Real ale, craft beer and anti-capitalism

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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 now with 180,000 members, is the largest consumer organisation in Europe. It is not party political but it campaigns against large breweries, pub companies and the like, which prefer to act in the interests of profit rather than of people who like a quiet drink (not necessarily alcoholic) at their local.

CAMRA has been extraordinarily successful. Whereas in the 1960s brewery mergers and a quest for profits were 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 19th century. In short CAMRA took on big capital in brewing and it won.

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 are 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 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 near them close to be replaced by a much more 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 nondescript 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 ten 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 making 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. One of the original UK craft brewers, Meantime, was bought by brewing giant SABMiller. It is now for sale again, as another huge drinks company, ABInBev, has taken it over. InBev 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.