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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Friday, 11 May 2012

Why I've finally joined CAMRA

Well there we are.  I've set up the direct debit and got my membership number.

This is in some ways a 'hell freezes over' moment for me, and there are traces of discomfort around the edges of my decision.  But it was the right thing to do.

What's the big deal?  Many of my readers (and friends) simply assume I'm a CAMRA member already, given what I do.

A few words of explanation for people who may have started following me more recently:

Back in the day, when I wrote my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, I earned a bit of notoriety by attacking CAMRA in its pages.  I have carried on attacking them - albeit with declining frequency - ever since.  With hundreds of beer blogs now, many written by younger, craft beer fans, there's nothing unusual these days about seeing CAMRA slagged for being out of touch, blinkered, too set in its ways etc.  But at the time I wrote MWIAP, in ye olde pre-beer blogging, pre-social media days, you didn't do that.  I was unable to find anything else in print at the time about CAMRA that deviated from the line that cask beer was facing extinction until they came along, and then they arrived, and saved the world.

I was a big real ale fan, but I also drank mainstream lager (there wasn't much else between them back then.)  When I went to CAMRA beer festivals I felt alienated.  It came across as a clique - one that I really didn't want to be part of.  There was a sneering, condescending attitude towards people who drank lager - and as I keep saying, calling someone an idiot has never been a great strategy for persuading them round to your point of view.  There was that social stereotype of the socially inadequate, visibly outlandish beer nerd, with his big belly, beard, opaque glasses, black socks and sandals, and leather tankard on his belt.  I didn't want anyone to think that just because I was writing about beer, I was one of those people.  (Distressingly, in the last ten years I've grown to look more similar to this stereotype than I would like.  But beards are trendy now.  As for the belly, well, I need to so something about that.  The rest of it, mercifully, remains at a distance.)

I wanted no part of a world view that denied there was any such thing as good beer that wasn't real ale.  It rankled when lager was unfailingly dismissed as 'industrial yellow fizz'.  I gnashed my teeth whenever I picked up a book with a title like 'Beers of Britain', and brands like Carling weren't even in the index.  OK, you might not like big mainstream brands, but saying you were writing about British beer and then pretending 70% of the market simply didn't exist was childish.  Include them and dismiss them as crap in one line if you must, but really... I'd come away from events such as the Great British Beer Festival (not the 'Great British Real Ale Festival', note) feeling genuinely angry at the distorted picture it gave of British beer, and the contradictions that riddled CAMRA's stance on "We're the campaign for real ale, that's our name, we can't support anything else (oh, except if we feel like campaigning for cider, oh and Budvar.)"

I shared many of CAMRA's beliefs.  But I felt I couldn't sign my name to an organisation that believed real ale was the only beer worth drinking.  The emphasis on format and container rankled whenever I thought about it.

So what's changed?  Is this a sell out, a kind of tiny scale inversion of Bob Dylan going electric?

Well, the nerds are still there, and I'm still uncomfortable about people at parties thinking I'm one of them when I tell them what I do.  And some of those issues I objected to are arguably more prevalent than ever, now craft beer has expanded beyond real ale to incorporate quality drinks of all shapes, sizes, formats and containers (jeez, even canned beer is good nowadays).  And CAMRA still refuses to change its stance on campaigning for real ale, and only real ale (unless they feel like bending the rules for cider, Budvar, etc.)  I still have fundamental disagreements with them on major policy directions.  I still think they often present an image that's by turns cheesy, out of date and out of touch, and sometimes pompous and arrogant.

But many things are different now.

I could talk about how CAMRA's membership has doubled since I started writing about beer, but the number of outlandish nerds hasn't, about how CAMRA's membership is broader, younger, more female, more inclusive now.

I could talk about how key figures such as CEO Mike Benner and magazine editor Tom Stainer talk nothing but good sense whenever they open their mouths, or how branch chairmen like Tandleman present a moderate view that, even if I sometimes disagree with, I can see the point of, and how these are all great people to enjoy a beer with.

