Does Britain's Campaign for Real Ale have a future?
The Great British Beer Festival shows that it's far from over.
All images by Robin Goldsmith.
Now in its 39th year, The GBBF is one event on the beer calendar that simply cannot be missed! Organised by CAMRA, Europe's most successful consumer pressure group, which campaigns for real ale, community pubs and consumer rights, it comes at a time when many have been questioning the group's very existence. Formed in March 1971 at a time when the UK beer market was dominated by cheap, keg-produced low quality, bland beer, the body has played a vital role in supporting breweries making traditional ales and thus championing beer drinkers' choice.
CAMRA defines 'real ale' as "a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation." Thus, the beer leaves the brewery unfinished, continuing its secondary fermentation in cask in a pub cellar. The overriding rationale has always been that this method imparts better aromas, more complex flavours and ultimately results in a superior product when compared to filtered, pasteurised and artificially 'fizzed up' beer. However, with the continuing popularity of craft beer in all its guises and the fact that keg production is so vastly different to what it was in the 1970s, sensationalist headlines asking whether the end of the campaign is nigh, have been appearing on media channels. Part of the catalyst for this has been CAMRA's very own Revitalisation Project, a full review of the organisation's purpose and strategy, spearheaded by one of its original founders, Michael Hardman MBE. The outcome could in theory see The Campaign for Real Ale broaden its focus towards all pub-goers or all beers including those produced in keg, or alternatively, some argue, lead to its demise.
So does CAMRA still have relevance in today's market? Membership numbers in excess of 180,000 plus thousands of visitors of all adult age groups attending this year's GBBF would appear to confirm that it does. Despite ongoing tirades from some individual members against the incursion of craft beer on British ale lovers' lives, the five-day GBBF continues to embrace and showcase a huge diversity of real ale styles from the UK and abroad. While the emphasis will always be on draught cask ale from the UK, there were Czech, German, Italian, Belgian, Dutch, French, Maltese and US selections too.
Additionally, there was a range of bottle-conditioned beers from Europe and America and, for the first time, a London 'Real Ale in a Bottle' bar. Tom Stainer, CAMRA's Head of Communications, explains: "There are 150 breweries within the M25", London's orbital motorway, "so it's time to celebrate that fact!" Since real ale in a bottle is a naturally live, unpasteurised and not artificially carbonated product containing a small amount of yeast for a slow secondary fermentation, it complies with CAMRA's ethos. Indeed, they have been running a 'Champion Real Ale in a Bottle' Competition and so there has also been a bottled beer bar at the GBBF since 1991.
Among CAMRA's other activities, the organisation also continues to protect and campaign for pubs, something I was acutely reminded of when hearing the statistic that by the close of the festival, another 15 pubs will have closed, i.e. three per day. Although the rate of closure has slowed down, this is still a worry for the industry and for those communities that lose their sole pub. One innovation that appears to be working is nominating a pub for ACV (Asset of Community Value) status to protect against conversion or demolition. There are now around 2,000 pubs listed with local councils as ACVs and CAMRA continues to campaign for more.
So where to start at a beer festival like the GBBF where over 900 real ales, ciders, perries and international beers were available? In addition to the many bars offering choices from the length and breadth of the UK and beyond, there were several individual Brewery Bars and it was at one of these that I began.
Last year's Supreme Champion Beer of Britain (CBOB) was Cwtch, a red ale from Welsh brewery Tiny Rebel. This year, I wanted to try one of their others, choosing Hank, an American Pale Ale with tropical, citrus and apricot aromas, followed by a similarly nuanced palate underscored by a refreshing hint of bitterness and a touch of biscuit. At 4.0% ABV, this was the perfect way to start and it remained one of my favourite beers of the festival, eventually winning a Silver Award in the Bitter category. Moving on, I was particularly impressed by Heavy Industry's 77 (4.9% ABV) which went on to win Gold in the Strong Bitter category. Another fabulous beer from Wales, this amber IPA has a big, floral, hoppy, marmalade and spice character and was also one of my top beers of the show!
