Welcome to First Draft Follies, an on-going series here at the blog. The material is presented “as is” from the first draft of the manuscript that became the book Ambitious Brew. In a fewplaces I added one or two words in brackets — [like this] — for clarification.
This edition concerns the founding of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the British group devoted to good beer and good pubs.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was born in 1971, but the discontent that inspired it had been growing for several years. Mergers had been reshaping British brewing for decades, but in the 1960s a spate of pricey and highly publicized buyouts reduced British breweries by half and decimated the ranks of the smallest.
In 1967, alone eleven small brewers lost their independence. By 1970 there were but ninety-nine brewers operating 211 breweries, a far cry from the six thousand in existence in 1900. “Tied” houses were legal in Britain, and those brewers owned a staggering 80% of pubs. Britons had traditionally drunk cask-conditioned ales: beers stored in wooden barrels in a cool cellar and transferred to a mug by the publican pulling at his pump handle up in the pub.
But in the sixties, the Behemoth Brewers introduced “keg” beer–huge metal tanks of pasteurized, carbonated beer, which was, brewers argued, more consistent, fresher, and longer-lived than cask ale.
Nonsense, snorted an unconvinced public. Keg beers, sneered one man, “taste of nothing at all” and “are fit only as companions” to caged, factory-farm chickens and “frozen vegetables.” (*1)
Many Britons retaliated by turning to homebrewing, which Parliament legalized in 1963. But homebrew, no matter how tasty, could never compare with a pint shared in company at the local. Organized revolt began in 1970 with the creation of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW), whose chairman urged his countrymen to resist the brewer’s efforts to foist a “dull and gassy conformity” upon an unwilling public. (*2)
It’s not clear just who or what the SPBW was or did, but its members are likely responsible for the spate of anti-big-beer letters that appeared in the London Times throughout 1970.
“The present trend is worrying,” wrote one person. “The national brands all taste alike without any character whatever.” (*3) “If big business finally takes away one more of the pleasures of life, and one more symbol of individuality,” argued another man, “beer lovers will have themselves to blame if these enforced changes are accepted without protest.” (*4)
Protest? Or action? Both, decided four friends on holiday in early spring, 1971. The men, all in their early twenties, had set off on a “boozing holiday” through Ireland. One bad ale led to another, and, in a tipsy but disgusted mood, one of the four proposed a campaign to improve the nation’s beer. At Patrick O’Neill’s, a pub on the far western Irish coast, they elected officers and settled on a name: Campaign for the Revitalization of Ale. [Early in its history, organizers changed the name to Campaign for Real Ale.]
The grand project, like so many hatched over glasses of beer, faded with the sober light of day; the friends returned to England, home, and work.
But one of the travelers, Graham Lees, could not let go. He discussed the idea with friends, sent out Christmas cards touting the idea, and even printed membership cards. But he knew that this was not enough, and nearly a year after the idea’s birth, Lees told Michael Hardman that it was time to launch a “proper consumer campaign” instead of just buggering about singing “We’re Only Here for the Ale.” (*5)
Three of the four founders were journalists and so in a position to transform idea into impact and thus into action. In March, 1972, they held CAMRA’s first official meeting. The campaign to save British beer was on. That summer, the CAMRA group joined forces with SPBW and demanded a meeting with officials from the Department of Agriculture in order to register an official complaint against “phoney” beers. (*6)
The campaign accelerated in the fall after the SPBW requested permission to set up an information booth at Britain’s first beer festival, an event organized by the Trade Aids Group and designed to “celebrate” the nation’s breweries, or what was left of them. The five largest brewers threatened to pull out if SPBW showed up.
Trade Aids, fearful of being left holding an empty bag, agreed to deny SPWA entrance to the event. The SPBW retaliated by picketing the week-long event.
Two months later, in November, 1973, CAMRA, which had absorbed SPBW and now had five thousand members, hosted its first official protest: a march and demonstration at the Joules brewery in Stone, Staffordshire. Bass Charrington had bought the tiny outfit several years earlier and now planned to close it. A Bass spokesman dismissed the demonstration and CAMRA as “romantic hogwash,” an attitude that fueled the crusaders’ fire and added names to the membership list.(*7)
Six hundred people converged on Stone for an event captured by film crews and print journalists. By late 1974, CAMRA boasted 18,000 members, had published its first Guide to good beer and ale, and launched its most ambitious attack: the creation and funding of CAMRA Investments Ltd., which purchased and threatened pubs and transformed them into repositories of real ale.
*1: Llew Gardner, “British Drink,” London Times, August 6, 1965, p. 11.
*2: E. B. Lee, “From the Wood,” London Times, March 21, 1970, p. 9.
*3: R. E. Freeman, “Beer Choice,” London Times, July 6, 1970, p. 20.
*4: Kevin Bailey, “Small Beer?” London Times, June 16, 1970, p. 24.
*5: Michael Hardman, “Founding Fathers,” in Roger Protz and Tony Millns, eds., Called To The Bar: An Account of the First 21 Years of the Campaign for Real Ale (St. Albans, England: CAMRA Ltd., 1992), 34.
*6: “Brewhaha,” London Times, July 20, 1972, 16.