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.



Bailey said...

London Beer City is the GBBF fringe festival, I think, and feels as if it might become an institution. (Unless GBBF moves to another city...)

The phrase Christopher Hutt used to describe Watney's c.1973 when we interviewed him for our book was 'entrenched and powerful', which does sound rather like CAMRA today.

Lizard Seer said...
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Lizard Seer said...

To be quite honest, I think we're waiting for the 60 and 70-something "joined in 1973" diehards to leave the scene. Any proposal about being more positive about craft keg would cause riots at the CAMRA AGM.

I detailed what would probably happen in a helpful visual format here.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

It's not really though, is it. 'London' and 'Great British' says everything about a need to keep things 'contained'. Like for like please CAMRA.

Unknown said...

Haha - A concise graphic novel based on many a true story!

Cooking Lager said...

CAMRA needs a bloody and viscous internal civil war for the very soul of its meaning.

You chaps look like the types to lead it. lead on.

Lizard Seer said...

The Local Beards would kill me for such things, Cookie. I'd hide, but I'm not exactly inconspicuous.

Unknown said...

More of an 'observer' than a 'leader' on these matters. You've made me wonder though... and I may have a cunning plan. Will post again tomorrow.

Unknown said...

Haha. Let's not have you dying.

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