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.


  1. "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'm afraid this makes me doubt the credibility of your whole account (a shame as until then I'd been accepting it as gospel and tutting away at the rudeness of the old soaks, the likes of which I have witnessed to some degree myself when CAMRA groups have come to my own pubs).

    Without meaning too much disrespect to the British Guild of Beer Writers, I sincerely doubt any of them would have heard of it, and even if they had they wouldn't have noticed the card in your wallet anyway. Soz but it just isn't plausible bruv.

    1. Fair point. Whether you choose to believe it or not is up to you. I also had my CAMRA membership card there but that's by the by.
      I'm interested that this is the part that had been concentrated on rather than the rest of it however.
      I'm also happy to STAND WITH THE TAND alongside you.

  2. PS. CAMRA branches need strong leaders to keep them in check. That's why I'm promoting we all STAND WITH THE TAND, but so far my campaign hasn't got off the ground.

  3. Umm - while some of the behaviour of the CAMRA people was questionable to say the least (assuming this is a properly unbiased account) I'm not sure you come out of this smelling of roses. Sounds like you went along more or less with the intention of writing a hatchet job ("I'd heard stories about this particular group") in the first place and overall I'm not entirely sure what you hope to achieve by it.

    And as for leaving for British Guild of Beer Writers membership card prominent - just what was that all about? Could be that while you think the local CAMRA people are a bunch of rude old soaks they may have realised who you were and dismissed you as a self important tosser. This sort of thing cuts both ways you know.

    1. I certainly had no intention of writing a 'hatchet job' as you say, far from it. I am a CAMRA member and as entitled to be at this meeting as anyone else. I even write articles for the magazine of an adjacent branch, but this is my local branch and felt it was about time I made contact.
      On reflection the BGOBW card thing was a mistake, however if you have read any of my other posts you'll know that I try to get to the core of the people who matter when it comes to beer in Essex. I had hoped to engage them in conversation although in hindsight this was a particularly clumsy way of doing so.
      I went with an open mind, and whereas I didn't expect to be treated as a 'beer hero' I did hope to at least engage one or two in conversation. The Spread Eagle is a small pub, and when Trevor mentioned some of them by name and pointed them out they undoubtedly saw and heard.
      I could also have tried a more direct approach, but from what I observed I
      really didn't want to. I will get other opportunities to speak directly with CAMRA branch members in Essex and talk about campaigning, it just won't be this lot.

    2. You certainly were entitled to attend the meeting - never suggested you weren't, But from reading this you didn't really "attend" did you? You seem to have hung around the fringes, decided you didn't like what you saw and buggered off. No attempt to engage with them at all - which is not quite the same as being "associated" with them. If you really wanted to find out what this lot were like you should have spoken to them at the very least. As it is these are just the observations of what comes across as a clearly biased outsider looking in. They might well have turned out to be as bad as they seemed (and I agree from what you say that comes across as pretty bad) but then again...

      Ans if you wanted to flash any card - why not your CAMRA card? That might have gained a bit more interest and also proved a more reliable gauge to their attitude to an unfamiliar face. And I still don't know what you expect all this to either prove or achieve. At the moment it's:

      1. Man hears "stories" about group of people
      2. Goes to pub where they are meeting
      3. Observes silently
      4. Doesn't like what he sees
      5. Prejudices confirmed goes home and writes blog about how terrible they were.

      And that gets us exactly where?

    3. Absolutely, it gets us nowhere at all.
      As you mention it, my CAMRA membership card is also clearly displayed in my wallet, but the whole card thing is more of an aside than the main event although it does seem to have garnered a fair amount of attention.
      Nonetheless I have taken your comments on board and have contacted a member of a neighbouring branch with a view to attending one of their gatherings and redressing the balance. I will write about that experience too, favourable or otherwise, although if it isn't I'm sure I can expect similar responses to yours.

    4. I would also have liked the last point to be;
      5. Myths dispelled, they chat happily and agree to meet more properly on a more suitable occasion.

    5. Well your version of 5 was never going to happen until you actually engaged with these people of course. And the card thing has only beenmentioned because you did make a point of it in the original piece and let's face it saying you "let my British Guild Of Beer Writers membership card be very obvious in my wallet" does come across as a bit wanker-ish whereas if you'd said the same thing about your CAMRA card it would have made much more sense given the event you had gone along to.

      Please though don't think this is a kneejerk response to criticism of CAMRA - some of what you describe (if that's what happened) sounds very odd - not least the multiple exchange of glasses (although, as someone said to me last night, after the first pint had been dispensed into a handle glass you wonder why the rest of the crowd didn't specify a straight glass). My main gripe really was that you gave the impression of going along with a preconceived idea and not giving them a fair crack of the whip by your failure to engage.

      I think Matthew Lawrenson at "Seeing the Lizards" may have you bang to rights:

    6. I understand what you're saying, but I honestly did go along to try to engage with them, something I sadly failed miserably to do. Had I done so of course this piece may have ended differently but the section around their behaviour would have remained.
      I assure you that it is true, and the glass exchange really happened. The mass decanting of beer from dimpled mug to straight glass by three bar staff is one of the most peculiar things I have ever witnessed in a pub.
      And yes, as you say he has got me banged to rights, well nearly at any rate. I'm not going to have a meltdown at a parody, And I'm still keeping my CAMRA membership.

    7. The glass thing is seriously strange. I mean I'm not keen on a handled glass but if I get my beer in one I just drink it and make sure I specify a straight glass next time around.

      Hope you have better luck with the next lot.

