We have to talk about Craft Beer - Part 4: Ensuring the future September 14 2014, 0 Comments

Part 4: Ensuring the future

In CAMRA’s early days, enjoying good beer meant knowing a lot about where to find it and a little about what it was. Beer drawn straight from a cask or pulled by hand to the bar was great; while that which came twinkling from a flick-switch fount was rubbish. Electric pumps challenged our certainty, so had to go.

That world disappeared, as all worlds do in time. Nowadays the eight pubs that lie within easy cycling distance of my village home serve more cask ales than could be found in the whole million-strong city of Birmingham in my youth.

Back then, ‘foreign beer’ meant one of a dozen industrial lagers, few of which were imported. Nowadays I can have over 3000 beers from round the world delivered to my door within a couple of days, most brewed to sound artisan principles.

This has been an unimaginably impressive revolution.

A word from our sponsors

So how does Britain’s beer consumer group react to this extraordinary progress?

It deigns to be “not against” it. Support is not forthcoming and it is happy to stand back while older members who should know better make up facts to justify attacking the new and exciting. Meanwhile its annual flagship Good Beer Guide is barred from mentioning many of Britain’s best beers. From a Government-approved ‘superconsumer’ this feels a tad cliquey.

The excuse is that CAMRA’s membership continues to grow – benefits include free entry to beer festivals and 50p off a pint in some pubs. The basic rule of ‘adapt or die’ is deemed irrelevant.

Uniquely among beer consumer groups it fails to promote or campaign for better beer, preferring to favour one tightly defined sub-type. A beer group that promotes a rival and unrelated drink, cider, but cannot extend such favours to other beer styles, has a problem.

Beware of aliens

None of this would matter were CAMRA not in danger of alienating the new generation of beer enthusiasts, who fail to see how Greene King IPA could possibly be considered superior to Punk IPA.

It annoys many older supporters too, who wince at statements on the nature of beer from senior or long-standing members who clearly know little about their subject beyond spouting the dodgy clichés of a bygone time.

This is not entirely their fault. CAMRA nationally has deprioritised beer knowledge and does little to encourage or enable members to discover and explore brewing beyond its narrow focus. The absence of understanding and expertise about beer, even in the organisation’s higher echelons can be staggering.

Adapt or die

The concept of craft beer came in part from the typewriters of St Albans. It changed the nature of commercial brewing globally. The idea that today’s craft beer lovers have interests opposed to those of yesterday’s real ale campaigners is crackpot and needs exposing as such. CAMRA must talk about craft beer.

Whatever ‘good beer’ should mean in 21st century Britain, it is not a debate about cask versus keg. It is about flavour, diversity of styles and independent ownership, just like it has always been.

Because of my generation’s efforts to save beer, today’s beer drinkers inherited a far better world of opportunities. As such, they will form their opinions based on today’s possibilities, not out-dated assumptions. Old CAMRA must understand that or it will become irrelevant to the future of brewing in the UK.

The Campaign must grow with its times and extend its influence beyond the traditional pub sector, which is contracting. The growth area for interesting beer is off sales, new-style cafés, hotels and restaurants – or the places where decision makers encounter beer, if you prefer. To influence here CAMRA must roll back from its cask obsession and renew its vows to make beer better.

Heartfelt opinion must start to be informed by understanding. A basic level CAMRA activist should know how beer comes to taste the way it does and how different types of good beer are best made. And whatever expertise senior activists may have they should know what is happening in the wider world of well-made beer.

Final plea

And please do something about that title!

Books from consumer groups should reflect what they are in their title. CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide Belgium rates every beer and brewery in that country, outlines its national beer styles and lists the beeriest cafés, shops, tourist attractions and events. Its UK equivalent is a collection of Branch members’ favourite pubs, with a beer and brewery section in which 80% of those listed are occasional light ales.

If it were the Guide to Cask Ale Pubs, fair enough but it ain’t. Please liberate its editorial team to make it be what it sounds like it is, before somebody complains.

The bottom line

In the fifteen years since my first efforts to get CAMRA to talk about craft beer, British brewing has fallen far behind its less established rivals. Its export performance is pathetic and is likely to remain so unless it recaptures past greatness, with or without CAMRA support.

Light ales polluted by fruit syrup, poor imitations of better-made foreign styles and old names revived to fig leaf mediocrity simply will not cut it with modern beer lovers. They expect and can get far better.

Artisan brewing in Britain is about to reach a place where it will do just fine without CAMRA. I am not so sure that CAMRA will do well unless it can accept and celebrate the new beer buzz, counselling caution by all means and remaining sceptical of snappily dressed men talking brand, but always ALWAYS on side with better beer and praising every effort to create and promote it.

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Tim Webb served on CAMRA’s National Executive for seven years, running the Great British Beer Festival for the first two, then heading up publicity and publications.  He has since written numerous best selling beer books, thus far translated into nine languages. In his spare time he runs a small publishing company and booksellers (booksaboutbeer.com).