Friday, 15 March 2013

Cromarty, CAMRA and crazy cask cancellation

Outrage on Twitter towards the end of last week. The abbreviated and over-simplified story so far: Cromarty Brewing was making keg beer. In a deeply bizarre twist, CAMRA had reacted to Cromarty making keg beer by, er, refusing to buy their cask beer for a forthcoming festival.

That seemed weird to me, as it did to many others – both Craig and Rich have already written about it. The next Scottish CAMRA beer festival is Larbert, run by the Forth Valley branch, and I recalled drinking Cromarty at the same festival last year as well as at the same branch’s Alloa festival in the autumn. What had changed?

Enquiries uncovered that this decision came from higher up in CAMRA, above branch level. But why does it matter that the brewery makes keg beer, if the CAMRA festival is buying the cask version?

Well, CAMRA has something with the unglamorous name Internal Policy Document which embodies policy as decided by the AGM.

The relevant paragraph is as follows:
“Beer festivals are not to stock or admit for any award, any beer brand which is produced in both cask and keg versions that mislead the drinker into believing that there is little or no difference between the versions.”
It should be immediately clear that there is considerable room for interpretation of this rule. But the Scottish & Northern Ireland Director interprets this text to mean that a beer cannot be stocked at a CAMRA festival if both keg and cask versions are sold under the same name and has been pushing this line on festival organisers.

The important word, though, is “misleading”.

I don’t know any microbrewer who isn’t happy for customers to know whether they’re buying cask or keg. But, with some justification, they might well say that they have every right to sell the same beer under the same name, as the keg and cask versions both come from the same gyle.

CAMRA would certainly like brewers to clearly indicate when a beer is keg and when it’s cask, but the failure to do so is quite different to a deliberate intent to deceive. That would be e.g. the passing off of a keg beer as cask or the supply and use of fake handpumps. The latter is a battle which CAMRA successfully fought against Scrumpy Jack keg cider, and one which cask ale activists in the United States had to fight against (the importers of) Greene King and Fullers. In the case of Fullers I seem to remember it was eventually resolved by John Keeling himself stepping in to put a stop to it.

There’s no such intent to deceive in the case of Cromarty – and nobody claims there is. The only objection is that the beer is sold with the same name and the same branding.

It’s important to recognise that visual clues at the point of sale are not always just on the pumpclip any more. Of the outlets where I’ve seen Cromarty’s keg beer for sale, generally they either didn’t sell cask at all, or had huge blackboards on the walls listing THESE ARE OUR CASK BEERS and THESE ARE OUR KEG BEERS. That’s enough information for most people to ensure that customers know what’s what – and if they don’t, why not ask if it’s cask, as we were once urged to do?

Reinterpreting “misleading” – to mean the potential possibility that someone, somewhere, might be confused – is no use, because there are always some people who are pretty easily confused and you can’t legislate just for them.

The policy dates back to at least the late 1980s. I remember the local branch having a bone to pick with Maclays over the brewery’s desire to sell their Oat Malt Stout in both formats.

But it hasn’t been an issue for a long time, for one simple reason. As the mass market shifted more and more towards lager and huge global megabrands, the big brewers started to abandon cask. And the new generation of microbreweries, for the most part, brewed only cask (or, in a few cases, only keg). So the policy only became an issue again in the last couple of years since micros have started creating keg versions of their beers.

It’s worth pointing out that the Internal Policy Document contains all manner of stuff that is cheerfully ignored as a matter of routine. There’s the sweeping statement:
“Beers (and ciders and perries) dispensed under any system, except the traditional Scottish air pressure system,  which applies gas (be it carbon dioxide, nitrogen, or any other gas or mixture), shall not be recommended in any CAMRA publication.”
If this policy was as strictly applied as the “misleading dispense” clause, not only would Roger Protz be stopped from going on about Budweiser Budvar in every other issue of What’s Brewing, but BEER magazine would have to severely restrict its choice of articles, Des de Moor’s guide to London would lose its comprehensive character, and the Good Beer Guides to Belgium and Germany wouldn’t exist.

I brought the matter up in my branch last week. I was trying to get an idea of how many people thought this interpretation of the policy was a good idea and how many thought it was nonsense.

The justification for the hardliners is that CAMRA is basically guaranteeing the beers it offers for sale at festivals are real ale, and that when people see a beer in the pub with the same name as what they drank at a festival, they might reasonably assume that it is also real ale. (Amusingly enough, the two people most strongly defending the hard line were both happily drinking Cromarty’s AKA IPA at the time).

I understand this argument, though I disagree. But even if you accept the hardline argument, surely the cure is worse than the disease.

We are supposed to be promoting real ale, but have ended up refusing to promote it. We are denying people the opportunity to experience some excellent real ale and to discover how much better it is cask-conditioned. This is stupid.

I cannot defend this to my beer-loving friends outside CAMRA. Nor would I like to be the poor beer festival organiser placed in the embarrassing situation of having to phone up a brewer and cancel an order already placed.

Who will be to blame if a hypothetical young drinker tries some keg Cromarty and thinks “Ooh, that’s nice. Better than the stuff they had at the real ale festival” – and then tells all her mates?

Well, it will be the fault of the person who threw his weight around to stop a CAMRA branch giving this imaginary drinker the chance to try the Cromarty beer in cask.

It’s incredibly fatuous, it makes CAMRA look ridiculous, and it gives ammunition to CAMRA-bashers everywhere.


