Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Keeping it Real: UK CAMRA vs. BrewDog

A dispute between Scottish brewing provocateurs BrewDog and CAMRA UK — who run the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) — has ended with BrewDog being denied a spot at this year's GBBF. Working from BrewDog's complaint (I am assuming they accurately portray the issue as I am not aware of a response from CAMRA) the issue boils down to this:

  • CAMRA rules state that all British attendees must supply cask beer; only non-Brits may bring kegs due to difficulties in transporting casks and the fact that many beer styles are not appropriately presented in casks.
  • BrewDog contend that they had achieved an agreement to bring kegs of beer (their preferred method) which was reneged on by CAMRA; BrewDog are now not allowed to attend with kegged beer as their arrangements did not fulfill the terms CAMRA would accept in their agreement. [EDIT: Steve Lamond points out that it was not a renege, BD just didn't meet certain requirements]

Putting aside the issue that CAMRA may or may not have had an agreement with BrewDog to allow an exception in their case [EDIT: and also the fact that the technical reasons BD were refused was their failure to meet contract in terms of payment date and vessel size], I think that this issue represents a fundamental flaw in CAMRA that will certainly undermine its long-term aim to advocate cask beer. Here's why:

My first response was echoed by Pete Brown's tweet: "if the defence is 'We're all about real ale, that's the name," kindly rename the Great British BEER festival". This is obviously correct. Defining "great British Beer" as that solely served in cask is as luddite and arrogant as it is inaccurate. Modern beer producers have refined so many approaches, elevated so many styles to greatness, that I wouldn't be surprised if we see even "craft" rice and corn beers before too long (all right, don't mark my words on that one).

CAMRA's stance on cask beer is clearly linked to their raison d'etre: namely their admirable defence of cask ale from the threat of extinction at the hands of large corporate interests whose production methods and aggressive marketing were rapidly making kegged beer the only viable commercial option.

If you define CAMRA as a defence of cask beer against kegs, then it is wholly understandable why they'd take this precious stance. This explains why so many CAMRA advocates are (possibly reluctantly) supporting the cask-only policy.

But that is not how CAMRA should be defined. What they did, in essence, was protect a form of production and enjoyment that enjoyed wide appeal from powerful organizations and a commercial movement that was attempting to redefine "good" beer, and to unfairly marginalize other forms of production.

Kind of like what CAMRA are doing now by excluding kegged beer from the GBBF.

CAMRA began as a reactionary organization with noble aims, many of which persist to this day. Unfortunately, CAMRA now resembles a protectionist organization clinging to an outmoded hierarchical dogma that is doing its utmost to live up to the out-of-touch dinosaur clichés it has been (mostly unfairly) tarnished with since the 70s. Its "not in our backyard" decision to allow Euro breweries to bring kegs, but deny Brits the same privilege — makes CAMRA look like a possessive husband, dragging his long-suffering wife to a strip-club while forcing her to wear dungarees and a raincoat.

Surely all they will achieve is to alienate drinkers who recognize the inherent quality of kegged beers such as BrewDog and who wonder why the resurgent "real ale" has become our sole revered product. This, in turn, risks a backlash against cask ale and CAMRA itself — potentially undoing much of the good will toward 'real ale' that has been achieved over the last three decades.

The obvious solution to this miserable state of affairs is to either rename the festival to the Great British Cask Beer (or 'real ale') Festival, or to allow kegged beers into the GBBF — perhaps on a system that allocates a certain amount of space to casks and a certain amount to kegs. There seems to me no good reason why a quality assessment board cannot allocate space based on the merits of beer regardless of whether it is kegged or casked.

I am glad that the Canadian branch of CAMRA of which I am a member is more of general beer appreciation club that works to promote good beer in all its forms.

commenter one points out key points I missed. I concede that I interpreted BD's complaint rather quickly. However, the overarching point of the post is that favouring cask ale in context of Great British "Beer" Festival is the main problem. It is inaccurate and prejudicial and particularly difficult for newer drinkers to understand.


  1. You missed the important points:
    Brewdog failed to pay their deposit on time and were in breach of the terms of their contract

    Brewdog were unable to provide beer in 18gallon containers

    Camra were happy for brewdog to use keykeg as long as it was vessel conditioned and served using gas pressure not CO2.