I could reflect on the fact that 140,000 people represents a very broad church and a huge spread of opinions, that there is no monolithic 'CAMRA' to rail against, and that every time I criticise aspects of CAMRA there are many members who agree with me.

I could point out that there is a new rhetoric coming from a senior level, along the lines that a Campaign FOR Real Ale does not mean a Campaign AGAINST Other Beers, that even if CAMRA does not act for other great types of beer, it doesn't (or rather, shouldn't) act against them, and that while there are still some dinosaurs with positions of influence within the organisation who don't reflect this official stance, I am as 'for' real ale as I am 'for' any other type of craft beer (because real ale is one type of craft beer - of course it is).

I could admit that for the last four or five years I've really, really enjoyed the Great British Beer Festival, despite its Gordian knots of logic and bureaucracy.

And I could argue that, as a writer who likes to campaign for great beer when it is being attacked or derided, when pubs are being hammered by successive governments and beer is still, for the most part, either ignored or scapegoated by the press, it's important to stop playing Judean People's Popular Front and recognise that what unites us is more important than what divides us.  This is what I've been preaching at industry conferences and in the trade press for a while now, and my own anti-CAMRA stance is increasingly at odds with what I'm saying.

I could promise to campaign from within, and try to justify my decision by saying that I'll continue my criticism at conferences and AGMs, where it might have more effect. (But I'm not sure I have the time or the will for that.)

I could say all these things to justify my about-face.

But while I'm not saying any of that is untrue, or not a factor, the real reason I'm joining CAMRA is that being a member is the only bleeedin' way I can get hold of BEER magazine, which now goes out to members only, and is the only consumer-oriented beer publication in the UK, and pretty much the only publication on beer of any description that I always read cover to cover when I can scrounge a copy from Tom.  I give in.  I surrender.  OK, I'll join your bloody organisation.  Just send me the magazine.

Please?

48 comments:

terryL said...

Pete - Well said (and honestly said)

Andrew Bowden said...

I don't believe a word of it. You've done it purely for the Wetherspoons vouchers, haven't you?

Nate Dawg said...

I am a member but I like to call it CAMBWLROWOPT.

Campaign for Beers We Like Regardless Of What Other People Think

Jeff Pickthall said...

Surely the 'Spoons vouchers had something to do with your decision?

tricky_dicky said...

Welcome at last Pete, I hope this means you will be as critical of CAMRA (or even more so) as ever when the need arises!

muldydoona said...

You are right on many fronts with your criticism of CAMRA, but again correct that it is a changing organisation with a growing body of drinkers who disagree with the hard line stance and to change anything you have to be involved in the discussion, railing from the outside will do nothing.

Fundamentally however I feel the beer landscape in the UK would be far worse off without their efforts. Especially as someone who has moved from a country where there is no advocation for 'real ale' as it is non existent (something sad certainly?) I'm glad you've joined CAMRA and would be happy to shout you a pint sometime of anything you choose. And yes I also share your sentiment of increasing beards and bellies.

Steve Lamond said...

I hope that you can make it to a few branch events or something and see what the rest of us have to contend with!

BRi said...

Not for the £20 worth of Wetherspoons' vouchers then?
Very valid points you raise but I am not a member as CAMRA still seem concerned primarily with preserving the volume of beer and breweries and pubs, irrelevant of quality, yet ignoring the very producers of what is called craft beer and when they do differentiate between products it is, as you say, confined by their 40 year old rule on what constitutes real beer. You may as well also join the Society for Preservation of Beer from the Wood (SPBW), not that I am disparaging their sterling campaigning in the 60s and 70s, but it just isn't relevant anymore.
I am interested in great beer not good beer.

Matthew Clark said...

Good for you, Pete.

tommoh said...

'Cos I'm a CAMRA Man

HMHB

Cooking Lager said...

I joined for the Spoons tokens and it helps in my stalking of my favourite beer bloggers, Tand & Mudge. You can go to pong festivals and gurn at them whilst rubbing your legs Vic Reeves style before shyly asking for an autograph. Tands pong festival has some nice lout on the German bar.

