I’m not sure how to introduce CAMRA. On the one hand, it’s the biggest single-issue consumer interest group in the UK, the savior of British brewing that’s as responsible for our amazing beer scene as any American influence. On the other hand, it’s portrayed as an irrelevant lumbering beast that seems to stagger from controversy to controversy.
The Campaign for Real Ale was founded in 1971 in response to a surge in pasteurized, force-carbonated keg beer that was pushing traditional British cask ale of the bars around the country. Alarmed by the lack of diversity, four men in a pub decided that someone needed to champion the traditional method of delivering unconditioned beer to pubs and serving them at the exact moment they peaked, without any extra gas.
Since then, the organization has grown to nearly 200,000 members, lobbying the government, running festivals, producing magazines, and promoting their self-defined “real ale” above all other formats. Its success in protecting an inefficient product against capitalist pressures is unprecedented.
But since the UK craft beer revolution, CAMRA has struggled to find its place in a fast moving and often image-led scene. Suddenly, most of the brewing and talking was being done by young, American-inspired breweries who loved keg beer, big hops, and high ABVs. The keg lines that had been loaded with crap Euro Lagers were suddenly pouring exciting, experimental beers that appealed more to young drinkers than the more historic real ale did.
Caught looking the other way and trying to catch up, CAMRA has come under pressure to realign its objectives in support good keg beer, to update older breweries’ outdated marketing, and pick a side on issues that simply wasn’t there when its charter was drawn up—all the while coping with the fact that after decades of growth, cask beer had gone into decline again.
I sat down with the new chief executive, Tom Stainer, who might be seen as a reformer but has had to keep a level head in his vital new role. We talk through the challenges of running an organization controlled by some 200,000 members, propped up by volunteers and considered out of touch—when they were the people who made it all possible.
This is Tom Stainer, chief executive of the Campaign for Real Ale. Listen in.