Tag Archives: CAMRA

Revitalisation

This week The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) announced their ‘Revitalisation Project’, called ‘Shaping The Future’. The subtext describes it as a review of their purpose, focus and strategy and has been brought about by the raft of changes and issues that have occurred since the consumer group founded in 1971.

Issues such as scope and purpose: should CAMRA be about real ale only, good beer, real ale, cider and perry or any number of potential combinations and additions? How widely should CAMRA campaign and on what issues?

Issues such as their frame of reference: should CAMRA be about beer drinkers, all alcohol drinkers, pub goers or frankly anyone with an interest? And should CAMRA focus on the on trade, with challenges around declining and closing pubs, often in rural communities and / or should it focus more on the increase in drinking in home?

Issues such as the changing nature of socialisation. In their data, they claim that there could be more coffee shops 10 years from now than pubs, and many of these coffee shops could be serving beer (and unlikely, you imagine, to be serving real ale, cider or perry).

Issues such as governmental pressure: actually it only gets a brief mention, but when you have the Chief Medical Officer and anti-alcohol pressure groups both making (many have argued, deeply spurious) claims about what constitutes a healthy level of alcohol consumption, then whether you’re Big Beer or craft beer, you need to consider your response.

The review needs to be root and branch. The issues are existential, or, at least, they are fundamental to what CAMRA is all about.

CAMRAPossibly the biggest issue, wide ranging in scope and for some pernicious in nature is rooted in the rise of craft beers that came about following the introduction of Small Brewer Duty Relief in 2002. A brief background: the increase in the number of breweries was something to be celebrated by CAMRA, they played a pivotal role in the policy and there’s no doubt that the increase in small breweries went hand in hand with the increase in number of cask beers available, not just because of our brewing and drinking culture but also because the process of brewing and packaging cask beer is more straightforward (which is not to say it is easy) and fundamentally, cheaper. There’s no need for pressurized kegs, expensive pasteurisation and filtration systems, automated filling machines and all the paraphernalia that attends filling kegs. With beer in casks, the ability to keep, handle and deliver a quality product is as much the responsibility of the publican as it is the brewery, if not more. And there in a nutshell, is the rub. Many craft brewers, not just the more ambitious, but also those dedicated and passionate about quality soon have an issue with cask. Put simply, that precious quality is just too variable. The result: more investment in kegging; more stimulus from the U.S. brewers (untroubled by the cask / keg question) and more ‘craft keg’ beers available.

Skip back 40 odd years to see the parallels. The ‘Big Six’ breweries actively managing down and phasing out their cask beer due to, you’ve guessed it, the variability in quality (amongst other things, like cost), often put down to the lack of training and skills of publicans. There were, of course, many publicans then, just as there are now who could serve a cracking pint of cask. And there were many, probably more, who find keeping cask, fettling it, tapping, spiling, broaching – all of that – troublesome and perhaps not worth the effort.

Another issue for cask is seemingly prosaic but critical – yield. In a keg, the central spear reaches down through the inside of the keg and almost touches the base. The beer is propelled out using a dispense gas. Finish one keg; wrench off the coupler, attach to the new keg, carry on serving. Industry estimates of waste from a keg put it at around 5-8%. Not so with cask. More beer is left in the cask (some because it is the yeast sediment, the remainder due to the cask shape) and more is lost as the last drinkable beer splutters through from the old cask and the first draughts are pulled through from the new. And then there’s the beer left in the pipes overnight, which (you hope) is pulled through and discarded. How much is lost? Well estimates vary from 15% up to 30% and more (that’s from an industry source by the way, not an arbitrary guess). Put simply, it’s very easy to pour 30% of your profits from cask down the plug-hole.

