Response: The Point Of CAMRA

Yet another excessive blog comment turned post… these words are written in response to some very valid points raised by M.Lawrenson at Seeing The Lizards in: The Point Of CAMRA. I couldn’t submit my comment because it was more than 4096 characters. Ooops.

I speak for only myself of course. I dislike some things CAMRA does, I like other things CAMRA does. I’m an active CAMRA member and have done time on the committee of the North Hertfordshire branch. I currently live in the Cambridge branch area but have had my membership tied to North Herts as I’m still actively involved there. So “my branch” is North Herts.

Please read this first. As the below is a direct reply.

CAMRA festival funds – profit driven? Excess raised by the festivals I’m involved in gets sent to HQ where I presume it goes into the “general campaign pot”. What we keep pays for: setup costs for the next beer festival (including float), newsletter publication, subsidised minibus trips [edit: to hard-to-reach countryside pubs], occasional buffets at branch meetings. [edit: forgetting: as a branch we own a lot of equipment related to beer festivals too, which needs continual maintenance and replacement] Costs are going up so festivals don’t seem as cheap as I’m guessing they once did (before my time in the UK). Venue hire is increasingly expensive, beer is going up quite a bit too. Profits are certainly not shooting up and (my branch at least) has no goal to increase profits at successive festivals.

'spoons vouchersLicensees relations – not good? Nope… CAMRA branches don’t quite do enough to get them onside. The problem is every one seems to want personal attention and a member drinking in their bar 100% of the time. (There probably is – the problem is they only see the “core” members as “CAMRA” – in my branch that’s ~18 out of nearly 900 members – and we have 200 pubs.) IMO more needs to be done to improve relationships with pubs across the board. The fucking ‘spoons vouchers really don’t help here. I’ve nearly rage-quit CAMRA several times over them. On the other hand the very very low number of active members makes it difficult. I wonder if this might really be an member “activation” problem. Not enough of us, we’re all using our “spare time”, it really is time-consuming…

Beer discount rage? I don’t really know where this comes from. (Outside of the ‘spoons vouchers.) I think there must be certain members (and maybe branches) that are a pain in the arse about it. I’m not even sure if any pubs in my branch area offer a CAMRA discount – and I’m speaking as a committee member. As a branch, in recent years at least, we’ve had no policy to badger publicans to offer discounts. I expect some do so because they’re “playing the game” – they’re the ones willing to spend money on marketing. I’d say the more “business minded” licensees perhaps. They know this helps spread the word about their pub… and that really most drinkers aren’t CAMRA members so it isn’t going to have a huge impact on their bottom line. (I have noticed Cambridge branch publish a list of pubs that provide a discount.)

Active members campaigning? In my branch a dismal 2% of members are regularly “active” despite significant membership increases. I’ve puzzled myself about why we have this constantly increasing membership (about +100 this year IIRC). Festival entrance? Not ours, it’s only 3 quid and doesn’t suffer from queuing – but we’re near Cambridge… huge queues there… so maybe. Pub discounts? (Very few in my area AFAIK). Wetherspoons vouchers maybe? (Only 3 ‘spoons – though soon to be 5.) I’d love to know more demographic and “churn” stats but I don’t have ready access to that data (for quite sensible data protection reasons). I know the geographic distribution and it is fairly wide & even, certainly not clustered on Wetherspoon pub locations.

As for CAMRA newsletters… almost universally an embarrassing relic. Including, to some extent, the one that covers my area that’s edited by – CAMRA heartland – the South Hertfordshire branch.

'spoons vouchers

To address “The Point of CAMRA”: I think there are a few factions/mindsets in CAMRA who see this differently:

  1. Core oldsters who’re still “fighting the war” – keg may come back at any time, keg is the antichrist, keg is “cold chemical fizz”. Many of these are probably not exactly flush with cash so they might appreciate the vouchers and discounts I suppose.
  2. “For the consumers” – it’s all about getting deals for members. They’re somewhat price-focused, and see pubs as a “resource” in the dehumanising “Human Resources” sense. These are the ‘spoons voucher defenders – and CAMRA HQ seems to be a concentration of them. The ones super-focused on the membership number strangely enough. (And apparently membership would fall like a STONE if CAMRA stopped the flow of vouchers and made What’s Brewing & Beer available to the general public.)
  3. “For the beer” – for the most part simply want to enjoy a good beer beer. To this end the goal is promoting cask ale: festivals spread the word but pubs are the core. Supporting pubs is key, running GBG selection and selecting a Pub of the Year is an important campaigning activity with the goal of driving up standards.