One tip I'd give you, clips from camping shops are the best things to attach tankards to your belt and also such places have a wide range of quite trendy sandals.

Also have 2 distinct looks. It's a tad embarrassing when spotted at Tesco with a trolley full of chemical fizz and cheap plonk so it helps to have a mythical twin whose not as enlightened as you.

See you at a festival of warm piss and vinegar fella.

Royce said...

This. Exactly this. Perfectly said.

Nick Boley said...

As a CAMRA member and branch chair I say: Welcome. It is good to have someone who speaks such good sense so well on board. There are so many people in the camopaign who agree with almost all that you say, and many of us get put off from further participation by what I call the fundamentalist wing of CAMRA - the beer Taliban if you like. Let's get this minority out under wraps and have some good sense in CAMRA. You're the man to catalyse this.

Cooking Lager said...

Plenty of people bang on about the Spoons tokens but the free branch brewery tours rarely get a mention. These are top notch and there’s usually a few a year. Admittedly it’s half an hour of boredom and someone drags you around talking about hops or some such rubbish but then there more often than not a free bar to go at. It’s possible to get quite smashed if you drink quickly enough. Some of the old guard with their half a mild don’t like it when you beat them to the buffet or ask if j├Ągerbombs are also free but we are the new craft beer revolution, here to shake things up.

Jeff Pickthall said...

Am I the only person who has read as far as " the real reason I'm joining CAMRA is that being a member is the only bleeedin' way I can get hold of BEER magazine"?

That has almost become the tipping point for me joining the rabble too. But it does annoy me that CAMRA equates increasing its membership with evidence for its success and it incentivises membership with such techniques as withholding "Beer" from general readership. It strikes me as a pyrrhic victory to place increasing membership over the ability to "broadcast" the virtues of good beer to a wider potential readership.

Gareth said...

Do you really not know enough Camra members to be able to borrow a copy? I'm shocked.

Beerprole said...

It's the primary reason I joined as well, so good on Tom. However Jeff makes a very good point. This also applies to hiding any content of interest on the official website behind a member login.

Nick

Owen said...

It's more than a little ironic that Pete is attacking CAMRA for being sandal-wearing beardy luddites while simultaneously attacking them for disregarding swathes of the market based on stereotyping and prejudice.

Has it not occurred to you that perhaps in the same way that you accuse of "CAMRA childishly ignoring 70% of the market" you're childishly ignoring 70% of the membership?

It's also distressing to note that despite attacking CAMRA for umpteen years, you still can't seem to grasp what real ale is. Not all real ale is craft (at least not by most people's definition) -- you could take some Carling from the fermenter before it's centrifuged/pasteurised/filtered/whatevered and it would be real ale. I'm not sure anyone would call it craft, though.

James Partridge said...

Interestingly, I've just recently cancelled my direct debit because I realised I only kept paying it for the magazines, and even then only because I enjoyed being annoyed by the letters pages. The 'spoons vouchers went straight in the bin every year.

BryanB said...

Welcome! I'm really glad to see people recognising now that CAMRA is a lot more than just the tiny minority of Cask Taliban.

Mark, Real-Ale-Reviews.com said...

Sign me up to CAMBWLROWOPT ;-)

Would CAMRA not get more members if they sold BEER in shops and recruited interested people?!

(PS. Bob Dylan going electric a sell out? Nah, he was about as Judas then as he was when he dropped his politics, changed his religion and flitted between musical poetry and bonkers lyrics! The guy has never been dedicated to anything other than doing what the hell he wanted!) :-)

BeerBloke said...

You are dead right Pete and you have made me think that I ought to change my stance on CAMRA, as I would like to receive 'BEER' every month (now where did I put my cheque book)

Pete Brown said...

Owen, your first point was pretty much the entire message of my blog post - shame you either couldn't be arsed to read it all the way through or didn't understand it.

Your second point is so anal I refuse to honour it with a response.

Owen said...

You may think that's the message of your post, but if you've failed to communicate that it's hardly my fault.

