Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Outrageous slur on CAMRA

In recent months I have attempted to avoid controversy on this blog. The unpleasant slanging match with BrewDog a few months ago proved to me that I should write straight news stories in this space that might be of use to fellow beer drinkers. However, I have to depart from this self-imposed exile from controversy by replying to an attack on CAMRA by Pete Brown on his blog. I'm sorry to have to do this as I like Pete, get on with him well and was grateful for his sympathetic words when the BrewDog row was at its height. But I feel his attack, which in the main concerns an event I was present at, requires a measured response. You can read the full text on Pete's own blog but I will present an edited and fair summary here.
His piece carries the inflammatory title "CAMRA's noxious culture of entitlement". It begins by reporting on an incident in the Sheffield Station Tap when two train spotters came in, ordered beers and said in loud voices that they should get a discount as they were CAMRA members "and we spread the word about places like this." This by any measure is appalling behaviour but the first question a counsel for the prosecution would ask is: "How do you know they were CAMRA members?" Over the years I have on several occasions heard people claiming to be CAMRA members when moaning about service in a pub or at a beer festival who turn out to be either not members or who lapsed some time before. In general -- and I have more than 30 years' membership behind me -- I do not find that CAMRA members demand discounts or behave badly in pubs or other public places. The campaign does not support bad behaviour or demands for discounts. In extremis, a few members have been expelled from the organisation for bad behaviour -- and that includes a member of the National Executive.
Warming to his theme, Pete says that some CAMRA members have the power to make or break pubs. As the editor of the Good Beer Guide, I know that members take the selection of pubs for the guide with enormous seriousness, down to votes -- including postal votes -- at branch meetings. They are objective in their selections and realise they must be objective even when some publicans will be deeply disappointed when they are excluded from the guide.
(In passing I would add that I have suggested to the relevant members that the Sheffield Station Tap must be included in the next edition of the guide even if it breaches the rule that a pub or bar must sell beer of the highest quality for six months before it can be considered for inclusion.)
Pete's main complaint concerns a dinner last Thursday at the National Brewery Centre in Burton-on-Trent to celebrate the re-opening of the site and to thank those who campaigned to save it. I was present and sat on the same table as Pete. Each course of the dinner was matched by a beer chosen by brewmaster Steve Wellington, who runs the White Shield Brewery and will soon move to a new plant within the brewery centre. Pete claims that CAMRA members on the table repeatedly heckled Steve when he described the chosen beers with the demand for P2, the strong stout brewed in the White Shield Brewery. Pete says the heckling became louder and was "fucking rude". According to him, Steve Wellington was forced to go out into pouring rain to find some bottles of P2.
This is a travesty of the truth. John Arguile, a CAMRA member from Derby who has played a central role in saving the brewery centre, was sitting next to me and politely asked Steve if any P2 was available. When Steve next got up to speak some us chanted in a humorous manner "We want P2". It may have been schoolboy humour but it was not rude, fucking or otherwise. Steve then explained to us that his office was locked but he would attempt to find a key and see if any bottles of P2 were there. He did indeed go out in the pouring rain -- all praise to him -- and returned with three bottles of P2 (Pete says five but I think three), roaring with laughter as he received applause from us.
Pete then says we attempted to commandeer the bottles at our end of the table. Not true. I would not be a party to such behaviour. I poured myself a small glass and handed the bottle on -- I think to Pete himself.
All of this amounts to calumny against CAMRA. I'm not aware that Pete objected to our behaviour on the night and he would have been hard-pressed to have done so as his report does not match the actual events. I'm not aware that Steve Wellington was upset -- on the contrary, he took the demands for P2 as as the kind of genial banter that takes place at such events.
It's especially upsetting that John Arguile should be drawn in to this as he is a quiet and unassuming person who has worked so hard to save the brewery museum and deserves better than this.
By the way, the brewery centre offers a 20% discount for CAMRA members. The campaign did not ask for this. Perhaps the owners of the centre appreciate CAMRA's role in supporting and helping save the centre that celebrates the historic home of pale ale brewing.


Blogger Unknown said...

Roger, you said your bit and I said mine. I'm not going to retract anything I said, nor am I going to add more to the conflagration. I haven't invented this - I have no motive to do so. I'm not looking for a fight. But I've had my say.

But I have to pull you up on one thing you do repeatedly: equate criticism of individual CAMRA members with an attack on the entire organisation and its achievements. In a very aggressive reply on my blog, you claim that the reason over forty people - publicans and drinkers, some even CAMRA members - claim to have witnessed similar behaviour from CAMRA members is that they have "an animus against CAMRA" and that CAMRA's achievements "gets up some people's collective nose".

This is not true.

You, personally, are not CAMRA (and I wasn't even attacking you personally), no individual is CAMRA. With 112,000 members, CAMRA has a full cross-section of society. The vast majority of CAMRA members are a really decent people. But you have a handful of people who behave in an obnoxious manner. An attack on them is not an attack on everyone. A criticism of a sense of entitlement among some members is in no way an attack on CAMRA's great achievements over the last forty years.

If CAMRA didn't matter - if we didn't care about it and want it to be as great as it can be - these rows would not happen.

This repeated refusal to even acknowledge any grain of truth or validity in any criticism of any CAMRA member is beneath you. It doesn't strengthen your argument: it weakens it.