Which is not, in any way, to say ‘give up on cask’. But to not recognise – and in this case, for CAMRA to not fully recognise – that today, the situation is wholly different that it was when they founded. We are not talking about replacing Draught Bass with Worthington ‘E’. We are not replacing Courage Directors with Watney’s Red Barrel. We are not talking about getting rid of John Smith Magnet and shoving on Webster’s Yorkshire Bitter or Trophy Best.  We are talking about a bar or pub having a crack at selling any one of thousands, literally thousands, of exciting, tasty, experimental, classic, not-quite-right, full on, challenging, mundane, surprising beers that just so happen to be packaged in a container called a ‘keg’.

As someone who runs a brand building company as my day job, there’s an interesting parallel here and something for CAMRA to consider. Whatever they do, they mustn’t believe that ‘the job on cask is done’. The revival of cask beer has been sensational, but despite appearances to the contrary perhaps, it remains fragile. Most beer drunk in the UK is keg lager. Pubs are closing at 27 per week (according to CAMRA) and many, many more remain unsustainable. In a typical bar, there are only a few cask lines, and now with the amount of new breweries, there is so much choice for the publican that running a small cask led brewery is horrendously tough – commercially in particular. Lay on top of that all the issues with keeping cask, serving a high quality product and lower yields and the odds remain stacked against it. We need cask champions still. We need a consumer group fighting its corner. We need to keep on educating publicans to the wonders of cask beer and the criticality of quality. We cannot afford to get bored or distracted. CAMRA must keep the core of what they do – protecting real ale (and for me real cider and perry too – they probably need the help even more) – keeping it alive and fundamental to their central purpose. Great brands keep their core dynamic and fresh. CAMRA’s core is cask.

Yet great brands also focus on what’s coming up – what’s new and may be the ‘core of tomorrow’. So CAMRA must have a duel focus on cask and great beer, no matter how the brewery chooses to package it. Of course, ‘great beer’ is subjective. Pilsner Urquell, served from the tank at The White Horse in Parson’s Green is delicious. It is ‘great beer’. But PU, like many others is now a cart horse in the stable of a large multi-national, consolidating brewery. Not only do they have enough money to look after themselves, they are also only driven by profit. If PU proves to be a challenge to grow, it will sadly be reprioritised or even discarded and the focus will move elsewhere. So we are talking about a different form of ‘great beer’. CAMRA must champion beer from independent brewers, who are fashioned as much from sharing their passion, championing brewing and brewing heritage, making products with integrity not just efficiency, as they are from making a decent wage. And not just small brewers either – but independent brewers. From Elgood’s to Fuller’s, from Brew By Numbers to Magic Rock, from Marston’s to Skinner’s – even, whisper it – to BrewDog too.

Because let’s be clear. CAMRA have done a terrific job saving cask beer. But the independent craft beer ‘movement’ has done a significantly better job in making the whole beer category fresh and vibrant and attractive to people wouldn’t have even considered beer in the past at all. It might not have been directed nor seem coherent, but it’s done it – and in a quarter of the time. If CAMRA isn’t willing to stand for that, then it deserves to lose its relevance.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016

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Prizes Schmizes

It seems a rare thing nowadays for a beer not to have won a significant award and be shouting it loud and proud. ‘Winner! Taste of Eastmorland 2001’; ‘Winner! Borchestershire County Show, 1998’ or, actually, much more likely to be global in nature. The clues will be there: little golden gongs on the label, with indecipherable text and maybe a touch of spot varnish or embossing as a token of our pride. ‘Winner of the World Beer Cup, 2007’, or some such ceremony in Chicago dating back to, what, 1899? Forgive me if I come over as a touch cynical but these awards have always seemed like a Crufts ‘Best in Show’ award. Oh, I know they take a lot of effort to achieve, much pulling of hair and many a sleepless night; the equivalent of beery detangling and grooming no doubt, but, at the end of the day, they only really matter to other dog breeders. I own a Bitza* and she’s best in show for me, no matter what the bigwigs at The Kennel Club may say.

The truth is, the sparks that trigger a particular brand of beer to success and acclaim are more than the product alone. Not that having a distinctive product doesn’t help. Far from it in fact: many a GBBF winner has encountered production capacity challenges immediately as a result of winning an CAMRA award. But the slew of beer awards to date have only celebrated the beers – the liquids – not the significant other factors in the weave and weft in any brand’s DNA. Until now.

