This article is a re-edit of two previous articles I wrote for Pubpaper, but targeted at CAMRA members.  You can find the original articles here and here.  The PDF of the published magazine can be found here

The world of real ale is reaching the crossroads.  We have travelled far enough up the road that we are no longer a niche product for old men with beards and is accepted as a regular drink of choice across all sectors of the population, young, old, male, female.  We are gaining market share and sales in a declining sector and being added to more pubs beer selection on a daily basis.  It is now accepted that a pub worth its salt should have at least one good real ale on tap, with many “non ale house” pubs now having two or three such beers.  The level for being called a “ale house” is generally considered to be 4 or 5 pumps minimum.

But were do we go from here, do we stick to the traditional view of real ale which CAMRA takes, cask conditioned and no added carbon dioxide, or do we move forward to an age of “Cask and Craft Ale”.  Do we need a CAMRA or a CAMRCA (Campaign for Real and Craft Ale) going forward.  CAMRA has done a great job over the last four decades to get the product where it is today, but may need to re-appraise their position as a campaigning body.

The American Craft Ale scene is thriving on a town, county, state and national level because they embrace all different kinds of beer.  All that is matters is that the beer is distinctive, well brewed, tastes good and does not come from a mainstream brewer.  They care not what vessel the beer was produced or that it does or does not contain certain ingredients, excepting the obligatory malt, hops and water, as long as all those ingredients are natural.

In a time when the big trade bodies (CAMRA, SIBA and Cask Marque) are joining forces both via sponsorship and joint campaigns, should there be a perceived “lock out” of certain styles of beer just because it doesn’t fit into the existing definition of  ‘Real Ale’.  Keg beer is no longer the domain of “Watneys Red Barrel” and bland lagers, but also includes many quality interesting ales brewed in the UK which have had success in this country and world beer markets both critically and commercially.

There is a tipping point for any organisation where reaches a certain plateau and its actions and words are judged the national stage.  CAMRA has reached this level in the authors opinion.  Its’ “Cask Report” is now a well respected publication both inside and outside of the trade and its’ press releases reach the national press on a regular basis.  However some of its words and actions over the last 6 months has possibly took the shine off its reputation.

The spat with Brewdog over payment / packaging sizes / keg brewed beer at the Great British Beer Festival was a fight with the wrong brewer who courted the publicity for their own good and extracted the maximum value from it, getting far more press than having a handful of beers at the festival ever would.  The CAMRA chairman could also step back on occasions and think about how his views are presented to the public.

There needs to be some change within the body to reflect the modern face of real ale in all its guises. Young blood keeps an organisation on its toes. CAMRA cannot afford to rest on its heels.  I want CAMRA to survive and thrive, so the good work so far can be continued, but like a marriage they need to work at it.

We now need to discuss how we take real and craft ales into the next 40 years.  What is for certain is that we will need our big “brand name” real ale producers such as Copper Dragon, Thwaites and Black Sheep to keep producing good solid ales and retain their position as being the “gateway” drink that gets people to step into the world of ale from the realm of the mainstream.  This is due to the fact that these are some of the most common breweries you find where there is only one ale pump.  Once we get people to try the more common real ales, they they will be more inclined to try different varieties and styles of beer.

The real and craft ale (from this point onward refered to simply as ale) industry currently has a 3 tier structure, the top level comprised of the major “brand name” ale producers, such as those named above.  The next being those who are large scale producers, but not household names to those who have not dipped their toes in the real ale pool, examples being Brewdog, Abbeydale, Salamander, Acorn and Castle Rock.  The last tier are those smaller breweries who operate from every corner of the country, producing smaller runs of beer on a regular basis and servicing a local / regional area or specialist market, such has Halifax Steam, Brass Monkey or Elland in my local vicinity of Calderdale.

This model is one which will serve the trade well going into the future, companies from the small company tier will move into the large scale arena, as will companies move from that to being a “brand name”.  However, the next step will be one of our existing “brand names” breaking the glass ceiling and becoming a company with the public profile of a company such as Greene King, while keeping its brewing heritage and distinctive beers, sadly something Greene King has not in the authors opinion.   This needs to be done organically and not by being purchased by one of the brewing giants and becoming just another brand in their portfolio.  The purchase of Sharps in Cornwall by Molson Coors for example, sees them as an separate brewing operation currently, but 5 or 10 years down the the line, when the profile of ale is raised even higher, will they become the “real ale brand” for their owners.

If CAMRA modernise like I hope they do, then we will have a health partnership between the vast majority of breweries and the major trade body lobbying on their behalf.  But if they do not and the number of breweries diversifying into craft keg and other beer styles increase as I think it inevitably will, then a schism will appear between the trade body and the suppliers it represents.  I don’t see this happening for the next 10 years at a minimum, but it could happen without modernisation and the emergence of a CAMRCA (Campaign for Real and Craft Ale) will become a possibility.

However this body will not be started by 4 enthusiasts and their passion for real ale, but by the industry players themselves, similar to The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) in concept, but taking in the all levels of ale trade and styles of non mainstream beer.  This body would also take on a campaigning role similar to that of CAMRA currently for its membership.

Once this takes place, then the new organisation can organise their own “branded” beer festivals on a local, regional and nation level showcasing the members products, and the CAMRA events could be let slip off their calendar, depriving CAMRA of valuable revenue.  The opening of membership to the general public and provision of services and discount similar to that of CAMRA could then drain that source of income from the existing trade body as well, leaving the organisation weaker.

I’m not suggesting a coup here, but CAMRA are laying themselves open to the possibility of such a move. However it is up to its members and the groups such as the publisher of this magazine to decide which way things go when voting at the AGM.