13 comments:

  1. As you say this is just ridiculous and does CAMRA no favours. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

    It seems to be a Scottish thing though - I order some of the beer for Stockport beer festival and we've never been given such a directive (which I suspect we might cheerfully ignore in any event). In point of fact I have made a point of getting one or two beers that are normally keg only (Summer Wine Cohort last year was spectacular on cask and I hope to get it back this time).

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  2. What John says. CAMRA is a broad church and will always have some extremists. This is wrong interpretation, makes us look daft and would be ignored in the way it was done by me too. Passing off is quite another matter and is, what I suspect, the original policy was aimed at.

    Of course John and I hail from the sensible, progressive end of the CAMRA spectrum. Most actually do, but it is the mad mullah types that get us the bad name.

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  3. Playing devils advocate here, because in all honesty I couldn't care less about this issue, but: Outside of the world of CAMRA activists and beer geeks, there is widespread misunderstanding about what is and what isn't 'real ale'. I'm frequently informed about the 'real ales' my work colleagues will be enjoying at the weekend, when what they actually mean is a range of bottled ales from Morrisons etc. none of which are real. Despite x-number of years of campaigning, many drinkers still don't fully understand what sets 'real ale' apart from other beers. Perhaps this CAMRA jobsworth has a point in that ordinary drinkers trying a beer at a festival will simply assume that a keg version is also 'real' by CAMRA's definition. Of course whether this is important depends entirely on whether you think this is important...

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  4. You certainly need some brass tacks to boot out a brewery for this spurious reason, whilst drinking beer produced by that very same brewery. Great post, Rob

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  5. The mad mullah element of CAMRA may make the beer club look like a bunch of cocks but they add greatly to the gaiety of the beer world by providing entertainment. We are all richer for the Viz interpretation of CAMRA activity and long may CAMRA continue to provide material that is better than anything Viz could make up.

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  6. I go with the Stockport/ NW fraternity, unless there is a deliberate attempt to "pass off", so what.

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  7. And sorry that last comment was from John Cryne, not too good at doing this clearly!

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  8. As John & Tandle have said, mad interpretation and not the norm.

    Certainly not applied at CAMRA National Festivals - e.g. Greene King IPA on sale at Great British Beer Festival; I had RedWillow Heartless on my bar at National Winter Ales - both are available in keg. If I could be bothered to bring up the beer list for either festival I know I could find many more (actually, most of the Thornbridge bar at GBBF comes to mind as I type).

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  9. J. Bonington Jagworth16 March 2013 16:45

    Also many well-known cask beers such as Pedigree, Bombardier and 6X are also available in keg form with no obvious brand differentiation (apart from the obvious fact that a keg font tends to dispense keg).

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  10. I'll be handing my CAMRA card back in if this policy line continues.

    They'll be very few breweries left in Scotland who would be able to submit their beer into festivals - Alechemy, Inveralmond, Harviestoun, Cairngorm, Stewarts, Houston, Orkney off the top of my head will all be scuppered.

    CAMRA are allowing themselves to be pushed into irrelevance by the extremists within the ranks.

    Graeme Hirstwood

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  11. This article highlights many reasons why I am thoroughly irritated with CAMRA's decision-making and alienation of good beer by refusing to understand or accept a form of dispense. It's a different era now to the 1970's and keg has surely (not my generation) come a very long way. I feel that by alienating consumers whom prefer keg they are potentially losing a generation of younger supporters. I feel that with their ignorance in NOT ordering beer from breweries which regularly choose keg is a disastrous approach for their consumer group.

    Have they ever thought about consulting breweries of both brands to fully understand that their own agendas are very confusing? For instance the 1970's was more about bad beer than good or bad dispense. They have used this to spin off keg and to promote cask. However keg has great attributes.

    Now I agree about standing up to and or promoting cask-conditioning however what I really reject is the best breweries in the country being shunted or ignored because they go with keg. This is devastating for the GBBF festival and last year I was so angry about the lack of innovative new-wave breweries like Summer Wine and Kernel that I decided not to go. I think CAMRA need to re-organise their policy documents and learn from the producers of keg and cask and really ascertain the whole point of their consumer group. Is it promotion of cask or just a denial of keg? I think more and more it is the later. I joined originally because of the former. I quit because they choose the option of denial of keg. It is becoming a lost and confused organistion.

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  12. Unfortunately, the Scottish Regional Dictatorship is trying to force this approach onto the rest of the country as well. The have put forward a motion to the AGM asking the NE to "strictly enforce" the above policy.

    I've been an active camra member for over 20 years, and what's going on at the moment is rapidly pushing me towards not renewing next year!

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  13. I have lived in Brooklyn, NYC. I went from a dissatisfied lager drinker to a very enthusiastic craft beer stalwart. Craft beer is amazing; bright, cold, rich, full of flavour and strong enough to be drunk in 1/2 pints. The kind of beer people flock to Germany to drink. And yet CAMRA thinks that this beer is some how not 'real' and we have to fight on with a warm, flat, weak product only a tiny % of the population drinks.

    Cheers, mines a bottle of Flying Dog Double IPA.

    CAMRA will never get a penny out of me and now I actively campaign against ditching real ale and drinking craft beer. Just sent my friend 12 bottles of London Fields beer and all he said was 'wow that beer is amazing shame they don't sell this down my local. All we have is cask'... says it all really.

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