Friday, 15 August 2014

Togetherness. One Possible Future.

My last blog post about keg's absence from the Great British Beer Festival triggered some interesting reactions - some here, but predominantly on Twitter and in 'real life' (where, mercifully, the concept of good debate still endures in spite of social media.)

One of the comments left on that post hinted, quite reasonably, that I follow up on my observations with some action. Maybe in the form of an idea. After all, it's all very well highlighting what's wrong, but quite something else to find solutions.

So I've given it some thought, and I'm wondering if the answer may be more simple than many of us thought.

Firstly though, let's not beat about the bush. The problem for CAMRA is a very tough one.

How can they possibly embrace keg without betraying the essence of their core principles?

How can they be seen to undo all those decades of hard graft?

How could anyone spend years attaining victory over their version of the devil – only invite that very same devil to join their ranks?

It sounds impossible. And yet...

I think all talk of 'giving up principles' or 'betrayal of ideals' is actually a red herring.

I don't think CAMRA needs to change at all.

Not one bit.

They can keep a firm grip on their principles and ideals – whilst giving their blessing to new ideas which just happen not to involve the same adherence to the honourable CAMRA code.

There is a way CAMRA can remain distant from keg – whilst simultaneously offering gentle encouragement to any versions of the old enemy which appear to have mended their evil ways.

Basically, if deemed to have sufficient beer-loving merit, certain kegged beers could be invited to The Great British Beer Festival... guests.

Not fellow exhibitors.


A stall or area - perhaps named something like 'Guest Zone' or 'Twilight Zone' or 'Friendly Visitors From Space' or 'The Third Way' or 'Our Quirky Cousins' or 'Keg's Last Chance Saloon' - could be given over to the concept of reborn keg... and CAMRA could simultaneously remain entirely independent of it. No values would be betrayed, no code re-written, there'd be no need for embarrassment, explanation or confusion.

Basically, CAMRA could make it clear that whilst CAMRA is firmly for Real Ale, the Great British Beer Festival is open to ALL GOOD BEER.

10 years ago, Real Ale was the only good beer.

Things have been developing rather rapidly since then, and a gesture like this would quickly abort the need for any further parting of the ways between what have become two needlessly isolated camps.

Let me say at this point – having a separate CAMRA-backed 'craft beer' festival (one of which does exist at present) is not the same as offering a place at the year's major beer-related event. And let us remember that's exactly how the GBBF identifies itself. As a 'beer' festival. Not a 'cask beer' festival.  Surely any event using 'Great British Beer' in its name should not have a separate craft beer festival happening down the road. Anyone arriving from Mars wanting to learn what makes British beer so great would find the two separate competing venues a bit puzzling. “Is craft beer not great beer, then?”, they might very well ask, in Martian.

It is my firm belief that the ultimate ideal for everyone (even for CAMRA) is to enjoy beer that is properly good. Regardless of how it got that way. CAMRA battled to do away with the one size fits all beer production mentality that was killing creativity during the 1970's. They need to keep that battle raging – whilst being careful to recognise a fellow combatant when one arrives, however strangely dressed they might first appear.

It seems to me that what CAMRA still do not fully realise is that they are actually responsible for the very existence of the craft beer movement.

The concise history of it reads something like this -

CAMRA flexed their muscles and forced beer to be tasty...

Our American friends went crazy over the results...

They were inspired and got super creative...

The whole world went crazy over those results.

In other words, CAMRA and Craft Beer are genetically linked. They are parent and child. The rebirth of keg is something CAMRA should be taking credit for, not fighting against.

The very involvement of keg in this new movement is actually more out of accident than design. Keg simply became involved because America, where all the fevered experimentation initially kicked off, doesn’t really do cask. Most of the USA is too hot to keep cask beer in good condition and besides that they've always preferred their brews chilled.

Keg, simply put, comes naturally to Americans. It is not, nor has it ever been their devil.

Ask a US craft beer enthusiast what their enemy is and they'd almost certainly say 'Big Beer', by which they'd mean bland corporate beer, or in other words – they have exactly the same perception of the enemy as CAMRA did when it was first formed.

Because boring beer is the true devil. It always has been.

Good beer has always been the messiah.

Cask, keg, bottle or can. Beautifully brewed beer is what we want, and what we will all continue to strive for, together or apart.

It just seems to me that 'together' makes a huge amount of sense, and 'apart' makes absolutely none at all.

CAMRA champions Real Ale, be it from bottle or cask. They always should. May that never change.

But the Great British Beer Festival should showcase all good beer, and CAMRA should open the door to some guests who share so many of their ideals, but also have a few different ideas too.

Good beer in kegs wasn't around ten years ago.

It is now.

Now we have two entirely different versions of fantastic British beer.

Let's all join forces and really show off.

Let's really show the world just how good this country is at creating beer.

British Cask and proper British keg, side by side, would surely make one hell of a spectacle.

A mouthwatering statement to the globe which we can all reunite behind.

Now that really would be a 'great' festival.

