CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, was founded in 1971, and so celebrates 50 years this year. I joined in the late 1970s, so I have certainly been a member for 40 of those 50 years!
Laura Hadland, in her book entitled ’50 years of CAMRA’ has done an admirable job in documenting the history of CAMRA, the more so because it was written mostly during the lockdown in 2020, and many planned meetings had to be rearranged to take place online, etc. In this post I will attempt to explore the effect of the real ale movement on my life, and how I see things moving forward.
I drank very little beer until I was 18. My parents were not beer drinkers – in my mother’s case it may have been seeing her father drunk after one too many pints, and I’m not sure about my father. They did however encourage me to drink wine, and I remember an Italian holiday where as children we had diluted wine with our meals (recommended in the travel guides as a precaution against the local water!) My father also made his own wine, and I remember there being demijohns regularly sitting in the airing cupboard!
It was when I went to university in 1975 that I first tried beer properly. The UCL 2nd floor student bar had Worthington ‘E’ on keg, and I drank that until a friend persuaded me to try Charrington’s IPA, served from a single solitary hand pump on the bar. Real ale was taking off then, and, with friends, I started going to the relatively few pubs in London that then served real ale. As well as Young’s and Fuller’s pubs, there were some other haunts, like the Princess Louise in High Holborn (still there I’m pleased to say). The beers I remember from back then included Young’s Ordinary and Special, Fuller’s London Pride and ESB, and Brakspears’ bitter, not to forget Ruddles Best and County. Many of these still exist, although in some cases they are brewed at different locations. Beer is influenced by the local water, and although Young’s Special is available to this day, it is now brewed in Bedford, and although still a fine beer, it’s not the same as when it was brewed in Wandsworth. Fuller’s still brew their beers at Chiswick, although there were some concerns when the company was taken over by Asahi in 2019.
It was no doubt my new interest in real ale which prompted me to join CAMRA, and to start going to beer festivals, particularly the GBBF (Great British Beer Festival). The first one I attended was at Bingley Hall in Birmingham in 1983. (It seems that Bingley Hall was burned down in 1984 and later replaced by the International Convention Centre). In 1985 I attended the GBBF at the Brighton Metropole. In 1986 I moved from London to North Staffordshire, and there was then a gap of a few years before I started regularly attending the GBBF at Kensington Olympia, Earl’s Court, and then Kensington Olympia again, right up to and including 2019 (and I must thank Angela for her encouragement here). The 2020 and 2021 events were cancelled, and I wonder where the event will be held in 2022, since I understand that Kensington Olympia is also now being redeveloped!
There have recently been questions about the relevance of CAMRA, and in 2016 a series of ‘revitalisation’ (sic) meetings were held. One of the issues was the rise of so-called ‘craft keg’ ales, which are not brewed to conform with CAMRA’s definition of real ale. I talk about craft keg here, and the meeting I attended, at the (now sadly recently closed) White Star pub in Stoke, is described here (and the post includes my thoughts on the ‘revitalisation exercise’ in general). However, I feel that CAMRA played an important role when pubs were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and I’ll say more about its relevance going forward later.
Of course, much of 2020 and the start of 2021 were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. All pubs and bars in the UK were made to close in March 2020, and then had a few months of reopening in the summer-autumn before having to close again. It wasn’t until April 2021 that outdoor opening was allowed (and it was very cold then), followed by restricted indoor opening in May, and finally, full opening in July. During the lockdown months I got some deliveries from a local bar, and became an authority on online beer sellers!
So now we are in August, and it’s the second year without a GBBF. CAMRA is running a ‘GBBF at your local’ which is a great idea in principle, but not many pubs in my area are taking part. However, at least they are open, which still seems a luxury!
A brief moment of reflection on the GBBF: yesterday would have been my mother’s 101st birthday. I’m very pleased that she came to two editions of the GBBF, and enjoyed them. I even enticed her younger brother to come one year. The GBBF is a wonderful and inclusive event, and I’m missing it very much, particularly as in a normal year I would be travelling to London tomorrow to be ready for the start of the festival. It has been a fixed point in my summer for many years.
Looking ahead, I do think CAMRA is still an important and relevant organisation. As we open up after the months of lockdown, not all pubs and bars (and breweries) have survived, and real ale will continue to need a champion fighting its corner. I’m looking forward to beer festivals being able to happen again, and particularly the GBBF in 2022. CAMRA and real ale have both figured prominently in my life, and I wish CAMRA all the best as it begins the next 50 years of its existence.