My second point isn't "anal", it's factual, and I'm sorry if you think facts are less important than pithy blog posts. I suppose you can take the man out of advertising...

Pete Brown said...

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Owen - the perfect example of why I didn't join CAMRA before now.

Pete Green said...

Tinfoil hatter doesn't mean what you think it means.

Steve Pickthall said...

"you could take some Carling from the fermenter before it's centrifuged/pasteurised/filtered/whatevered and it would be real ale"

No it'd be unfiltered lager

Owen said...

Only one of us is willing to dimiss an entire organisation for the opinions of a minority, and a person for a single online comment.

The only thing you know about me is that I disagree with you, and you're willing to label me as the archetype of your reason for not joining CAMRA.

The distinction I've made (that the technical definition of real ale does not guarantee that it is "craft", whatever that means) is one that I believe you yourself would support if you weren't in such a defensive frame of mind.

Very few people actually understand what "real ale" [i]means[/i], and it saddens me that someone who has been so openly critical for so long hasn't taken the time to find out.

Being "real ale", by the technical definition doesn't guarantee quality, but the technical definition comprises just 2 of CAMRA's 21 policies on beer production and dispense - one of which is "[CAMRA] opposes blandness
and poor quality", which sounds pretty flimsy but is as close to a definition of "craft" as I've ever heard.

I'm not saying that the other 18 policies are all sensible (on checking them for this comment, I've rediscovered about 5 that I think are unfathomably stupid), but the picture isn't as simple as throwaway lines like "real ale is craft, of course it is" would suggest.

The technical definition gets bandied about because it's concrete, concise, and memorable, and the sort of people who tend to fit the stereotype you've so kindly trotted out again tend to be left-brained and so cling to that element of CAMRA's policies. "Lager is piss" is an easy, lazy way of discriminating, just as "CAMRA members are fat, bearded, be-sandalled pedants" is.

Rob Nicholson said...

Pete, you took the words *right* out of my mouth. I could have written that myself. As chairman of a CAMRA branch as well, I've often felt I should resign because I disagree with so much of what CAMRA does but stay in there because it's the only organisation fighting for the pub and other threats.

I've just had a pithy email from a CAMRA member complaining we have cider with fruits other than pear & apple in there at the Macc beer festival. Ohh come on, let's get a grip on reality.

Rob Nicholson said...

LOL - well done Owen for confirming the stereotype. The anal bit is that you launched into technicalities which DON'T MATTER. Really, they DON'T MATTER. Real ale is not under threat. I've inbetween the lunchtime and evening sessions of the Macc beer festival. Real ale has never had it so good.

John Clarke said...

A belated welcome aboard Pete - it's good to have people like you inside hopefully working for change. I don't suppose I need say this but changing CAMRA is of course a bit like steering the proverbial oil tanker but I hope we'll get there eventually.

As for Owen, if it's the same Owen I think it is, he almost rwecked the CAMRA forums with intemperate posts and moderation, so you won't be the first person in CAMRA he's pissed off and I strongly suspect you won't be the last. As you say, not a good advertisement for the organisation.

Luckily we don't have too many like him - while we may have plenty of dinosaurs they are for the most part well meaning and pleasant with it.

John Medd said...

You could have had mine after I'd read it!

I'd be interested in your views on BrewDog's Crap Beer Amnesty; I posted on their site for them to grow up, it was a peurile 'campaign'. They took it down. Their holier than thou approach now, apparently, gives them cart blanche to (literally) destroy bottles of Carlsberg, Carling etc in their bars as a public spectacle. Very reminiscent of book burnings, no?

Joanna Copestick said...

Well Pete, this will no doubt increase your blog traffic in many different ways. Welcome.

Anonymous said...

Negative. It would still be lager.
But thanks for the education.

Anonymous said...

Good old Owen, not satisfied with trying to destroy the CAMRA forums he's decided to start browsing the Internet.

Anonymous said...

Woo lets all post anonymous ad hominems

Phil said...

