Thursday, 15 October 2015
We're SWEssex CAMRA And We Do What We Like! A Brush With My Local Branch
We're SWEssex CAMRA And We Do What We Like!
A Brush With My Local Branch
I am not by nature a person who is prone to rant, in fact if you read my posts on a regular basis then you'll know that I try to find the positive in everything I do. I have on occasion been critical of certain beers that breweries have produced, particularly in my own county of Essex, but I have always tried to offer a balanced argument with words of encouragement and praise where I think it is due.
I am passionate about the beer scene in Essex. For too long I feel we have been introspective, trying not to offend anyone, churning out the same formulaic brown beers and golden ales, all the while keeping those abvs. down. The local drinkers that embraced CAMRA in the late seventies and early eighties when it was a genuine force for change still see themselves as the core of the organisation. Cask beer was, and still is, their fight, and they fought hard to keep it. Admittedly there were many brewery casualties along the way; Gray and Sons ceased brewing in Chelmsford in 1974, Ind Coope became the Romford Brewing Company in 1980 and switched to keg-only production before being closed completely in 1992, and of the Ridleys Brewery in Hartford End was sold to Greene King and closed in 2005, but we now boast thirty-one active breweries, with the majority of these less than ten years old.
You could argue that there has never been a better time to drink beer in Essex. Some brewers have decided to be adventurous and brew beers that embrace the new traditions and the growth in the craft beer market across the world, but it has on the whole been a tentative 'toe-in-the-water' experimentation rather than a total immersion and seeing where the current takes them. All of the larger Essex breweries without exception have a brown bitter, a golden ale and an India Pale Ale in the English style as part of their core range. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with this but I think I have found a fundamental problem, a cause and effect that has meant that we haven't developed in quite the same way as breweries in other counties.
In the early days of CAMRA when campaigning was at its most furious the lack of good beer available to the drinker in the county was shockingly poor. In the late nineteen-eighties, when I first discovered what a fantastic drink cask ale was, Greene King IPA, Abbot Ale, Courage Best Bitter, Courage Directors, and Ruddles County, were beers that were revered. You just have to look through local beer guides at the time to realise that this was mostly all there was. I used to travel miles to drink beers from Suffolk's Maldon brewery, and a visit to London meant delights from Young's or Fullers.
By this time, of course, CAMRA as an organisation was in its late teens, and for many of the original local branch members this was all that they could find to drink, their palates were used to it, it was what they truly loved. They still, and they still have that passion, but time has moved on. CAMRA is now over forty years old, it's middle aged, and many of those original campaigners have retired, or are very close to doing so. With retirement brings more free time, more time to socialise and drink the beer that they love. They've earned it after all. They know each other well, they are comrades in arms, a social club of drinking companions. They know their stuff. They support local breweries, well they say they do at any rate. Always happy to offer an opinion. They are the drinkers. "Please us" they say, "and we'll publish a favourable review in our local magazine. CAMRA is a national concern, the biggest consumer organisation in Europe, it'll be good publicity for you." In short, we know best.
My own experience with my local CAMRA branch, South West Essex, has been limited to say the least. Despite being a CAMRA member in the region for a quarter of a century I've never been invited to attend a meeting or a social event, in fact all I've ever received through the post from them has been an invitation to help staff the 'Grays Beer Festival' although I haven't even had one of those for the last five years or so. Maybe they got the hint.
I'd heard stories about this particular group, and have on occasion viewed them from afar at local beer festivals. One pub, which for obvious reasons I won't be naming, supposedly lost its Good Beer Guide listing after refusing them a room to have a meeting on a particularly busy Saturday evening. It's now back in the guide, and I am told that they actively courted the branch to this end, although on a recent visit I found the beer quality to be the poorest I have known it to be in more than ten years.
Recently however, I have thought that I really should get to know them, to really find out what makes them tick. My reasoning being that to truly understand beer in Essex I should really speak to and drink with the people who have seen it evolve over the longest time. So, when I discovered that they would be meeting at the Spread Eagle in Brentwood last night, a pub not far from me, and that Trevor Jeffrey, the brewer at Billericay Brewing and a good friend of mine would be in attendance, then I decided that if I was going to meet some of then then I wouldn't get a better opportunity to do so.
The Spread Eagle in Brentwood, my destination, has undergone something of a transformation in recent months. Owned by Punch Taverns, it was once well known in the area for drug dealing and under-age drinking. This summer however it has had a change of tenancy, and Jack, the new landlord has brought good beer and most importantly a good old-fashioned home-from-home pub feeling back to the place. It's quickly become my local. I both live and work nearby,and it just so happens to be directly on my route home. I'll be posting a proper review of the The Spread Eagle in due course, suffice to say that it has become my port in a storm or a place where I feel I can unwind amongst friends.
