Alternate History

Last night, we got a bit counter-factual and asked ourselves this: if the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) had never appeared on the scene, where would British beer be now?

Maybe, without CAMRA, we’d have got new breweries and better beer anyway, eventually, through some other mechanism.

Maybe ‘craft keg’ was historically inevitable.

Maybe, even if it had died out, cask-conditioning would been revived later, and been as trendy as barrel-ageing and pseudo-historic recipes.

Our guess: the SPBW would have seen a massive rise in members after the Alexandra Palace Beer Festival picket of 1972, at which CAMRA stole the limelight, and of which more another time. The founders of the SPBW would have stepped aside to make way for more serious-minded campaigners, including some of those we now associate with CAMRA. The SPBW, with a decade’s worth of baggage (ridicule) would never have gained as many members as CAMRA (thirty thousand by 1975!), and might have been less slick, but it would have achieved some of the same things, i.e. encouraging new breweries to open and established breweries to resume production of cask beer.

Conclusion: CAMRA didn’t create the demand for better beer, but channelled and expressed it brilliantly in those early years. It gave a voice to a great mass of people who wanted something other than bad keg bitter.

If you have thoughts on what might prove to be an emotive question, feel free to express them below in the contemplative tone of a university professor who has eaten well, drunk a little port, and is feeling a little drowsy in front of an open fire. (In other words, no shouting, please.)

UPDATE: Tom Stainer at CAMRA HQ has reminded us that there’s a long article by Martyn Cornell in What’s Brewing, May 2011, on exactly this subject. It’s an interesting read for those who can get through the login.

34 thoughts on “Alternate History”

  1. Maybe. There was an mood for English cultural revial at the time, but I’m sure there were some aspects of culture that withered away instead of being revived and cask beer could have been one of them.

    1. Things that withered and came back through the power of the market without campaign groups?

      1. Yes. Also knitting. Unless you count Ravelry a campaign group.

        CAMRA has (I’m sure) made a substantial contribution to public perception of beer. Not all positive.

        The early seventies were a funny time (not just for beer of course), following an intense period of consolidation in the British brewing industry (between 1949–1969 the the number of “brewers” and breweries fell (by 74% and 60%, respectively) while production rose (by about 25%). The Consumers Association had just published results showing that beer strengths were falling as prices were rising and that this was most noticeable in keg beers.

        I don’t know how much post-war road building had made the national distribution of beer (and other food products) more of a goer. But it might be significant that production centralised as the motorway network developed.

        It’s clear (is it?) that the concern with the increasing white-bread / bland standardisation of, ooh, everything, that had been a feature of the “counter-culture” of the 60’d had broadened and spread into “mainstream” thinking as we hit the 70s. I’m not saying that this concern was invented by those damn hippies, it’s been a part of alternative thinking for, like, ever, and is from time-to-time taken up popularly.

        I suppose what I’m saying is that there was almost bound to be a reaction to the homogenisation of beer (& food & wider) culture that was serving only the large producers and retailers. CAMRA was part of that reaction, but not the cause of it, IMHO.

        1. “CAMRA was part of that reaction, but not the cause of it, IMHO.”

          Think we agree, though their PR skill in the early years probably turned a lot of what would otherwise have been passive grumblers into activists.

          1. Mr Cornell quotes Paddy Johnson: “it would probably have been lead by craft brewers. Cask beer is particularly suitable to microbrewing, and providing they had got going I think they would have driven the growth”

            SIBA kicked off in 1980 and their push for Guest Beer (remember that?), PBD, etc probably did as much to secure consumer choice as anything else. I’m not knocking CAMRA, but I’d believe in their campaigning power more if they could get that flipping petition signed up.

  2. It’s a moot point to what extent CAMRA was reflecting trends in society that already existed rather than creating them.

    Without CAMRA we would probably have eventually got microbreweries and craft beer, but you might have found real ale much less widely available, whereas now it is the norm in most pubs apart from youth bars and grotholes.

    I get the impression that is the situation in the USA, where there’s a huge number of brewpubs and craft breweries, but if you just go in a bar at random in Peoria, Illinois, you’re unlikely to find any decent beer.

    1. Well, no, I don’t believe so. By that argument we’d now expect to find little but sliced white bread and processed cheese everywhere except specialist cheese-mongers and bakeries. Whereas, in point of fact, here in the UK, we can find reasonably good bread and cheese (or passing facsimiles thereof) on the shelves of every supermarket. It may be significant that the choice of bread and cheese I’ve seen in US supermarkets is, indeed, largely, poor.

  3. Essentially what Mudgie says. It takes a few determined individuals and striking a chord with people to revive something. I don’t know so much that it was a trend or otherwise in society.

    Another good example is the very successful revival of Welsh speaking. It had a base and a lot of sympathy. Gaelic on the other hand, has had no such revival, despite the huge revival over the years of Scottish Nationalism. Oddly Plaid Cymru hasn’t benefited hugely.

    These things aren’t always that straightforward and are rarely linear.

