Tuesday, 11 February 2014
Tim Webb, guru and author of all thing beerily Belgian, has set the cat among the pigeons by suggesting in a letter to CAMRA's esteemed organ, What's Brewing, that CAMRA needs to change and concludes by saying:
"The challenge for the Campaign is how to adapt to the much-improved world of beer it helped create. Luke warm acceptance of, or being not against the greatest improvements to beer tastes in a century, is not a good enough stance. To younger eyes it makes CAMRA look like a much-loved grandparent who wants to keep driving even though they can’t make out the road ahead."
When you examine Tim's letter, it is a bit of a mixed bag with much to agree about. There are some gaps in his arguments though. He says "Luke warm acceptance of, or being not against the greatest improvements to beer tastes in a century, is not a good enough stance." Sorry. What are these "greatest improvements to beer tastes in a century". Tim doesn't say, so it is somewhat difficult to know what he is driving at here, other than CAMRA should in some way give more ground to those who believe in beer other than real ale. Actually that is most of us and most CAMRA members. A few die hards maybe stick entirely to cask, but most of us drink other beers too, so to some extent this is a moot point for CAMRA members, though there is a growing number of younger end beer drinkers that may need a little more convincing from their side of the argument. The divide isn't just a CAMRA affair.
He does make some very valid points about brewing practice and has concerns with the word "traditional" in the CAMRA definition of real ale, implying it harks to a non existant golden age where things were done "properly". He is right of course and partial conditioning of beer in the brewery is nothing new at all. As for "traditional", I rather fancy it came from the name that the trade used to call real ale - cask conditioned beer if you like - rather than any attempt to imply beer had always been made in an artisanal and time honoured way, as Tim suggests. The trade used the term "traditional" to distinguish it from keg and other bright beers. His assertion that the CAMRA definition would implode if the word "traditional" was removed is somewhat unsupported by any evidence. I would be most suprised if real ale drinkers were, or are, purely or substantially attracted to real ale due to tradition. I suspect the answer is much more prosaic and that most feel that (to them) it just tastes better.
I do agree with him in other ways though. The genie is out of the bottle in that there are many more good beers out there, that are neither traditional, nor cask conditioned, so it does need to be addressed. How to co-exist with this is a dilemma. To paraphrase Marx, "The problem is not in identifying what is wrong with the world, but how to change it." Tim says in his letter about the Good Beer Guide "CAMRA has championed a bureaucratic device to inform its members what sort of beer is good – as in the term Good Beer Guide. Thirty years ago this mattered little, as decent beer and cask ale,in Britain at least, were synonymous. But then things changed."
Tim offers no solutions as to what should be done, so, eating this elephant bite at a time, here's a thought: The Good Beer Guide may not be the all inclusive, unambiguous title that it once was, (as Tim Webb points out) but it has recognition and value which make a change in the short term not only unlikely but commercially suicidal. Why not though run a bold strapline under the title to say "The definitive guide to real ale and where to drink it"? CAMRA would then, if nothing else be nailing its stated real ale colours to the mast and be clearlyclaiming no more than the GBG is a guide to real ale.
The vexatious question of what CAMRA should do about craft keg is one that needs a bit more careful thought. But by my suggested subtle change to the Good Beer Guide, we'd have a starting point. CAMRA campaigns for real ale. Just accept that and build on it and modernise it, including our definition of real ale and a full explanation of how the term arose. We should be unafraid where we encounter a mixed economy of cask and keg. Most good craft beers bars already do this. We should provide better education and words about other beers and better definitions of them too. We need to include more about craft keg beer in our publications, including the GBG, while still emphasising our commitment to real (cask) ale as uniquely British and a fantastic product in its own right. The fact that by and large it can only be consumed in the pub is a good point to emphasise too, as should the fact that cask beer still has its dangers to face. (Which is another reason to support it strongly). We in CAMRA do need to improve what we do and how we do it in a changing beer world (despite the urban nature of most of the changes).
There are other areas too where we need to up our game. But we aren't as broken, out of touch and irrelevant an organisation as Tim implies. Not by a long chalk. But maybe it is time to demonstrate that to the doubters.
Actually the Good Beer Guide often mentions in its entries the fact that craft keg and bottles are sold. I also recommend both Curmudgeon and Paul Bailey who cover this subject too.