Camra obscura: does the beer group have a future role in the off-trade?
The dramatic question “Is this the end of the Campaign for Real Ale?” was posed by the consumer organisation itself on the launch of its Revitalisation Project last March.
It certainly helped to grab some headlines, with several national media editors happy to go along with the notion that Camra might shut up shop for good, when the most that really seemed to be on offer was a change of name to reflect the redrawn beer landscape it found itself looking at 45 years after it was founded.
After three member surveys, 50 consultations around the country, and conversations with brewers, publicans, politicians and journalists, the results are in and, unsurprisingly, the turkeys didn’t vote for Christmas – Camra remains intact, as does the name.
Campaigning for real ale, cider and perry and protecting “community” pubs will remain core to its activities, but with a wider “mission and purpose”, including taking a lead role in “informing and educating all those with an interest in good beer of any type” while promoting the “virtues of well-produced, well- kept cask-conditioned beers as the pinnacle of the brewer’s craft”.
There’s a thawing of attitudes towards keg beer, concluding that “some of these products are far superior to some of the low-quality, mass- produced cask beer common in pubs – some of which, it is alleged, may be subject to minimal, if any, secondary fermentation despite being marketed as real ale”. Yet, despite this, there was no appetite among members for a change in Camra’s “fundamental purpose” to promote cask ahead of everything else.
The off-trade hasn’t come out of the report well. While the consultation probed the specifics of members’ support for promoting good beer in different types of on-trade outlet, such as café bars and restaurants, no distinction was made between supermarkets, specialist off-licences, wine merchants that sell beer, or dedicated beer shops run by experts, geeks and enthusiasts.
Only 42% of Camra members surveyed gave a positive response to the idea of supporting the lumpen mass of “shops and supermarkets” in selling good beer, which the report’s authors say justifies the conclusion that: “Camra should champion the drinking of real ale in communal settings and not increase its support for the off-trade”.
It adds: “There are questions to be asked about Camra’s existing limited support for the off-trade, whether this remains appropriate and whether there is a contradiction between existing commercial and campaigning strategies.”
So don’t expect any more activity such as Tesco and Camra’s jointly marketed introduction of the “Camra says this is real ale” logo into the supermarket’s aisles in 2015 to promote bottle- conditioned beers.
This section of the report reinforces the four legs (pubs) good, two legs (shops) bad approach regularly churned out by the on-trade and ignores those who indulge in “communal drinking” of quality beer with friends in their own home, or enjoy beer but whose budget limits their propensity to pay £4 a pint for the privilege, or who have young children where going out means finding an extra £20 or more for a babysitter, or (perish the thought) just feeling like staying in.
The drinking-on-the-premises element of David Jones’ Bier Huis shop in Wakefield has been strong enough to earn him a place in this year’s Camra Good Beer Guide but he says the lack of support for the off-trade “comes as no surprise”. Jones adds: “I would think that most members who finished the surveys are the hardcore who can see no further than cask ale in a pub. Despite gaining entry into the Good Beer Guide and being Wakefield Camra cider pub of the year there is a large base in the branch that feel I shouldn’t be either, as it’s not a real pub.
“You can see the panic attacks when you start talking about bottle-conditioned beers and key keg being real ale.”
Sean Clarke at Beer Central in Sheffield says he welcomes the report as a whole, in particular the pledge to educate consumers about “good beer of any type” and says his business gets “good support” from its local Camra branch.
But he is disappointed with the report’s stance on the off-trade. “To think that some rank bad pubs – offering a minimal but qualifying cask option – will get more support than some amazing off-trade businesses is wrong.
“We are a hard-working business that always seeks to provide our customers with an outstanding range of bottled and canned beers from as many different microbreweries as we possibly can.
“To realise that Camra’s strategy will effectively work against what we try to do is very sad.”
Zeph King at Real Ale in Twickenham suggests that it’s in the interests of Camra and the brewing industry to support quality in the off-trade.
