The stereotypical member of the Campaign for Real Ale is a paunchy, hairy, middle-aged anorak with a foaming pint of Cross Buttock in one hand (yes, that’s a real beer) and a pen in the other, noting down alcohol volume (4.5 per cent), provenance (Jennings Brewery in Cumbria) and taste (easy-drinking malt bitter). He – not she – abhors keg beer, piped music, fancy pub food, children in the saloon bar and widescreen televisions showing Sky Sports. Don’t offer him Carling lager, Britain’s best-selling beer: it will only upset him.
This isn’t a wholly inaccurate caricature. There are indeed ale fanatics who religiously record each new beer they sample; they even have a name, “beer tickers”. But there’s more to Camra than ticking. Forty years old in March, it has grown to become Europe’s largest single-issue consumer group, with more than 120,000 members. Not all of them have beards; some are even women. And nobody’s sneering at lager drinkers, insists its co-founder Michael Hardman.“I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something,” he says, as measured as a well-poured pint. “There may be some members who give a different impression and I apologise to the general drinking public for the fact that we’ve recruited those people.”
He casts Camra as a plucky consumer David tackling the bullying Goliath of the drinks industry. “What we’ve always tried to do was make sure that traditional British beer was available in every pub. Whisky is available in every pub; so is gin, so are lots of drinks. We’ve never cared what proportion of the output is real ale as long as it’s available in every single pub in Britain.”
Hardman formed Camra with three friends in 1971. Contrary to the organisation’s later reputation for middle-aged crustiness, they were all young men from northwest England. Hardman was 24 and working as a journalist. Originally called the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, their scheme began light-heartedly, but gradually gathered momentum. In 1973 it was renamed the Campaign for Real Ale. “We decided Revitalisation was too long, and pretty difficult to say after five pints, too,” Hardman says.
The campaign was fuelled by fears that the big brewing conglomerates that dominated the pub trade at the time were trying to wipe out cask-conditioned beer, the traditional method of brewing practised in Britain for centuries. The reason was cost efficiency. Cask beer is unpasteurised and contains live yeast: that’s why Camra calls it “real” ale. It spoils easily and goes off several days after the cask is opened. The big brewers wanted to replace it with keg beer, which is filtered of yeast, pasteurised and carbonated, and thus more transportable and longer-lasting. It’s also far less flavoursome. “The big brewers were trying to get rid of traditional beer and put keg beer everywhere,” says Hardman.
Camra’s efforts, promoting small craft breweries at its beer festivals and lobbying legislators, have paid off. Membership is growing at roughly the same rate as the Chinese economy, about 11 per cent annually. The real ale market grew by 5 per cent in 2009, bucking a general downward trend in beer consumption. And with tax relief for small breweries introduced in Gordon Brown’s 2002 budget, there are now 700 brewers in Britain, four times more than when Camra launched.
“In my lifetime I’ve never known such a fantastic choice of beer to be available,” says the beer writer Roger Protz, who edits Camra’s indispensable Good Beer Guide. “When Camra started, brewers big and small would produce a bit of mild, a bit of bitter, perhaps a strong beer for Christmas. Now, brewers are bringing back porters and stouts and India Pale Ales and so on, and developing new styles, such as golden ales for summer drinking.”
Camra’s problem isn’t beer any more – it’s pubs. Up to 30 pubs are closing each week, down from 52 at the height of the recession in 2009. Camra’s newspaper, What’s Brewing, intersperses Pravda-style headlines about the benefits of beer (“It’s official: beer is good for you”) with a melancholy roll-call of endangered boozers. The Coachmakers Arms in Staffordshire, threatened with demolition to make way for a shopping centre. The Crown and Cushion in Manchester, slated to be knocked down and turned into a roundabout. The Wenlock Arms in London, a real ale mecca whose future hangs in the balance.
The reasons for the pub blight are complex. Some City analysts think that, with 55,000 nationwide, there are simply too many of them. “That’s a very cynical, cold, economic view. You’re talking about ripping the heart out of a community,” says Protz. He points to supermarkets selling cheap booze as the major culprits. And according to Protz, the global giants that run Britain’s biggest breweries, such as Molson Coors, owner of Carling, subsidise any supermarket losses by charging pubs more for beer. “It’s the economics of the madhouse,” he says.
Other Camra bugbears in the fight to save the pub include beer duty, the smoking ban that came into force in England and Wales in 2007, predatory property developers and the restrictive covenants that lock pub tenants into unfavourable agreements with pub-owning companies. All this is taking place against a backdrop of anxiety about alcohol and public health. “Everybody’s different. I reckon if my mother-in-law drank 14 units a month she’d be dead, she just couldn’t take it. If I had to cut down to 14 units I’d be dead, because I’d be bored stiff,” growls Hardman.
Camra is in a double-bind. The product it promotes, real ale, has never been in better health. Yet pub-going is in decline, possibly terminal. The organisation has achieved much for which it can congratulate itself, but it’s also prone to the cold sweats, the fears and the intimations of mortality common to those reaching their 40th birthday.
Looking ahead, its co-founder strikes an apocalyptic note. “We rely on pubs for real draught beer,” Hardman says. “The death of the British pub is the death of British beer.”
Five great winter pints
1. Entire Stout, 4.5%, Hop Back Brewery
Camra’s champion winter beer of 2011, this Wiltshire stout is rich, with a malt taste and hints of coffee, caramel and chocolate.
2. Dark Raven, 4.5%, Beowulf Brewery, Staffs
A tasty mild with a sweet toffee apple-ish taste and crisp, bitter finish.
3. Chocolate, 5.5%, Marble
Manchester’s Marble brewery scooped silver medal at Camra’s winter ale competition with this dark beer with chocolate notes.
4. Rudgate Ruby Mild, 4.4%, North Yorkshire
Camra’s champion ale of Britain in 2009, this dark red beer has a strawberry tang and a deep, complex taste.
5. Dark Star Winter Meltdown, 5.0%, Dark Star Brewery, West Sussex
A deep-bronze coloured premium bitter, brewed with chocolate and flavoured with Chinese stem ginger.
Five great alehouses
1. Bree Louise, 69 Coburg Street, London NW1
The interior has the charm of an Eastern Bloc consulate, but the beers make this one of London’s best alehouses.
2. The Harp, Covent Garden, London WC2
A real ale Elysium, with eight hand pumps and handsome Victorian decor.
3. Tom Cobley Tavern, Spreyton, Devon, EX17 5AL
A 16th-century village inn on the edge of Dartmoor, with home cooking and up to 20 real, local ales.
4. Kelham Island Tavern, 62 Russell St, Sheffield
The first pub to win Camra’s national pub of the year award two years in a row. Serves up to 13 cask ales.
5. Brewery Tap, 52-54 Lower Bridge St, Chester
Housed in a Jacobean great hall, with a choice of beers from Spitting Feathers and other, mostly local, brewers.