Trevor had told me he had arranged to meet them there just after eight o'clock, the plan being that they'd stay for about an hour before moving on to the local Wetherspoon's in the High Street. I can time the walk from my house almost down to the second, I do it every day, so I walked through the door right on cue at five past the hour.
Normally I can walk straight in and be served, but I was forced to stop in the narrow doorway and plan my route with care. Arrayed in from of me, two deep and taking up the full length of the bar were the local CAMRA branch. As I paused for a second, I was bundled in the back and almost knocked sideways by a large gentleman who was greeted by those closest and asked what he would like to drink. Thankfully there were plenty of staff on, they were expected after all, and I took my pint of Rooster's Yankee to a suitable viewing area, content to observe and wait for Trevor, who had yet to arrive.
One of the things that I particularly like about The Spread Eagle, something that sets it apart from the rest of the pubs in Brentwood, is that Jack prefers the dimpled pint mug, and serves his beer in them by choice. The CAMRA crew had clearly just been served, and these mugs were being passed out amongst the fifteen or so members, when to my surprise they started to be passed back across the bar to a chorus of grumbling voices. Curious as to what had occurred I took an interest in why this was the case. I hoped it wasn't the beer quality, and it wasn't, it was purely the glass that was at fault. To a person, both men and women were among their number, they had all required that their pints were poured into straight and Nonic glasses. This was something that I've never seen before and I couldn't really understand why. Two of the men who were closest to me, one of which suffered from terrible halitosis on receiving their drinks exclaimed "That's more like it, a traditional glass, it makes the beer taste so much better." Now, I'm currently reading Martyn Cornell's latest book, Strange Tales Of Ale, and I had just finished the chapter that shows that the dimpled mug was introduced by Ravenhead in 1934, a full ten years before the introduction of the Nonic glass. Be that as it may, it strikes me as a very odd thing to do.
Several members were moaning loudly about the lack of tables, and how they really wanted to sit down. This was a little strange as there were several free tables, but they were not near the bar and a couple of them were in different parts of the pub meaning they couldn't stay together as a group. I suspect that it was because of this a couple who had been enjoying a drink before they were surrounded, got up to leave, whereby the chairs were almost dragged from under them before they had barely gathered up their things.
I looked across as they departed and saw that Trevor had made his way in. Now, considering that he is a local brewer and he was wearing a brewery sweatshirt, and these aren't available to buy, not a single one of their number acknowledged his arrival or uttered one word to him as he made his way through them to talk to me. Of all the events of the evening this was the one that I found most surprising. In fact all the time I was there did one of them approach him. On one occasion he pointed out to me some of them that he knew by name, and though they undoubtedly heard him at least one of then consciously turned their back to him as their name was mentioned.
Before he had arrived I had, with no shame, let my British Guild Of Beer Writers membership card be very obvious in my wallet when I had paid for my beer. I noticed that the two men next to me had seen it, they nudged each other and nodded towards it, but I was still met with a shield-wall of broad South West Essex backs.
I had only allowed myself an hour to meet them, I wanted to get home before my children went to bed, but I came to realise that Iwasn't going to get the opportunity to introduce myself on this occasion either than to wade in and do so. I paused for a moment before considering not to do so. Did I really want to be associated with such a group behaving in such a boorish and ill-considered arrogant manner?
The high point of the night came just before I left when Trevor presented both myself and Jack with a bottle of his latest beer, Clever Trevor, for us to try at a later date, and I put on my coat and worked my way through the crowd and went outside.
As I walked away clutching my beery prize, a had a pang of regret that I'd left Trevor to the mercy of those people for the rest of the evening. I don't know if they ever spoke to him, I don't know if he even stayed, but I did feel that I had had a lucky escape.
Before I get a string of comments stating that not all CAMRA branches are like this, that you do things differently where you are, and that this is surely an isolated incident, I fully appreciate that this may be the case. However what I would say to you is that should not happen at all. There wasn't a single person in the pub who didn't know that this was a CAMRA group, and I don't think that it could be said that any of them enjoyed their presence. How is it that you can promote a drink by de-camping and making a general nuisance and obstruction of yourselves wherever you see fit?
Maybe I'm missing a point somewhere down the line, but if I am then will someone please tell me what it is?
If this rot has set in, and I can't believe that South West Essex is the only branch in the country that are guilty of this type of behaviour then CAMRA is surely doomed. Excluding people at a grass-roots level, creating an elite clique and having your own in-jokes and foibles will hasten your demise not expand your active membership in the long term.
I really hope that isn't the case. Recent motions at the AGM prove that there is flesh blood coming through and opinions are beginning to change. As I arrived home and put my beer in the fridge I wondered if it might be too little too late.