In the United Kingdom, cask ale probably would not have survived if not for the remarkable success of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Founded in 1971 by four men distressed by the poor quality of their local ales and general state of the British brewing industry, CAMRA obviously struck the right note for thousands of devoted drinkers. By the end of the 1970s it had grown into a powerful consumer force that halted the brewing industry’s wholesale surrender to artificially carbonated, pasteurized and filtered keg beers.
In the 50 years prior to CAMRA’s founding, not one new ale brewery opened in Britain. Some 300 new real ale breweries have opened since. With a membership close to 60,000, today’s CAMRA has expanded its fight for consumer rights and choice.
But CAMRA’s successes have not been as widespread as some in America might believe. Long-standing problems can be almost impossible to overcome. Few realize that Britain lost much of its beer cellaring expertise when many publicans enlisted in the armed services in World War II. The pub trade never really recovered, and substantial changes in drinking habits followed. In time, kegged lagers, typically lower strength versions of famous European brands, would emerge as Britain’s most popular draft style.
Consolidation in the British brewing industry also resulted in fewer choices in beer styles and a declining number of brands. If CAMRA’s grass-roots effort saved cask ale as a critical component of the beer industry, it could not halt the buyouts and closures of many revered regional breweries by a handful of brewing titans. Today, only one of the UK’s biggest brewers is still under domestic ownership, and the average pub customer is just as likely to be drinking a longneck bottle of Budweiser as a pint of cask ale.
Nevertheless, sales of cask ales still account for almost a quarter of all draft beer sales. This may be a sizable drop-off from the glory years, but cask ales remain a viable and lucrative chunk of Britain’s beer market. But the country’s mega breweries have yielded the bulk of this market to independent regional and microbreweries, which means that traditional ales are gradually becoming specialty and niche products, much as craft beers in America. To my mind, this is a positive change, because it leaves real ale in the hands of those breweries most dedicated to its survival and quality.