I’m in group 3 myself. IMO this group wants to help pubs because helping pubs means more good beer. This seems to be a majority of the group you’ll find volunteering at GBBF and many other festivals. In my experience these folk are more concerned about quality than price. I think this sort of member is the dominant force in my own branch. We still get all of the flack listed above though as, I expect, a) some general members out there are right real-ale-twats & b) some landlords don’t seem to realise that they can’t manage cask ale to save their lives and meagre branch resources are not able to hold their hand. If they’re not attracting CAMRA members & attention then the reason is probably nothing to do with the price of a pint. I’ve done more than enough “pub rambles” where as a branch we deliberately visit a set of pubs where all but one or two are ones that we *know* will likely be pretty damn awful on the cask ale front. We go, we drink their beer, when it is properly crap we tell them (we return the properly crap beer and likely end up having either a discussion or an argument about it). The ball’s really in their court at this point.

I should state that I’m entirely on the side of CAMRA focusing on support for _cask_ale_ in pubs. I have nothing at all against other beer formats, but really do see CAMRA as a cask-specific organisation. (Controversially (?) I wish the cider folk would go get their own organisation, and think that “real ale in a bottle” is a distraction… what next – should CAMRA add a committee to support morris dancers?) That said, I think CAMRA should crack down on ALL negativity about “keg” and “craft beer” (sigh, whatever that is… fucking What’s Brewing letters section. Stop publishing that shit!). I do think there should be more focus on pubs – but I also do think this IS happening, it’s just taking a long time for it to filter down to the branch level. And, frankly, I get the impression from people I know that some branches are the “Real Ale Twats”… solution to that? No idea. I might think of some suggestions – like a “HOWTO execute a hostile takeover of a CAMRA branch” blueprint.

Alas for the general direction of CAMRA at a macro-level… it’ll be slow to change, because as far as the AGM and vocal membership goes there seems to be a lot more support by member types 1 and 2. It feels, to me, a lot like national politics in that way.

Sorry about the incredibly lengthy reply. I should probably try and write my own modern/young(hah) CAMRA member manifesto some time.



21 thoughts on “Response: The Point Of CAMRA

  1. Another excellent post.

    Just one small challenge (in the gentlest sense of the word…): your three types of campaigner list seems to describe group 3 (which you place yourself in) more positively than groups 1 and 2. So how do you think a 1 or 2 would describe a number 3?

    • True. This was a somewhat hastily written “comment” that got too big and could have elaborated more. I have friends who’d be in groups 1 and 2 more than 3. The lines are, of course, not solid – and there’s probably more than a little 3 in all of them. It’s more a matter of what the people think the core belief/goal of the organisation is.

      It’s a bit unfair to use the word “oldsters” for group 1 really – but it is mostly accurate, most of the people I’d place in this group were drinking beer back when CAMRA was founded. However I’ve met some my age (usually at CAMRA events with their fathers…). I suspect a majority of CAMRA branches may be run by people with this point of view, but only based on what I’ve heard. And some folk who’re still “fighting the war” have a lot of “3” in them too.

      Folk firmly in group 1 would probably describe group 3 as “having no conviction” and “not taking CAMRA seriously” (and have, from personal experience!).

      Folk firmly in group 2 probably similarly think that group 3 have lost the focus of the “consumer organisation” – 2 is quite possibly the bulk of the membership too. They like beer, they like CAMRA because CAMRA supports beer, but most of all CAMRA membership gets them quickly and cheaply into beer festivals – and quite possibly the ‘spoons vouchers & pub discounts are very important to them. They probably look at group 1 and 3 members as being a bit odd really – a bit intense (too passionate about “real ale” or disturbingly too in love with beer). But they’re not too fussed as for the most part they just want to drink beer and not get involved. HQ seem to have a focus on this direction – presumably because they’ve worked out that this is many of the 150+k membership. HQ bods at the of the day probably look at CAMRA much more as a business and a job – driven by the membership stats & survey results, while the executive (who’re volunteers) are fed off this data too – so HQ seems quite 2-ish because they’re representing the membership. (This is ALL speculation!)

      A typical CAMRA branch committee (and active membership) are likely to be more 1s and 3s – whilst it’s the 2s coming to beer festivals? :)

      [I’ve also left out entirely the cider drinkers – I have friends in that group too… perhaps not if they ever read the above ;) I also have nothing against morris dancers, some of my best friends are morris dancers… (with no “but”).]

