included such annoying ‘tosh’ as, “Any key keg naysayers need to wake up and smell the coffee…and…The cask v. keg debate seems to be no longer an issue for us, we’ve moved on.”. Blimey it’s only a drink, not world poverty.
I suspect these battle lines will have a few members on the ‘losing side’ deciding to take their ball home and cancelling memberships, post-Revitalisation decisions. I don’t expect these folk to significantly reduce CAMRA income. Perhaps more importantly the passive members, who regularly let their direct debits roll-on, will question whether CAMRA and its arguments is still relevant to them and their drinking opportunities. And if that happens there could be serious repercussions on the income front.
Declining Active Members
In terms of the age profile of active members and the high level of activity of those in the ‘Cask only’ trenches I think some branches will struggle to carry on with the traditional branch structures. For many people, particularly the young, an organisation that appears more like a public sector trade union with endless committees and resolutions is not for them. Telling them what is ‘quality beer’ will merely add to the disengagement.
The reliance on the work of active members for festival organisation, pub awards and the GBG listings could cause severe problems for CAMRA in its current structure. Could that result in a declining rump with limited activity in some branches?
Branches taking differing views
As branches have a great deal of leeway in their local guidelines and in making their GBG selections could we see for GBG 2020, some ‘traditional’ branches taking a hard line view, focusing on ‘proper’ real ale pubs, whilst others, particularly in metropolitan cities, considering venues on their full range of ‘quality beers’ – cask, keg and all. GBG 2020 vision might be a bit blurred.
Media smells blood from the wounded CAMRA beast
If you thought Michael Hardman on BBC Breakfast talking about CAMRA’s modern day relevance was (a) given a brutal going over, or (b) gave an inept performance, it will be nothing compared to the media running a coach and horses through the definition of ‘quality beer’, and accepting that beers other than real ale are now fine. The argument that cask at its best is ‘the best of the best’ just won’t be enough to justify CAMRA’s existence.
The relevance of CAMRA will be severely questioned and if the baying hounds of the media start to examine the GBG, will that hold up to scrutiny as the best guide to the best beers in Britain. Questions such as, ‘you mean that different parts of the country are chosen using different rules’; ‘you’re saying that the submitted beer scores you mention are so thin on the ground as to be meaningless’; and ‘you’ve included some venues that hardly ever open and some that don’t even sell real ale for part of the year’ could be very embarrassing for the poor CAMRA spokesperson.
The reality of the GBG is much more positive, as witnessed by the travels and travails of RetiredMartin and others like him. That reality will be of no interest to a media that spots an organisation ripe for a good kicking.
I think CAMRA is heading for difficult times. Its relevance, its finances and its activities could all be coming under severe threat in the next few years. The Revitalisation debates and decisions may not help in that regard.
Me, I’ll just stick to a pint of quality, please landlord.
*The beer in the glass was actually a lovely pint of Draught Bass in the esteemed Stretton Social Club near Burton upon Trent. Keg beers also available.
Really good insight. As you say “Blimey, it’s only a drink”. Take a look at Discourse tonight though !
I worry about the ability of branches to produce the GBG, which our estimable Chairman rightly highlights as the fundamental CAMRA output (I think awards to pub are important too, but beer fests are completely irrelevant).
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I can’t bear Discourse and I suspect it will get worse.
All the best Ian
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Very good post, and thanks for the kind words. You are right to say that, whatever the outcome, it is going to prove highly divisive. I bet some in the hierarchy are starting to wish they’d never started the process in the first place…
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I’ll thought through or unintended consequences. A major problem either way.
Incisive analysis, as usual – sad to say it, but perhaps CAMRA’s work is done?
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“perhaps CAMRA’s work is done?”
Not while there are still plenty of people saying that keg beers are good.
There’s nowt wrong with Mansfield Mild.