A tiny CAMRA rebellion, in 23 pages

Is there any phrase more likely to induce an involuntary shoulder slump at the moment than ‘CAMRA Revitalisation Project’? Just when we thought the in-fighting in the beer community had reached critical tedium – what’s that coming over the hill? It’s a 23 page manifesto from Bradley Cummings which claims to be ‘the reset button’. He actually uses the phrase ‘I am the reset button’, which surely he has never said out loud keeping a straight face.

We all know that CAMRA is due an overhaul. The beer landscape has changed from when real ales were looked down upon as a fusty old relic which couldn’t stand up to the awesome might of a pint of Fosters. The problem is that this overhaul is so overdue that any attempts to ‘revitalise’ are tantamount to going bucket shopping when really, the roof needs replacing. And then arguing about what type of buckets we’re going to get.

The rest of the National Executive manifestos will be published in March, and so Cummings (of Tiny Rebel) has a head start and already some support online. But I’m dismayed at how little scrutiny has been given to some of the ideas beyond the banner headline of ‘don’t judge beers by method of dispense’. Yes, there are some wide ranging ideas, not particularly radical, which we can all get on board with. But there are also some chilling statements around the treatment of pubs and publicans which seem to have gone under the radar, and some bombastic messages which have gone unchallenged, such as ‘Brewers know beer best. That is undeniable.’

Is it? I don’t think so. Of course brewers know beer, but making such a bold statement gets consumers’ backs up, and they make up the vast majority of CAMRA voters. It’s also an attitude which has begun to pervade the beer community in general, which patronises and belittles too many people who see themselves as consumers and not sommeliers. It flags up an inequality issue in the community which goes unnoticed too often – classism. More on that later.

“We should stop supporting pubs selling poor quality real ale (a result of our determination to alt (sic) the closure of pubs” says Cummings, going on to assert that failing pubs are being propped up by CAMRA. In this scenario, members would be encouraged to stop going to pubs which served a poor pint – and yet the headline of this particular section is ‘Improving Education on Cask Ale and Cellaring’. As someone who works in education, I can offer an insight here. If we have a class of 20 students, and five of them are not passing a course, we don’t expel them, we support them.

How would this ‘withdrawal of support’ even work in practice? A pub would surely have to score NBSS 1 on average because NBSS 2 is ‘competently kept and drinkable’. The implication is also that pubs are serving poor real ale on purpose, because they hate money and their customers. The truth is that multiple factors can lead to a bad pour,  even in a pub which is in the Guide. And anyway the system works as it is – if the pub is pouring a NBSS 1 on a regular basis it ain’t going in the Guide, them’s the stakes. But would it not be prudent to intervene in this situation? To ask about staff training? To ask what financial or operational difficulties the venue might be experiencing? Or is it name and shame, and if the pub closes, tough shit? As a regular customer of somewhere that serves only keg, I know that landlord is not going to be encouraged to start serving cask, or welcoming CAMRA members, if he knows he’s placing himself in the firing line. Why would he? Why take the risk when as far as many of his customers are concerned, he does a good job serving locally brewed ale from an independent brewery? And doesn’t this contradict the idea of not focusing on the method of dispense anyway? Are reviewers to give one rating for keg and one for cask, and another for cans?

The section on the modernisation of the defence of pubs is so utterly tone deaf that I can believe 100% that someone ‘high up’ in CAMRA told him not to post the manifesto at all. This was not ‘censorship’, this was suggesting you might not want to commit electoral suicide.

‘Pubs are business, not public utilities’, he begins. Gloss over the poor word choice (I don’t think anyone is suggesting that pubs are supplying electricity or sewage, NBSS 1 for that, definitely) and what is implied is that profit should be the only concern of the pub,  which will immediately upset anyone involved in the preservation of pubs for their architectural and cultural significance, such as those who do such excellent work in the Pub Heritage group. It’s also needlessly antagonistic when we all know the importance of a pub to the community, and an argument which will come back to haunt him when publicans say that the cost of real ales means it can be bad business to stock them because they are…wait for it…unprofitable.

One of the amazing claims here is that pubs are failing because they are not stocking real ale, and that offering them custom is just prolonging the inevitable. A boycott of pubs which serve no cask ales is what he is suggesting, although he is also suggesting that CAMRA move away from focusing on dispense. Which is it? He calls the decision to stock real ales as ‘economically sensible’. This is patently not true for every business and instead of the much needed discussion around pricing of real ales, it resorts to bullying. “You stock real ales or else!” The fact is that many pubs cannot afford to take a chance on an independent brewery’s  beers because they have such a slight profit margin. Yes, costs are higher at the point of production, yes the price per pint might be misleading with regard to the recommended measure, but what are we going to do about that from the supply side? Talk about co-ops, talk about subsidising the first cask, come up with ANYTHING but don’t just assume that publicans are being bad business people for not stocking real ale, and that they need to be threatened by breweries and CAMRA.

