And Then Came The Keg
With the aid of expensive promotions on TV and billboards, tens of thousands of pubs were flooded with such keg brands as Watneys Red, Double Diamond, Tartan and Worthington E. Traditional handpumps that pulled cask beer from cellar to bar disappeared and were replaced by garish boxes that delivered cold and fizzy keg beer.
Watneys Red was the most visible and risible of the new keg beers. The word “red” had nothing to do with politics and came from an earlier beer called Red Barrel. But the brewery thought it would win support from young people marching against the Vietnam War by promoting the beer on billboards with the use of lookalikes of Chairman Mao, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro. Watneys misread the mood. The demonstrators were against the war but they weren’t pro-communist. Sales of Watneys Red were poor, aided by the fact that it was a truly abysmal beer.
Nevertheless, due to the simple fact that the national brewers owned large pub estates, keg beer was elbowing out traditional cask. Smaller breweries taken over by the nationals were ruthlessly closed and scores of popular cask beers were axed. It seemed that the onslaught of keg beer was unstoppable. But then came the counter attack.
Four young men who enjoyed a pint were dissatisfied with what was on offer in pubs and they decided to take action. Their names were Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Jim Makin and Bill Mellor. Hardman, Lees and Mellor were all journalists and knew not only how to write good articles, but also had the ability to produce press releases that caught the attention of fellow scribes.
The four agreed, following a boozy trip to Ireland and a considerable intake of Guinness, to return home and launch the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. They called a conference, and about thirty people turned up. When the Guardian, a national newspaper, wrote about the fledgling organization and gave the address of honorary secretary Lees, the post office for several days delivered sacks of mail from beer lovers clamoring to join.
“If anyone had told the four of us, as we returned from Ireland in 1971, that CAMRA would have 125,000 members 40 years later, we would have sent him to see a psychiatrist,” Hardman recalled. “But just as we were resigning ourselves to losing the kind of beer we loved, we were inundated by applications for membership and offers of help from hundreds, and soon many thousands, of drinkers. These were the people, many of them with a great deal of knowledge about how beer was brewed and which pubs served good ale, who were behind the astonishing success of the campaign.”
A further conference changed the name to the more manageable Campaign for Real Ale—CAMRA for short—and the organisation was up and running. It had an elected leadership of volunteers called the National Executive and soon local branches were springing up like mushrooms at dawn. Three cramped rooms above a bike shop in St. Albans, a small market town 20 miles north of London, proved inadequate to house the half-dozen staff members who coped with the fast-growing membership, and the campaign soon moved to occupy a three-story house nearby.
A members’ newspaper, What’s Brewing, was launched, followed by the annual Good Beer Guide, which listed all known pubs still selling real ale. The impact the campaign could make was shown in 1973, when 600 members turned up to protest against the closure by Bass Charrington of a brewery in the English Midlands. Some came dressed as undertakers and laid wreaths on a coffin outside the threatened brewery. The media lapped it up.