Slagging off CAMRA is in my view one of the most entertaining aspects of beer bloggery. It tends to elicit plenty of comments from those inclined to defend the venerable organisation from every slight, as well as those that have what is usually a justified beef with what the organisation is up to either locally to them, or nationally.
It’s been a while since I’ve bearded it, and will unfortunately not be bearding it for a while yet. See, I miss it and want to return to it. My current world of German industrial lager may no longer be enough for me. It once was. I actually want brown pongy bitter in my life. Oh how times change. One recent criticism I heard thoroughly entertained me as an example of both sides of an argument being correct, both points of view entirely valid and both diametrically opposed. That of a CAMRA pub crawl being structured so that one pack leader tastes and approves the beer before all others pile into the bar. True or false? Going back a bit I recall a rather robust discussion on this on someone’s blog, if you have that to hand please post it in the comments.
Here I examine my own experience and consider it to fall into the realms of quantum mechanics and akin to the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat which while the box remains unopened and unobserved is simultaneously dead and alive at the same time. Like the cat, each perspective is true and false at the same time. First the usual preamble before I laboriously get to the point.
Over the past couple of years I have encountered CAMRA branches within the counties of Merseyside to Yorkshire and taking in Cheshire and Lancashire and joined them for an evening of whatever they happened to be up to whilst I happened to be in the town on a work assignment. My intention is not to put you off socially engaging with your local CAMRA branch. I have found the exercise to be largely an enjoyably worthwhile endeavour and a nice change from watching the TV darts in my hotel room. I commend CAMRA activities to you if you are in an unfamiliar town, seeking drinking companions.
Not really the sort of people you can expect to meet.
Many of these evenings have been the CAMRA pub crawl. A CAMRA pub crawl is a peculiar beast. Some can be a fun traipse along a series of pubs. Some can be quite a joyless march of military timing and precision that manage to actually strip the fun and enjoyment entirely from going out and having a drink. Both open your eyes, so give in to it and try one. The difference between these two is rarely the quality of pubs involved, more the mentality of those doing it. When a pub crawl is approached as a social event, a good time is more often than not had. It’s a nice drink in nice company. Decent blokes and it is all blokes. If you want to pull, try a smile and mild flirtation with the office receptionist on your client site and go from there if reciprocated. Though that will involve Italian restaurants, wine and the hopeful purchasing of prophylactics and not a drop of pongy bitter.
The sort of people you can expect to meet. Though usually there is no cake.
When a pub crawl is approached as a mission to survey a defined set of pubs over the course of an evening, the participants are those doing their campaigning duty and duty comes before the frivolity of pleasure. Lots of sniffing and holding beer up to the light. Connoisseurs at work. It is to my eyes the joyless swift necking of indifferent halves of bitter, but heh ho. You are better off excusing yourself and returning to the hotel via the fridge section of a nearby off licence. Though this is not the matter at hand.
So are CAMRA pub crawls structured so that one pack leader tastes the beer, declares it fit for human consumption or not and then the rest of the party either avail themselves of the pubs wares or spin a 180 and march to the next pub to do that again?
One truth is to say No. This has not been the official policy on any CAMRA pub crawl I have been on. Therefore those that would dispute this notion and declare it false are technically from their own perspective correct. So it doesn’t happen right?
Human behaviour is a funny thing, especially when you place it in group dynamics. The group on a CAMRA pub crawl tends to be a loose collection of individuals. Within this group some consider each other friends and others consider each other acquaintances and some are strangers. The basis of any given relationship in this group is mutual interest, common purpose and common world view. This often denotes the closeness or otherwise of people within it, regardless of how long they may have been acquainted. What is important to every individual in the group however is fitting in and being respected by one’s peers. Hence any surveying occurring is largely poorly done. The desire for consensus will see you witness someone taste a beer, claim to like it, but survey it poorly if that is the group consensus. Or the opposite. The desire to fit in and not be seen as ignorant and accept a group view supplanting their own direct experience. Also and of more relevance to the subject, some pubs on this crawl are better than others. In some pubs the group may linger over a pint, and in others a swift half and off is all the pub warrants, job done as quickly and painlessly as possible.
If the pub is a crap pub, you know that is a pub the group will only stop in for a half. A crap pub is one with one pump of Greene King IPA and sod all people in the pub drinking it. A pub where you know by first glance, the lager is your safest bet. We have all been in such a gaff. You cannot have a lager, not in this company. In this pub would you stride to the bar and be the first to buy your half? We are all aware of the technique of the round shy tight wad to hang back when entering a pub or stride forward to buy a round if the pub is known to be cheap, but in this group buying rounds are not the norm. What is your best strategy?
If you stride forward you get your beer first but so what? If the beer is undrinkable it must be returned. You may when not in this company merely leave it undrunk and leave. But you are in the company of campaigners. It must be returned. Leave it to someone with a more forthright personality to complain, and they will of that you are assured, you will have been the one that accepted a poor drink or didn’t notice or care it was off. This, therefore, is a poor gambit without an upside.
If you hang back you leave it to the poor sap at the front and then the hassle is on his shoulders. Rest assured many in the group are thinking along similar lines. In this scenario you only have to buy your half after others are already drinking theirs. If the beer is vinegary piss, you don’t even have to bother, you 180 and off to the next gaff with those that like you have played it right. It is up to the poor sap at the front of the queue to get their money back and follow.
Therefore what is happening is that one person is effectively tasting the ale, others are hanging back, including me, and only buying a beer once the guy at the front has declared it fit for human consumption.
So the truth is also Yes. The truth is that one guy is tasting the beer before the rest of the group chance it. The guy sat at the table drinking a pint of lager and seeing 10-15 blokes pile in and go through this rigmarole before all individually buying halves of bitter is pretty sure of what he has seen before his very eyes. He has seen the local CAMRA posse pile into the pub and one test it before the others buy it.
So both opposing positions are true, at the same time. Your opinion will be down entirely to your point of view. If you are in the group, it is false. If you are observing from the outside it is true. Even better than this, there are no cats locked in boxes and no cats dying under any circumstance, unlike that bastard Schrödinger who clearly does not consider animal welfare in his thought experiments.
Unless of course one of the fatter CAMRA posse sit on the pub cat by mistake, then you hear a squeal followed by “Jesus Christ, he’s killed the cat” then the most sincere profuse middle class apology you will ever in your life hear. You will witness horror and dismay and chaos. There will be cat blood. You will hear the precise squelch of dead cat under millets trousered fat arse. You may even buy a second half of indifferent bitter and a bag of crisps and settle in to watch it all unfold. You will be glad you didn’t stay in the hotel. You would not have missed this for the world.