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CAMRA, Brewdog And The Craft Beer Conspiracy

by Alex Andrews
12 September 2012 29 Comments

With craft breweries excluded from Britain’s biggest beer festival for the second year running, the increasingly conservative Campaign for Real Ale could be in serious danger of self-destructing.

 

 

More than 47,500 beer drinkers attended the CAMRA Great British Beer Festival in August this year, with the event returning to London Olympia for the first time since 2005. Over 800 beers were on offer across five boozy days, and not just British cask ales , but heavily-hopped American IPAs, Trappist beers and even ciders, perries and European lagers were able to find their own niche. Everything, it seemed, but what is becoming commonly known as “craft beer.”

For the second year running, emerging breweries such as BrewDog, Meantime, Camden Town and The Kernel – united by their boundary-pushing, American-influenced brewing, as much as their bold use of graphic design and open-armed embracement of the web – found themselves without an invite to Britain’s biggest beer festival, with some suggesting conspiracy at work.

BrewDog, whose turbulent relationship with CAMRA has been well-documented, had a right to feel particularly aggrieved after CAMRA cancelled the Scottish brewery’s bar at the previous year’s festival, claiming not to have received the outstanding deposit on the bar. “In 2011 we wanted to put our differences with CAMRA behind us and begin a fresh relationship,” says BrewDog’s ‘captain’ and co-founder James Watt. “We accommodated their demands in order to attend the event, only to be revoked at the last minute with no clear reasoning. Breweries like us are not in the business of competing with CAMRA – in fact, we appreciate the motivation behind the campaign. All we want to see is less rigidity, less bureaucracy and more support for innovation.”

It’s entirely feasible, of course, that the self-confessed “post-punk apocalyptic motherfucker of a craft brewery” was not the most cooperative when it came to paying its bills, but that doesn’t explain CAMRA’s reluctance to work with the scores of small, progressive breweries across the UK, whose slickly-branded, carbonated keg beers have all played their part in reinventing good quality beer and the way the nation is engaging with it.

“It’s brilliant that beer is finally being given the publicity it deserves,” a CAMRA spokesman told me. “10 years ago, we had mass market lagers dominating the market.” So, why isn’t there space for craft beer at Britain’s biggest beer festival? Is there an ideological clash between craft beer’s unabashed liberalism and CAMRA’s proud traditionalism that saw craft breweries deliberately excluded from the festival? “There is no truth in that,” maintain CAMRA. “We try to make the festival as representative as possible, but it’s not possible to have every beer.” 

With history repeating itself, BrewDog’s answer to their exclusion was to team-up with twelve kindred spirits to form the ‘Un-Real Ale Festival.’ Hosted between four pubs around the Camden area, each bar kept attendees up-to-date with the beers they had on tap throughout the weekend by using the #UnRealAleFest hashtag on Twitter. “The bars were showcasing all the beers that were banned from the Great British Beer Festival – all keg, I might add,” says Watt. “It was a great success, and the feedback we got from customers only helped strengthen our resolve that we should forge ahead with the direction we were taking.”

“Craft breweries like us are very passionate about what we do, and even more importantly, we want to inspire others with this passion,” Watt continues. “CAMRA seeks to neuter guys like us and present beer drinking in a stale, homogeneous template. We just can’t agree with that. CAMRA needs to embrace newcomers, embrace new ideas and realise that we are all playing for the same team.”

With history repeating itself, BrewDog’s answer to their exclusion was to team-up with twelve kindred spirits to form the ‘Un-Real Ale Festival.

Whilst it may be difficult to find fault in Watt’s rabble-rousing battle cry, for all of BrewDog’s lofty ideals, there is still something to be said for the typically-bearded traditionalists, stubbornly ploughing on without once pandering to prevailing opinion, adopting faddish technologies or attempting to pull off a disingenuous reinvention. The world that CAMRA inhabits may look outdated and a little dreary when compared with younger, trendier, city-centric craft brewing movement, but it’s impossible to discredit the groundwork that CAMRA has put in to preserve a part of the culture which many nations around the world now recognise to be quintessentially British.

