All About Beer Magazine - Volume 32, Issue 2
May 1, 2011 By

In April 2010, as the world’s airlines were grounded by volcanic ash, all the signs indicated that the Campaign for Real Ale’s annual conference would be poorly attended. It was due to take place on the Isle of Man, halfway between Britain and Ireland in the Irish Sea. The island’s capital, Douglas, is a short hop from British airports but no planes were taking off or landing.

When the doors of the conference hall opened, I expected to see a thin trickle of CAMRA members. But they came rushing in, several hundred of them. They had come by train and ferry. Such is their legendary enthusiasm for beer, there’s no doubt that some would have rowed or even swum to get to Douglas.

This year, the conference will be based in Sheffield in Yorkshire, more easily accessible by train or car. And there will be much to celebrate, for CAMRA, founded in 1971, is 40 years old. It started with four members, had grown rapidly to 29,000 when I joined in 1976 and today boasts a membership of 125,000. It’s a power in the land. Its officials are routinely called in by both British and European parliaments to discuss such matters as levels of excise duty and the imbalance of buying and selling power between supermarkets and pubs. For example, CAMRA’s chief executive Mike Benner addressed members of the European parliament in Brussels in December.

But equally important, it’s CAMRA’s beer festivals—at least 12 a month, culminating in the Great British in London every August—allied to the rise of craft brewers that have put the seal on the campaign’s success and vitality over the past 40 years. It’s a uniquely British institution. The image of the Brits—introverted, victims of the stiff upper lip—could not be more misplaced. Go to any major soccer or cricket match, and you’ll witness a different side to the island race: passionate and committed.

And it was that passion and commitment to traditional British beer that fuelled the rise and influence of the campaign. It will come as a shock to most CAMRA members to learn that their organisation is rooted in Britain’s imperial past. But it was the Victorians’ determination to remain loyal to ale and, in particular, its cask-conditioned version that led to the rise of this remarkable consumer revolt a century later.

In The Beginning

In the 19th century, a small island had painted half the globe red. While mainland European countries remained largely rural and agricultural, Britain was a powerhouse of industry and innovation. It exported its products throughout the world, beer among them. The holds of sailing ships were weighed down with great oak casks of British ale that eventually slaked thirsts in India, Australia, the Caribbean and North America.

William Bass started a tiny brewery on a patch of land in Burton-on-Trent in the late 18th century and a century later his sons had turned the company into the biggest brewery in the world, making more than one million barrels a year. Thanks to new technology, British brewers had developed a style of beer—pale ale—that bewitched the world. Great brewers such as Gabriel Sedlmayr in Munich and Anton Dreher in Vienna came to Britain, and Burton in particular, to see how pale ale was produced. They returned home, determined to make their dark lagers paler in colour. The first truly golden lager from Pilsen was made possible by a malt kiln imported from England.

British brewers, pumped up with imperial pride, saw no need to switch to lagering—cold fermentation and maturation—even when they rapidly lost most of their overseas trade to the new type of European beer. Brewers in Britain still had a large internal market to satisfy and they could now move beer around with comparative ease thanks to the rise of the new railroad system.

The question is obvious: if British brewing was so successful, why was it necessary to launch a consumer movement in the 1970s to protect its major beer style? The answer lies in Canada. In the 1960s, a Canadian called Eddie Taylor owned the rights to a lager beer called Carling Black Label. He was successful in his own country but Canada has a small population and he thought greater success could come in Britain, one of the biggest beer-drinking countries in the world,  where the natives more or less spoke the same language as he did.

In a whirlwind few years, Taylor changed British brewing beyond all recognition. To produce Carling he needed breweries and pubs—at the time 80 percent of beer in Britain was consumed on draft in pubs. Within a few years, he had bought and merged a number of breweries in the north of England to form Northern United Breweries. He added the famous London brewer Charrington to the pot, followed by Tennents in Glasgow. His greatest coup was to talk mighty Bass into joining a group he renamed Bass Charrington. By the end of the 1960s, Taylor controlled 20 percent of the brewing industry, owned 10,000 pubs and enjoyed an annual turnover of £900 million.

And he’d frightened the life out of other big brewers, who huddled together for comfort. A series of mergers and takeovers produced what were dubbed the Big Six: national brewing groups that included such famous and historic names as Courage, Tetley, Truman, Watneys and Whitbread. The emergence of the Big Six coincided with the development of a national network of new super highways—Britain’s motorways. The national brewers could move beer around at speed but they wanted a new type of beer that was not perishable like cask ale and had a longer shelf life. For all his bravura, Eddie Taylor had not achieved overnight success with Carling lager. The Brits were doggedly determined to remain true to ale. The response of the Big Six was to fashion a new type of ale called keg beer that was filtered, pasteurized and artificially carbonated.

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.

CAMRA had discovered a groundswell of opposition to the national brewers. When the campaign staged its first national beer festival in 1975 in a disused flower market in London’s Covent Garden district, it found itself almost overrun by the unexpected number of people that turned up. Forty thousand flocked to the festival and drained it dry of beer. Eight hundred new members were recruited.

