CAMRA AGM and Conference

I’m torn. Part of me wants to carry on gently poking fun at CAMRA, part of me wants to try to push water uphill by getting involved and making a difference, part of me questions the relevance of CAMRA to the beer industry and part of me just wants to scream.

The preamble to the 2017 AGM and Conference (two completely different things with different voting procedures, as it was pointed out) was an extremely personal attack on Tim Page, CEO of CAMRA by self-appointed Pub Champion, Greg Mulholland, MP. Whether or not you agree with this, the timing was malicious and only self-promoting. Had it been delivered a week or two in advance it could been dealt with constructively. Instead it was airbrushed.

Of CAMRAs 180,000+ members less than a thousand turned up. Apart from the conference there was the bar, interesting brewery trips and side discussions. Compare and contrast with the number of members attending the GBBF.

It has to be said there were more women than I had anticipated (maybe 20-25%) but other stereotypes abounded. My de Molen T-shirt often attracts comment but I suspect few had ever heard of this outstanding brewery. The cask ales were numerous but all firmly 5% or less, the dark ones sold out first. There were also 8 real ale in KeyKeg beers. With low carbonation and insufficient cooling these were halfway house beers from breweries looking for a marketing angle, disappointing.

Dear Reader, you can find all the detailed info on the weekend here. But of course you will need to be a member, this is top secret info. Highlights for me were,

  • The voting system. Anything people don’t understand during the weekend is referred to as ‘CAMRA arcana’. For the AGM, a vote by hand in the hall had to be taken and counted by tellers, my understanding is that this was completely irrelevant to the ballot later. Amusement rather than embarrassment was the general emotion.
  • The admirable John Cryne spoke about the Winter Ales festival fiasco. I don’t profess to understand the full details but it seems to have been organised on a lets order lots of beer, people are sure to come basis. CAMRA festivals in general, there are exceptions, rarely have special festival beers, rigidly stick to average ABV guidelines and fail to excite.
  • Another voice of reason, Tim Webb spoke about the amateur approach to book sales (he is a successful author).
  • The Special Resolution was completely unintelligible. Fortunately the passionate Christine Cryne explained and advocated it succinctly.
  • The keynote speech was from Paul Chase about the formation of the Drinkers Voice, an anti-anti-alcohol lobby group. What he said was absolutely true but I can’t help feeling that CAMRA is too stretched and this falls outside their remit.
  • More amendment and procedures chaos at Motion 6 which was about what CAMRA can do without consultation of members. Rome, burning, fiddles.
  • Motion 7 asked the Conference to accept that ‘craft beer’ can be applied to real ale. Defeated. This was a time to stand up and be counted, but the people who realise this self-evident fact remained quiet and the motion was presented with a lack of passion. To me this denigrates all the hard working, passionate microbrewers of real ales that CAMRA suggests cannot call their product a craft one.
  • The Website of the Year award was a low-key affair. Neither at this point nor any other time during the conference was time spent on websites and social media. They probably won’t catch on anyway.
  • Cider House Motions. Don’t get me started on why cider not forgetting perry is included in CAMRA. The two motions at least attracted passion and everyone voted. I voted for the motions against the puritans and the motions were duly defeated. I backed another two losers but made up for it with the Grand National winner.
  • An electronic photo library was suggested and authorised in 2013 but CAMRA has been too busy to realise it. CAMRA is still too busy to commit to doing it by the end of the year. Then a very sensible called Mark from South Cheshire branch said words to the effect of, ‘how difficult is this? send me your pictures, I will add them to a free online library service and give it to CAMRA by the end of the year.
  • There were some officers from SIBA in attendance but they were strangely quiet, especially on the subject of craft beer.
  • Oh, and the Revitalisation Project rumbles on.

So there we have it. I did enjoy the weekend and met some interesting brewers outside the conference but my overriding emotions are sadness and frustration.

Modern beer drinkers, beer bloggers and social media, SIBA and most brewers all see CAMRA as an irrelevance as far as beer is concerned. I do believe they are good at campaigning for pubs at a local level but the budget was a huge defeat. A criticism often levelled at CAMRA is that they are inward facing, I can only agree.