It’s fair to say that the average attendance at this year’s GBBF was an ageing and overwhelmingly male one, but the impressive figures will fill CAMRA with a newfound sense of confidence. Likewise, with 12 pubs closing each week across Britain, there is still plenty of work for CAMRA to be getting on with. But if the organisation does not begin to welcome change and diversity, and recognise the great potential it has to blow the doors wide open for a new type of accessible, independently-brewed beer, it could risk losing its relevance altogether.

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The Beer Wrangler (@BeerWrangler) 6:06 am, 12-Sep-2012

I am a president of a Canadian CAMRA branch but grew up in the UK and drank there for many years. We try to make CAMRA as relevant as possible. We whole heartedly support Cask Ale and put on many small and some large events. We also support craft breweries that produce their product in kegs and bottles too. This is the reality of the whole craft beer movement - it is a multitude of things, that all are getting people away from mass produced mainstream beer. If CAMRA is to be relevant for the next 40 years it must embrace the whole craft beer movement otherwise it will become obsolete.

Simon Johnson 10:32 am, 12-Sep-2012

CAMRA don't have keg-dispensed beer at their festivals. And not all craft beer is keg beer. So congratulations on creating a fatuous non-conspiracy.

Angela (@cherubpaddock) 10:32 am, 12-Sep-2012

I have attended the GBBF on a couple of occasions, but didn't attend this year. It's true it is predominantly male and for the 'older' male as well. I like both cask and keg beer and to be honest if I want to drink delicious well kept beer I now seek out specific pubs, rather than relying on CAMRA or The GBBF. Twitter and Facebook are amazing resources to find out about good beer and pubs. I have been a CAMRA member for the last year and none of the 'perks' have been of any benefit to me. I don't particularly like any of the Wetherspoon pubs in my home town and the newsletter is generally out of date and uninspiring. I won't be renewing my membership. I will however continue to visit Cask, Craft, Mason & Taylor and The Old Red Cow in London, along with The Port Street Beer House and the Marble Arch in Manchester. I will continue to follow them on twitter and facebook as well.

Ant 11:30 am, 12-Sep-2012

There's plenty of *foreign* keg beer at GBBF though - German/Czech in particular.

Norrie Porter 11:58 am, 12-Sep-2012

I drink and enjoy good craft beer, in this country and abroad. However, as Simon says, CAMRA and GBBF are there to support British pubsa and real ale - that is, ale served from the cask in which it was conditioned. When Brewdog were trying to make their name, they used to support this market and supply cask conditioned ale. However, now that they don't it ill-becomes them to throw their toys out of the pram when CAMRA concentrates its main festival on its own core support. Jealous of the numbers of visitors, perhaps? Brewdog pubs are interesting and well run. However, it is CAMRA and CAMRA volunteers who spend their time supporting community pubs and local ale festivals and raising awareness of beer quality and price issues and lobbying government and local councils about beer and pubs. Angela, many local pubs serving good ale wouldn't exist without CAMRA. CAMRA membership isn't about the perks, it's about commitment to real ale and vibrant local pubs.

willmill82 12:01 pm, 12-Sep-2012

What really gets my goat is the foreign (keg) lagers that are sold at CAMRA festivals. As far as I can tell, this is nothing short of hypocrisy.

John Thompson 12:04 pm, 12-Sep-2012

CAMRA is the Campaign for Real Ale, these breweries do not make Real Ale, in fact they make a product that competes with Real Ale and caused the almost extinction of Real Ale in the 70s. No one at CAMRA is saying the beer these guys make is bad, just that it's nothing to do with them. The GBBF and other beer festivals are 'shop windows' for CAMRA, designed to show off the variety and quality of real ales, and having keg beers there would confuse their message. If these beers are so great then go-ahead and organise your own festival for them, personally the couple of Brewdog beers I've tried have been overpriced and almost undrinkable so I'll stick with my Real Ale thanks. Oh, and Angela, if you had gone to the GBBF this year you would have seen a vastly different crowd from a few years back, the night I went it was about 25% female and about 30% under 30, rather than the 95% male and over 40 it used to be, which is refreshing even to 40+ males like myself.

ALISTAIR MCPHERSON 12:43 pm, 12-Sep-2012

Bet your beer would have been showcased if it had been brewed by Marstons!