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 16.22.05The Beer Marketing Awards, announced at the end of last year, will celebrate the marketing activity that has changed behaviour and attitudes of drinkers. Because even if you have a jaw-droppingly good beer, without others hearing about it, you might as well whistle in the wind. I remember Michael Jackson, dropping his head slightly and peering at me professorially over his glasses, and telling me (as a marketeer myself – and therefore a sub-species) that he didn’t like the idea of ‘brands’. For him, even using the term ceded too much influence to the marketeer over the brewer. Yet, ironically, what was Michael Jackson himself if not a great brand in the beer world: ‘The Beer Hunter’ tells you everything. Brands are critical, vital. In fact, brands are business. And marketing is their voice.

The Beer Marketing Awards are a step to rebalance the world of beer recognition and to celebrate more than the brewer alone in creating success. Have a look at the website of the competition to see the categories (www.beermarketingawards.co.uk): but be assured of this: this is not just a competition for big companies with big budgets. ‘Big budgets do not great marketing make’ as a former boss of mine used to say (a salesman in fact). Yes, the awards will celebrate traditional advertising, but the truth is in a tightening legislative world, it’s getting harder to make an impactful advert nowadays, and expensive too. So the awards also recognise social media, design, public relations, competitions, sponsorship…even a brewery’s merchandise. Every commercial brewer in other words does marketing; and every commercial brewery is eligible for the competition.

So take a look at the website and post your entry (deadline looming so don’t delay). Who knows, you may be able to feature it on your packaging in what…a hundred years from now?

* You know, ‘bitza’ this and ‘bitza’ that.

Disclaimer: David Preston, a.k.a. Beer Tinted Spectacles, is a judge of the 2014 UK Beer Marketing Awards, and this blog does represent his heartfelt views.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

50 Shades of Dray

It had clearly become too much for my long-suffering wife. In a delicate eruption of frustration one evening last week she pointedly accused me of watching only food programmes on TV. I can accept that some, small minded individuals cannot appreciate nor accept ‘Pointless’ as the true visual art form that it is.   Yet as always I had to reluctantly admit that there was more than a grain of truth in her accusation. In fact of late, the truth was not a grain but a large soon-to-be-double-decocted mash full, triggered in this case by a monster session of ‘Great British Food Revival’ which I had put on the Sky+ and inevitably, therefore, was watching en masse, putting enormous pressure on her weekly Soap schedule as I fought to catch up in any 5 minute gap that presented itself.

The basic premise of the programme is this; like our canal network in the ‘70s, some ‘great’ ‘British’ foods, are endangered, not through over hunting but through lack of use.  From brown shrimps to asparagus, cured ham to Cheddar (of the proper, West Country variety, natch), from Aylesbury Duck to real ale, unless we change our eating and shopping ways then these fine fares, which we all ‘enjoyed round the table of childhood’ apparently, will be gone forever.

Alas, some of the motifs of the series are weakened by stereotype and bombastic language: “Go on!”, you are urged in each programme, “Just think about the crap you are putting in your basket (Idiot! Charlatan!) and buy the proper stuff”.   It’s well meant; undoubtedly true to a large degree; and I have no qualms at all about raising the profile of some of these high quality products and the producers who fight to save them and make a living.  And yes, you did read that right, real ale was on the list.

Which was funny.  Because if there’s one Great British food (and I think on both measures this counts) that is saving itself then cask ale would be there.  Credit to CAMRA 40 years ago, and credit to the countless numbers of entrepreneurs, home brewers, retired professional brewers, and beer lovers from all walks of life who have had the balls to start a brewery.  But there’s the (*cough!* *cough!*) …rub.   The premise of the episode on real ale was mostly about the balls and not the beer.  That somehow, it was the industrialisation of beer production, and the replacement of the brewing art by employed men, not home-making ale wives or brewsters, that accounted for real ale’s decline. Not shit quality in pubs, total lack of focus by brewers big and small and the global change in tastes towards pale beers then?

hartnett

Angela Hartnett. On the left. Obviously.

