Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Future of CAMRA

No, this is not a post about The Campaign For Real Ale's acceptance/dismissal of the alleged Craft Keg Revolution.  You can go practically anywhere in Beerblogland for that.  This is a post about CAMRAs activities at local level, what's happening to it, and what may have to happen in the future.

CAMRA has been around for over 40 years.  The members who do the Branch Meetings, local mags, GBG reviews and socials have been around almost as long.  They typically joined back in the 1970s when they were in their 20s or 30s.  All fine and dandy.  The 1970s were a time of upheaval and social change, and it's nice to be part of something you believe in.  But these active members are are still there, nearly 40 years later.  And they're in their 60s and 70s now.

RedNev recently posted about taking over his local CAMRA magazine.  One by one, his associates dropped out due to not wanting the hassle at their advanced ages, until he was the only person left running it.  And now, he too has to give it up.  From what I can gather, such things are true in many branches - the active stalwarts running things are aging and possibly may not be around for much longer.  And who will run things locally then?

As to why the younger members are not replacing them, well, there are the usual reasons.  Busy lives, lack of time, work pressures, fewer incentives to campaign about things in the 21st Century.  But I believe the main reasons are this :

(1) I joined CAMRA last year.  I read the local magazine which exhorted for more active local members (only 15 out of nearly 1000 in my branch).  I also looked at the numerous pictures.  Let's face it - I work evenings, and I don't really want to spend my 2 days off a week hanging around with men older than my father.  And if, at 37, I think that, what does any prospective member fifteen years younger than I think? 

(2) Related to that, CAMRA activities seem to be a mixture of 70s style politicking and OAPs' day tripping.  Sit in on a Committee, visit a local brewery, watch a Pub-of-the-month award being presented.  These things are not going to be considered particularly diverting to many people under the age of 45.

So, what will happen when the stalwarts die off, move away or simply cannot cope with running things at 70+?  Personally, I think the concept of the local branch will die.  The whole activity will run via web-polls and forums, Good Beer Guide ratings, the lot. There are so many breweries now, you can probably ask to look around if you ring up and say you want to visit, rather having the local CAMRA branch organise things for you.  There will be a local website for Pub information, but that will be it for grassroots activity.  It's easier to do a website than a magazine, after all.

The Campaign For Real Ale is not really an organisation that a twentysomething in 2013 would boast about being a member (CAMRA obviously know this, as they have a concessionary membership for the under 26s).  Even if they join, the average activities of a local branch are unlikely to interest them.  The way forward is the internet, as ever, and it should be used to connect members who may not want to sit in a upstairs pub room with a pint of mild, an Agenda and a risk of being asked to take the Minutes.  Who knows?  They may meet up in a pub and drink some beer, but it will be informal.  Informality is everything.

As I said at the start of this blog.  Beer and pubs should be fun.  When it starts becoming work and a chore to get through, it's time to take a step back.  CAMRA should take note, and maybe think that their current structure is leaving them behind.


  1. You are quite right about the ageing profile of the active membership. Last night I was at the staff party for the Stockport Beer Festival. I am 54 and would say there were probably more people present older than me than younger. Also the tendency to run meetings like a 1970s trade union.

    However, pubs and beer remain a physical, real-world activity and you can't retreat entirely into the twittersphere. Beer festivals, for example, take a lot of hands-on organising. And physical newsletters reach out to people in pubs in a way that the Internet never can - almost by definition, most beery things on the Internet are preaching to the converted.

  2. To be fair, Mudgie, I personally did find about beer activity as a result of reading blogs, and joined CAMRA as a result. CAMRA's membership has increased by, what, 50% in the last 5 years? I'm sure the internet is responsible for a lot of that. How festivals will be organised via online is in its infancy, but I think it will be worked out.

    Beer and pubs are an inherently physical thing, but most people under the age of 35 organise their social lives online now, so CAMRA will have to take account of this.

  3. There was a recent piece (well in the last year) about how branches need to start thinking about moving meetings online, to things like Facebook. This resulted in a slurry of posts about how ridiculous this was, and how we should all be in the pub meeting!

    But as you point out, we all have busy lives. Branches cover large areas. I have a young baby. I'm not going to wander out on a Wednesday night to find wherever South West London CAMRA is hiding that particular night, which may or may not be convenient for me to get to.

