The Language of Real Ale

The Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale used the word ‘ale’ because, tripping drunkenly across the yard at Guinness’s St James’s Gate brewery in Dublin, founder member Graham Lees argued successfully that it sounded less poncy, pretentious and downright ‘southern’ than beer.

Big beer producers used words like ‘real’, ‘proper’ and ‘traditional’ to describe their beer throughout the sixties and early seventies. Flower’s Keg was ‘for real bitter drinkers’ (double meaning, 1964); Whitbread Tankard ‘traditional draught beer’ (1964); even Carlsberg was ‘a real glass of lager!’ (not a glasss of ‘real lager’ but… 1961).

In early CAMRA newsletters and discussions (c.1972), and Richard Boston’s columns, terms like ‘real beer’, ‘the real thing’, ‘proper beer’, and so on, were used interchangeably. Those terms conjured up, in some vague way, a sense of authenticity and quality.

CAMRA became The Campaign for Real Ale in 1973 because ‘real’ was catchier than ‘revitalisation’ (and easier to say when drunk, according to Michael Hardman) but would also allow the acronym CAMRA to be retained.

CAMRA’s genius was in taking a vague rhetorical term — ‘real ale’ — and coming up with a watertight technical definition which they managed not only to get into the Oxford English Dictionary, but also made big beer producers afraid to misuse. Watney’s had previously borne the brunt of CAMRA’s emnity and been obliged to rebrand all their red-painted pubs and U-turn on producing cask-conditioned beer. No-one, in 1975, wanted 30,000 angry CAMRA members directed at them.

CAMRA could easily have been the Campaign for Proper Beer, with proper beer defined in exactly the same way as real ale is today, if the stars had been aligned differently.

11 thoughts on “The Language of Real Ale”

  1. They give some lovely CAMRA-approved examples of usage though, don’t they? Chris Hutt, What’s Brewing. Surprised they didn’t also include a cut-out membership application form.

  2. But a dictionary is not there to suggest there is truth in the use of the phrase just that the usage has attained a level of acceptance, no?

    1. Or ‘premium lager’ or ‘world beer’. ‘World beer’ is my favourite, it means I can just carry on to the next pub.

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