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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