There should be more to CAMRA than saving an unprofitable local pub and demanding that they serve a choice of four real ales (probably national mass produced brands) for less than £3 a pint and then producing a 10% discount card.

I believe it is probably wrong of me to continue as member, and I am sure a significant proportion of the members will not want me. I really can’t see that I can make a difference, existing progressive beer drinkers in CAMRA just adopt a ‘don’t mind them’ approach to the diehards but that is not the way forward. Sooner or later a new organisation will emerge to properly represent the modern beer drinker, until then I plan not to be a hypocrite, and therefore, not to renew my CAMRA membership.

Pigs Ear Beer Festival

Jurassic PorkJurassic Pork aka Pigs Ear Beer Festival, what do we think? The jury’s out. Everything that’s good about CAMRA, everything that’s bad about CAMRA, all in one (successful) festival.

Let’s start with the venue. The Round Chapel, or the former Clapton Park United Reformed Church is a magnificent building both inside and out, listed grade II it is now owned and restored by Hackney Historic Buildings Trust. Complete with pulpit, organ and balcony it is quite beautiful, and totally unsuitable for a beer festival in many respects.Pigs Ear2

The beer. This is a broadminded CAMRA branch and the beer is an excellently curated selection of local, rare and regional brewers. Not only that, they had two keg lines and a good selection of international bottles, they even advertised Westvleteren 12 ffs! But trying to find what is on where is a nightmare. On the basis that one cannot get close to trying all the beers I would prefer to see  a smaller range with a greater guarantee of finding the beer I want actually on.

Spot the lady on the pulpit stairs having a meal break, deserved I'm sure.

Spot the lady on the pulpit stairs having a meal break, deserved I’m sure.

The organisation, the crowds. Downstairs is a scrum, the balcony is lovely, the bars are downstairs. The toilets are portable toilets outside (Ed-had to be changed because I inadvertently used a trademarked name, so let’s have a big shout out for their competitors Britcab, Mobile Thrones and the like). The staff are generally well meaning but not awfully good, they are volunteers so we shouldn’t complain.

The food. It’s camp catering (Boy Scouts not Larry Grayson). The cheese stall is a good idea but it’s all pre-packed to take way, and not a scotch egg or pork pie in sight. So, buy a sub from one stall, some prepacked cheese from the other, enjoy with plastic knife but no butter or chutney. Picnic on the balcony.

If Heath Robinson did beer festivals this would be it. It’s a must to attend and marvel at but so easy to criticise. No scoring for this one, make your own mind up.

 

Le Gothique – Reinvented

le goth 2015Lord Battersea does it again! The Wandsworth Common beer festivals are held at the wonderful Le Gothique inside the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building. This building has a rich and varied past, re-inventing itself time and again and always successful. A bit like the Wandsworth Common beer festival.

The self-styled Lord Battersea can divide opinion and doesn’t shy away from controversy, the fact remains that he organises some of the best beer festivals in London. The beers are interesting and individually sourced, it’s not a simple phone call to a regional wholesaler. Always there are new releases and beers brewed especially for the festival.

Having first decried tank beer, then having a disastrous venture into keg beer a couple of years ago (it requires electricity apparently, more than you imagine) he returned this Halloween with the usual well sourced cask beers and a brand new ‘craft wall’. The meter had been well fed and everything ran like clockwork.

(Now we hear that the Clapham Brewmasters event this year (the substitute for Battersea while it the old town hall is going up and down and up) will feature 100 beers on the craft wall.)

The first night is always ‘preview night’, fixed price entry and free beer, definitely the night to be there. We probably didn’t make best use of it having already stopped at the just opened We Brought Beer Clapham (a properly curated offering) and then The Old School House (on a previous visit had Mikeller, now it was a single distributors faux craft, avoid). But this is stuff for another post.

At the Le Gothique my best in show was Strannik, a big Russian Imperial stout from Northern Monk. Low ABV beers were all the rage in the spring, a trifle late but Little Beer Corporation (yes, the one I do a bit of work for) launched Little & Often, a 3.0% crystal rye IPA, spicy and with 65 IBU of bitterness this certainly has a big initial flavour, would be great washing down a curry imho. Wimbledon Brewery were there with their well made but ordinary new beers backed by brewing royalty and city money. As usual Fuller’s had a special version, as usual, to my taste it wasn’t very nice, sour in a bad way. My notes went downhill after the Strannik.