  2. In the 70’s increasing cask ale availability and encouraging people to try it was basically enlightened self-interest. If you wanted to drink it yourself, you needed others to also want it or pubs would not supply it. If you wanted it, then there was a point in being part of it.

    With that battle won, many have sadly believed their own propaganda. That cask ale is great, everything else is shite, and the people that drink other things are idiots and thus have lost the war. Because although their hated red barrel died a death, actually the nation’s favourite beer is Carling and most people really don’t enjoy pubs much anymore anyway. They might pop out somewhere smart at weekend, but midweek its snug at home. A pub is a place to get burger and chips when out shopping more than a pint on a wet Wednesday night.

    Having decided that the decline of the pub is an existential threat to cask ale, they are now a pubs campaign. This is ridiculous. Most members, even the active ones, are only interested in a small sub set of what they consider the better pubs. Half the pubs in any given town could close without detriment to the average member. There is no enlightened self-interest in saving pubs I don’t want to go in when there are plenty I do.

    If there is a point to it, it is that what you get is worth what you pay. It is now a social club for beer enthusiasts and no the worse for it. It’s nice to drink with like-minded people that share an interest. Most men make friends at school and university but don’t make any new friends in adulthood. Social clubs of shared interest have a useful social function for people that only swap Xmas cards with the guys they got pissed with 20 years ago. It’s no different to a squash club or Morris Minor owners club. If that’s your bag, you’ll meet some folk that like it too. The people that bang on about campaigning are just the deluded types that want to spoil a good piss up.

    • We are perhaps more a “good pubs campaign” than a general “pubs campaign”. To be honest most branches, including mine, just don’t have the resources to try and “save” every pub. We focus on the good. I think the GBG and “Pub of the Year” awards do have their place – I’ve seen how both these things help to motivate new landlords to run brilliant cask ale led pubs. And at the end of the day this is in the interest of CAMRA members of all types. (These pub landlords are typically more “CAMRA savvy”, quite probably come from a former professional background from which they’ve retired or “escaped”, and are usually long-time CAMRA members…)

      We also focus a bit on village pub situations. Mostly where Greene King own all the pubs in a village, and then one by one sell them all down to the last. I don’t think a non-viable GK pub is necessarily a non-viable pub. Though only time will tell… mostly by motivating local communities and providing some guidance and resources CAMRA has helped a few new “community pubs” get off the ground. But at the end of the day it does take that local community spirit to see it through – that’s more important than anything CAMRA can do.

      I think the overall market for cask ale in pubs – while certainly minority – is big enough to be self-sustaining now. Big enough to see more crap pubs becoming better pubs (in the eyes of the CAMRA member) – even while other pubs aren’t surviving. In my mind CAMRA’s role swings more to one for general “(cask) beer advocacy” (this keg/craft thing becomes a sticky issue) – where promoting pubs and breweries via PotY/GBG/CBoB still have a place (they’re just “industry awards” of a sort). At yes – at the end of the day the “fun” members are mostly a drinking club… though in my experience most of the fun (and hard work) is had in volunteering at and running beer festivals! (That was my own entry-point to CAMRA.)

  3. Very good points. Regarding CAMRA beer festivals, I saw someone on the original blog called for a moratorium. I wonder how many pubs secretly support this idea, but don’t speak out for fear of repercussions? As the poster said, every pound spent in a CAMRA beer festival is a pound not being spent in a pub. I personally agree that real ale is saved, and the campaign should now focus on promoting and saving pubs.

    • But festivals are a very important way to “activate” members. Without them I think a lot of branches would quickly dry up, running out of volunteer hours (which seems likely to be slowly happening anyway). I doubt I’d have got involved if it wasn’t for the beer-festival-volunteer entry-point. (TBH much of the normal branch committee stuff/etc is a bit too much like “hard work” sometimes.)

      My justifications for the “pounds not spent in pubs” thing are: 1) our festival’s ~100 firkins worth of beer is a “drop in the sea” w.r.t. the local beer market. 2) the festival brings a lot of members into the local area from outside, many of whom visit local pubs too (good for the GBG pubs, probably not good for others). 3) We do “recruit” new cask ale drinkers (no idea how many, but I have seen it happen) – though I’m not sure if they’re “new drinkers”, most likely not – but again this is good for the “good” cask ale pubs in the area.

