More on that later.
Conversations have a way of wandering around a pub and a couple of weeks ago, one pulled up next to me. It was basically about CAMRA’s identity – possibly spurred by the Revitalisation Project (more on that later too). There were four of us in various states of inebriation – two of whom were the publicans.
The landlord thought CAMRA should champion beers of all dispense and in all public settings. The other member of bar staff thought time was up – CAMRA should hang up its size XX festival T-shirt because the campaign had been so successful as to make itself obsolete. The nomad on the table to my right raised his wizardly finger and opined that CAMRA should concentrate on keeping pubs open.
And me? Well, I boldly sat on the fence.
We then tried to work out what keeping a pub open actually entails. Nomad Keith (not his real name) proclaimed that if you put more cask ale on the bar, customers will “appear”. I’ve heard this idea mooted before. There might actually be a kernel of truth in some contexts: in London or another major city, if an ex-dive announced its new beery aspirations on social media, people genuinely would turn up – at least initially. But in towns like St Albans where the population is more captive – everyone going to the pub already is! They don’t multiply along with the beer engines.
Keith had used a similar line when the Craft & Cleaver took its three rotating cask beers off because they weren’t selling. According to him, it was because they hadn’t been added to the keg line-up front of bar but were relegated to the rear. As far as he’s concerned, it’s never that customers are actively deciding to buy the keg beer instead. He finished off by suggesting that said publicans remove the Becks, Stella Artois and Staropramen taps in their pub and replace them with more cask lines.
This incurred some lip-paling indignation but both hosts stayed their wrath. Instead, they explained that those Lager taps combined with the food they serve make up most of the pub’s actual income.
These days, when I think about pubs transforming to gentrified eateries, I increasingly think of my mum.
We talk about getting more people into pubs but there are thousands of people like my mother who don’t like beer and certainly see no appeal in wet pubs. To sit or stand statically whilst sinking ale – a drink she’s never liked – has absolutely no draw to her and the rowdier the customers are, the more she’ll hate the experience. It’s only pubs’ convergence in more recent years into cleaner food-serving establishments that has given her an excuse to visit. Otherwise it’s a case of my dad, my sister and I sloping off to the White Swan while my mum stays behind.
When I drive out to visit my folks and leave the motorway to plunge through the B roads off the M40, I see what rural pubs have become: dwellings or restaurants in all but name. The gravel car parks full of land rovers indicate that customers aren’t locals in whichever bucolic village I drop into third gear to drive through, but people that have travelled in order to get fed.
The farms are still there. The workforce that once gave the pubs custom isn’t – technology has largely superseded it.
Many of the people here probably work in London and have their whitewashed cottage in the village as a rural pied-à-terre. This is especially the case with the home counties around London, but judging by the series The Trip featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon a few years ago, this also applies to the north of England. Rural pubs in Cumbria have Michelin stars too.
And who’s to say that itinerant drivers seeking a Sunday lunch don’t constitute a community? I associate the word community with streets of terraced housing and blocks of flats but that’s my own bias.
A week later, I was back in the same pub but at the other end and at another discussion – one that gets to the very nucleus and inception of CAMRA.
A protracted debate unfolded about secondary fermentation within sealed vessels and the role of oxygen. Secondary fermentation doesn’t need oxygen and this is where those goldfish come in (see – we got there eventually). Apparently, they can initiate the fermentation process within themselves without the aid of “extraneous” O2 (that favourite CAMRA adjective that’s usually used in conjunction with CO2).
Goldfish can produce ethanol which they discharge through the gills! And yes – they fart too. It’s all news to me.
Fermentation can be explained via a scientific process, the notion of condition less so. And so the discipline can pass from hard science to the philosophy of perception. Is condition about received experience or cold physics? Is the evolution of cask ale over three days – spring to autumn – condition in bloom or in wilt as oxygen enters the cask?
Moreover, did Lees, Makin, Mellor or Hardman ever realise in the early 1970s that their baby (or possibly monster) – real ale – would be dissected and explored with the same existential panache that 17th century Parisians debated Cartesian dualism?
Earlier, I’d commented on the hazy beers on offer and used the word ‘colloidal’ so I didn’t take part – I’d already pulled my weight. But I kept “lupulin threshold shift” ready to fire at the back of my throat just in case the conversation headed that way.
My opinion on what CAMRA should become or remain doesn’t just shift on a daily basis but swings wildly depending on the time of day. What I agree on in the pub might not align with my over-cogitative mind in the gloam of the small hours. On the motorway driving to work, it’s overturned again.
CAMRA could keep its main focus on cask quality, even if it becomes less relevant with fewer members. It might still be needed to step up again in the future if cask ale’s reputation suffers because of its handling or is once again threatened with extinction. In this sense, it would actually stand for something concrete.
Simultaneously, beer in all its forms and dispense just gets better and better as does the literature and journalism that supports it. And what about the ageing demographic? Each time I read a local branch paper or What’s Brewing, I also gauge the campaigners lost in the obituary.
To this end, Bradley Cummings has some much-needed youth and he’s battle-ready. But from the comparative calm of stress-testing the notion of real ale, should we send him out into the blizzard that is trying to define craft beer?
There are many CAMRAs. There is the one enlivened through festivals. There is the congregation devoted to the AGM. There is the day trip to a brewery followed by a pub crawl CAMRA. There’s the CAMRA that stands up to the public health lobby. There is the CAMRA in mourning that stands in the rain on a shaky image taken by smartphone with “Save our Pub!” emblazoned across a banner.
There’s even the Good Beer Guide CAMRA sending tickers to the four corners of Britain in a Sisyphean quest to cover its pages in fluorescent marker before the next edition comes out (a mental illness now officially recognised by the WHO).
And yet they’re all CAMRA – these disparate (not mutually exclusive) tiles, like crazy paving, are all fragments of an amazing success story. Perhaps success could even be measured by just how fissiparous and factional a campaign becomes.
These separate campaigns could split into different funded groups and just cohabit on Hatfield Road sharing the tea making facilities and photocopier. But then these beasts wouldn’t just lock horns when it came to things like cask ale lines vs keeping pubs open – here they’d often necessitate each other’s bloody demise.
So there’s the third way that won’t leave me alone – maybe inspired by a quote from the most recent instalment of the Star Wars franchise: “It’s time for the CAMRA to end”. Instead of the pains of transformation, CAMRA could forever be immortalised as the campaign that over the course of five decades, turned British drinking culture around before retiring proudly.