Great venue, properly sourced beer, always moving forward, genial mein host – I like Le Gothique festivals.

Venue:                    8.5/10
Beer selection:       9/10
Beer quality:           8/10
Atmosphere:           8/10
A good night out:    8/10
Total score:            41.5/50, 83%

Not the greatest beer festival London has ever seen

Chutzpah is us

Chutzpah is us

Billed as ‘the greatest beer festival London has ever seen’ you’d never accuse the Craft Beer Co of lacking chutzpah. These guys know how to organise festivals, their Craft100 festivals have featured 100 of the best beers in the country including several rare, special and new releases. In fact it’s been a victim of it’s own success in some ways, the Clapham bar is nowhere near big enough.

So the London Beer Carnival was going to be different. 50 of the best beers from around the world chosen for taste, not marketing considerations (no tittering at the back), unlimited 90ml pours, £50 a ticket, a venue in Waterloo. It had to be done. So imagine my surprise dear reader, when I received an email advising me monies were being refunded. So what went wrong? Who knows? Team Stonch normally have their finger on the pulse but may or may not have missed the mark, though Craft Beer Co’s Martin Hayes left more questions unanswered than answered with his reply.

But never fear, the beer was bought and various events were planned instead. The headline act was ‘Route CBC’ at the Clapham bar featuring the American beers. Now we know rare, strong, artisanal beer does not come cheap but some were £6.50 for a 1/3? In some cases they were not high abv and, according to the check-ins on Untappd, not particularly rare. (I am currently sitting in a Brewdog bar where a De Molen/Fyne 9.5% collab is £4.90 a half and Stone Old Guardian, 11.2% is £4.55 a third). Unlike Craft100 festivals there was no programme, just a menu mentioning name of beer, brewery, abv and price – nothing else. And there was £3 deposit for a glass, why? The bar at the front was operating as normal but also with deposits on glasses.

Some of the beers were great, they were all in good condition, lots of BA goodness. The number of breweries represented curiously low. But hey-ho, there was also the free bus to the Brixton bar where they had the Nordic beers. We cashed in our glasses and headed out front. Sightings of the free bus had been rare (not every 30 mins as per menu), but it did exist. So we had a couple of nice ordinary beers in the front bar – still having to pay a new £3 deposit. Eventually we gave up waiting and took an ordinary bus. Of course we forgot to get our £6 back, it’s so unusual to pay a deposit for a glass when you are sat at a bar for simple half. Halfway to Brixton, sat on the bus I realised this. I could faintly hear the kerching of the CBC accountant’s till and a triumphant ‘gotcha’ ringing in the air.

This was my first time in CBC Brixton, it is small but in a trendy area, the serving area of the bar is particularly small. A nice bar on a normal night, this wasn’t. First impression was a relief to see normal prices, most were under £3 a third. Regrettably the beers were exceptionally normal too, this was a poor showcase for the Nordic lands.

Intrepid is our middle name at Team Intoxicated. We could still make it to Leather Lane in the City for the German and Polish beers. The evening took an upturn with the arrival of a Scotch egg and the militant wing of Bexley CAMRA but otherwise more dreary beer, not even a menu here as far as we could see.

On the Sunday there was an uninspiring list of Irish and Italian beers to coincide with the rugby. Then a week later Covent Garden CBC had some of the Route CBC beers with new additions. The Intoxicated litigation fund being what it is, I will not call them the dregs.

What a letdown. The more so because of the previous great beers at Craft100 festivals. So what went wrong? Staffing issue, low ticket sales, some weird H&S concern? I would suspect that craft beer bubble has reached an optimum size, it hasn’t burst. There are a lot of people who really enjoy a beer festival where they will pay a fiver a pop for half a dozen premium halves (or more). But the thought of sticking up £50 in advance is a different matter, one that appeals to a limited audience – indeed if the beer list was the same as we saw at the events above even I would have felt short changed. And nobody likes ticking a box (or getting a badge) as much as me.

