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Camra misses chance to embrace growing craft scene

Our beer expert Andrew Nowell
Our beer expert Andrew Nowell

Our beer expert Andrew Nowell takes a look at a split of opinion in the world of ale...

It is fair to say that the ale world is not an entirely happy place at the moment with the fall-out from Camra’s AGM which marked the end of its modernising Revitalisation Project.

A whole host of praiseworthy motions, which will make the beer scene a more inclusive, varied and interesting place, were passed by the membership.

However, there is also a black mark over proceedings. A fundamental motion to change the nature of what Camra does, to make it a movement celebrating and campaigning for all beer drinkers and pub-goers, failed to meet the 75 per cent approval threshold required under company law.

It is quite obvious what this means. It is a rearguard action being fought by those who only drink traditional cask ale to prevent the campaign enthusiastically welcoming the burgeoning craft scene into its fold.

Many are talking about walking away from Camra. Membership cards are being ripped up. On some levels, the frustration is extremely understandable.

The position of those holding the cask-or-nothing fortress is riddled with contradictions. Camra has long celebrated venerable brewing traditions which have nothing whatsoever to do with using casks, most notably Belgian brewing where bottle-conditioning is the norm.

It is obvious why this sort of thing has a place in Camra. It is extremely good quality beer and represents a long-standing history and tradition which deserves protection.

And yet at the same time Camra is still trying to cling to notions that the British form of cask ale production is some sort of pinnacle.

This idea can be dismissed very simply. A bog-standard bitter or IPA produced by a large commercial brewer is simply not superior, in any way at all, to Rochefort 10, The Kernel’s Export Stout or one of Cloudwater’s DIPAs. It is frankly ludicrous to try to argue otherwise.

That is not to say, though, that the new craft scene where most beers are served in a form of keg does not pose challenges for real ale.

Many drinkers, including myself, have become interested in these modern brews after first becoming enthusiasts for traditional cask.

That is not necessarily the case any longer. The hoppier US-style beers seem to be drawing people straight from lager, as do the experiments in European styles like pilsners, and it is not clear how the many people currently interested in sour beers will also be attracted to Camra’s offerings.

But for all that the talk of division in the air is dangerous and must be resisted.

Camra, over 40 years, has built up enormous clout and has a membership of 192,000. A Campaign for Good Beer, or whatever a new organisation would be called, would have to really battle some to have an impact.

A schism would also have a terrible impact on beer, creating an equivalent of the BDO vs PDC debate in darts or even rugby league vs rugby union. Many outsiders, those we want to attract to quality beer, struggle to see what on earth such debates are about because to their untrained eyes the two sides have far more in common than not.

Such divisions are also rarely brought back together. History teaches clearly that where people split in such ways tribalism inevitably follows, with tiny differences blown out of propertion and rancour and vitriol filling the increasing gap.

That would be in nobody’s interest. Brewers do not want to have to take sides. Many already produce a variety of beers in different styles: more traditional ales in cask, experimental brews in bottles, other drinks which appeal to craft bars appearing in keg. Why wouldn’t they? As businesses, their MO is to attract as many customers as possible.

For all the potential problems and pitfalls ahead, beer enthusiasts for cask and craft alike need to be pulling in the same direction.