The section on Equality and Diversity, which as a professional in the field with over ten years experience I was looking forward to reading, was summed up in the tired six word soundbite ‘Zero Tolerance : Don’t Be A Dick’.  The fact that no detail, insight, or practical applications of this were included, frankly reeks of tokenism. Inequality and discrimination in beer is not just pump clips and bum pinching, it is a complex and intersectional issue which deserves more than 62 words in a National Executive manifesto which goes on for 23 pages. Who is going to be consulted on the guidance it suggests be sent out to breweries? What consultation is going to take place with the affected membership? What changes will there be to monitoring of personal data? What will CAMRA’s response be to those organisations which are now required by law to publish their data on gender pay gaps? What is being done to encourage diversity, and to increase membership of women, people of colour, and LGBT+ people? (I can help you with that last one – fuck all.)

Aaand, here comes the classism. As well as opining that ‘pubs used to be the community living room, that is no longer the case’, and ‘Pubs are destinations. You go to a pub you enjoy, not the pub nearest to you’, therefore erasing the experiences of a large number of working class pub goers, Cummings goes on to demand the removal of the Wetherspoons vouchers, and claim that CAMRA members are some of the least informed drinkers in the country. What a vote winner! “You’re all idiots, so vote for me, your superior, and in return for your unquestioning loyalty you will lose your discounted beer!”

There is an undue, and very telling, emphasis in this manifesto on how much people are paying, and how much they are willing to pay for their beer, including some quite startling contradictions, such as the point that real ale profit margins are very small, and that stocking real ale is always good for business. This, along with the sneering at Wetherspoons, and the patronising way in which the community aspect of the pub is disregarded, makes the whole document read less like a ‘reset button’, and more like CAMRA Does Animal Farm. In a supposed effort to free the membership from the yoke of real ale oppression, all that this manifesto achieves is to assert that ‘all drinkers are equal, but some are more equal than others’. This model of the new and improved CAMRA member as a Destination Pub going dispense bore with deep pockets and an affinity for sneering at those who haven’t earned their Wheel of Styles badge on Untappd frankly makes me want to vomit. If CAMRA is to be revitalised we need evolution, not revolution. We need big ideas, not just tiny rebels.

 

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18 Comments Add yours

  1. Ed says:

    Great stuff!

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    1. kirstwalker says:

      thank you!

      Like

  2. OliverH says:

    This is excellent – I read the manifesto last night and thought the pub section in particular came off as naive and tin-eared at best and sinister at worst.

    I’ve always understood (and supported) CAMRA as a popular, collective and organised intervention into a real or threatened market failure – people organising to protect and promote traditional ways of drinking (real ale, real cider, pubs) that are at risk of vanishing in a bumpy, uneven and sometimes downright corrupt free market.

    So the notion of CAMRA *actively encouraging* its membership to put “bad” pubs out of business… while educating them on how to embrace “change” (i.e. adopting craft)… doesn’t sit well with me. Especially if it’s being driven by people with craft tunnel vision who don’t understand or appreciate that the Rake is not the model for all future UK pubs.

    All that said, I love Tiny Rebel’s beers and will continue to enjoy them 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kirstwalker says:

      “So the notion of CAMRA *actively encouraging* its membership to put “bad” pubs out of business… while educating them on how to embrace “change” (i.e. adopting craft)… doesn’t sit well with me.”
      Exactly – the issue with the reviltalisation is not that it’s wholly necessary to change direction from protecting cask but that the conversations about its threatened decline take place with pubs and publicans – otherwise they may as well scrap the aim to protect pubs

      Liked by 1 person

  3. AleingPaul says:

    Excellent analysis.

    He seems to have ignored one of his own salient points “don’t be a dick”.

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  4. pubcurmudgeon says:

    “Brewers know beer best” was a large part of why CAMRA was formed in the first place.

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    1. kirstwalker says:

      Absolutely, but the remit of CAMRA was broadened to include the protection of pubs, and this particular manifesto seems to advocate boycotting of pubs which don’t serve cask as a kind of punitive measure. Two of the main aims of the organisation are at odds with each other, really

      Liked by 1 person

  5. gsandipa says:

    An excellent and insightful piece, lots more please. Can you put yourself forward for the NE?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kirstwalker says:

      I fear I would not have the time to be honest, not that there is a great deal of information out there for those who might be thinking of standing

      Like

  6. Mark says:

    Great post! I read the manifesto and couldn’t articulate why I didn’t like it. Thanks for the analysis

    Like

  7. >If CAMRA is to be revitalised we need evolution, not revolution: CAMRA has been trying to evolve for as many years as I’ve been a member (19) – and failed. Evolution will not engender a new generation to get involved actively in CAMRA so it’s doomed in it’s current form. Whilst some of Bradley’s comments don’t stand up to detailed scrutiny, I’m *so* thankful for some enthusiasm and energy for once in CAMRA. I’m so bored doing the same thing year in, year out.

