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.