Community Service? (CAMRA Branch Meeting #1)

Pint Pot Head

I’d long pondered joining the Campaign For Real Ale but never quite got round to it. Initially, it all seemed a bit too fuddy-duddy old man. A few years later, there was no way I was going to give warm flat cash to a group who’d spent money on the ridiculous (and slightly scary) pint pot head recruitment campaign. Mostly recently, my beer exploration has led me to fall in love with breweries who have embraced the hops and ideas of the American craft beer fraternity and this in turn has led me believe that CAMRA’s views and definitions are outdated and parochial. Then, Sheriff Mitchell (twitter associate and fellow beer lover) attended his first CAMRA branch meeting and unleashed THIS blog post upon us… which, I’m sure you can agree, is quite a shocking and embarrassing indictment of CAMRA (at least at a local level). The Sheriff’s experience was all the impetus I needed and in a burst of righteous revolutionary zeal I’d become a campaigner for real ale and was eagerly but nervously awaiting the day that I would attend my first branch meeting.

As an SN postcode dweller, I would be indoctrinated into the Swindon & North Wilts Chapter.

The meeting was scheduled to take place in The Kings in Swindon’s Old Town. The Kings is owned by local brewing giants Arkells, who are a brewer that I’ve never been impressed by. Before entering the pub I was greeted by a blackboard that proudly announced “An Excellent Selection of Continental Beers on Draught: Schlosser, La Chouffe, De Prael.” Nah! I’m just shitting you, it was Becks, Stella and Kronenbourg 1664. Inside, the real ale selection was as expected: the Arkells core range of 2B, 3B, Moonlight and Wiltshire Gold. I figured that as 3B is the best-selling of the 4 then it stood the best chance of being the freshest pint – the tangy sour taste that assaulted my tongue unfortunately proved that my theory was flawed. At the bar I met Tim, my co-conspirator and a fellow 1st time branch attendee. After a brief exchange of pleasantries it was time to head upstairs for the meeting.

Not including us two newbies, the attendance figure didn’t break a dozen and the average age was somewhere in the mid 50s – there were no female members of the congregation. The start of the meeting was called. The two new boys were cautiously but not coldly welcomed and our names were noted down so they could be immortalised in the meeting’s minutes. We were advised that as it was a ‘Business Meeting’ we might not find it too interesting… and then it was full-speed ahead. I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow account but there are a few details that I feel are worth mentioning.

  • Financially, the branch appears to be a well run affair: as we approach the end of the fiscal year funds are sufficiently surplus that “a further £5000” was donated to CAMRA HQ (next year, I might suggest they use the money to send me on a fact-finding mission to the breweries of Colorado).
  • The Swindon Beer Festival is close to securing a five-year deal with the Steam Railway Museum. In itself that’s not a fascinating fact but what I did find interesting is that CAMRA HQ were asked to look over the contract but they didn’t even manage to acknowledge the request, even after a couple of follow-up communications. A few things were said that strongly suggests CAMRA HQ aren’t interested in helping out with matters down at the grassroots level.
  • The branch area has been allocated 17 slots in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide 2013. The successful pubs will be decided at a special meeting scheduled for 27 February, which is also the night that we decide the branch Pub of the Year. The Chair announced that he hopes a lot of members turn up to this meeting as he believes the process should be as democratic as possible, which was quite refreshing to hear.
  • I also discovered why the majority of the meetings are in pubs that don’t make it into the Good Beer Guide: they provide a free meeting room – makes good business (but bad beer) sense.

After a break for half-time refreshments (a pint of Wiltshire Gold, which was a significant improvement on the 3B) we were told about the Pub Database and encouraged to help keep it up to date by providing mini reviews of the pubs we visit. The branch try to ensure that a pub is visited at least once every two years, which is a simple enough task for most pubs but it can be a bit problematic for ones that are on the periphery of the region or are so crap that nobody wants to drink there. Before joining CAMRA I’d used the database so I said that I’d be more than happy to provide some updates.