I like to take the opportunity at beer fests like this to try as many different styles as I can, especially ones that sadly aren't always available in my local pubs. Mild is one example, typically lightly hopped and low ABV (although much variation exists) and Harvey's Dark Mild (3.0% ABV) is a light and easy-to-drink version with a slight hint of sweetness complementing the chocolate, coffee and gentle malty notes. Next, as a fan of William Bros. Brewing Co., I was keen to enjoy a tipple of Williams Black (4.2%), a light-bodied, fairly rich and earthy dark ale with notes of chocolate, coffee and prunes.
Binghams Vanilla Stout (5.0% ABV) was crowned Supreme Champion Beer of Britain 2016 and with long queues to try this beer, I eventually managed to get some. This classy dark stout from a small 10-barrel brewery in Berkshire is infused with vanilla pods giving it a smooth texture full of vanilla, chocolate and coffee flavours - a worthy winner of the accolade.
Lambeth Walk (5.1 % ABV), a porter by the ever-impressive London brewery, By the Horns, also has a rich, smooth character of coffee and cocoa, supplemented by notes of hazelnuts and plums with a touch of salty liquorice too.
A very different beer is Salopian Darwin's Origin (4.3% ABV), a Silver Award winner in the Best Bitter Category. I really enjoyed the mix of fruit and spice notes in this ale, which was first brewed in 2009 to celebrate the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth in Shrewsbury. In contrast, Tring Brewery's Death Or Glory (7.2% ABV), CBOB Bronze Award winner 2016, is a surprisingly easy-to-drink barley wine with sweet herbal, russet apple and treacle notes. This warming beer, brewed by appointment to the Queen's Royal Lancers, would make a great pairing for mature cheeses, like vintage farmhouse cheddar.
One of the festival favourites, judging by people I spoke to, was Yorkshire Brewing Company's unfined, smooth and not overpowering Raspberry Tipple (4.8%), a Belgian wheat beer style infused with fresh raspberries using a three-stage brew process. Another popular beer was Old Dairy's Snow Top (6.0% ABV), this year's CBOB Silver Award winner and CAMRA's current Champion Winter Beer of Britain. This winter ale, brewed with rich dark English malts and Challenger, East Kent Goldings and Bramley Cross hops, is a warming beer full of nuts, chocolate, sultanas, baked apple and marmalade notes.
Another of my personal stars of the show was Oldershaw Brewery's Sorachi (4.2% ABV). I always regard Sorachi as a marmite hop - one that you either love or hate - and I am very much in the former category. This golden beer shows deliciously refreshing qualities of lemon, grapefruit and herbs with a hint of spearmint too. Next stop was Lancashire brewery Fuzzy Duck's Ruby Duck (5.3% ABV), a dark, ruby-coloured beer with a roasted malt and bitter orange character plus a hint of tangerine. Staying in the North-West of England, Marble Brewery from Greater Manchester had three beers at the festival, so I tried two of them starting with Lagonda IPA (5.0% IPA). Spicy, floral and fruity with a satisfyingly bitter finish, this went on to win a Bronze Award in the Golden Ale category. Earl Grey IPA (6.8% ABV) sees Earl Grey tea added during fermentation and with heavy infused hopping, this results in a floral, aromatic beer with citrus and bergamot notes plus hints of sweetness and a refreshing bitter edge.
Among the foreign beers I tried, I was impressed with Bio Weizen (5.3%), a new, organic hefeweizen from Germany's Brauerei Trunk. Fruity aromas of peach, citrus and banana lead on to a similar palate with added notes of apricot and spice (white pepper and cloves). In contrasting style, Italy's Birrificio del Ducato Beersel Morning (6.2% ABV) is a refreshing saison/lambic blend with citrus, honey, herbs, floral and barnyard notes.
While contemplating their next beers in pint, half or third measures (568ml, 284ml or 189ml), live music, food stalls and traditional pub games kept the punters happy, adding to the relaxed, libatious and gregarious atmosphere ... but what of the dreaded craft versus real debate (or non-debate)?