And It wasn’t helped by Angela Hartnett.  Clearly, she’s well rated as a chef – whilst I have not dined at one her establishments myself, all this celebrity froth must be for something. But unfortunately she came across as just a touch patronising, actually looking down her nose at people, an apparent haughtiness aimed even at those that she was endeavouring to champion. Annoying really, as it was clear that she has a fair bit of beery knowledge and can use her platform to champion the case for beer.  And. She didn’t venture out of the south east; but that’s just the regional chip butty on my shoulder, so let’s say no more about it. But it’s chips ‘n’ gravy every time, if you’re asking, and  feel free to pop a bit of stout in the gravy for that whole ‘beer and food’ extravaganza if it makes you feel better.

Yet scratch all the criticism. At the end of the day, the angle she was driving down was interesting, borne out of yet more grains of truth; and unlike the previously impoverished attempts at beer programming on the BBC, was relatively balanced¹. Specifically, the role of women in relation to ale has weakened, and extending the ‘cult of the brewer’ to include female brewers is a must if we want ladies to sit up and take notice, not just men.  Getting women to suspend disbelief and try great beers, not just cask beers, is an industry wide action.  Getting the BBPA or other august bodies to promote the fact that ‘beer = lager, ale, lambic’ and not just ‘beer = bitter’ is a pretty basic cornerstone of knowledge that we haven’t yet established. Getting over irrational connections to the pint, and stretching out our arms to welcome in other measures is a must too, heretical though it may be to say it.  But most importantly, getting over the fact that beers ‘for women’ don’t have to be flavoured light beer (or worse) will be the first major victory.  At the end of the day, beer has always been more of a blokes’ drink.  And you know what, that’s OK.  Us men should stop wearing hair shirts of guilty penitence and flagellating ourselves outside the Rose & Crown.  Change nothing about beer today and there are still huge numbers of occasions when women would happily pick up a beer when they’re not now. There are plenty of beers today that hold appeal to both genders – from fresh, cask draught beer at the one end, to Mexican beers and Tequila beers at the other; from sweeter, mild beers to deep brown and alcoholic Italian ones – it’s the context around it; the machismo; the ‘half’ culture we need to break down.  And at the end of the day, I may drink a glass of rosé wine from time to time too without needing a ‘rosé for men’ initiative from the wine producers.

Yet scratch all the criticism. At the end of the day, the angle she was driving down was interesting, borne out of yet more grains of truth; and unlike the previously impoverished attempts at beer programming on the BBC, was relatively balanced¹. Specifically, the role of women in relation to ale has weakened, and extending the ‘cult of the brewer’ to include female brewers is a must if we want ladies to sit up and take notice, not just men.  Getting women to suspend disbelief and try great beers, not just cask beers, is an industry wide action.  Getting the BBPA or other august bodies to promote the fact that ‘beer = lager, ale, lambic’ and not just ‘beer = bitter’ is a pretty basic cornerstone of knowledge that we haven’t yet established. Getting over irrational connections to the pint, and stretching out our arms to welcome in other measures is a must too, heretical though it may be to say it.  But most importantly, getting over the fact that beers ‘for women’ don’t have to be flavoured light beer (or worse) will be the first major victory.  At the end of the day, beer has always been more of a blokes’ drink.  And you know what, that’s OK.  Us men should stop wearing hair shirts of guilty penitence and flagellating ourselves outside the Rose & Crown.  Change nothing about beer today and there are still huge numbers of occasions when women would happily pick up a beer when they’re not now. There are plenty of beers today that hold appeal to both genders – from fresh, cask draught beer at the one end, to Mexican beers and Tequila beers at the other; from sweeter, mild beers to deep brown and alcoholic Italian ones – it’s the context around it; the machismo; the ‘half’ culture we need to break down.  And at the end of the day, I may drink a glass of rosé wine from time to time too without needing a ‘rosé for men’ initiative from the wine producers.