    1. Welsh/Gaelic is a really interesting parallel.

      Tthe SPBW had gathered c.2000 members between 1963 and 1972, despite its relative lack of central organisation and confusing/confused aims, and they’d begun to recruit some more determined, serious types from the late sixties. They were just warming up to political campaigning when CAMRA turned up doing it slicker, younger, and with better connections in the press. (Working theory.)

      1. Welsh always had widespread & deep-rooted support – more like Scottish Nationalism than Scots Gaelic. Lots of different people have lived in Scotland for a long time (stop me if I’m getting too technical), and – at least since the Clearances – only a very small percentage of them have ever been Gaelic speakers.

  4. I think the Gaelic comparison is very interesting. In the 1960s there was more Gaelic being spoken in Cape Breton than Scotland but it is almost all gone now. It was not passed on through families and also became academic, institutional. Precious rather than robust. A craft, like a language, needs a living aspect. Without the enthusiasm of a movement like CAMRA, real ale may have become the product of hobbyists following the pre-CAMRA movement of home brewing advocates like David Line but it could well never have taken off, remaining only a quaint products to be made for ones own consumption or hidden in corners like, say, perry.

  5. By the way, love your note at the foot of each post as to the desire tone of response. Will you direct us one day to answer in verse? Maybe in Middle English or as if a lyric from a 1960s folk revival song?

    1. Do you love it? Or do you actually hate it? We like a nice rambling discussion so it’s an attempt at some pre-emptive ‘chairing’…

  6. A slight aside, but Gaelic was never spoken in Scotland south of the Highland Line – the area that now contains the bulk of the population – nor in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland. On the other hand, Welsh was once spoken across most of the land area of Wales except maybe a few border areas. There are even places with Welsh names like Llanyblodwel which are now in England.

  7. I once joined SPBW: during the year, I was sent 2 or 3 photocopied leaflets about events in London (I live in Merseyside), and that was it. When I didn’t renew my membership, they never chased me up. I think we can safely dismiss SPBW as a bunch of hobbyists.

    Seeing that the rise in microbreweries in the USA was inspired in part by what was going on over here, I don’t think we can use the American situation as an analogy if we hypothetically wipe CAMRA from existence. I also think comparisons with bread, cheese, and Brythonic and Gadhelic languages are too strained to be valid: the variables involved are so different.

    I’m not sure why there is a tendency among certain beer bloggers to try to minimise CAMRA’s role, but it does remind me quite strongly of left wing rewriting of history, an phenomenon I know something about.

    1. “I think we can safely dismiss SPBW as a bunch of hobbyists.”

      Hmm, don’t think we can. What you say is true of the SPBW before 1967 and after 1972, but in that specific period they were involved in some reasonably serious, headline-grabbing campaigning, and getting more serious about it. Terry Pattinson, industry journalist at the Express and later head of CAMRA investments, joined in 1971 and was being described as their ‘chief spokesman’ in ’72. He was a very businesslike, well connected character. Bet they’d have got Christopher Hutt and Frank Baillie eventually, too, if CAMRA hadn’t stolen their thunder.

      On the flipside, CAMRA c.1971-72 weren’t doing much more than ‘having a laugh’ (to paraphrase Michael Hardman’s words). Even when they got going in earnest after 1972, it took them several more years to sort out proper records and organise central office effectively. (For example, no-one knew for sure how many members there were — the figures given in the press were more or less guesses, it seems.)

      We’re not trying to minimise CAMRA’s role, just to understand it.

    2. I’m sure I don’t know why you’d aver that making comparison between the histories of one staple of diet (beer) and others (cheese, bread) is “strained”. All these foods have been marked by a clear drift towards standardisation, intensive production and the loss of regional distinctions. In recent years we’ve seen a resurgence of variety and something of a return to (or at least strong nods towards) traditional qualities and methods. Sausages too, to a lesser extent. Mmmm, sausages. (Bacon, perhaps. Kippers, not so much.) I think I’m right in saying that none of these other foods is associated with a national popular campaign.

      Clearly, CAMRA was reflecting trends in wider society. How could it not? The question is whether these trends might have produced something like the situation we have now, without the presence of the campaign. It’s a man making time / time making man sort of question, wouldn’t you say?

      As far as a “tendency to minimise CAMRA’s role” goes, I should say it falls on CAMRA to justify the assumption that CAMRA’s role has been (on balance) positive. And will continue to be. Not just take it as a given, simply because the lifetime of the campaign has coincided with welcome progress in some areas of concern to their members (I’m one).

      It’s not sufficient to say CAMRA campaigned, and lo, it came to pass.
      We interested in causation here aren’t we? Not mere correlation.

      I’m with you on the comparison to the development of bilingualism in Wales (on the one hand) and Scotland (on the other). WTF?

  8. And then there was the influence of Michael Jackson in the US, so would they have had craft breweries and then brought the model over here instead of the reverse way?

