How I learned to stop worrying and love CAMRA

Matt Curtis, on how the campaign to preserve tradition is slowly learning to embrace change


I’ve been a beer lover for most of my adult life. From a burgeoning interest in real ale in my early 20’s, to a fascination with modern US beer culture, before subsequently getting excited about British beer all over again, I can no longer remember when it wasn’t my raison d’etre.

But on June the 11th, 2020, I did something I never thought I’d do: I joined CAMRA. It is with some sense of irony that, for my 37th birthday two weeks later, I received a pair of Birkenstock sandals. Socks not included. 

When CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, was founded in 1971 it laid much of the groundwork for the emergence of the thriving beer economy we know and love today. Thanks to its railing against the bland, mass-produced keg beers of the time, like the often-maligned Watney’s Red Barrel, it has allowed the core tenet of British beer – real ale served from a cask – to thrive. These beers would in turn inspire many US beer pioneers like Sam Caligione of Dogfish Head, Gary Fish of Deschutes and Doug Odell of his eponymously named brewery to produce era-defining beers of their own. The resulting American brewing renaissance triggered a new wave of brewing talent in the UK. Now, it feels like a new generation of beer lovers is finally discovering the cask classics again, and so the circle is complete.

But, despite my own love for beer beginning at a relatively young age, I always found the Campaign’s ideals sat on a different plane of existence to my own. I felt, strongly, that its stance was old hat, and actually preventing beer in the UK from progressing in the way I hoped it would; namely, to look more like the US scene I had come to cherish, with its taprooms, six-packs and very bitter IPAs. 

I also saw a darker side: one that wasn’t ready to stand up to the obvious misogyny and sexism that blighted its beer festivals or the lack of diversity being fostered among a very white male beer crowd. There was also an almost pig-headed reluctance to allow modern keg beers – a universe apart from the blandness it fought against in the 70s and 80s – to pour at its events, despite being unfiltered, unpasteurised, and very much “real ale” in the literal sense.

So what changed? Well, me, for starters. The more I delved into beer culture the more I realised how much I cherished real ale. CAMRA didn’t occupy another universe, instead existing on the opposite side of the same coin as modern beer. I also started to see action from the Campaign, addressing sexism and racism (though I will state that, despite this being much improved, it’s a long way from perfect) and developed the belief that it had the best interests of beer and the drinkers that love it, at heart. 

Despite addressing sexism and racism being much improved, it’s a long way from perfect

I’m also a strong believer in activism, these days more so than ever. My sentiment is that traditional British beer culture is one of the most important in the world, and that its preservation – and CAMRA’s direct involvement with that – is paramount. So I finally decided to put my money where my mouth is, sign up, and do my best to become actively involved with the Campaign. 

“Being seen as old men with beards and sandals was something [CAMRA] has suffered from even when I joined, despite the fact that almost 25% of its membership is female,” says Christine Cryne, a longstanding activist within the Campaign who joined in 1997 while she was at university. She would go on to become one of its most influential members, including being the first woman to run the Great British Beer Festival, and – along with her husband John – established the now sadly defunct London Drinker beer festival. 

Education is Christine’s focus these days and she often works with CAMRA as a master trainer, teaching people about the fundamentals of beer (she says that only one in four members of the public can name beer's four main ingredients). She’s also highly conscious that beer can still be a very closed culture, with beer lovers often responsible for using language to describe our favourite drink that can be alienating to those outside it. 

While she’s relieved the Campaign is finally beginning to advocate for craft beer, Christine also admits it missed a trick by not assuming a stronger leadership role surrounding it earlier, as the Brewers Association did in the US. She’s still one of its most passionate members however, and her criticisms are well placed. It’s people like her who have made CAMRA the 190,000 member strong organisation it is today. 

CAMRA really is still the only organisation that is there to represent the rights of the beer drinker and pub user

“CAMRA really is still the only organisation that is there to represent the rights of the beer drinker and pub user,” Cryne says, also pointing out how it will work to help brewers and pubs in a post-pandemic world. “If you like using pubs, and the brewers who depend on them, this is an opportunity to play your part by joining CAMRA and helping finance the campaigning that will be desperately needed.”

In all honesty, speaking to Christine makes me feel like I was in the wrong about CAMRA for so many years. For every member that says something embarrassing about how it’s not like the good old days, there are many times more working hard to keep beer and pubs at the forefront of the conversation. To try and make myself feel better, I decided to speak to my friend and peer, Pete Brown – one of the best beer writers there is – and one who went through a very similar experience to my own before becoming a CAMRA member himself. 