I'm not the biggest fan of 'craft beer', but if I thought CAMRA as an organisation was anti-'craft' I'd never have joined. In the (lower-case) campaign for real ale, BrewDog and Lovibond's are not the enemy - and I'm pretty sure the upper-case CAMRA doesn't say they are.

More generally, well done for getting over the 'tankard and sandals' hump - if we judged groups by the appearance & attitude of their most vocal and least attractive members, nobody would ever join anything.

Paul Bailey said...

Welcome aboard, Pete. There's not a lot I can add to what's already been written by other commentators, apart from saying that the social side of CAMRA shouldn't be overlooked.

I've been a member for over 35 years, and during that time I've made some very good friends; some of whom I consider now as life-long friends. Membership of CAMRA was also instrumental in helping to secure my current job, so yet again this aspect of the campaign should not be sniffed at!

Anonymous said...

Owen: You should study some logic. Pete said 'real ale is craft', not 'real ale must be, by definition, craft'. You're point only holds against the latter, stronger claim.

Owen said...

It takes a special kind of mind to interpret "X is Y" as "X may or may not be Y" and then call it logic.

Bravo.

Nate Dawg said...

To be honest, my main incentive for joining CAMRA was the Free/Cheap/Priority entrance into beer festivals!

I do also enjoy reading Beer magazine, it's a great read.

Nate
http://www.boozebeatsbites.com
http://www.twitter.com/NateDawg27

Anonymous said...

Owen: Most sane people can believe e.g. that the Queen is, as a matter of fact, short, without believing that, by definition, the Queen must be short.
Similarly, someone can believe that real ale is, as a matter of fact, craft beer, without thinking that real ale must be, by definition, craft beer.

No one thinks real ale is craft by definition. This makes your appeal to the definition of real ale a red herring. The question is whether real ale, as a matter of fact, turns out to be craft beer. I think, in general, it does. You may disagree, but you should say so rather that waving irrelevant definitions around.

That's enough feeding of the trolls for one day.

Pete Brown said...

Everybody - this:
http://tinyurl.com/blvza8j

Rob Nicholson said...

LOL... almost as funny as meeting with my ex tonight and realising life isn't that simple ;-)

Rob Nicholson said...

BTW - nice clean change to the blog layout but I had a devil copying that tinyurl link

Anonymous said...

You silly Englanders and your real ale.
I was really hoping that Proper Real Keg
would have hit your shores by now.
I was on the Proper Real last night,
and let me tell you, it was outstanding!
Straight forward hop and malt character
from that very neutral ale yeast. Nicely
chilled and bang on delicious!!
See you all in September for my
Symposium on Proper Real!!

The Beer Wrangler said...

I am (what I like to call) a British Canadian. i.e. a British expat, with Canadian citizenship and joined CAMRA in Canada (which really means CAMRA British Columbia). I co-founded a branch in the Fraser Valley and although we are vaguely connected with CAMRA UK we are not governed by them. I now like to think we represent what a future CAMRA UK might look like. This is what we do: We support and encourage the production and sale of cask ale in a country that is almost 100% keg. We do not have an issue if pubs want to use cask breathers, as this ensures cask ale in places that have no other option is available. It is better than no cask ale! We hold cask events, from a single cask in a keg only pub, to cask festivals, featuring many. We also support pubs, restaurants and stores that sell craft beer, whatever the format and whatever the style (This includes craft brewed lager in all its many styles). Although the term "craft beer" is not used widely in the UK it is here and in the US, and most consumers understand what it means. There is no dogma that could alienate, we just want people to drink and be open to a better product the industrial domestic lager.

Mark Grist said...

A very late arrival on this debate...our friend Owen simply and clearly has not read the whole blog and contextulised it, but pompously accuses Pete of not being clear in what he says.

Owen, dear son, his comments about the sandalwearing stereotype are not his own nor is he perpetuating them, he is quoting the age-old perception made by others and says he hopes he doesn't get lumped in with the perception. Christ, it's really that straightforward.

Congratulations on the enroling, Pete. Change must come from within.