The campaign was active at the political and intellectual level. A series of well-researched and well-argued papers were sent to the government analysing the lack of consumer choice in many parts of the country as a result of the activities of the national brewers. In Britain, brewers are allowed to own pubs that are restricted to selling the beers of the owning breweries—these are known as “tied houses.” Pubs not directly owned by brewers are known as “free houses” but CAMRA showed that many of these were effectively tied to brewers as a result of cheap loans and discounted beer. The Labour government in the late 1970s made some half-hearted attempts to restrict the activities of the Big Six, but the attempts to give consumers improved choice were abandoned when the Conservatives returned to power.

In 1979, Watneys announced it was discontinuing production of Watneys Red, proof—if it were needed—of CAMRA’s growing influence and the public’s dislike of keg beer. But the national brewers had another shot in their collective locker: lager. As more and more British people enjoyed cheap packaged holidays in the sunnier parts of Europe, they discovered a taste for cold beer. Carling Black Label had come of age and other big British brewers switched to lager production.

By any definition, the first lager beers were an abomination. They were often brewed as quickly as ale and were not truly lagered or stored. They were also weak—the British version of Heineken was just 3.6 percent—and had little in common with the robust beers brewed in Germany and Czechoslovakia. But, backed by enormous advertising campaigns and a few unusually hot summers, sales of lager started to increase.

The Weak Shall Inherit the Earth?

In the late 1970s, Whitbread, brewers of the British version of Heineken, said they expected lager to account for 80 percent of the British beer market by 2000. That hasn’t happened but lager has come to dominate the beer scene: it’s the biggest-selling beer in the take-home sector and runs neck and neck with ale in pubs. If the inexorable rise of lager seems like a failure on CAMRA’s part, it would respond by pointing out that it was formed with the specific aim of saving traditional ale as brewers switched to keg. And the campaign was busy in other areas. Thanks to its influence, the late 1970s and early 80s saw the first flowering of the microbrewery revolution. Homebrewers keen to go the extra mile, along with some experienced brewers made redundant by the national giants, seized the opportunity to widen the choice of cask ale.

The best shop window for the new micros was CAMRA’s ever-growing beer festivals. In particular, the Great British Beer Festival, which moved around the country before settling permanently in London, was and remains the most important event of CAMRA’s year. The festival features hundreds of cask ales, stages regular beer tastings by leading writers, and incorporates the annual Champion Beer of Britain competition. Panels of judges choose beers in every sector, ranging from Mild to Extra Strong Bitter, culminating in the announcement of the overall champion beer. Winners of the prestigious award have seen their sales grow, in some cases beyond the capabilities of the available brewing equipment.

In 1989 a major report into the beer industry by a government-backed body called the Monopolies & Mergers Commission had enormous impact. It proved everything that CAMRA had been saying since its foundation: the Big Six acted as a cartel, fixing prices; they made grotesquely high profits by over-charging for lager; they dominated the so-called “free trade” through loans and discounts; and they put up barriers to smaller brewers finding a road to market.

The report was grist to the mill for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She disliked vested interests and powerful corporations, and she was determined to tackle the power of what was facetiously dubbed “the beerage.” But her solutions were naive. The big brewers were told to turn most of their pubs into free houses and allow in other brewers’ beers. The Big Six responded with a collective razzberry and sold off either their pubs or their breweries, or in some cases, both.

The result has not been beneficial to consumers. Most British pubs are now owned by non-brewing pub companies—“pubcos” for short. The top three pubcos ironically control more outlets than the Big Six. They have brought a gas station approach to running pubs: get ’em in, fill ’em up and send ’em out again. The pubcos have sweetheart deals with the new global brewers that now dominate Britain. Most of their beers are supplied by the globals with massive discounts and are then sold at inflated prices to drinkers.

The old Big Six have been replaced by overseas giants. Heineken is now Britain’s biggest brewer. The former Bass breweries are owned by Molson Coors, A-B InBev brews both Budweiser and Stella Artois at former British brewers’ plant, while Carlsberg owns the celebrated Tetley ales. Their interest in ale is minimal: Carlsberg will close the Tetley brewery this year while A-B InBev has put up for sale Draught Bass and several other cask beers it now owns.  Draught Bass was once by far Britain’s biggest-selling cask beer, worth more than two million barrels a year. Unloved and unwanted, sales have plummeted to 60,000 barrels.

The Monopolies & Mergers commission report had a powerful impact in a different direction. Millions of pub-goers and beer drinkers were aware there was something seriously wrong with the brewing industry. In the finest British tradition, they decided to support the underdogs—the remaining family and regional brewers, and the new wave of micros. Their sales started to increase, as did CAMRA membership. Within the space of 20 years, CAMRA has seen its numbers double, treble and quadruple.

The micros have their own umbrella organisation: the Society of Independent Brewers. It works closely with CAMRA and their joint lobbying achieved a significant victory in 2002 when the government introduced Progressive Beer Duty. The scheme enables brewers who produce up to 60,000 hectoliters a year (about 51,000 U.S. barrels) to pay less excise duty than bigger brewers. The result has been an astonishing growth in the number of craft breweries.