    So I don't get involved because the structure doesn't make it easy for me to get involved. And that's exactly why the active members of my local branch are tiny, as are most.

    But if you try and change it, the old guard simply go "how ridiculous. Get thee to the pub!" and that's the end of that. As long as people running the branches are still in that mindset, nothing will sadly change.

    I do keep meaning to volunteer at festivals but again it's a matter of time. I only have so much annual leave, and what little I do gets soaked up with family stuff.

  4. I've just turned 60 and I find CAMRA old fashioned and out of date so heaven knows what younger people think. CAMRA had its place in the 70's and 80's but the world has moved on. My membership expires at the end of this month and I will not be renewing. Time to get out there and enjoy some good beer however it is dispensed!

  5. Good points.

    I've been a member since I was 18 - half my lifetime ago - and in many ways I'd consider myself an active one, trying to be a good ambassador for the cause, writing for London Drinker etc. maybe even doing the occasional shift at a festival.

    But, harsh though it sounds, the world of the 'active branch' has always scared me away pretty sharpish. Some of the people - usually older people with the best of intentions - have had a tendency to creep me out rather than draw me in.

    It's a strange dichotomy. On one hand very cliquey because it's been the same little group for decades, but at the same time, over-friendly and almost desperate towards newcomers.

    Those I have spoken too, I've had little in common with beyond beer - and even then they've more often than not had completely different tastes in beer to me, and different attitudes towards the various things going on in the industry.

    (Mind you, I typically have just as little common ground with the anti-CAMRA craft keg hipster types as well!)

  6. Move the focus to encompass the upswing in craft beer and you will prosper.

  7. I don't think craft beer has anything to do with this one. As with any voluntary organisation, the age profile of volunteers has much to do with the demographic profile of the pool of recruits. In other words, people who are aged (let's say) below 45 - 50 have a lot on their plates: kids, money shortages, time shortages. Whereas, people aged over 50 tend not to have young, expensive, time-consuming kids. They may even have retired and have a lot of time on their hands, not to mention spare cash which is important if you're going to expensive pubs. They also have years of experience of dealing with the sort of twats you need to influence at senior level to get things done, not to mention the social contacts built up over the years that will give you access to these people. This is why, and I've said it for years now, CAMRA needs to recruit older members rather than younger members: basically it needs them, their skills, their activism and their cash.

  8. Some interesting points but Curmudgeon has it right about some activities still needing troops on the ground. Just like the Army still has to rely ultimately on the Infantry, so does CAMRA. Sure a lot can be done online, but things like the GBG, which is a big part of CAMRA, needs active participation. And a lot of beer festival organising can and is done electronically but at some point it needs hands on organising. That is where the branch structure will always have a role. Even with online voting and skyping, the people who are most active will always form some sort of hierarchical structure. And Chris has a very valid point about actually needing older members with experience and time to give.

    Some things you mention are timeless. When I joined I was the youngest active member for quite a long time but still have, by your reckoning, another 25 years before I'm in the creaky brigade. There's always been problems attracting younger members-just as there has been attracting women and minorities. In many ways CAMRA is best suited to the middle classed-middle aged. But it's no different from many other organisations in that respect. In fact political parties would love to have the number of young members signed up that CAMRA has!

    Having said all that, of course massive reform is needed. And it will come. The trade union model type of meeting is out dated and intimidating to many newcomers. There are increasing demands on people's time and this side of CAMRA will need whittling down. CAMRA's complex bureaucratic nature will also have to change with the times. I predict major changes but not for some time as the old guard is not quite ready to go quietly into the night.

  9. Basically what Chris and Tyson said. You must also remember that there is a difference (or should be) between a drinking club and a campaigning organisation. Campaigning means an active presence on the ground, not in the ether.

    It's a tricky one, but given that all volunteer organisations suffer in a similar way, CAMRA doesn't do too badly. We spend a lot of time locally trying to make things more interesting and less bureaucratic, but that's hard too. You have to have some kind of structure.

    Peter Hobbs is utterly wrong. Young people are different to us when we were young. They want different things from their social life. Changing focus would not solve underlying difficulties.