Jim 12:46 pm, 12-Sep-2012

Change the record brewdog it's getting very boring now

JGI 1:51 pm, 12-Sep-2012

Most real ale has had some of the flavour stripped out by the unnecessary use of isinglass and in reality is a kind of fish soup rather than just water, barley, yeast and hops (but they don't like to tell you that, especially if you are vegetarian). Craft beers tend to stick to the core ingredients to create great tasting beers. The dispensing method is irrelevant - good beer is good beer.

Steve 2:26 pm, 12-Sep-2012

Two things: 1/ Craft beer does not equal keg beer. It just means small scale independent breweries. There are very few breweries that produce only keg and bottles. There were plenty of "craft" brewers present at GBBF. As Simon J points out, that's a complete non-conspiracy 2/ none of the foreign beers were dispensed under force carbonation so they were not keg beers. This is also a non-issue (although I only found this out by making the same mistake and being corrected). The reluctants is on both sides of the BrewDog v CAMRA issue. There are plenty of breweries operating in the middle getting on perfectly well with everyone.

Tyson the Beerhound 2:35 pm, 12-Sep-2012

A poorly presented piece, I'm sorry to say. If anyone has a right to grievance, it's CAMRA, as Brewdog shamelessly used them to drum up publicity last year. As has been pointed out, they were happy to work with CAMRA when they produced cask ale, but now, ooh CAMRA are evil. Please. Anyway, their beers are hardly worth a look now-and I talk as a shareholder. I can't see where the problem lies. The situation is quite clear. CAMRA supports only UK real ale and Simon made a good point about not all keg being craft beer. They sell foreign keg beer as they are not as they appreciate other styles and want people to try them. Hardly the mark of a conservative organisation. They simply believe British beer is best served in cask form and are entitled to run their festivals accordingly

Steve 2:52 pm, 12-Sep-2012

@JGI, how do you think "craft" breweries fine their beer exactly?

Pete 8:09 pm, 12-Sep-2012

Steve, some 'craft breweries' or let's just say breweries that put beer into kegs don't bother fining them as no one seems to care if their keg beer is cloudy. Same beer goes into a cask and they have to chuck some fish guts in to make it see through.

Yvan Seth 12:18 am, 13-Sep-2012

It's a troll! Don't feed it! Either that or this is one of the most weird and misinformed articles on the UK beer scene I've had the misfortune to have read. Its actually entertaining in its astounding bogosity.

amancalledbuck 7:54 am, 13-Sep-2012

Brewdog beers are fucking terrible and their stunts and gimmicks are an embarrassment.

Horatio 10:58 am, 13-Sep-2012

I am dressed as a goat! A very large goat! With powerful wings! And I can open my mouth so wide! And swallow all the sweet beer! I, large gaping mouthed goat, have all the sweet beer in my open mouth! Hail the goat!

Steve 11:12 am, 13-Sep-2012

@Pete, I don't have a problem with unfined beer. In fact, I prefer it that way because fining removes essential hop oils. But to suggest that cask beer producers are the only ones that fine beer is complete madness. Moor, for instance, produce both unfined and fined version of the same beers, in cask and keg. As do many other small producers. I am curious as to how JGI thinks BrewDog make their beer bright.

Not the Real Alex Hall 2:08 am, 14-Sep-2012

It think Brewdog have done enough damage. A case of trying too hard, It disappoints me to think they used to produce cask ale, to completely eliminate that from their portfolio was a mistake. CAMRA will stand the test of time, If they don't want to support craft keg beer then fair enough, we'll just need to organise our own 'Great British Craft Keg festival'. Long live good beer, Cheers

Barm 12:02 pm, 14-Sep-2012

Oh dear, what a naive pile of rubbish. It seems Brewdog fanboys drink more Kool-Aid than beer these days.

Keith Wildman 9:12 am, 15-Sep-2012

Didn't realise Brew Dog had stopped brewing cask ale. Tried it in my local and thought it was terrible. All style over substance. And pretentious at that. Ironically taking itself far too seriously. I don't really get all this 'craft keg beer' stuff either. Just tastes cold and fizzy to me. Again, marketing over substance. I'll stick with my Salamander porters and stouts. That said, as a long time CAMRA member I'm not renewing my membership this year, but that's more to do with their dubious selection policies for Pub of the Season / Year. Then again CAMRA do have a history of not being entirely pub friendly...