Julian Grocock, chief executive of SIBA, credits the close relationship with CAMRA:  “Today’s revolutionized British independent brewing industry has its roots in the groundswell of consumer resistance that CAMRA first mobilized forty years ago, “inspiring not only surviving family companies, but also microbrewers who have brought imagination, innovation, and unprecedented choice and diversity to an age-old craft.”

Today the total number of British breweries stands at more than 700, four times as many as when CAMRA was founded. Choice and diversity for drinkers has never been better.

The Impact

CAMRA’s activities have not been confined to Britain. It was active in setting up the European Beer Consumers’ Union, which has groups in most European and Scandinavian countries. EBCU lobbies national and European governments and has played a crucial role in safeguarding the future of lambic brewing in Belgium. The impact in the United States is more complex. There’s no equivalent of CAMRA: I spoke back in the 1990s at a meeting in Manhattan with a view to starting an American beer consumers’ movement but the few people who attended suggested there was little enthusiasm for the idea.

But there has been cross-fertilization in other ways. The U.S. had small craft breweries before Britain, but such legendary figures as Fritz Maytag at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and the late Bert Grant in Yakima Valley always stressed the influence of British beer on their activities.

Protesters at the 2008 Great British Beer Festival, all wearing the likeness of Alistair Darling, the chancellor responsible for raising the tax on beer.

And there’s no doubt that the Great British Beer Festival sparked its American counterpart. I remember showing Charlie Papazian round the Great British when it was held in Leeds, Yorkshire, and he returned home to fashion his plans for the Great American equivalent. The number of Americans who now regularly attend the Great British and the Brits who make the journey in the opposite direction are testimony to a shared love of good beer.

The revival of interest on both side of the Atlantic in such historic beer styles as porter, stout and IPA is a further indication of the shared interests and passions of beer lovers and brewers in both countries. The growth of craft brewing has reached Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand now has a small but vigorous CAMRA-inspired consumer group. Australia, in common with the United States, is just too big a country to have an effective consumer movement but its annual Beer Expo in Melbourne, inspired by the Great British, will encourage more craft breweries to fire their mash tuns.

“None of us had foreseen the incredible growth of the microbrewers that now offer all discerning drinkers hope for the future of good beer—not only in Britain but also in North America and around the world,” notes CAMRA founder Michael Hardman. “If CAMRA can claim credit for a tiny part of this success, and I believe we can, it is just reward for all the hard work and time given freely by so many people.”

The Future

Complacency is not a word that appears in the CAMRA lexicon. There are still major issues to be tackled. As a result of intensive lobbying for several years, the big national pub companies are now taking greater interest in cask beer. They have little choice, as sales of global lager brands are now in sharp decline and younger drinkers are showing great interest in ale. A case in point is a pub called the Blacksmith’s Arms in CAMRA’s home base of St. Albans. The pub was owned by a large pub company that 10 years ago removed all but one of the handpumps on the grounds that the pub was used mainly by students who had no interest in cask beer. Under new ownership, eight handpumps have been installed, more are planned, and sales of cask beer are about even with lager. And it’s still mainly a student pub.

The biggest threat to cask beer—which can be sold only in draft form—is the dramatic and tragic loss of pubs. Mike Benner, CAMRA’s chief executive, calls Britain’s pubs “the shop front for real ale. A good pub brings out the best in British society, drawing people from all walks of life together.”

Around 30 pubs a week are closing, mainly in areas of high unemployment and poverty. Pub closure is a complex problem. It’s fuelled by a recent ban on smoking in public places, and difficulty in getting to more isolated pubs by car as a result of a strict drunk-driving law.  Above all, Benner cites the grossly unfair competition posed by big retailers, noting “The huge price gap between pubs and supermarkets is crippling the trade, closing pubs and leaving people stranded alone in their living rooms with a can of cheap supermarket lager.” The big national stores sell beer supplied by the global brewers at little above cost price and sell it often more cheaply than bottled water. Pubs struggle to compete.

But the rate of pub closure is starting to fall and independent research indicates that pubs that offer a good choice of cask beers are more likely to survive than those that have a poor or non-existent range.

The best news of all for CAMRA is that young people are the new flag-bearers of cask beer. Beer festivals are packed to overflowing with enthusiastic young people tucking into pints of natural beer. The campaign should have no problem maintaining a powerful presence on the beer and pub scene with a new and younger task force of volunteers.

To the siren voices that criticize CAMRA for being rigid and inflexible in its support of just one style of beer, the response is a simple one: their mission statement is to campaign for real ale, nothing else. And as cask beer is the only growth sector of a declining beer market in Britain, nothing will move the campaign from its chosen course.

Roger Protz has been a member of CAMRA since 1976 and has edited the Good Beer Guide from 1978-84 and 2000 to date. He is the author of 20 books on beer, including the World Beer Guide. He thinks John Lennon was the best Beatle, but George Harrison was seriously under-rated. He was almost a professional jazz musician instead of a journalist, but has passed on his talents to elder son Adam, studying music at Sheffield University, and younger son Matt, who plays bass guitar in the rock group The Vertigos.