      • Good points, although when people say that their CAMRA beer festival brings a lot of members into the local area from outside, I always think of their empty local pubs missing them! One little CAMRA festival might seem a drop in the ocean, but there are now hundreds all over the country. Why can’t new members be recruited or “converted” in pubs? :)

        • I wish they could… and in some pubs they can – it happens in pro-CAMRA pubs with CAMRA-type landlords. (Often sneakily to their own benefit as if their locals score the beer in the pub, likely erring to the higher side, they have better GBG chances. Though we do spot obvious “gaming” of scores – widens the standard deviation of the stats for starters, then we have a closer look.)

          I personally would prefer a festival format that is pub based. I’d love to be able to run something like that. Two or three times a year, a 6 to 8 firkin stillage in 6 pubs in a village/town – say. A different format for the beer festival with profit-sharing with the pubs. Food for thought. But needs more pubs on-side and alas for the most part tied pubs couldn’t participate. Funny thing is we used to help pubs out with their mini-fests, loaning out branch equipment … but HQ have now ruled that we’re not allowed to do this :( [citing insurance reasons IIRC].

          Festivals of some sort are essential for funds. Some of these funds are used to promote pubs. We run minibus trips to countryside pubs for example. But it also covers promotional/advertising reach for pubs via newsletters. (Via which we also advertise our twice-monthly “pub rambles” and once-monthly “minibus rambles”.) Also point of sale materials for schemes like LocAle and cider pubs, etc.

    • Not really. I’ve been known to punt up at the odd festival to stand behind the bar to serve the odd pint but by and large just talk to my mates not serving anyone and getting kaylied for nowt. For the free beer, like, and the free t shirts come in for painting garden fences.

      If I wasn’t I wouldn’t be buying beer in pubs. I’d be necking a bottle of Shiraz infront of the telly. I like Last Tango in Halifax because its quite good that.

  4. Think many of the writers here and in related blogs are really missing the whole point – they talk about CAMRA as if its some centralised company with local branches – in-fact its a grass roots organisation run at branch level by volunteers – and always has been. Many active members are not at all fond of the actions and opinions of CAMRA central as they often clash with the local situations.

    As such each branch is quite different – the Branch I belong to (Mansfield & Ashfield) in North Nottinghamshire -like every other one across the county has about 2% active members – we often ask why do people join if not to campaign for pubs and great ale. I pretty much used think it was100% down to vouchers – clearly our friends at JDW know how to play CAMRA at its own game. We’ve 4 of their houses in our branch and these constitute 30% of our ‘Free’ houses. however many of our other free houses sell ale at the same price or less then the JDW houses (even with a voucher) or are only very slight more expensive – so clearly to say its all about vouchers in our area is a largely groundless assumption. I realise this isn’t always the case everywhere

    As to what do we do? – well the you’re quite right the Escalator campaign wasn’t 100% down to CAMRA but it did play a very important role in the campaign. How many people buy the good beer guide – where the hell do you think the entries come from? -certainly not form CAMRA central. CAMRA’s recent ads and campaigns are very much opposed to the reactionary ant-alcohol lobby. Pretty much every branch has taken some part in keeping a pub open – so what are all you non-member doing in these areas? – Sweet FA it seems, other than being critical – if your not helping get out of the way cos your a bloody hinderer otherwise!

    As to branch magazines – I see a lot of them – some are terrible and some superb. Many pub goers are not on the web and appreciate the content – we get complaints from many pubs when they run out of issues!. But again the key here is that its local branches and not central CAMRA that produce them – in almost all cases official branch magazines don’t knock larger, keg or pubs that don’t sell real ale – instead the praise the ones that so sere real ale.

    • I think everyone involved in this conversation *is* a CAMRA member. Including the writer of (and commenters on) the original blog I responded to here. I’m a very active member myself – as I said.

      Yes, there is a general perception that there is this one grand “CAMRA” entity pulling all the strings. I’ve tried to explain to people in the past that there is a huge gap between “HQ” and “branch” (too huge a gap in my opinion) but it is difficult to get across… because most people see CAMRA in the news, or What’s Brewing – they see the national image of CAMRA because CAMRA at the branch level is too thin on the ground outside of beer festivals. The oddest thing that I get, every now and again, is meeting people – including pub landlords – who seem to think we’re paid and that CAMRA is a “job”… this possibly goes partway to explaining some of the difficulties we face with public relations.