Just before the meeting was brought to a close, the secretary asked each member present if they had any ‘pub news’. This was a chance for all present to say Such & Such pub has closed, or the lease is up for sale, or it’s now selling 4 ales instead of 3, etc etc – I thought this was a good way to gain a bit of insight into what’s happening in the local pub scene and it was also a good method of steering the meeting back to the important issue of pubs and booze and away from mundane matters such as finances and membership.

The meeting was closed at 9.45pm, which I believe was a new earliest finish record.

Back in the bar there was some time to talk beer and pubs before we went our separate ways. Tim, my co-conspirator, mentioned that he loved the Red Lion in Cricklade and that he especially loved their American bottled beer selection. On hearing this, one guy visibly flinched but I don’t believe he was thinking ‘that stuff is evil’ as his look suggested that he knew nothing at all about it and therefore didn’t want to be asked to make a comment. I then regaled them with an abridged version of my recent drunken exploits in the Netherlands and they all seemed politely interested – admittedly, they probably left thinking that I am a just bugger pisshead rather than a genuine connoissuir of the real ale… they may very well have me sussed out already.

All-in-all, I thought it was an interesting night and I found my fellow members to be an amiable lot. Thankfully there was no sign of the pitiful behaviour displayed at Sheriff Mitchell’s 1st CAMRA Branch meeting. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it but I am looking forward to meeting up with them again in two weeks time. Of course, the real test will be when we hit the Red Lion in June for the branch social… “right, who fancies some Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine?”

UPDATE (15/2/12): the original title of this post was ‘Community Service aka CAMRA Branch Meeting #1’ – it came from a tweet that I sent pre-meeting. It has since been pointed out that the title was misleading as it didn’t really reflect my experience. So, I decided that a slightly more accurate title was required.

I am not a number... I am a real ale drinker

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~ by landells on February 14, 2012.

8 Responses to “Community Service? (CAMRA Branch Meeting #1)”

  1. Bit more encouraging. The room thing is common There are few these days and even fewer free.

    • Thankfully, it would appear that there a few free meeting rooms in the Swindon area and, from what I gather, they treat their non-paying guests very well

      • we decided in my previous branch that we could afford a nominal fee for meeting rooms if it meant we got to support the better ale establishments, but in many cases they saw how good the turnout was and waived the fee on account of beer drunk

      • The three best pubs don’t have meeting rooms – free or otherwise – and they are well ahead of the other pubs in terms of beer choice and overall quality. I suppose a CAMRA meeting every now and again may inspire landlords to up their choice a bit.

  2. 100% behind you over US beer, miles ahead of us, on 6 month 21 state, 15,000 miles road trip, no bad pint even in Utah ( Polygamy Porter, ” why stop at one?”) Had two month long stays in San Francisco and recently been to DC, Charlottesville and Richmond VA. On a crusade in the UK to promote US beer as promised to a bartender in a brewpub in Lake Havasu City AZ. Happy to share experiences. Do try the Euston Tap, by the bus station at Euston station, London, England.
    Agree about CAMRA meetings, member since 1973, been to one. I write pieces for the local Westmorland branch mag, mainly about US beer.
    Cheers, Roger

    • I know and love the Euston Tap – despite some more recent additions to the beer circuit, it’s still my favourite drinking den when I visit London

  3. Thanks for the mention! I thought it was interesting that they never referred to themselves (well, us) as CAMRA but when speaking about head office it was always “CAMRA have said X”, “CAMRA are going to do Y”. Like it was some evil dictatorship. I’m maybe reading between the lines though.

    It’ll be interesting to see which pubs we get in the Good Beer Guide in the selection meeting. It was said that one year only four people turned up to vote, therefore it leaves it open for landlords mates to come and get a pub in the guide that don’t particularly deserve it. It may be a good idea to email the secretary to find out which pubs are in the “up for debate” section and pay a quick visit before the selection meeting..

    • Yeah, I got the distinct impression that, at least some of, the members don’t rate CAMRA HQ very highly. The turnout of 4 was the lowest but I believe that usually there’s about 15-20 doing the voting and I think the chairman would do his best to ensure that mates of landlords didn’t corrput the voting – he seems quite a decent and upstanding guy.

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