Craft Beer Co competes in the London market with Brewdog, Draft House and Barworks. To my mind, despite being a ‘family firm’, they are the most achingly hip. As a beer salesman they are the most difficult to engage with. Their beer selection is certainly no better than Barworks or Brewdog. The vibe is cooler in Barworks, more laid back in Draft House. Brewdog service and knowledgeability is, I hate to say, the best.

Without doubt though, CBC have the worst toilets. Now, when I was young drinking gallons of cheap session bitter in spit and sawdust pubs this didn’t matter. Now I am in my dotage and drinking premium beer at a premium price I expect a premium sanitary experience as well.

Have CBC got a bit up themselves and not noticed the trends? Is the firm run by accountants, not beer lovers? Did you enjoy the events? Have I got it wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time.

Wandsworth Beer Festival at Le Gothique

Beer_Festival_Halloween_2014I’m in an old orphanage that was converted to an interrogation centre in WW2 and it’s Halloween. Scariest of all I am in the company of ‘Lord Battersea’! It must be the Wandsworth Common beer festival again!

These, in my humble opinion, have been the best beer festivals in London for the past year or so at least. Always something new, rare or collaborative and this year a London debut for my beloved Little Beer Corporation.

Dredged from the extensive ‘draft archives’ at a time when there are more beer festivals than ever this is one that I look forward to more than many.

Why? Well ‘Lord Battersea’ aka Mark Justin is an opinionated guy with a great venue and the energy to make it happen. Whether you agree with him or not (me? often but not always) he is entertaining and knowledgeable company. Many festivals rely on beer either being ‘supplied’ (via a distributor say), or ‘sold’ (breweries wanting their beers at the festival) but at Wandsworth they are curated and sought. Breweries are approached in advance to brew something special or rare, sure Mark has some favourites (step up Sarah Hughes) but you can be sure that there will be an interesting selection. Not 300 variations on 3.8 – 4.5% bitter (CAMRA take note).

If I’ve a gripe then it’s the dominance of cask over keg, I’d like to see a balance. They had an unfortunate experience the first time they tried to have a lot of keg, warm day, underestimation of power required, blown electrics etc.

Beer lovers and alcoholics will love the ‘preview night’ fixed sum and free beer. A nice idea that doesn’t end in debauched drunkenness

Venue:                   8.5/10
Beer selection:       8.5/10
Beer quality:           8/10
Atmosphere:           8/10
A good night out:     8/10
Total score:            41/50, 82%

Craft 100 at Craft Beer Co., Clapham

craft100Admirable idea to get 100 artisanal beers in a nice pub like Craft Beer Co., Clapham. But therein lies the rub. It’s always going to be a victim of its own success. So get there early on a weekday. Also the crowd, or lack of it, is much more diverse than the beer geekery who descend in the evening.

Twenty six beers in the launch/exclusive/collab section meant that you were tempted not to look further – and I’m not sure I did. The International Rainbow Project beers were still around at this time and for me the Wild Beer/Toccalmatto collab was unmissable, Indigo Child was as good as I’d expected, marvellous balance and depth.

It’s a nice venue, astroturf garden at the front and the back, where they put the cask beers and some interesting food, dosas on this occasion. (Stick with craft pork pies and sausage rolls imho). By the evening the place is heaving though, making it unpleasant.

Kernel’s Glen Garioch Barrel Aged Stout was the usual impeccable quality. Am I alone in thinking that Kernel’s real strength is in paler beers. Their IPA and Pale Ales are the nonpareil of British brewing. The Berliner Weisse is a lovely re-addition to the British scene. But the stouts, mmm, they are good, only. (NB Don’t bother looking for a description of the beer on the Kernel site, they don’t do that stuff, uncool maybe?).

Following the path less trendy, Kent Brewery’s Pumpkin Saison was lovely. Spicy, sweet in a good way, nice. You’ll have to take my word for that as it’s disappeared from their website now.

It’s a ‘festival’ that you have to go to for the great and rare beer – but get there early.

Venue:                 7/10
Beer selection:        8.5/10
Beer quality:          8/10
Atmosphere:            8/10
A good night out:      7/10
Total score:           40/50, 80%