      Not all branch magazines are awful and the bulk of content in many of them is OK, but most from time to time seem to slip into the dark side. Be in passing mention of “cold fizzy chemical keg” as a generalisation through to plain old fashioned misogyny (often just a lack of standards in accepting advertising).

      (Oh, some of us do like to BURN things don’t we…)

  5. I’m not sure that I’ll EVER see CAMRA as irrelevant, and I don’t really understand why they just can’t continue to promote real ale and great pubs as they always have done. Nor do I understand why people think that real ale will not continue to need advocates in the future. I think it would be a mistake to get complacent about real ale, and as such I think CAMRA still has an important (traditional) role to play. It’s probably important that the focus is on the positive (i.e., promoting real ale) rather than the negative (i.e., rubbishing kegged beer), but outside of that I don’t see why much has to change.

    • I think I sort of agree. Cask ale is an atrociously marketed product and has been reliant on enthusiastic customers advocating it. But it’s easier to find people that want to do that if it is under threat. Currently why would anyone bother? I mean there’s lots of other more important things to do like rattle the missus, earn a quid, get pissed with your mates. It’s not important until you think you might lose it and even then not really that important.

      • ‘Not bothering’ just becasue real ale is doing well right now would be a huge mistake, so if you are saying that CAMRA itself is complacent (I honestly don’t know since I’m a little out of touch these days), then they need to get their act together. Real Ale and great pubs are national treasures and they need both formal and informal advocates – always!

        • A problem that gets raised is: CAMRA aren’t winning over the younger people who have an unhealthy passion for beer. Beer lovers, nerds, geeks – whathaveyou. Probably the sorts of people who founded CAMRA and volunteered in the early days to make it what it is today.

          A concern is: will CAMRA wither and die at a grassroots level because it is out of touch with the current crop of beer lovers? (This won’t happen tomorrow, maybe not in a decade… but in two?)

          Raising the question: does CAMRA need to change to recruit/activate younger members? (I’m talking a core sorta 25-35 agegroup, maybe 20-40 even.)

          Perhaps as the old folk the youngsters don’t get along with literally “die out” the younger ones will take up the reigns… I’m sceptical. (We’re really just hitting this now? With founder-age members who have been active campaigners for 30 or 40 years dropping out.)

          Does the grassroots level even matter? Can CAMRA fullfull its purpose with just a paying membership and a handful of big festivals? (Looking ahead long-term. It’ll basically just be a consumer lobby group at that point.)

          Or… do the very vocal minority of beer nerds online rate themselves as far too important? It wouldn’t surprise me. :) I did all of GBBF as a volunteer this year, there are quite a lot of enthusiastic folk under 40 there, a good number under 30 too. Most of the noisy beer nerds I know come to GBBF but don’t volunteer for GBBF (or CAMRA elswhere AFAIK). In our little online world it’s easy to forget that MOST active CAMRA members are probably not beer Twitters/etc.

          • I remember tackling this topic on my blog back in July ( ).

            My own branch is full of aging CAMRA stalwarts as active members. Most of the 15 who do the work have been doing so for 35 years or more. Their local magazine is an abomination, sadly, and I can’t see it attracting anyone under 30 to CAMRA who reads it. (Though I regard it as Preston’s greatest comedy publication, and I take a copy to a “Craft” bar in Lancaster for the bar staff to laugh at).

          • but, i think, this is symptomatic of *all* member organisations whether CAMRA, trades unions, political parties, probably the masons, national trust and loads other as well. We (“we” i’m 39 so barely qualify as young, even in CAMRA terms ;)) just aren’t active in local member organisations like our parents’ generation were, so this isn’t just a CAMRA problem?

  6. It would be great to see CAMRA helping to promote more multi-pub festivals like those in Llanwrtyd Wells, Ruddington, and Penn Street.

  7. I have to say I have found Mark Lawrenson (solely from his blog so I may be doing him an injustice) to be a slightly odd individual whose rather hackneyed and at times clicheed views of CAMRA are largely influenced by his local branch, which admittedly is pretty antedeluvian and does produce what is one of the worst local CAMRA magazines in the country. I just think he needs to get out more.

  8. The cask/keg/craft/real debate tends to put young people off beer entirely and distracts from the simple message of beer is good, british beer is good, why don’t you try some, there is enough variety for everyone. etc

    Likewise the pubs thing. We SAY we’re in favour of traditional pubs etc, but then hand out vouchers to a massive chain pub to every member. Actions speak louder than words.

What do you think?