In May 2012, Brown wrote a blog post titled Why I’ve finally joined CAMRA. In it, much like I am doing right now, he attempts to wrangle with his reasoning for not joining earlier, and explain what made him change his mind. “When I went to CAMRA beer festivals I felt alienated,” he wrote in the blog post. “I wanted no part of a worldview that denied there was any such thing as good beer that wasn’t real ale.”

The post goes on to detail how he feels the Campaign had become more progressive in recent years, and that key people within the organisation such as Tom Stainer (then the editor of its magazines, What’s Brewing and BEER, now its CEO) were helping to push it forward. He reasons why parts of it are still problematic in the way I detailed, but how that demographic is slowly changing. 

Tom Stainer, CEO CAMRA

I remember thinking, “what the bloody hell is he on about” at the time. I probably even delivered a spicy tweet or two in his direction as is my way. But here I am now, making almost exactly the same excuses for joining, so I decided to catch up with Brown and see how his feelings about CAMRA have progressed over the past eight years. 

“It still has the capacity to frustrate the hell out of me sometimes, but the biggest thing I’ve realised is that it’s not a monolith,” he tells me. “It’s a collection of [almost] 200,000 individuals. Any generalisation you make about CAMRA members – whatever it is, positive or negative – is a sweeping generalisation.”

Brown admits that he has met some of the most, shall we say, frustrating people in beer through the Campaign, but in the same breath he says that he’s met some of the most “decent, passionate and enlightened” people also, and that many of the latter work for the organisation itself. He is also keen to remind people that CAMRA is not an industry body, despite being often mistaken for one. It’s a consumer group, designed to benefit drinkers, not breweries. Although having a well informed and actively interested group of consumers the size of this would surely be a boon for any industry. 

While he remains a member, he does confess that he’s not been a particularly active one. Many enjoy being members of the Campaign for benefits like its discounts on real ale in certain pubs, subscription to its free members’ magazines and reduced price to some of its excellent regional beer festivals. 

To get a better idea of what my own activism might look like, should I wish to get more involved, I decided to chat to my friend Alex McArthur, a Southampton resident who’s been a member of the South Hampshire branch since 2007. He’s been active on a local level for many years, working on both the Southampton and Winchester beer festivals. For the latter he sits on the committee, manages social media, and helps select the beers. 

“The issue is that the Campaign hasn’t changed enough,” he tells me. “The beer industry has moved on so much, as you know, but CAMRA hasn’t. A well-kept Real Ale is one of the best beers that there is… but by attaching itself so rigidly to a single term CAMRA is strangling itself.”

He goes on to tell me about one well-loved local brewery that supplies casks for his festival, but fellow organisers won’t allow keg beer from the same brewery at the event. This is a perfect example of my own frustrations with the Campaign, and why I’ve been so reluctant to join for a long time. While the central governance sends a strong message of increasingly progressive ideas and change, some branches seem ignorant of this, and stick to the ideas CAMRA was founded upon in the 70s. Sadly, some of these stereotypes do far more damage than extraneous carbon dioxide will ever do to a beer.  

“The instances of sexism I have experienced in my career, the ones that have got to me the most, have been in relation to CAMRA members and at CAMRA-only events,” says Claudia Mayne, formerly the marketing manager for Five Points Brewery in London, and now working for The Garden Brewery in Croatia. It was through attending these festivals that she developed a love for British hops and cask beer, but it was also where she saw the darker side of the organisation. Speaking to Mayne after I had only just joined, I began to question whether or not I had made the right decision. 

“I felt incredibly out of place sometimes, and would receive some really awful comments, some not so bad, but some pretty bad,” she says.

On the one hand there is the importance of cask ale. A crucial part of British beer culture, as important to us as Helles is to Munich, or resinously bitter strong IPAs are to the Californian West Coast. It defines British beer, it’s wonderful, it provides one of the most satisfying and important beer experiences in the world. It’s promoted by an organisation that, outwardly, wants the best for beer. Internally however, there’s plenty of evidence that things aren’t as they should be, and that a great deal more change is required. 

Change will not happen if we turn our backs; it requires activism

And that’s why I’ve joined. Yes I love beer and want to protect it, and I respect CAMRAs power in its involvement with cask ale. But I also believe it has the potential to grow and change, and welcome a new wave of drinkers to beer, but to do so requires action. Change will not happen if we turn our backs; it requires activism, and members that communicate the key messages sent by head office into the wider membership, so that should there be instances of racism, sexism, transphobia or other bigotry, it can be challenged and called out. 

For me, that’s as important as celebrating the beer itself, and it’s why I no longer feel content merely sitting on the sidelines. For everything positive it is doing, there is 10 times more work still to be done to bring this important organisation into the modern age. And that’s why I’ve joined CAMRA. 

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