    1. But MJ was not the triggering cause of the initial interest in craft brewing during the 80s. During that period, founding brewers visit the UK, get a taste of what was available, train there and come back and replicate ales within a certain framework of tastes and styles. Jackson rides that, but then also the import boom and then the later wave of craft that goes hop (brett, etc) mental but has as the drinker the more important audience.

      1. I largely agree Alan although I would point out that one of the major early importors Charles Finkel/Merchant du Vin was heavily influenced by Jackson, hence the importance of Sam Smiths in the States and thier eventual influence on how the Americans categorised English beer styles.

    1. Wasn’t it? To paraphrase Olympic boxer Nicola Adams on winning her Gold: “It’s made our day.”

      1. I still wonder what would happen if you directed a discussion be held in the manner of a school yard scrap between nine year old boys.

  9. I think without the particular fetishisation of cask-conditioning that CAMRA created, cask beer would indeed have disappeared. There would definitely have been some sort of microbrew revival, along the lines of American and German brewpubs, offering an alternative to mass-market beers. But cask would be gone, because it depends on there being a critical mass of pubs able and willing to handle it.

    You can revive even the most obscure style, like Lichtenhainer or West Country white ale, but you can’t revive a dispense method if none of your customers know what to do with the beer when it arrives.

    1. Ah, yes, very good point. Some of the early microbreweries were compelled to keg their beer because the handpumps had been ripped out of all the local pubs.

      If cask did disappear and was later revived, it would probably have been as a ‘folksy’ relic and, as at Becky’s Dive Bar (or Duesseldorf/Koeln) served direct from creaky old wooden barrels ostentatiously perched on the bar.

      1. Of the early microbrewers none of them actually kegged their beer at all. Litchborough sold their beer under top pressure as did the Miskin Arms and the New Fermor Arms (but the latter two were brewpubs) but that is not the same as keg. As far as I know all of the rest were dedicated cask ale brewers.

        It is interesting to see people say what may or may not have happened with the developmen tof micro breweries. What I think is overlooked is CAMRA’s role in fostering the conditions which prompted those early pioneers to take the plunge into brewing.

        I know that some people seem to view CAMRA’s role here as a historical inconvenience and postulate what the SPBW may or may not have done (very little at the end of the day I suspect) but like it or not it was CAMRA that got the bandwaggon rolling.

        It is easy to forget that small scale brewing was dying on its arse in this country and without CAMRA doing what it did the chances are that trend would have continued. It is also arguable I think that it was the UK that exported the concept of microbrewing to the rest of the world (the early pioneers in the USA were certainly influneced by what was happening here).

        You can speculate what would have happened without CAMRA’s activities and we may well have seen a nascent micro brewery scene here and abroad by now but I’m guessing that none of them would be at the stage they are now without CAMRA coming along in the very early 1970s and stirring things up.

        1. Oops. Yes, we got our terminology confused. (Better watch that.) Our point was that Litchborough and others couldn’t produce the kind of real ale they wanted to at first because the local pubs weren’t equipped for it. (Still looking for the reference, but did read about one brewery c.1981 who brewed keg to supply working men’s clubs.)

          Isn’t there a middle ground between “without CAMRA there’d have been a beer apocalypse” and “CAMRA had no influence at all”? Our view is that it’s unfair to completely dismiss the SPBW, but CAMRA did much more, more effectively, than they ever would have.

          1. While alternate histories are fun I do rather prefer the real thing. From where we are now it is not really unreasonable to dismiss the SPBW because we know that they played very little part in the cask ale revival here in the UK.

            Even with CAMRA around we know that the process of consolidation in the brewing industry continued . Of the 80 odd breweries in Frank Baillie’s book only about 30 are still with us. As I said before I think CAMRA fostered the conditions whereby new entrants came into the market to pick up some of the slack. Without CAMRA we would today have a much diminished brewery industry and a lot less choice (even allowing for the fact that a micro brewing scene of sorts might have emerged later).

            What beer would we be drinking? Before CAMRA came along there was a drift away from cask among quite a few of the family brewers – you only have to look at, say, the 1974 GBG to see that many of them produced very little cask beer Some (Gibs Mew for example) had abandoned it all together or were in the process of doing so (Fullers for example). I think it is safe to say this trend would have continued.

            Thus even if we had subsequently seen a micro brewing revival the chances are it might not have been so exclusively cask as it is today. In fact the postiion could be a mirror image of what we have now with most of the micros producing keg beers and perhaps a handful of cutting edge punk brewers turning their backs on keg and proudly producing nothing but “craft cask”. Others would perhaps join in producing the odd “craft cask” beer to sit alongside their keg range.

            Which of course is more or less what happened in the USA. Their brewing industry got far closer to ground zero than ours did and it is only now that micros there are starting to turn their attention to cask conditioning.

            So, without CAMRA would there have been a beer apocalypse? Perhaps not. Would there have been a cask beer apocalypse? Almost certainly I would say. Did CAMRA stop that happening? Again almost certainly – perhaps not entirely unaided but it was definitely the catalyst.

            I do get the feeling there are one or two out there who wish that wasn’t the case. But it was and is.

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