The greatest beer festival in all human history. And no other nation could say otherwise.

The most important thing is that CAMRA doesn't need to change in order for this to happen.

Not one bit.

The next time it throws its giant annual party, all CAMRA needs to do is add a guest list.

The results could be quite extraordinary.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Still Great, But Needs A Haircut.

By the 1970's the Edinburgh International Festival was the the daddy of it's kind. It could rightfully claim to be the greatest arts event in the world at that time.

So many thought it very mysterious when in 1974 - at the very height of this success - huge numbers of people grouped together to form an alternative arts festival in very same city.

Why was this? Why would you create a brand new arts festival when the biggest in the world is already on your doorstep?

More importantly - why did this new alternative festival quickly grow to become even bigger than the Goliath it was meant to challenge?

I'm talking, of course, about the Edinburgh Fringe - which has independently become the biggest single arts festival in the entire world.

The reasons behind its creation were actually quite simple. This evolution happened because those plucky upstarts clearly believed that the original festival - in spite of its enormous size - was not catering to all tastes, and was unfairly marginalising certain groups who felt they needed - and deserved - an equal voice.

Sound familiar, my beer loving friends?

Of course it does.

Look, let me first say this. Yesterday's trade session at The Great British Beer Festival 2014 was indeed 'great'. There was no sense of impending doom which many would have predicted. Lots of 'craft-centric' breweries were present with certain of their brews (served only from casks, naturally) and with forward-looking firms like Oakham and Salopian winning medals nobody could argue that the door is still entirely closed on progress.

But I'm going to argue it anyway.

Because I can't help it.

Because the noisier and more gigantic this giant festival grows over the years, the more I feel the sense that it needs to quiet down and get a haircut.

It needs a fringe.

By not allowing the craft beer movement to showcase itself - in the way it would choose to - the GBBF is effectively only presenting a version of what is great about beer. To my eyes, it's the version which is currently less representative of what's exciting about British beer. If anything, The Great British Beer Festival already IS the fringe in that respect, and it's the new mainstream which is being left out in the cold.

It's kind of ironic. The Campaign For Real Ale, who run this giant sideshow, were once the plucky rebels themselves.

But if it continues with it's Craft-wary approach, CAMRA will only succeed in emulating its own vision of 'the enemy' - a dominant group which forcibly influences and controls the way in which we all drink our beer.

In short - CAMRA is in danger of becoming the very same kind of beast which it was created to destroy.

In the bad old days (which CAMRA fought so hard to change) the industry standard was "bland keg or nothing". But having won that long fight against a lack of choice, CAMRA are now being every bit as restrictive about what should be acceptable to drinkers. Even after 'bland keg' has been lovingly reinvented by consciousness brewers with abundant talent. 'Bland keg' is now 'craft keg', and the latter is often utterly delicious.

Yet, still it remains "Cask or nothing" and even worse -

"Cask or it's not proper beer."

Most people reading this know that such claims are no longer accurate. 

That kind of terminology felt right about ten years ago. It stopped feeling right about five years ago.

Cask is no longer the only delivery method which 'proper' beer drinkers believe in. Any claim to the contrary is simple myth making. It's spin. It's smoke and mirrors or the Emperors new clothes. Unless CAMRA acknowledge the passing of time, unless they embrace the continuing evolution of beer, all we will have had is a straight swap of demon for demon.

There is a legacy at stake here. A great legacy, which stands at risk of being forever lost or undermined.

So - I'm calling out the heroes.

Those same heroes who saved us all from poor beer in the first place.

We need them to don their capes and Lycra tights now more than ever before. They need to keep doing what they always have been doing - showing us mortals what to do. Teaching us all which way we should go. We have grown accustomed to looking to them for direction. But right now, they're using an outdated map, and thousands of decent beer loving folk are being given no alternative but to find their own way.

It doesn't have to be like this.

I'm sure everyone would be happy to have CAMRA continue to lead the way, they've done so with aplomb for decades. But the reality is that unless that old map is updated, and soon, I fear fewer and fewer people will feel sufficiently confident that theirs remains the lead to follow.

So, CAMRA, you have two real options...

1: Stop behaving like your old enemy and allow these new ideas to sing. Take away the need for a rival 'fringe' which would grow independently mighty and threaten the 'Greatness' of your own festival. Get craft keg on the list for 2015 and win back a whole lot of friends and fans. Simple.

2: Carry on as you are. There are already 'craft beer festivals' gaining in popularity each year, one will inevitably evolve into the main alternative event on a national level. Let the disgruntled card carrying members continue to drift away - when they'd really prefer to stay. Heartbreaking and avoidable. 

That's how I see it - I know I'm one among many.

I hope common sense can prevail and that all lovers of fine beer can rejoin as one before very long.

Whilst CAMRA remain dominant, it's up to them to take the lead on this. I love to see them do that.

We have them to thank for where we are today. The dark past is long past, and CAMRA made it so.

It's up to them now to decide whether they want to remain as influential in the future.