CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale has been Europe’s most successful consumer organisation. But as it turns 50, can it defeat the twin threat of Covid and craft beer?
Four Englishmen walk into a pub. They’re complaining. And for readers of distant pedigree raised on lazy, outdated gags of dubious cultural provenance, the pub really is in Ireland. But this is no joke, questionable or otherwise.
They were holidaying in Dunquin on the Dingle Peninsula, and were complaining about the beer back home. Their favourite drink was disappearing and that afternoon in March 1971 they vowed to do something about it.
Back then British brewing was dominated by six huge conglomerates, accounting for 80% of Britain’s beer output. The six – Allied, Grand Metropolitan, Bass, Courage, Scottish & Newcastle and Whitbread – effectively operated a cartel, owning huge pub estates (nearly 40,000 between them) and ‘tying’ those pubs to their products. Whatever they chose to brew was foisted on drinkers. Consumer choice was virtually unknown. Britain’s once eclectic beer tradition had become hidebound.
Before the arrival of the big six, beer had traditionally been brewed in small batches in regional and family breweries. It went, unfiltered, into casks where it would start to ferment again. Served by handpumps directly from pub cellars, it was a living product that had to be drunk quickly or it would spoil.
The big six had, throughout the 20th century, been gobbling up smaller rivals, identifying their business models as cumbersome and wasteful. Secondary fermented cask beer was old hat. The future was keg beer. Brewed in bulk with cheaper ingredients and pasteurised to create an inert liquid, it was taken in kegs to pubs where carbon dioxide was added as it came out of the pump. It was bright, fizzy and inexplicably more expensive than the traditional beers it replaced. It came with names like Watney’s Red Barrel and Double Diamond. The trouble was it tasted nothing like the beers it usurped. In fact it tasted awful.
And those four friends – Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Jim Makin and Bill Mellor, all still alive and poised to celebrate the 50th birthday on that momentous session in the pub – sitting in Kruger’s Bar weren’t happy about it. So to allay their misery that afternoon they created what would become Europe’s most successful consumer organisation. But first a name was needed for the beer style they wanted to save. They considered keg beer bland and artificial. They wanted authenticity. The moniker ‘real ale’ worked perfectly and was eventually added to the name of their organisation: the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA).
Figuring only a few like-minded friends might join up, by 1973 they had 5,000 members. One was Christopher Hutt who in 1973 wrote Death of the English Pub, a lament to the vanishing world of traditional hostelries and their beer. It helped that three of CAMRA’s founders were journalists. “Their voice carried weight,” says Laura Hadland, author of 50 Years of CAMRA. “They represented the consumer and had no private backing, so were truly independent. They proved a market for real ale existed.”
In 1974 the organisation printed the first of its Good Beer Guides (GBG) listing pubs which guaranteed decent real ale. It mattered not that m’learned friends came calling, upset at the guide’s suggestion that drinkers avoid Watney’s Red Barrel “like the plague”. The cover of the book had to be reprinted and CAMRA has dined out on the legend ever since. “CAMRA touched a chord,” adds beer writer and many times editor of the GBG Roger Protz.
CAMRA organised its first national beer festival in 1975, inside the recently vacated Covent Garden market halls in London. It was an ad hoc affair – not made easier by an IRA bomb scare – but when word went round about a real ale festival 40,000 turned up, novelist Kingsley Amis among them alongside an eclectic mix of punk rockers and City gents. Organiser Chris Holmes remembers “glancing outside to see if anybody had turned up” then rushing back indoors to report quarter-mile queues. Emergency beer supplies had to be ordered… and reordered.
Covid-permitting, the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) has been a summer staple ever since. In 2019, almost 400,000 pints were downed by aficionados from around the world.
Alongside CAMRA, spearheading the fight to save Britain’s traditional beers, were the stalwarts of real ale – regional and family breweries whom the big six had been slowly devouring since the start of the 20th century. “They were the keepers of cask ale before CAMRA existed,” says Hadland. “Without them it wouldn’t have been there to save.”
Economies of scale meant keg beers were being produced in huge brewing factories, with no place for the town-centre, red-brick Victorian tower brewery nor the bucolic brewhouse nestling in a valley. So the likes of Shepherd Neame, Britain’s oldest brewery, London independent Fuller’s (now owned by a Japanese corporation) and Yorkshire’s redoubtable Timothy Taylor’s among others took up CAMRA’s cudgels.
Suddenly people were alert to what was happening to their beer culture and the threat from corporate cost-cutting and industrialisation. “Breweries thinking of moving to keg, such as Fuller’s, changed tack,” says Hadland. CAMRA membership boomed. There were marches on parliament and mock funerals for breweries closed by the big six. “People were hacked off with heavily promoted keg beers and CAMRA gave them a voice,” says Protz. The little guys were giving the finger to big business, and winning. Now, 50 years later CAMRA has more members than the Conservative Party and two-thirds of pubs in Great Britain serve handpumped real ale. The nation’s traditional drink was saved for a generation.
But now it’s under threat again. For all CAMRA’s success, as a proportion of beer sales in the UK real ale amounts for less than 20%. Apart from a few bottled beers that undergo secondary fermentation, real ale can only be served in pubs by handpump or direct from the cask. It is, in equal measures, its splendour and its Achilles heel. And then Covid arrived – substantial meals, Scotch eggs and rule of six – and closed all the bars, until May at least. No pubs, no real ale.
