East Anglian CAMRA members to vote on its future
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) could be about to undergo the biggest change in its history since it was founded. Reporter Kim Briscoe finds out why its proposals to modernise and widen its remit to include quality 'craft beers' are proving divisive.
When it was founded 47 years ago, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) faced a battle to save this traditional beer.
Brewers were finding it more profitable to make keg beer and 'real ale' was dying out.
Nearly half a century later, real ale has a strong following, and although CAMRA admits there is 'no room for complacency', the brewing industry has changed significantly.
A root and branch review of the organisation's purpose and objectives, has culminated in a number of recommendations aimed at keeping the consumer organisation relevant in the ever-changing beer world.
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This includes widening its remit 'to act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub-goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers' and 'to promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres and part of the UK's cultural heritage'.
But this has revealed a division among some members. There are those who believe that supporting all pub-goers and campaigning for quality beers, even keg 'craft' ones, would be detrimental to the original campaign to save real ale.
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However, others argue that any decline in the number of pubs will have an inevitable knock-on effect on the availability of cask ale, and so the support of all pub-goers is vital.
Tom Stainer, head of commmunications for CAMRA, believes any organisation which had been running for 47 years should be having a 'good hard look' at its aims on a regular basis, in order to remain successful, relevant and credible.
He said: 'As an organisation of 190,000 members it would be remarkable if we came up with something, anything that everyone agreed with.'
He added: 'CAMRA was originally formed to promote choice, it was never about seeking to only drink one type of beer.'
David Holliday is a member and also runs the brewery Norfolk Brewhouse at Hindringham. He said: 'The world changes and I think CAMRA has to change.
'CAMRA literally did save real ale. Everyone was going into kegs. Someone had to stand up and say they didn't want to lose real ale.
'But they have to put their hand up - the market's changing, let's change with it.'
But he added: 'From a personal point of view, my total passion is for real ale and cask beer and I think it needs to holds on to that and keep promoting it.
'There are some that say the victory to save real ale has been won but you are only as good as your last pint and we need to keep producing quality.
'But equally, I think great beer is great beer, whether it is from a keg dispenser.'
He said experimental and talented brewers are bringing out beers with great flavour, that are not real ale in the truest sense because of how they are dispensed, and that the method of dispensing a beer alone does not make it a good or bad beer.
Mr Holliday said: 'I think there is scope for CAMRA to promote both, but we still need to focus on cask ale and getting people to understand the uniqueness of that product.
'It's very British - no other country in the world drinks as much cask ale, but I think the wider remit should be that good beer is good beer.
'They have already been promoting real cider as well and they weren't doing that from day one and they haven't lost focus on the importance of real ale.
'I personally think they can do that with craft beer as well.
'Getting people talking about beer is what's important to me. Then talking about beer and explaining the differences.'
Chris Lucas, of the West Norfolk branch of CAMRA, said the general feeling among more traditional-minded members was that they did not want to widen the remit to include craft beers.
'CAMRA was set up to promote traditional real ales and pubs which sold those products and it's been successful, which I guess you could say means it has almost created its problem.'
Mr Lucas said he understood why some members feel CAMRA needs to modernise, but he had reservations about embracing a popular drinking trend like 'craft beers', when it might not be so popular in 10 years.
He said: 'Real ale has endured. If you are embracing all these types of beer you are not a campaign for real ale any more.'
While he said as a consumer he had no problem with people producing, and enjoying other types of beer like craft beers, he did not think it was CAMRA's role to promote them.
One of the difficulties is that there is no real definition of what craft beer is and Mr Holliday believes the term has been 'hijacked' by the big producers.
Some smaller brewers have tried to shift to the term 'artisan' beers, but it is really up to drinkers to research and understand how keg beers have been produced if they want to choose quality beverages.
Mr Holliday said: 'With our lagers, it's a small batch of 3,000 pints. It's hand-crafted and isn't mass produced. We are doing it by hand, it's hard graft and it's a lager.
'It's not pressing a button and producing a million pints while sitting in your office.
'I think people get that and it's really important for craft breweries to communicate that to customers, for example using social media.'
While Mr Holliday is keen to see CAMRA continue its vital campaigning to support pubs, he believes widening the remit to promote other venues which can provide real ale is also important.
He cites cases where a village has unable to sustain a traditional pub any more, but the village hall has stepped in to provide great beer in a community, or the village has rallied to open a community pub.