None of that’s the point though.  The real point is this:  if we really want to ‘revive’ real ale, we can’t just focus on women.  The male ‘lager generation’, growing up with exciting lager as a reaction to the drink of their forebears, are now in their 30’s and 40’s and need to be enticed back to drink cask more regularly.  Young adults prioritise their mobile subscription above food and rent, but we need to bring them on side too – men and women.  Our ever-ageing population need to be encouraged to try too, especially if the memories of the ropey stuff from a generation ago hold any truth. If real ale is going to really revive, then it needs broad appeal, women and men, young and old, big brewers and small brewers, national retailers and independents getting behind it.  The Great British Food Revival might help, but it’ll need to broaden its focus to do so.

¹ Oz Clarke and James May anybody? They should sack the Director General for that.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, November 2012

The Session #64: The Pale Ale Counter-Reformation

the session beer blogging friday

In many respects, CAMRA came into existence to save pale ale. Yes, I know it should be a broad church the Campaign For Real Ale, but the reality it was pale ale that was being decimated by the rockets of kegged beer with all the day to day, ‘operational’ benefits they offered. Worthington ‘E’, Watney’s Red Barrel, Whitbread’s Tankard, Ind Coope’s Double Diamond were most definitely not ‘head and body above the rest’ (to paraphrase). Rather, for drinkers who loved and appreciated the subtle nuances of cask beer, these insulted through their artificial, aggressive fizziness and tasteless or unbalanced flavours.  In a way, they did damage on two fronts: they hurt cask, and they hurt the reputation of great beers that happen to be sold in ‘kegs’ for future generations.   My first surreptitious underage swig of beer was from a party 7 of Worthington’s at a party my Mum and Dad were having. I should have been in my room, but I cagily snuck downstairs for an illicit snifter of some sort. The beer was close to hand and I tapped some into a plastic camping cup.

Oh my dear God. It was the most unpalatably rank, wretched, drain-stinkingly awful experience. It didn’t help that I hadn’t yet been on a rite of passage with beer at that point in my life, but goodness me. This stuff had an acrid stink like beer changing from just about drinkable to off, and a taste that was aggressively sharp with carbonation and mildly painful.

There were two upsides though. Firstly it was bad enough to put me off tobacco and other illicit substances.  Secondly, it was so truly awful that I knew that there must be better stuff out there. Saying that, I left it a fair few years to find out more, and I have never trusted my Dad’s taste in alcohol since.    But no wonder CAMRA had a powerful cause. Here was our beer, a style of beer that had dominated our landscape for almost 300 years being right-royally buggered by the same people charged with doing the right thing for it…to tend it, nurture it, pass it on in better shape to their successors. Some hope.

So the movement grew. Not just the CAMRA movement, although undoubtedly that catalysed the change. Time became a powerful ally too. For with time, so the wash of characterless premium lagers revealed the hidden skeleton in the cupboard. Through the ‘80s and especially into the late ‘90s, drinkers began to see that ‘international lagers’ – at first so sexy and alluring – were in truth separated only by their clothes. An interesting label. An unusual font. A pertly shaped glass.

But where, oh where was the flavour?   And why, oh why, must I consume a 5% + ABV lager to get a mere skittering of taste?

And so the Pale Ale Counter Reformation began. And it began on many fronts.  Drinkers in the UK standing on the burning platform, with CAMRA helping them see what we were losing.  With the home brewers-cum-craft brewers in the U.S. challenging their beer norms and looking for interesting styles – sending ripples across the world.  This coincidental wave of drinkers unaccustomed, perhaps unaware, of this family of beers concentrated the flowing tide as it entered the mouth of the bay. To today, where it feels like Pale Ale is truly fighting back; is challenging the hegemony of international ‘lager’.

