Does CAMRA face a crucial turning point?

Michael Hardman

Michael Hardman - Credit: Archant

Is the Campaign for Real Ale facing a mid-life crisis? CAMRA, 45 years old and based for most of those years in St Albans, is conducting a survey of its members to see if it’s still fit for purpose or needs a major overhaul of its policies and strategies to face a very different beer world from the 1970s.

The survey is called the Revitalisation Project and this week CAMRA’s 180,000 members will receive a booklet outlining its past work and the challenges ahead. The members will be asked to decide whether to carry on as the voice for drinkers of cask ale or broaden its appeal to embrace the needs of all beer drinkers, especially the new generation keen on “craft beer”.

The members will also be asked if they believe the campaign should continue to support cider and perry. They will also be urged to decide if the battle to save the battered pub sector should be a core issue at a time when more than 20 a week are closing.

The man leading the project is Michael Hardman, one of CAMRA’s founding members who worked as editor of its newspaper and the Good Beer Guide when the office was first in Victoria Street and then in Alma Road. It has since moved to Hatfield Road, between Fleetville School and Morrison’s.

He said when he announced the project last week: “This could mark a fundamental turning point for CAMRA – so fundamental it may no longer continue as the Campaign for Real Ale and instead become a campaign for pubs, or a campaign for all drinkers.

“This is the chance for our members to tell us who we should represent in the future and what we should be campaigning for.”

Hardman stresses the vastly different beer world today. When he and three friends set up the campaign in 1971, beer represented 71 per cent of all the alcohol consumed in the UK. By 2014 that figure had fallen to 36 per cent.

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In the 1970s there were just 175 breweries operating in the country, and many of them were controlled by large national groups CAMRA dubbed “the Big Six”.

Today there are around 1,500 breweries offering a far wider choice of beers than the founding fathers of CAMRA could have imagined. It’s one of the oddities of today’s beer scene that, while we are drinking a lot less, the choice and diversity has never been greater.

Real ale is not in the doldrums. Just look at the variety on offer in most of St Albans’ pubs. But there are other types of beer now available. While most independent breweries produce real ale, a number are also producing what is called “craft beer”

The jury is out on what the term means. For my money, real ale is craft beer but for some brewers and drinkers the name embraces beer that, unlike real ale, doesn’t mature in its cask in the pub cellar.

It’s filtered in the brewery and served by gas pressure from kegs rather than casks when it reaches the pub. Craft keg has its devotees and CAMRA members will be asked if it’s a style they should support.

Where pubs are concerned, Michael Hardman points out that when CAMRA was formed there was no need to fight to preserve them because they faced little competition on the high street.

Today, high streets are packed with restaurants of all descriptions while supermarkets undercut pubs with their heavily discounted beers, some sold as “loss leaders”.

Drinkers in St Albans are fortunate: very few pubs here have closed in recent years and the city has more pubs per square mile than any other town or city in the country.

But many parts of the UK, especially those that once relied on heavy industry and thirsty throats, have seen large numbers of pubs disappear, often ripping the heart out of communities and driving drinkers into the arms of the supermarkets.

CAMRA has been active in saving pubs and arguing that many should be listed as Assets of Community Value to stop them being closed: this means that if a pub owner wants to get rid of a pub there has to be a cooling-off period to give alternative buyers the opportunity to raise the necessary funds.

The decisions by CAMRA members who participate in the project will be reported to the campaign’s annual meeting in April 2017.

For further information click here and best of all join CAMRA and make your voice heard.