York CAMRA, Modernising the Traditional CAMRA Beer Festival

One thing that has come under fire recently (amongst many other things admittedly!) from the social media masses is CAMRA-run beer festivals. An interesting fact that many may not realise is that CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) were responsible for introducing beer festivals to the UK. Popular across Europe, mainly Germany, the beer festival concept wasn’t adopted in the UK until CAMRA launched the first ever one in St Albans, in 1974.

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of non-CAMRA beer festivals that have taken the traditional beer festival to a whole new level, celebrating beer of all kinds and dispense, supported by great food vendors and modern entertainment.

The immediate comparison for me is Leeds CAMRA’s beer festival and the Leeds International beer festival. They sit at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of modern vs. traditional and although I enjoyed them both this year, I can absolutely see why the CAMRA one may be falling out of favour with modern drinkers.

I see this as a developing problem for a lot of CAMRA festivals (although some geographical locations will see the impact more than others). So, with great interest to learn more about how other CAMRA branches may be tackling this issue and armed with my note pad I headed off to check out York CAMRA’s annual Beer Festival at York Racecourse.

The big marquee

It had been a while since I had been to this festival, and the first time since its move to the centre of the race course, away from the top of the Knavesmire. Paying my £3.50 discounted entry, I entered the huge marquee – two things struck me, first the damp farmyard smell (it had absolutely chucked it down the day before!) and then the vast array of beers. It didn’t take long to acclimatise to the aroma, and thankfully that didn’t have an impact on the beer either.

As I continued my walk through the marquee, the vast range of cask beer started to transform into individual brewery bars. This is one thing I’d like to see more of – I think it works well and if the brewery also sends their staff along to run the bar, then you get a great experience from someone passionate about the beer they create. That doesn’t mean to say that I don’t think the CAMRA volunteers aren’t a passionate crew – after all they give up their own time to staff these events, but sometimes it’s difficult for them to be knowledgeable on products. Especially when there are 450+ beers, with a load of ciders and wines as well. So why not have some specialists in the ranks?

Various brewery bars

The other thing that struck me as a positive move was that cask and keg sat happily side by side on these brewery bars. No segregation, no ‘keg-only’ corner, just great brewery beer all in one place. Although it is good to see a trend of more keg beers at CAMRA festivals, it is common to see keg on its own bar, still giving off a bit of an us (cask) and them (keg) feeling.

Of the local breweries, it was great to see Brew York, who had a fantastic pecan pie beer on their bar called ‘Luke Piewalker’. Also, Turning Point, a new brewery for me who I’m told have only been in business for a short time but had a good range of tasty keg and cask beers. These were alongside established local breweries in the form of York, Rudgate and Great Heck, amongst others.

Being outside and in such a large area, it means there is plenty of space not just for beer, but also food vendors as well. This for me is also something that I don’t see exploited enough by CAMRA beer festivals. Sometimes it’s just pie and peas (which isn’t a bad thing!), but people now want variety and quality, not necessarily just something that will soak up the booze. Available at York festival was a traditional burger stall, German sausage, fish and chips, Mediterranean wraps and even a stall selling olives as a bar snack – a modern approach I thought. Probably worth pointing out though that unlike a lot of non-CAMRA beer festivals, most, if not all, CAMRA ones do allow you to take in your own food should you wish.

Good choice of food

I recently saw a lengthy Twitter conversation/rant about CAMRA and in amongst the tweets there was a rather strong view about CAMRA not having drinking fountains available for customers. In fact, the view was so strong, it was akin to the author’s beloved pet being killed. I’m pleased to say that York also dealt with this too, with water available by their membership stall.

At the time I attended, there wasn’t any musical entertainment, however despite all these modern moves, York did deal with some important long-established CAMRA business. A panel of experts took the stage, including great pub campaigner Mark DoddsGreg Mulholland, former MP and also a passionate campaigner, and Simon Jenkins, Yorkshire’s own version of Roger Protz, some may say! The topic was an interesting debate about the state of pubs in the UK and CAMRA’s current role in this. It drew a decent crowd to listen which tells me that although CAMRA may be viewed as being out of touch at the moment, this is a topic that lots of people within the campaign and beyond still have close to their hearts.

All star panel discussing pubs and CAMRA (and posing!)

I left the festival thinking that York had taken a few more steps forward in terms of adapting the festival to what the modern beer drinker expects. Indeed I subsequently found out that high attendance records were broken this year, bucking the trend of recent attendance decline for some others.

An enjoyable festival, with some great people and a more modern twist on things than you may usually get from other CAMRA beer festivals.

One final mention, I got the chance to spend some time with Matthew Grant, former York CAMRA Chairman and a fellow British Guild of Beer Writers. Matt specialises in writing about beer styles for the ‘Ouse Boozer’, which is York CAMRA’s branch magazine. We’ve agreed to co-author a special on IPA’s, so look out for this one soon.


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