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  5. I think deep down there was a really good blog post idea here but maybe it wasn't executed as planned, although I too wouldn't fancy diving in the deep in by the sounds of the evening. Sometimes large groups of similar people can be intimidating looking in from the outside but not one of them welcoming Trevor (a face they all know) does sound rather worrying.

    Although I have grown up around CAMRA members (family / friends / festivals / working and drinking at LOSC) I have only this year decided to sign up. I haven't really directly seen scenes like Justin has described but on countless times I have witnessed first hand the dislike and general unfriendliness between different branches. As someone younger who has always enjoyed real ale since being old enough to drink I had been interested in joining. But I was always put off by some branch members attitudes toward each other, when from my understanding everyone in CAMRA was all in it for the same reason. This of course wasn't a true representation of certain branches as a whole just certain members within the group.

    Thankfully I don't see this as much no more, especially with a younger membership starting to sign up to the ranks. For this reason plus the start of CAMRA reconsigning Craft Beer/Kegged Beer more I signed up this year but I haven't been to a meeting etc.

    I have also seen people hand back the dimpled glass.. both Non-CAMRA and CAMRA members alike! Some with real hatred towards the glass too!

    I look forward to reading your experiences with the another CAMRA group... maybe even a follow up post about a better meeting with the SW Essex group again some day...

    1. You're right Matt. With the benefit of a few days reflection I have actually started to write the post that perhaps written in the first place.
      Nevertheless this one will remain.
      I think that my method was clumsy, but I'm sure that many would have refrained from contact. I found the group a little intimidating if I'm honest, and I'm not one to shy away from such things normally.
      You can, of course confirm this with Trevor next time you see him too.

  6. As a CAMRA member for 30 years, I have never seen behaviour like this. That's not to say it didn't happen, but never in my experience.

    1. I've been drinking in pubs for that long as well, and the only time I have seen glasses handed back was if they were dirty or the beer is off.
      Should you want clarification then you can contact The Spread Eagle directly of course. I can assure you that we haven't connived to have the same response either, and as of this point I haven't discussed it further with them.
      It was probably a one off. I will give them the benefit of the doubt on this occasion, but you will understand if I don't rush to contact them again.

    2. I will also add that I have been blogging about beer and pubs for nearly four years, and have made over two hundred posts. I have never had any doubt cast on anything I have written previously, and everything has been from my point of view.
      This is the first time that I have felt compelled to write something that concerned CAMRA, and the first time my integrity has been called into question. I find that a little disappointing.

  7. Blimey. I have just come across this - must add Justin to my blog list - he is a mate and one of the good guys - trust me on that one.

    These do sound like a load of plonkers and while we can criticise Justin for what he did or didn't do, sometimes you just feel "I'm not up for this". And you exit stage left.

    I agree it might have been better if he'd accosted someone and said "I'm a new attendee, where's the Chairman/ Secretary/ Social Sec so I can say hello?" That would have at least found out if all was really as it seemed. Social CAMRA events are different in that they have no particular structure whereas a formal meeting does and might have been easier. At my branch I always ask when opening meetings "Are there any new members present or someone who hasn't attended one of these meetings before?" Introductions then take place and I or someone else always has a chat at beer breaks and at the end of the meeting to encourage them to return.

    So Justin, show up at a Branch Meeting and report back. And going back to the glasses, you'd think they would have noticed the first pints being poured into a jug and stopped it there and then. I too always specify a straight glass, but I don't wait until it has been poured. If I don't notice, I do what John Clarke does. Sup up and specify next time.

    1. I sort of take some of your points (and agree that superficially this lot do sound a pretty poor bunch) but given he went with the apparent intention of finding out what they were like ( having "heard stories about this particular group" so no preconceived ideas there then) and just didn't engage with them at all to find out I do think this is, all in all, a rather shoddy piece of work.

    2. I know you have picked up on the phrase "heard stories", but I was intentionally vague in order to protect the identities of those concerned from incrimination. I have been told several things in confidence from landlords which I am not willing to repeat on a public forum. I don't doubt that they are true as those who told me witnessed them first hand and offered them without prompting. Nevertheless, that phrase remains.
      I think your choice of language and the way you referred to me on Twitter is, as you say, shoddy, but that is just me.
      I am in the process of re-writing this piece as I feel that the more salient points have been missed.

    3. Sorry if you've taken offence but I really don't think that at the end of the day you gave these people a fair crack of the whip and that's what it's about really - fairness. If you'd spoken to them and the outward impression had been confirmed all well and good. And on Twitter I neither referred to you by name nor linked to this piece.

    4. Fair enough, we'll put it down to knee-jerk reaction and leave it there.
      What's done is done, and what's written is written. I will endeavour to go forward, whether they'll want to speak to me is another matter but that is mine to deal with. I believe in giving people a fair chance, so will give it another go when the opportunity arises.
      Incidentally if any SWEssex member, or if any Essex branch wishes to contact me to arrange this then please leave a comment here.

  8. Actually, Justin is on my blog roll. Just missed this post as I have been away.

  9. Too much beer drinking going on 'ere.
    Btw, naughty naughty; Romford ain't been in Essex for a very long time, so mentioning it under Essex breweries is like a pint which is almost all head.

    1. Ind Coope was founded in 1709 and Romford was part of Essex until it was swallowed by Greater London in 1965, so for 256 years it was an Essex brewery. It closed completely in 1992, 27 years later, meaning that for just under 90% of its life it was firmly in Essex.

    2. Good come back! And well researched too.
      Actually, until the late 19th Century Romford was within the Liberty of Havering which had automony from Essex, so not as firmly in Essex as you might think.