Gordon 12:28 pm, 17-Sep-2012

I had some time for Brewdog in the early days, both for their product and ethos, but after a friend was stung rather dramatically by their, ahem, 'interesting' business ethics I'll leave well alone, thanks.

Captain 2:53 pm, 9-Oct-2012

I'm a manager at a bar in northern england currently studying to try and get into the trade as a brewer, and let me tell you, there's absolutely nothing "punk" about Brewdog. It is not the perception in the bar trade at all. We're just sick and tired of their shit marketing and faux-persecution complex. First, and most importantly, their beer is total shite. Everything is overhopped, overcooked, and overpriced. They've made one good porter and one passable lager, to my mind, and everything else is basically a massively overhopped quasi-IPA. There's nothing wrong with hops but it's like saying "Yeah? well your car is good with four wheels, but ours has TWELVE! SCAMPS!" More is not always better. They brag about hopping a beer six or eight times, like spilling an entire bottle of sauce and a whole jar of salt over your chips prior to eating them is something to be proud of. Secondly, they treat their trade customers dreadfully. For all they talk about being an alternative to the mainstream, dealing with them is so much worse and more unpleasant than dealing with a major brewery, distillery or group. Thirdly, the "craft beer revolution" is not a thing that exists. It's marketing speak that their CEO came up with after stealing it from America and I find it pretty sad all these idiots bandying it around everywhere. Imagine people going for a run and yelling "Just Do It!" to each other. Gross cronyism. There's been artisan Scottish brewers around a lot longer than Brewdog and a lot of them make much, much better beer. Fourthly, in my opinion, they've straight up fleeced their investors. If you look at the actual terms of either their original or recent share deal, a traditional investor would run a mile. There's no real exit, no ability to trade/sell, and no guarantee that anyone will ever get paid anything. It's a expensive Desparate Dan Fanclub for grown-ups but want a little plaque on their wall which essentially says I Don't Understand Investing (But I'm Dumb Enough To Pay Their CEO Thousands Of Pounds For Some T-Shirts And To Go To Some Events In Aberdeen.) Lastly, and this is the one that annoys me, all their marketing is the ultimate expression of style over substance. There is absolutely nothing punk about Brewdog. Their website is cringingly awful. If you ask anyone who would actually consider themselves to be punks you'd be hard pressed to find a single one who said Brewdog were. They're no different from Iggy Pop doing car insurance adverts. Trying to get a sheen of counterculture whilst actually being as mainstream as you can get. It's gimmick after gimmick after gimmick. Remember that thing where the Portman Group was on their cases after they got all the complaints about their super strong beer? I have it on very good authority from more than one person THEY wrote all those complaints and sent them in; just enough over the threshold to trigger a mandatory investigation so they could harvest all the resulting PR. I have no idea if it's true or not, but it's exactly the kind of shit they would pull. (To be very clear, lawyerly types, I am NOT saying the above actually happened, nor do I personally believe so, nor do I think anyone else should believe so.) Their whole thing is to seem like outcasts and that the whole corporate monolith is against them, while (and here's the part they can't stand - and their CEO constantly spits the dummy about on Twitter) very few people in the trade view them with anything other than being bored to absolute tears at their antics. I am at a loss as to the new Diageo and CAMRA things, but the guy that did that couldn't have played into their dumb schtick any more if he wanted to. That's probably the one thing you said that's true - Diageo are idiots for doing what they did. No-one cares about a bar award and they should have known better. If they have to actually literally write "we are in no way mainstream" and "we are not cool, we are not pretentious" whilst trying to be exactly that and holding a sort-of-IPO, selling to Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, and Morrisons, and having an extremely cynical marketing team behind them using endless emotive and manipulative tactics, then here's a hint - they ARE the fucking mainstream ("small Scottish brewer" my arse), and they have been for a good while now. This is a pointless post. People will continue to be suckered by them. Whatever. I'm sure they'll manage to have someone spin this into some "DAVID VS. GOLIATH" bullshit as well.

