CAMRA, Brewdog And The Craft Beer Conspiracy

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.
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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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