The Campaign for Real Ale was founded in 1971 by four young men who wanted to protect the quality and diversity in British brewing. At that time, there were 175 breweries in the UK, but six of them produced 80% of the country’s beer and owned most of the pubs that sold it. The “Big Six” breweries were ditching traditional cask-conditioned beer in favour of processed and carbonated keg beer.
In the intervening 45 years, CAMRA’s activities have helped to revolutionise the beer landscape. There are now more than 1,500 breweries producing more than 11,000 beers. The vast majority of pubs sell at least one real ale, and in some cases a dozen or more. And CAMRA has grown to become one of the largest, single-issue consumer groups in the world.
So isn’t it time for CAMRA to raise a glass to a job well done and stand down?
Well, perhaps not, given that there are still threats to our favourite tipple. The volume of beer sold in pubs is considerably less than it was 40 years ago. Too much of the real ale is served in poor condition as a result of low turnover or poor cellarmanship. And we are losing 27 pubs a week as drinkers turn to cheap supermarket beer at home.
In order to address these challenges, CAMRA is embarking on a consultation of its nearly 180,000 members to ask them who and what it should represent in the future. One of its four founders, Michael Hardman, has returned to lead the Revitalisation Project – a wholesale review into the purpose and strategy of the organisation. Members will be invited to share their views about the campaign’s future by completing surveys and attending around 50 consultation meetings across the UK this summer.
They will be asked whether CAMRA should move away from promoting and protecting traditional real ale and become more inclusive, or shed subsidiary issues which have become attached to the organisation over the years – such as pub heritage, cider and foreign beer – in order to narrow its focus exclusively on cask-conditioned beer.
Earlier this month, I attended CAMRA’s National Members’ Weekend in Liverpool where the Revitalisation Project was launched. The majority of those attending were seasoned campaigners who have retained the passion for real ale that prompted them to join CAMRA many years ago. I wonder whether we can generate the same sort of passion in today’s younger drinkers. If not, I fear that CAMRA may not have a future.
I await the consultation meeting in Lincoln Drill Hall in August with interest.
And what about the beer? While we were in Liverpool, we visited plenty of the city’s great pubs. And my favourite beer of the weekend was First Class (3.8% ABV) from Titanic Brewery in Stoke-on-Trent. It is a golden brown session ale with a good balance of fruity hop flavours and malt.