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.