Oh, and I didn't drag John into it by name - you did.

5 May 2010 at 08:58  
Blogger Alistair Reece said...

"They are objective in their selections and realise they must be objective even when some publicans will be deeply disappointed when they are excluded from the guide"

It is a pity then that objectivity is a myth. Try as we might it is not possible to eradicate subjectivity when defining what is or is not a "good pub".

As a case in point, there is a pub in Prague which due to the constant praise it gets on a particular beer blog is considered one of the best pubs in Prague, but in my opinion it is an awful place, with rude (some might say ruder than most) staff, crabby patrons and really not worth the trip to the outskirts of the city.

It seems on this matter that the only person who can settle the dispute is Steve Wellington himself.

5 May 2010 at 13:41  
Anonymous Stephen Beaumont said...

Roger, I've no axe to grind here, just a healthy curiosity, and as such I'd like to hear your take on Pete's assertion that the bottles of Kasteel Rose served with dessert remained untouched by the CAMRA crowd in attendance. If true, then this more than the schoolboy cries for P2 represents to me rude behaviour, and also ignorance, since as you well know the right food can change the taste of a beer for the better, and vice versa.

5 May 2010 at 16:24  
Blogger Johnny Norfolk said...

Sounds like a childrens tea party with beer. Are these grown up people or what.

5 May 2010 at 16:25  
Blogger Cooking Lager said...

Is there a way of registering CAMRA as a religion, Roger?

That's the best way of invalidating any legitimate criticism.

5 May 2010 at 16:30  
Blogger PivnĂ­ Filosof said...

Since I'm not British, nor do I live in the UK, I really don't care much about what CAMRA does or doesn't do, has or hasn't done, will or will not do. It's simply none of my business (BTW, I consider myself as a "serious beer lover").

Needless, to say, I wasn't present at this dinner, but I don't have reasons to doubt Pete's words because I don't see why he would like to slander CAMRA.

But that is not all so relevant to me. What is really disturbing is Roger's attitude towards this whole thing. He's right to be upset and he might have seen things differently, but all that "we have the ear of the government, etc" "we have saved real ale" and all of the other self righteousness is frankly disgusting and to a certain extent it shows that all those who have here critisised the organisation and some of its members are onto something.

On a second note, should have the right to get a discount at pubs. Festivals, books and other things the organisation has worked to put together, fair enough, but pubs? Why?

6 May 2010 at 06:55  
Blogger Roger Protz said...

The CAMRA "crowd" is an exaggeration. There were no more than 3 or 4 CAMRA members on the table. I wasn't even aware of the Kasteel. I went outside to make a phone call -- being a political saddo, I called my wife to see how that night's leaders' debate had gone on TV -- and when I came back in, people were milling around and talking to people on other tables. I didn't bother to eat the dessert, which had arrived in my absence, so didn't see which beer had been matched with it.

6 May 2010 at 08:57  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gents, I'd like to share a my experiences of my local CAMRA group in Chester with you. I joined CAMRA about 5 years ago after being introduced to fantastic cask ales in 'The Old Harkers Arms' in Chester. Since then I've been passionate about real ales but have also discovered other excellent european beers after buying some of Roger's excellent guides. More notably German and Belgium.

However, over the last 12 months I have been considering cancelling my membership for a number of reasons. I'll attempt to explain them all here. Firstly, after attending some of the organised trips a couple of years ago I found the local group slightly full of themselves and not very welcoming. I must say this was mainly the more senior members as the others that come along to enjoy the beer and company were great people bu intrestingly only involved at a low level. I would of thought this to be the reverse? Secondly, I have since bumped into the Chariman on a number of occassions in town and he was rude, arrogant and ingnorant. This was just because I acknowledged who he was and comment that I had joined him on a few trips. Needless to say he didn't remember me, or even seemed to care! I don't see how this promotes CAMRA or its cause when you have these self important senior members running it like a private club.

Finally, I recently visited the Meantime brewery in Greenwich as my brother-in-law is the head chef. He very kindly arranged a tour with the head brewer before dinner. After an excellent and informative tour we tasted a few of the beers. I can confidently say they were all excellent. However you can imagine my surprise when I comment to the brewer that I would look out for him at the GBBF next week and he stated they could not show thier beers. When I enquired why he was told by the CAMRA inspector that because of the brewing process he uses there not classed as 'real ales'.

I suppose my point is that I joined CAMRA thinking that I could support the cause and be surrounded by like minded people who enjoyed real beer in all it's forms. However the more I read and get involved the less I like the organisation. I am also not alone on this, when I speak to people at beer festivals and pubs there are a lot of people who feel the same.

I have read some of Pete's other articals which tend to support this and and I do feel that although the membership has hit record levels I fear that the retention of these members will be put in jeopardy if CAMRA can not be more inclusive, whether that be with differnt styles of beer or with its newer members.

For me, the fact that two people such as Pete and Roger, who are obviously passionate about beer, have got into this type of discussion only serves to enforce my views. So come on guys, rather than argue with each other put your obvious talents to use on making CAMRA a fresher, forward looking campaign that is inclusive and dares to expand its views on the whole spectrum of avaialable beer.

Roger keep up the excellent work on the guides and Pete keep on pushing CAMRA to realise that all 112k members aren't the same.

31 July 2010 at 11:48  

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