Some thoughts on real ale, craft beer & anti-capitalism

In Uncategorized on May 13, 2016 by kmflett

The Campaign for Real Ale, Craft Beer & changing times


The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has been in the news as its recent annual conference launched a year-long debate about ‘revitalisation’, to look at what the purpose of the organisation should be in future.

Aside from the old Alex Glasgow song, As Soon as This Pub Closes (the revolution starts) why is this of interest to socialists?

There are two main reasons.

One is that CAMRA, formed in 1971 and with 180,000 members, is the largest consumer organisation in Europe. It is not party political but it certainly does campaign against large breweries, pub companies and the like, where they prefer to act in the interests of profit rather than those who prefer a quite drink (not necessarily alcoholic) at their local.

CAMRA has been extraordinarily successful. Whereas in the 1960s brewery mergers and a quest for profits was leading to a few national brands of beer and lager, which were frankly barely drinkable, Watneys Red Barrel being the best known, now there are more breweries in Britain than at any time since the nineteenth century.

In short CAMRA took on big capital in brewing and it won a victory.

Big capital however is not going away that easily and that is where the debate about the future of CAMRA is focused.

It is a democratically run organisation with branch meetings and all events it runs, such as the yearly Great British Beer Festival (which in fact sells beer from all over the world), are all staffed by unpaid volunteers and not for profit.

So the revitalisation debate will consist of many meetings around the country, surveys, and so on and then the 2017 CAMRA conference will decide what is to be done.

The main outcomes are likely to be a continued a focus on cask or real ale (that which is usually served by handpump in a pub), or a widening of the campaign to look at all drinks. In addition there are issues about how much focus there should be on stopping pub closures, where CAMRA is already very active.

Very few readers will not have had a pub close near them to be replaced by a much profitable block of flats for example. In recent times CAMRA has succeeded in getting the law changed to make this rather more difficult for developers meaning pubs can be declared an Asset of Community Value.

Another issue that has sparked the CAMRA debate is the rise of what is known as ‘craft’ beer. Many thousands of words have been written in attempts to define what this is and what it isn’t.

The craft beer movement started primarily in the US where brewers aimed to copy some of the traditional beer styles brewed in the UK, perhaps particularly India Pale Ales (IPA).

The work of UK brewery accountants over many years had reduced IPAs brewed in Britain to low strength fairly non-descript beers.

The US craft brewers went back to some of the original IPA beer recipes and produced much stronger, hugely hoppy beers.

Nothing like this was available in the UK market 10 years ago. Now you can hardly enter a pub without finding examples.

Probably the best known is the Scottish brewer, Brewdog’s Punk IPA but there is a wide range available.

It was this and changes to tax law in the last Labour Government that made it easier to open and run small breweries, that sparked the boom in craft beer in the UK.

The best of this beer is genuinely ‘craft’ as the word is generally defined. It is made by brewers who care about the beer they are making, experiment with beer styles a lot, and while they obviously need to make a profit, are generally rather more interested in the beer.

Historically the brewers, known as the Beerage, were strong supporters of the Tory Party. Many of the new wave of craft brewers are broadly associated with the left, often having taken to brewing because they were fed up with whatever aspect of the market system they were involved in.

Of course capital was hardly likely to ignore the trend.

The US has seen some of the better known craft breweries bought out by mega-multinational drinks and leisure companies.

The trend is starting to spread to the UK.

Meantime in Greenwich, one of the original UK craft brewers, was bought by brewing giant SABMiller. It is now for sale again, as another huge drinks company, InBev has taken it over. ABInBev has also bought out Camden Town brewery, another of the well-known names in craft brewing.

Other craft brewers, such as Brewdog and Beavertown in North London are starting to become substantial businesses.

Beer might seem like an unlikely place for battles between capital and anti-capitalists to take place, but this is at least some of the reality behind the debate about the future of the Campaign For Real Ale and the rise of craft beer

This post appears in the May 2016 issue of the Socialist Review
















4 Responses to “Some thoughts on real ale, craft beer & anti-capitalism”

  1. “in the 1960s brewery mergers and a quest for profits was leading to a few national brands of beer and lager, which were frankly barely drinkable, Watneys Red Barrel being the best known”
    Hardly. I personally drank many, many gallons without any noticeable ill-effects. As we used to say: “Why is Watneys like making love in a punt?”,,,,,

  2. when politics and religion, it is said, should not be discussed in a pub , what’s this socialist bollocks??!! Or is it just social bollocks?? Otherwise you’ld be giving you beer away! Just my take. But seriously … Draught Burton Ale. My all time favorite. Disappeared. Can anyone bring it back? The head brewer is probably dead but I’d be naive to think the recipe and method was not written down. Also, the Burton water and its qualities obviously imparted specific effects on that beer. Any thoughts? I’m thinking of trying to brew as close a beer to DBS as I can.

    • DBA appears to be on sale in bars far from where beer bloggers will find it at something under 3% However Burton Bridge have brewed a close beer I think. Check Roger Protz’s blog

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