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Camra Pioneers

Added: Thursday, December 1st 2011

From time to time a publican raises his head above the bar and has a pop at Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale. It happened a few weeks ago when the campaign voiced yet again its concern at short-measure pints being served in pubs.

There was much harrumphing in the undergrowth in the pages of the pub trade weekly, the Morning Advertiser. The view, frequently heard over the past 37 years, was simple: "Who do these people think they are, telling publicans what to do?"

I wish the critics of Camra could have been at a memorable meeting on Friday, 21 November in Nottingham. It was a gathering of the campaign's pioneers, people who have been around since the early 1970s and who have devoted much time and energy to saving cask beer from oblivion.

We gathered in the Canalhouse, one of the pubs owned by Tynemill, a Midlands pub group that has built its considerable success on selling a wide range of real ales. We are all older, greyer (if we still have hair) and thicker round the middle but there was justifiable pride in our achievements.

The keynote speech of the day was made by Christopher Hutt. He wrote one of the earliest and best books about the threat to traditional beer, The Death of the English Pub, became Camra's second national chairman and went on to run the campaign's own group of pubs before running several other pub companies.

Hutt comes from North-west England and he recalled cutting his teeth on such fine ales as Boddingtons, Holts and Robinson's. It came as a profound shock when he went to the University of East Anglia to find there was just one pub in the whole of Norwich that sold cask beer.

He quickly discovered that the reason for the absence of good beer in that large city was down to the London brewery, Watneys. It had bought and eventually closed all three Norwich breweries and then engaged in a scorched earth policy throughout Norfolk, closing dozens of pubs and, in the process, ripping the life out of small, isolated villages.

Hutt decided to write about this experience. As he researched his book, he found that Norfolk was not alone in losing its beery traditions. Other parts of the country were similarly afflicted as new giant brewing groups turned their backs on traditional beer and moved to keg beers devoid of flavour and full of fizz. Watney's Red was the most notorious of those new keg beers.

Chris Hutt was not alone. He discovered a small but vigorous organisation called, at first, the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale that was soon given the more manageable title of the Campaign for Real Ale. Hutt jumped on board this fast-moving dray.

He recalled an article in the Sunday Times by Ian Nairn that spoke of the threat to good beer and the emergence of Camra. The result was a rush of new members. When the campaign organised the first ever national beer festival in London's Covent Garden, people were queuing round the block to get in. Camra had struck a chord.

Left to right: Chris Bruton, national chairman in the late 1970s, Neil Kellett, the campaign's first auditor, Christopher Hutt, founder member Michael Hardman, and Chris Holmes who preceded Chris Bruton as chairman and now runs the Tynemill pub group and Castle Rock Brewery. Picture: Graham Percy

Camra power

The campaign had a massive impact. Chris Hutt said that Maxwell Joseph, the boss of the leisure group Grand Metropolitan that owed Watneys, told a shareholders' meeting that sales of beer were down due to the activities of "a small group of communists and anarchists who were stirring up trouble in pubs".

Camra's success in the 1970s should never be underestimated. When I joined the movement in 1976, Fuller's, the revered independent in west London, had taken a board room decision to abandon cask beer and switch to keg. It was the impact of Camra and the determination of Fuller's arch London rival, Young's, to remain true to cask beer that encouraged the Chiswick brewery to abandon its keg plans. Today Fuller's is one of the most successful cask beer producers and innovators, developing new brands and styles.

The Nottingham meeting did not wallow in nostalgia. As Christ Hutt said, the brewing industry has changed out of all recognition since Camra was formed in 1971. Many family-owned breweries have disappeared but they have been replaced by the new wave of smaller craft breweries, who now number more than 500.

The craft movement has been directly inspired by Camra. The campaign provided dedicated and passionate lovers of traditional beer with a blank canvas to produce a wide variety of brands. They have developed new styles, such as golden summer ales, and revived such lost styles as genuine IPAs, porters and stouts.

The choice of beer in Britain has never been better. That is Camra's legacy. If publicans sometimes grumble that the campaign should not interfere in pub matters they should realise it is a consumer movement, 95,000 strong, that fights in the interests of drinkers.

But the campaign is on the side of people running pubs. When you consider that the only small growth in the battered pub trade is coming from sales of cask beer, publicans should raise a glass to those pioneers who saved it from extinction 37 years ago.