BlueGiantBeer 5:37 pm, 10-Oct-2012

You may well consider their marketing strategy to be: - overly aggressive - boring - misrepresentative - fake - etc But based on their financial success and increasing market base, one thing you certainly cannot suggest is that it is shit. The shares, as you say, are a glorified discount members club. But (and I'm speaking as a financial expert here) they are no different in structure to any other non quoted private share issue. An analysis of the Company may indicate that they don't represent good financial value and are unlikely to pay dividends but that's why they offer value in other areas (discounts, AGM attendance, merchandise etc). It was all very clear in the prospectus and no wool has been pulled and I doubt very many people made the investment on financial ground. I understand and agree that elements of their behaviour are unpalatable to others in the drinks industry and its not infeasible that some of the controversy is, at the very least, whipped up from nothing. But to dismiss 95% of their beer as shit and not recognise their achievements in business over a very short period of time is just a little unfair and smacks, just a bit, of jealousy.

Ant 10:38 pm, 10-Oct-2012

I agree broadly with a lot of that, but disagree strongly about the quality of the beer. In the main, it's excellent in my opinion. If heavily hopped beer isn't your bag, that's fine, but they're far from the heaviest hoppers out there. And yes, they wrote at least one complaint to the Portman Group, and they used that fact for more marketing, The letter was marked as being from (iirc) James Watt c/o Brewdog or something similar. Their point was that in their opinion the Portman Group was more interested in serving the interests of the multinationals who serve them than seriously look at complaints in relation to drinkers health. Which may or may not be true, but they soured it by turning it into a big marketing jape.

Ant 10:39 pm, 10-Oct-2012

Multinationals who fund them, rather

Pete 5:29 pm, 13-Oct-2012

Like most avid brewers, beer drinkers and general beer nuts, I enjoy anything brewed, and quaffing "kegged" and "cask" in equal doses. This perpetual argument on the so called "divide" is both ridiculous, unwelcome to most and only feeds the marketing machines of companies like Brew dog and their ilk. Let’s appreciate the skills and admire the ethos of breweries such as The Kernel or Oakham ales etc,rather than the overhyped nonsense that is Brewdog.I bought into their initial "punk" ethics, purchased some shares, and I still drink their beer, some of which is great! The fact they now produce beer for Waitrose and Tesco’s I find absolutely hilarious considering their "edgy" stance on big corporations etc. To put Brewdog in perspective, if you drink enough American craft beer, you would realise that most of what Brewdog create is nothing new and if they were based in the US they would barely create a ripple. I visited the GBBF for the first time this year and had an awesome time trying a multitude of different styles from many countries. I would admit that some more “kegged” beer could have been a welcome addition and hopefully this will be remedied at the next one, on the same token I think the festival did hold something for everyone’s tastes-I spent most of my time trying some amazing American cask ales and ended my day with those crazy Belgian brews I am a CAMRA member and do agree that it needs to adjust to new trends,I am sure this will come in time. I would add though, to all the younger CAMRA members and drinkers out there,-There is no point complaining CAMRA is old and stuffy, if you don’t get involved yourself, helping out at local beer festivals, putting yourself forward at your local branch, then nothing will change, don’t just spit the dummy and not renew your membership…get involved! CAMRA was the catalyst for the re- emergence of Ale in the first place, let’s not forget this, but also build on it and diversify. For the moment though maybe we could just all agree to disagree on a few things and get on with the most important part of all this….producing,drinking and appreciating good beer,all types!!

Max Tammbeck 12:38 pm, 11-Jan-2013

Let's not argue about the meaning of 'craft beer'. It has no legal definition in Britain, so it means whatever you want it to. Like most beer drinkers, I sit on the fence in the cask vs keg debate. The best cask beers are better than the best keg beers, but keg offers consistency. Let's face it, if you buy a pint of real ale at random it's probably going to be mediocre. I have the good fortune of living near Bacchus in Newcastle, which blows away the opposition in both cask and keg departments.

Adey 12:26 pm, 21-Apr-2013

Pubs are closing because they sell 'real ale'. The majority of people just don't drink flat, warm, weak bitter. Craft beer is a completely different drink. It has body, depth and most importantly life and served cold. Pubs need to ditch a focus on real ale and shift over to premium, local craft beers. CAMRA is wrong and half the reason why pubs are closing. Nobody under 40yo, especially women drink real ale. Pop in North Bar in Leeds, that is a template for a pub that makes lots of money and is always full. Anybody that doubts this needs to spend a weekend drinking in Brooklyn, USA. That's how proper bars are run, with a product that attracts people who will make your bar profitable.

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