“A brand that is enjoyed in the pub can also often be bought in the off-trade,” he says. “If standards are not maintained while bottling or canning, then an off-trade version could let the brand down and affect choice in a communal setting.
“Added to this is the growth of breweries opening up retail sections for visitors to sample and buy beer directly, or specialist beer shops like us, offering freshly kegged beer that can be consumed in-store or taken home. I just don’t think off-trade neatly fits into a simple category any more.”
Camra’s surveys did find more support for off- trade outlets that offered some sort of drinking- in experience, but this wasn’t enough to soften its stance on take-home as a whole.
The report authors’ apparent dismissal of the contribution of modern bottle shops seems especially strange given that the young, hipster beer geek customers among those who frequent such shops are exactly the sorts of people Camra says it wants to attract.
Ageing membership is a chief concern expressed in the report which acknowledges that “Camra is, at best, ignoring and, at worst, alienating one of the most obvious, accessible, growing and youthful potential audiences for real ale”.
A QUESTION OF AGE
More than a third of Camra members are aged over 60, 94% of those who took the final consultation survey were over 40 and three- quarters were over 50. Just 1% who completed the survey were under 25.
Six of the 11-strong Revitalisation Project steering committee are over 60 and three are in their 70s. The youngest is 27. Just for the record, lest anyone get the idea that I’m a young pup having a go at the old guard, I’d like to disclose that I’m 51 – and a Camra member.
But if I owned, say, a clothing brand with an ageing consumer base and wanted to appeal to younger people, I’d go out and talk to some of them to find out what makes them tick, not ask my existing customers what they’d like me to do.
The report is at pains to point out that it’s not a “manifesto for the status quo”, but with a largely inward-looking consultation, there was never likely to be a big push for radical change. Any changes will not come quickly either. The report will be discussed at the members’ conference in April and a final decision on the proposals which arise from that will be made at the same event in 2018, steering the final decision back into the hands of Camra’s most committed supporters.
Among specialist beer retailers OLN spoke to there was support for the Revitalisation Project as a process and some of its findings, especially the provision of consumer education, opposition to the health lobby and backing
for good quality non-cask ale – though some expressed reservations about how and by whom “good beer of any type” will be defined.
But there was also the feeling of an opportunity missed. Certainly the outcome is a long way from the “end of Camra” hype that heralded the start of the project.
One award-winning specialist beer retailer said in his personal feedback that he felt Camra had “bottled it”, missing “a chance to embrace the modern ‘beerscape’ and make Camra a group that would be relevant for years to come” and added: “They really need to be seen to do more than say cask breathers may now be OK and tell people there may be other good types of beer out there.
“Good quality keg beers will continue to pick up market share and the people that drink them will, in future years, reflect on that Camra organisation that used to exist for old men with beards and sandals.”
I’ll get me coat.
VOX POP: RETAILER RESPONSE
“I question the premise of ‘well-kept cask-conditioned beers as the pinnacle of the brewer’s craft’. There are many brewers moving from producing just cask-conditioned beer, experimenting more with natural and unfiltered keg beer, not to mention the growth of amazing beer in cans. It’s not that cask beer doesn’t remain important, more that keg is where lots of brewers are exercising their craft and pushing the boundaries of brewing.”
Zeph King, Real Ale, Twickenham
“We love the fact that Camra will take a ‘leading role in informing and educating all those with an interest in good beer of any type’. The cask vs craft debate has become a muddled affair and it’s great to see that Camra will broaden its thinking, perhaps accepting that many modern-day keg beers from independent microbreweries should never be confused or compared with the rubbish produced in the 1970s and 1980s.” Sean Clarke, Beer Central, Sheffield
“Before this, there has always been very little in support of the off-trade by Camra at national level. Branches are hit and miss. But if you look at Camra national publications they are littered with advertising by the off-trade.”
David Jones, Bier Huis, Ossett