What a family of beers it is! From the unusual or less common Bière de Gardes, Blondes or Strong Ales, to the widespread, more accessible Bitters, American Pales or Burton Pale Ales.  Many of the bottles in the ale section of UK supermarkets today are pale ales; in the US no self-respecting bar would do without at least one great, often local (ish) Pale Ale on draft.  And pales are springing up all over now and gaining momentum.  In a bar the other night, I drank a Cooper’s (from Adelaide); a Sierra Nevada (from Chico, California), followed by a bottle of Llangollen Bitter (from North Wales) later that evening.

But let’s start with Burton Pale Ale. Not the first, but at their best, the style-definers.  Yes, you may beg to differ; and of course, the beauty of taste is how idiosyncratic and individual it is, but sorry, over this there can be no doubt. Burton didn’t earn its fame through fluke. It earned its fame because at their best, these Pale Ales were world class. At their best, they were beguiling, moreish, complex, rewarding, shocking and supremely drinkable. A combination that was….is…..awesome.

But there’s the rub. Where today are the pale ales that made Burton famous? In Pedigree, perhaps… but for me, still too unreliable when kept in the wrong hands and all too often these are the hands of Marstons publicans. And I do agree with my brother, who thinks it’s a bit ‘barnyardy’, a bit rustic, compared in his mind with the Daddy. With Bass.

But alas, alas. This, of all Pale Ales, a signature beer of its style, a world class beer, superbly balanced, flavoursome and nuanced, has been mugged by the shadowy yakusa of international brewer consolidation and left, breathing, but barely audibly, in a brewing back alley.  Once, not that many years ago, UK brewing’s biggest export, now a shadow of that, forced to become Disneyesque in Anheuser Busch InBev’s ridiculous attraction to serving it as part of a black and tan.  Damn you for wrecking this beer and damn you more for treating it with disdain.

Thank the Lord for Burton Bridge then. Their eponymous Bridge Bitter keeps Burton’s flag flying.  This is a beer with structure, with a delicate floral character but a spine to stand up for itself.  There’s just that drying, vaguely burnt, bitter linger that means your hand is lifting the glass for the next sip not long after the last one has been swallowed.  For like very few beers, great Burton Pale Ales have that quality that is so difficult to define:  tasty yes, but moreishly drinkable too.

Whilst Pale Ale found fame with the spread of the style from Burton, of course this is just a fraction of the story.  One of the interesting chapters is in Belgium; known of course for so many interesting, challenging, defining styles of beer, but a haven for Pale Ale too.  I travelled to Belgium a few years ago and met the chaps at Palm in Steenhuffel.  Palm Breweries is one of the larger national companies in Belgium today, but recent years have been tough.  Despite its reputation as a great beer nation, the reality is that the market is over 70% international lager and it’s as cut-throat as elsewhere in northern Europe.  So in the last decade Palm have redefined their business; adding true speciality brands like Rodenbach and Boon lambics.  And refocusing on Palm Speciale.

For many years, Palm Speciale seemed to play second fiddle to its Antwerp rival, de Koninck. A fine beer, no doubt, served in its bolleke (little ball or bollock). Palm seemed more grounded, less aspirational – it’s symbol of a Brabant Shire Horse the perfect manifestation.  Doughty and workmanlike.  Yet Palm is a terrific pale ale that shouldn’t be over-shadowed, and a great example of how the Belgians can appropriate and re-interpret different beer styles.  The base of Palm is undoubtedly a pale ale. A rich amber colour, a fruit-sugary crispness that you only expect from a warm fermented beer, but matched by a malt-led roundness. Cave Direct sell it in the UK (beermerchants.com) – look out for it, and look out for it’s cognac like bol glass, which doesn’t just add to the enjoyment but concentrates and directs the aromas in a way that enhances Palm’s drinkability. Only without the bolleks.

There are now so many pale ales in fact, with so much terrific variation that the style risks fragmentation. This may be no bad thing, especially when you consider how far the it has come in the last generation…from a time when it was on its knees, to today….a Pale Ale Counter Reformation, when for some, I drop to my knees and offer reverential praise.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012