    Like

  8. koenigal86 says:

    You’re spot on about some of the classism and assumptions of affluence it seems like some make in the Campaign when talking about cask ale prices, Wetherspoons etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kirstwalker says:

      Thanks, I agree that it doesn’t tend to come up, there is an assumption that people are always happy to pay, for example £4.50 for a pint because it is of good quality, but pubs going represents leisure time and therefore disposable income. If you know you have £20 to spend on your only night of leisure time, you’re not leaving yourself very much change if you opt for these ales, and especially if you’re with other people, in a round, on a crawl, etc. It might be adverse to the social aspect of drinking to be opting for a £3 1/3

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  9. Chris Lindesay says:

    Thank you for an insightful piece, as a publican it grieves me that CAMRA who should be our natural allies seem to be at something of a crossroads we hope that a clear direction emerges soon.

    A word about the economics of real ale.

    We, as publicans, should be regarding real ale as our “Jewel in our Crown” it is the most powerful real USP that can drag people out off the sofa and into the unique British Pub, we need this so we can pay our rates and rent never mind staff and logs for the fire etc…

    However, there is a serious problem in the economics of real ale that makes the experience difficult and unrewarding from a publican’s point of view.

    It boils down to the universal practise of selling Cask Ale by “Container Description” rather than “Saleable Volume” – we all know that proper Cask ale needs to be cellar conditioned and in the process an undrinkable sediment is precipitated, this reduces the volume of ale in cask that can actually be sold.

    Brewers and HMRC have agreed the number of drinkable and saleable pints on which beer duty must be paid and HMRC has exempted the undrinkable sediment up front. This concession is granted on the provision that the Publican is informed of the quantity of drinkable ale he can expect to sell.
    For a full briefing on the topic see here http://jmp.sh/HSpFFxo

    Unfortunately the publican is not being informed (it is much more profitable to sell beer by container description of 72 pints rather than saleable content which has paid duty). In practise a publican can probably only sell 66 pints (if he is lucky) after sediment, conditioning, topups, tasters and cheeky “sussex halves” but his brewery, landlord, surveyor and stocktaker is measuring him renting him and encouraging him to figure on being able to sell the full 72 pints as if a cask was keg. Any protest on volume shortages is smothered by myths about “Brim filling”, “big heads”, “shandies” and “wasteage allowances” – sediment is not waste, waste is something that could have been sold but was not – it was wasted – sediment could never be sold so it cannot be waste it should never be included in the calculation.

    Trading Standards and HMRC regard this as criminal misrepresentation but say they are powerless to intervene.

    The outcome for the publican who is trained and rented on the basis that he must make the full margin on selling all 72 pints in a firkin is that he ends up out of pocket by about £10 on every firkin broached. This amounts to a subsidy of about 14p a pint paid out of the publicans pocket – it is little wonder that some savvy publicans steer clear, but it would be just as unfair to penalise them as it would be to castigate publicans who do try to sell Cask for finding it an unrewarding hassle.

    If a reset button is needed, a Campaign to reset the economics of real ale will be welcome so that brewers, publicans and beer drinkers get a fair measure from our unique and internationally envied real ale. The wholesale price must fall in the value chain and the middlemen must take less of an undeserved profit to avoid 20p plus increases in the pub needed to allow the publican a fair reward for effort in managing Cask Aleand to enable him to pay the rent.

    For a full briefing on the topic see here http://jmp.sh/HSpFFxo

    It is a bit dated now as we have been trying to get government and the industry to wake up on this for over three years alongside the new legislation and code adjudication body but it is a long hard road with no resources.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kirstwalker says:

      Thanks Chris, interesting reading. This for me was one of the most worrying aspects of the manifesto – a potential NE member who seems to have no insight into the realities of the pub trade and would happily see pubs close rather than serve no cask.

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      1. Chris Lindesay says:

        You are very welcome – the manifesto rather shocked me as it was supporting the narrative we are increasingly hearing from beer bloggers and some brewers that Cask is dead and needs to go keykeg because publicans are sloppy uncaring idiots who have no concept of retail standards etc.. While some criticism may be justified there is another aspect to the story which needs telling and carrots not sticks are more appropriate.
        That Bradley of Tiny Rebel is a brewer and therefore knows the score is a concern – perhaps he has not joined up the dots.
        Having been allied to CAMRA very closely in the campaign for the Pubs Code – a signal victory which brings credit to the multiparty confederation that achieved the only government defeat during the coalition, it is a matter of great sadness that CAMRA NE have now detached themselves from the campaign for fair and lawful dealing in the on trade and appear to be pursuing a much more “establishment line”.
        I know the NE is very jealous of the prestige and lobby access that the movement gives them but I would say there is still a job to be done “for Real Ale” and the venues it is served in. It would be a big shame if the campaign became too distracted with other less well defined objectives while victory on this capaign is “in sight” but not yet “in the bag”.

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