Phil Saltonstall (CAMRA Membership No. 305580)
What follows is a draft motion for the 2020 CAMRA AGM. A motion may be submitted for consideration by a proposer, with the support of a seconder. Given the volume of chatter on the issue of CAMRA discounting, I hope that a local CAMRA branch will see merit in supporting this draft motion in order to spur debate at the 2020 AGM.
Draft AGM Motion Text:
This Conference instructs the National Executive to show its support for real ale, the producers of real ale and the purveyors of real ale, by ensuring that all CAMRA campaigns and membership drives are led by beer quality and not financial incentive. CAMRA itself should not therefore engage in, or promote, price discounting schemes for real ale.
It is dangerously inconsistent for CAMRA to promote real ale as ‘the pinnacle of the brewer’s art’ while simultaneously employing and promoting schemes to discount real ale. The discount schemes currently promoted by CAMRA devalue real ale, bring more low-quality cask beer to market in place of higher quality products, imperil smaller breweries and put freehouses out of business. This inconsistency also undermines the campaign’s public image, as CAMRA finds itself promoting that which it was established to overhaul: a limited range of sub-optimal beers from large regional breweries, served-up cheaply by faceless pub chains – while real ale comes to be recognised by Joe Public as the cheap low-quality option at the bar.
The direct endorsement of discount schemes for real ale runs counter to nearly all other CAMRA policies and campaigns. It:
- Devalues real ale and makes it a loss-leader at the bar.
- Allows large breweries and pub chains, with economies of scale and alternative products to profit on, to dramatically out-compete freehouses, wet-led pubs and smaller breweries. Since most discounting pub companies have their estate in urban areas, it also drives drinkers away from rural/suburban pubs that CAMRA is keen to protect.
- Diminishes cask beer quality and range.
- Prevents the achievement of a fair price for producers of cask beer, causing those producers to make beer in other formats.
- Allows CAMRA critics to paint the organisation as schizophrenic at best and nothing more than a ‘Campaign for Cheap Beer’ at worst. It does not matter how many members your organisation has for lobbying purposes, if the public message of that organisation is confused or simply wrong.
CAMRA’s own Internal Policy Document (2019) demands of Branches that they ensure:
1.35 Any brewery promotion or endorsement carrying CAMRA’s name shall be led by quality and not financial incentive.
CAMRA policy documentation therefore clearly acknowledges that the promotion of beer quality stands in opposition to discounting. This significant contradiction within the policy framework must be addressed.
There is a fair price to be paid for beer and CAMRA is currently contributing to the undervaluation of real ale. Of course, the Campaign is a consumer organisation, rather than an industry body. But a consumer organisation that prices its favoured product out of existence does not make any sense.
Note carefully that this draft motion does not say that price discounts may not be independently provided to CAMRA members by businesses selling real ale. It is the prerogative of businesses to offer discounts as they wish. The draft motion simply states that CAMRA itself cannot be both the champion of good-quality, great tasting cask beer and promote real ale as a bargain basement cheap pint.
The financials of discounting real ale within pub chains devalues the product, damaging small breweries and freehouses. Not only does it cause voucher-owners to withdraw their patronage from freehouses and smaller pubs, it also inhibits small breweries from producing cask beer.
To accommodate price discounting, and the effect of price discounting (i.e. that cask beer is undervalued at the bar), most pub companies insist that brewers should provide real ale at a ludicrously low price. This price cap only works for large breweries or cheap-to-produce/late-dated beers. By promoting price discounting, CAMRA is directly altering the real ale market and killing small breweries – or it is forcing them to produce something other than real ale.
It is a direct effect of price discounting that more breweries are turning to the production of keg beers and discontinuing cask beer production.
The CAMRA mission statement reads:
‘Our mission is to promote the production, availability and consumption of quality real ale, cider and perry’
Promoting discounts does the opposite. CAMRA cannot credibly claim that real ale is the finest form of beer available while simultaneously making it the cheapest beer on the bar. No other nation would treat its national drink in that way.
CAMRA is Joe Public’s authority for beer – a hard-won reputation based on education of the membership about real ale. Educated CAMRA members are real ale’s best advocates and the strongest link in the consumer organisation. The corrosive impact on real ale availability of promoting discounting schemes needs to be understood, for the health of CAMRA and the effectiveness of its message.
The policy inconsistency itself, around promoting discounts for real ale, is damaging for CAMRA and the image of real ale. Ultimately, you may or may not agree with the tenor of the draft motion above; but CAMRA needs this discussion to take place and there is an excellent opportunity to have the debate at the 2020 AGM in York.
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOUR OF DISCOUNTING
I have heard some arguments raised in favour of associating CAMRA directly with discounting for real ale. The main ones are:
Recruitment of members
As of 23 November, CAMRA has 192,947 members and is keen to surpass the 200K mark. The discount schemes are a key driver in causing some people to purchase membership.
Answer: The discount schemes are also a way to drive new CAMRA members to pub chains. In many/most circumstances, this undermines CAMRA’s stated aims of supporting pubs, small breweries and the value of real ale. People who join CAMRA simply to scoop discount vouchers, are not necessarily bringing benefit to the organisation – whilst actively undermining other CAMRA campaigns.
There are 12 benefits for CAMRA membership highlighted on the Campaign website. Two of those benefits are discount schemes. Removing those schemes leaves 10 other significant member benefits. CAMRA could investigate other member benefits which do not devalue real ale. For instance: extra discount benefits (e.g. free entry) might be offered to improve attendance at struggling CAMRA beer festivals.
CAMRA is a consumer organisation – not an industry organisation. It is therefore legitimate for it to be able to argue about price to the customer, as that is important to some members.
Answer: Not when promoting a discounting culture associated with real ale plainly undermines every other CAMRA campaign effort. CAMRA policy is consistent in every other regard except discounting. There is a fair price to be paid for beer and CAMRA is currently contributing to the undervaluation of real ale. A consumer organisation that prices its favoured product out of existence does not make any sense.
Gentrification: expensive beer is class-ist
Beer is the drink of the working class and removing discounting will cause real ale to increase in price above the ability of some people to enjoy it. This is just the hipster gentrification of beer.
Answer: None of the financial facts bear out this view, with average disposable income (adjusted for inflation) currently 32 times more than it was at the first CAMRA AGM in 1972. The implication that working class people should be satisfied with cheap sub-optimal beer is offensive. As it happens, given the low wages and working conditions in most breweries, nearly all real ale brewers are actually ‘working class’ – the same cannot be said for the CAMRA demographic.
The real ale ‘Gateway’
The discount scheme operates as a gateway to draw non real ale drinkers towards cask beer.
Answer: No – the discounts are provided every year with membership, irrespective of how long you have been a member. If the ‘Gateway’ argument was true – and there is no evidence that it is – then vouchers should be discontinued after the first year of membership. Besides, if a new member’s first experience of real ale is of a sub-standard beer in a pub chain facility, then much of the charm and quality of the real ale experience is lost. Moreover, you have just taught the new member a very clear lesson: that real ale is cheap and therefore a lower quality offering at the bar.
Just destroy the vouchers if you don’t want them
It is every member’s choice to use the discounts should they wish. There is no compulsion to do so.
Answer: As a member who firmly believes in cask beer and its position as the most interesting and characterful way of showcasing beer, I am offended every time I am sent discount vouchers. The discount vouchers run contrary to my desire to support high-quality real ale, the purveyors of real ale and the production of real ale. CAMRA cannot credibly claim that real ale is the finest form of beer available while simultaneously making it the cheapest beer on the bar.