And people have got used to drinking at home during lockdown.
Longtime member Sarah Morgans, while an advocate of real ale and pubs, admits she has “enjoyed home-drinking to the full during lockdown. Other real ale drinkers are doing the same,” she says. She, for one, will return to pubs as they reopen, but will others?
“Cheap supermarket beer means pubs have one hand tied behind their backs,” says Protz. “The government should reduce VAT on food and drink sold in pubs and restaurants, as France did,” he advocates. Britain had already been losing its traditional pubs – over the past four decades 20,000 closed for good. Covid will add to that – early data suggests 6,000 licensed premises closed in 2020. “Property developers are waiting to snap up empty pubs, many of them architecturally significant,” warns Protz.
The second challenge to real ale comes from a new wave of keg beer makers, rebranded “craft brewers”. They had already begun to supplant real ale on Britain’s bars, albeit with flavoursome beers served in trendy taprooms.
Crucially these have proved popular with young people, the catchment demographic for pubs and bars. ‘Craft’ beer, while kegged, is nothing like that brewed by the big six. It tastes better, punching an artisan-brewer-sized hole through CAMRA’s territory. Keg keeps much longer. Who can risk brewing real ale if customers might not return? Covid and craft are the biggest threats faced by CAMRA in 50 years.
“Lockdown has been terrible,” says Hadland. “Once it’s lifted we don’t know who, if anybody, will visit pubs, or what they’ll drink. How do breweries prepare?” Today’s large pub-owning groups such as Punch Taverns and Ei Group stepped into the gap once occupied by the big six brewers as tied pub estates were broken up. “They care more about profit than what they sell,” warns Hadland. Real ale, with limited shelf life, might not be top priority.
On occasion CAMRA has seemed from the outside like the beer drinker’s equivalent of Monty Python’s People’s Front of Judea skit, ironic considering the late Terry Jones was an enthusiastic member. But despite sometimes collapsing in on itself under the weight of its own introspection and ideology – any idea what a cask breather is? Most people haven’t but among some members using one is akin to the betrayal of Quisling – CAMRA is one of the most successful consumer movements anywhere.
It has its problems though. It needs perhaps to address its image as a club for middle-aged white men, accurate or otherwise. Although a fifth of its members are women (in 2019 sexist beer names were banned from the GBBF) it has few black and ethnic minority members. As Nik Antona, CAMRA’s national chair, commented in the wake of Black Lives Matter: “Beer is for everyone, not a privileged few. Everyone needs to recognise the offence certain material – whether pub names and signs, or beer names and marketing – causes.” Brewer Greene King has recently rebranded some pub names that had racial overtones. Even so Antona and Greene King received criticism from some of the more conservative members of CAMRA.
Nonetheless, membership continues to grow. CAMRA has always insisted it was successful because it campaigned ‘for’ something, not ‘against’ and Britain has more than 200 branches putting in thousands of volunteer hours, propelled by enthusiasm for defending one of the planet’s great beverages.
In 1998 real ale was recognised by the Slow Food movement, dedicated to protecting local food cultures and placing it alongside products as esoteric as Basque mountain cheese and the Pantelleria caper. CAMRA predated today’s ‘foodie’ movement, promoting local produce long before ‘sustainability’ was a thing.
Hilaire Belloc was telling us back in 1912 that “when you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves”. The big six should have taken heed. Pubs and their real ale turned out to be something people cared about. And still do.
50 Years of CAMRA, by Laura Hadland, is published by CAMRA Books, £16.99
WHAT IS REAL ALE?
Real ale is beer brewed from traditional ingredients – generally yeast, malt, hops and water – then matured by a secondary fermentation created by adding a small amount of sugar to the cask before it leaves the brewery. The sugar reacts with residual yeast in the cask to create carbon dioxide. This means its carbonation is a natural by-product and not added separately later. CAMRA describes it as “the pinnacle of the brewer’s art”.
Because yeast remains in the cask, it must be allowed to settle (or condition) after arriving at the pub. Once opened oxygen reacts with the beer and it begins to deteriorate. If the cask is not emptied within approximately five days the beer is wasted. Cask breathers can delay this process by injecting a blanket of nitrogen or carbon dioxide into the cask to stave off oxygenation, although this is frowned upon by some traditionalists.
Real ale is often misleadingly decried as being warm. It is not chilled by refrigeration but is served at cellar temperature, ideally between 11 and 13 degrees Centigrade.
Conversely, keg beer is generally a chilled, inert liquid to which carbon dioxide is added at the bar to make it appear fizzy. Unlike real ale it is not a living product and can sit in its keg for weeks.
Real ale is no narrow definition, it covers a panoply of styles from mild to bitter, porter to stout, golden ale to old ale and many others. The only stipulation is secondary fermentation in cask or bottle. Even lager can be ‘real’.
CAMRA was a founding member, in 1990, of the European Beer Consumers Union. The non-political movement aims to maintain and preserve traditional European beer styles such as real ale, French bière du Mars and Belgian lambic, all of which are under threat. It also campaigns against duty rises, monopolies and misinformation from anti-alcohol lobbies. The three original members – the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands – have been joined by numerous others although – despite Britain’s departure from the EU – CAMRA remains the bloc’s largest contributor.
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