I love the array of choices craft beer gives us, but let me lay my cards on the table again. In a previous article for The Alcohol Professor, I railed against the marketing term 'craft beer', which essentially I feel is meaningless. After all, I'm typing all this out while drinking my craft coffee, sitting at my craft wooden table! See what I mean? The word could easily apply to any good, skilfully made product, so using it as a descriptor for beer will not help anyone to distinguish between good cask ale and good non-cask ale. Do we or CAMRA really need to define it? No!!! Everyone in the wine world understands the term 'mineral', but nobody is able to give it a satisfactory definition, which doesn't stop the word being used liberally, rightly or wrongly. So personally, I feel CAMRA's members and policymakers have far more important issues to contend with, e.g. pub closures and safe alcohol consumption guidelines in addition to promoting cask and bottle-conditioned beers, without worrying unduly about definitions. The organisation does have to determine whether it should also support beers which are not part of its long-established remit, i.e. keg beers, but ultimately the UK beer scene is so different to what it was in the 1970s, that many craft beers are real ales and real ales are craft, or at least 'crafted' beers anyway.
Good and bad beers can be cask, keg or bottled conditioned, so a complex or conversely minimal array of aromas and flavours can be achieved by any of these. As with wine, the oft forgotten part of the equation is the skill of the people who choose the most appropriate methods and who ultimately make the product, in beer's case, the brewers. Have we ever had so much choice to tantalise our organoleptic senses thanks to their innovations? Clearly the answer is no and more and more brewers are experimenting with exciting new flavour combinations, pushing the boundaries to satisfy all tastes. As Tom Stainer says: "Tiny Rebel, for example, is the epitome of a craft brewery. They have credibility and modern appeal and love craft beer." There was even a US craft brewing masterclass at the GBBF with Sylvia Kopp of Brewers Association presenting a range of innovative and distinctive craft beer styles from the USA!
Nobody can deny that the UK beer scene has been well and truly revitalised with the interest in craft beer spurred on by the US beer revolution and CAMRA's own efforts in promoting good beer. We don't need to like all the beers, but we should NOT denigrate the new choices available whether keg-conditioned/dispensed or otherwise. So, I have no problem if CAMRA chooses to widen its remit - after all, its original name was the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale - as long as it also continues to campaign actively for real ale, which is a hugely important part of our brewing heritage.
Compared to the uber-trendy face of modern craft beer, CAMRA has suffered from a rather staid, traditionalist and intransigent image, sticking to its principles come what may and disregarding modern breakthroughs. It does need to look to the future, attracting a new, younger membership, but GBBF prices of £11 for members and £14 for non-members plus an extra £1 or £2, respectively, for the festival booklet may have potentially contributed to lower attendance figures this year. On top of that, around £4 a pint for UK beers and more for non-UK draught inevitably put an extra squeeze on wallets. Announcing the CBOB and individual category awards at the Awards Dinner after the trade day has not met with universal approval either, so it will be interesting to see how CAMRA responds.
Given these concerns, it would be all too easy to forget that CAMRA's very clear sense of purpose over the years has enabled it to campaign so successfully on many areas AND increase its membership. Despite being virtually dead early in the 1970s, cask ale now represents 55% of the total ale market and by 2020 is estimated to reach 70%. If it weren't for CAMRA's strong support of cask ale, beginning in the beer wilderness years of the 1970s, a brewing tradition unique to the UK would quite possibly have been lost. Additionally, the very concept of craft beer might not even have taken hold on our shores, let alone in the US where the writing of the legendary British 'Beer Hunter', Michael Jackson is often attributed for reviving the American beer scene. The Revitalisation Project is the organisation's way of addressing unease about where it fits into the wider, changing British beer landscape. Drinks company consolidations are inevitable and big businesses will remain and may become ever more powerful. However, whether their brews are 'real ale', or 'craft beer', it's the independent brewers, whatever their size, who hold the key to a successful, bland-busting brewing future and CAMRA can have an important role to play.
The GBBF, as a yearly showcase for mainly British cask ale, but increasingly bottle-conditioned beers as well, reminds us all of a proud brewing heritage that has much in common with the craft beer ethos - getting the best out of four simple ingredients with a few optional (OK - in some cases too many!) adjuncts. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but the pursuit of good beer is surely an objective we can all agree on. I'll drink to that!
Britain's Cask Ale Week, a nationwide celebration of cask ale, runs from 22nd September to 2nd October 2016.
This article is also available on The Alcohol Professor website.