    All foreign beers served whether keykeg,keg or cask are unpasteurised and served without extraneous CO2. That is why the German beers so often "fob" because air is used.

    There is a definition of real ale which CAMRA has to stick to.

    Until such time as the members AGM votes for change it has to stay the same, regardless of how many want change.

  2. Correct I missed important points, but I think the greater point is sound (see edit). I'd welcome a response to that if you have one?

  3. Yes, now that there is great british beer outside of cask beer (which of course is not all great by all aocounts) GBBF should be more inclusive. However this can only be done by changing the CAMRA policy, which has to be done at the AGM.

    It is impractical to change the name to the Great Cask Beer Festival or similar as GBBF is now a recognised name.

    There are also very few producers of decent keg in the UK at present. I intend to propose a motion at next years AGM to create a new bar of non cask beers if I can make it. I doubt it'll be passed though as the demographic of the AGM tends to be the conservative CAMRA members.

  4. In Canada CAMRA does not run the GCBF, it is kept separate. Do you think that the GBBF would be improved if it was run by an independent committee rather than one that has an exclusionary interpretation of great British Beer, or do you think that reform of CAMRA (however unlikely) would be preferable?

  5. That's a very good question.
    I don't think CAMRA will ever give up GBBF as its the biggest revenue earner/campaigning tool/ new member recruitment opportunity that we have.
    Therefore only option is for CAMRA to widen the remit and as mentioned before this can only be proposed internally once a year at the AGM. Also i believe if the motion fails there's an exclusion period of one or two years before the motion can be retried.

  6. "Great British Beer Festival" is not a name that implies the beer there is the only great British beer. (Note the non-capitalisation of "great".)

    It's a national beer festival for Great Britain.

    It's ludicrous to suggest that a beer festival should have to stock every style of beer to be called a beer festival.

  7. Pete Green. Yeah it would be ludicrous, but that is not what is being suggested here…

  8. The suggestion is that because the GBBF does not stock a particular kind of beer it cannot be called a beer festival.

    The logical conclusion is that a festival can only be called a beer festival if it stocks all kinds of beer.

  9. Sorry, but I think you missed it again. At no point do I say that a festival should be forced to stock all kinds of beer, simply that it should widen its criteria of what is permissible if its existing definition arbitrarily prevents great British beers from being represented.

  10. And you've missed that the "great" in "Great British Beer Festival" refers to Britain, and not beer.

    Unless you can credibly argue that it isn't a beer festival, calls to rename it are petty and pointless.

  11. You play into my hands, sir. If it is indeed "Great British" from "Great Britain", then it is incorrectly named in any case because "Great Britain" refers only to the landmass. "Britain" refers to the political, social or cultural identity entity — certainly the rubric a beer festival would come under. Unless, of course, there was a specific intention to exclude the Northern Irish British from representation for this festival? Of course there wasn't, and in any case Northern Ireland's breweries are in the main billing, not the Bieres Sans Frontieres classification, which shows it is "Britain" and not "Great Britain" that is used as the definition of domestic. "Great British" is therefore a misnomer and it cannot be used as a demonym either. "Beer Festival of Great Britain" would be the only way to intelligibly get that across (not catchy). So before you go ahead saying what the "great" stands for, you are forced to accept my initial point that it is at best misleading.

    In either case it is beside the (simple) point: The title of GBBF — and the fact that it is the biggest beer festival in Britain — suggests to all but the most knowledgeable individual that you might reasonably expect to find a wide range of great British beers there (as you should).

    I simply question whether the current title is misleading, and I *suggest* two possible ways to set that straight. I also think that if the current rules are making it difficult for producers of outstanding beer to serve their wares on Britain's greatest stage, then they should probably be revisited — as a delightfully level-headed CAMRA member above agreed. Why not allow British brewers who have problems producing real ales enter under the same terms as the foreign beers?

    I repeat my contention that the reason the rules still apply is more related to a conservative, protectionist attitude which once served CAMRA well, but is probably in need of refreshing. As am I, after typing this.

    Your ripostes buzz like grumpy flies but so far as I can tell they do not bite sir!

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