In the first part of this article I explained how when exploring the deepest recesses of our attic I came across my programme of the Derby CAMRA Beer Festival of 1979. And that, for me, reading the programme highlighted issues very relevant to the current world of British beer and brewing. Part one went on to talk about changes in beers and breweries. Here, in part two, I want to address the thorny subject of the cask verses keg row that is troubling CAMRA today, and how the festival programme’s introduction notes provide a perspective on the debate.
Part Two: What’s it all about?
After the nostalgia trip reading the festival programme’s brewery notes and remembering the beers and atmosphere of 1979, I turned to read the CAMRA Derby Branch’s introduction page.
Naturally, the author wrote about CAMRA as an organisation, what it was doing locally, and how readers could join the campaign. What I see as a key point is how the piece describes CAMRA as fighting ‘to preserve and promote real ale in real pubs especially in areas which suffer from a surfeit of keg beer’. The piece also refers to the Derby Branch producing its own Good Beer Guide ‘to publicise the pubs selling traditional cask conditioned beers in our area’.
The above comments are important as they describe very clearly what CAMRA was already know for and, I believe, has consistently been best known for since its creation in the 1970s.
There are arguments in and around CAMRA at the moment about how the organisation should recognise and respond to the revival of kegged beer (often associated with ‘craft’ beer). One case made for allowing the new keg beers into the CAMRA fold is that CAMRA was originally set up as the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale to promote high quality in beer. The argument follows that whereas in the seventies beer quality could be defined easily in terms of cask conditioned as opposed to mass-produced kegs (pasteurised and carbonated), today things are different as many brewers now brew nice tasting keg beers, and some cask conditioned beers are not kept or served well.
There are many ways to answer this argument, but here I’m going to go back to the comments from the 1979 festival programme. Despite what some of the founders of CAMRA may have originally intended back in 1971, from 1973 CAMRA has been the Campaign for Real Ale. And, despite whatever nuances the founders saw in terms of the campaign’s role, I suggest it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t always been widely seen as promoting cask conditioning as the key feature of British brewing. Therefore, it seems completely consistent that CAMRA should focus on cask conditioned beer and work towards highlighting and encouraging good cellar and bar management, in tandem with discouraging all less than good examples of both.
Today there are keg beers that taste nice and there are keg beers that offer a variety of experiences that attract a modern consumer; just as there have always been excellent foreign beers to compete with British real ale. The new wave of keg beers don’t need CAMRA to thrive and it benefits no-one for CAMRA to try and hang onto the coat tails of this current fashion. I believe it is completely justifiable, and valid, for CAMRA to campaign strongly for GOOD cask conditioned beer without bringing the new keg beers into the mix and so muddy the waters.
Campaigning for the survival of good pubs and for good real cider and perry, alongside good, well delivered, cask conditioned beer seems completely in keeping the organisation’s ethos. Can campaigning for keg beer really be said to have any connection, purpose, or relevance?
Some of those that want change worry about CAMRA losing its relevance in the face of the new beer revolution. CAMRA will lose its relevance if it dilutes itself and looses sight of what its always been famous for.
Good cask conditioned beer is a wonderful part of British tradition, heritage, identity, or however you want to put it. Surely it’s important that CAMRA concentrate and focus, clearly, on ensuring we all have access to the best of this national treasure!