CAMRA and Lager: Eurofizz or Pure Beer?

Detail from a beer mat advertising Cameron's Ice Cold lager c.1980.

In its 44 years of existence, the Campaign for Real Ale has had a more complicated relationship with lager than cries of ‘fizzy piss’ from some members might have you believe.

CAMRA Munich ad, 1972.In the early 1970s, no-one in the Campaign was thinking much about lager at all, its energy being focused almost entirely on battling keg bitters from Watneys et al. The very first issue of What’s Brewing (WB), however, did carry an advertisement for an excursion to the Munich Oktoberfest organised by one of the founders, the bespectacled and hawkish Graham Lees.

Another keen traveller with a far from parochial attitude was Richard Boston, the author, from 1973 onward, of a weekly column about beer in the Guardian. Though highly supportive of CAMRA, at least at first, he also made a point of acknowledging his love of good lager, as in this passage from his 1976 book Beer & Skittles in which he recounts one of his formative experiences:

Beer and Skittles by Richard Boston.Some time around 1965 I went for a holiday which took me by train through Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria… To me [Prague] seemed delightful… The food was stodgy, low in taste and protein, but my God the beer was good. I had only intended to stay in Prague for two days: I knew no one there, I hadn’t much money and there was little to do. I stayed nearly a week, going from place to place drinking this wonderful beer and feeling more and more like the good soldier Svejk.

By now, you should be getting the picture, but a third quotation from a May 1978 WB article by Christopher Hutt, another key figure in the 1970s real ale movement, makes the hierarchy explicit:

Beer mat advertising Harp Lager c.1980.[A] great deal of lager sold in the UK is weak, much of it is rubbish, and all of it is expensive and highly profitable… A Which? survey of lager found that Carlsberg and Tuborg have original gravities of 1030, Harp and Heineken of 1033, and Skol of 1034. Not much excise duty to pay among that lot. These brands, incidentally, account for about 65 per cent of the lager sold in this country.

The quality of lager depends critically on being bottom fermented, on being made from the best materials, and on being stored for a long period. Some brewers, often the small independents who are trying to jump on the bandwagon without bringing their instruments, ignore all three of these prerequisites. Even the Financial Times was moved to say of them recently: “Those brewers who produce top fermented beers they call lager have a rather strange product and one which often deserves the industry’s term for such beer — bastard lager.”

This is not to criticise all lager or indeed, the people who drink any of it. A brand like Lowenbrau, for example, has real quality…

The prevailing view among the most serious beer geeks was, then, that lager brewed in Britain was almost inherently terrible, while the Real Thing, from Germany or the Czech Republic, was more-or-less the Continental equivalent of our own traditional draught ales, in heart and soul if not in flavour, appearance or method of production.

Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson wrote monthly columns for CAMRA for many years, championing beers from around the world. In October 1981, he laid into British lager. Citing data collected for his then-imminent Pocket Guide he set out parameters for true European-style Pilsner: an original gravity (OG) of between 1045 and 1050 and ‘a pronounced hop character, bouquet and dryness’. Even allowing a certain leeway — many international pilsners had OGs of around 1040 — British-brewed lagers seemed limp, with most having OGs of 1030-1037, and being indistinguishable from one another. Why, he wondered, were British brewers not producing ‘true to style’ Dortmunders, Münchners, Bocks, Doppelbocks and Märzenbiers?

Beer mat advertising Newcastle Bright -- lagered ale.For the next few months, CAMRA’s What’s Brewing became preoccupied with lager. In November 1981, it carried a double page centre splash by Brian Glover entitled ‘The Great Lager Fraud’ that précised a Trading Standards Agency report which had concluded that British-brewed lager was ‘poor value for money’. In January 1982, Ken Dunjohn of the Brewers’ Society exercised the right to reply with a defence of British lager. We don’t have a copy of his article but Roger Protz’s typically fierce response in February 1982 gives us the gist:

The implicit assumption in his penultimate paragraph that it is unpatriotic to criticise the British brewing industry is staggering in both its naivety and its offensiveness. The task of a consumer protection movement such as CAMRA is to tell the truth to the drinking public.

Graham Lees had moved to Munich in the early 1980s but this brought him out of hiding to deliver one of his trademark calls for an end to whinging and towards action, in a letter to WB in April 1982:

It isn’t enough to shake our heads at the pitiful, pee-coloured end product in the bar and treat it like some religious taboo. For the fact is so-called Continental style beer has come to stay in the British Isles… It’s about time the Campaign for Real Ale began campaigning for real continental beer in Britain. And before someone proposes locking me up in Watney’s Mortlake Tower on a charge of heresy, let me remind camrades that CAMRA is a defender of traditional cider, which isn’t even a distant cousin of beer.

He also contributed to a review of beer around the world that appeared in the 1985 Good Beer Guide:

Britons unfamiliar with Germany should understand that the Germans are not in the business of producing that anaemic, almost tasteless liquid called lager which is so mischievously marketed in Britain with fictional German names.

When Roger Protz visited him in Munich in 1986, Lees gave him a guided tour which reaffirmed Protz’s appreciation of the excellence of German lager. Then, on arriving back in London, he had a pint of Arkell’s bitter which was ‘warmish, flattish, uninspired’, and so concluded ‘I would have preferred a glass of premium pils’. (WB, August 1986.)

At around the same time, CAMRA was engaged in a campaign for legislation to ensure ‘pure beer’ free of additives and ‘chemicals’ and, in this conversation, the German Rheinheitsgebot purity law was frequently held up as an example of how things should be.

CAMAL logo.It was also towards the end of 1986 that Lees’ call for a Campaign for Real Lager was finally heeded, after a fashion, as a splinter group called CAMAL — the Campaign for Authentic Lager — had its first meeting. We have struggled to find out much about CAMAL but it is fair to say that they were a niche group and we recognise some of the names of those involved from another awkward bunch, the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW).

But perhaps the message that some lager could be a good thing was simply too nuanced for many rank-and-file CAMRA branch members who liked drinking more than theorising: they heard only the second thread — that lager was in every sense like piss, worse even than keg bitter, nasty foreign muck. And, to be fair, some members simply and sincerely didn’t like lager, regardless of its authenticity, and someone even wrote to What’s Brewing calling Protz a ‘fifth-columnist’ for daring to praise the beer in Munich. (WB November 1986.)

The Bradford branch of CAMRA began actively campaigning against lager, authentic or otherwise, and launched a leaflet aimed at preventing young drinkers from being seduced, which was reproduced in WB December 1986:

Why are you drinking lager? Is it:

– Because it is refreshing?
– Because it is cool?
– Because it is Continental, imported and something special?
– Because it is sparkling?
– Because it is strong?
– Because your friends drink it?
– Because you are swayed by mass advertising?

It is unlikely you will admit to the latter, but think about it. If lager was really so fantastic would so many millions of pounds need to be spent?

The Nottingham branch went even harder on the same theme but rather crossed a line of good taste with this image parodying Government anti-drugs campaigns of the day:

Nottingham CAMRA advertisement, 1986, parodying anti-heroin campaigns.

Twenty years on, matters are yet more complicated. Some British lagers are now very good (or ‘authentic’, if you like) while many from Germany are thought by connoisseurs to have lost their edge thanks to corporate mergers and cost-cutting.

Meanwhile, there is still a tension within CAMRA. On the one hand, there is a body of members who love beer in general, and for whom membership is merely one way of expressing their enthusiasm. They like pubs and pints of bitter, of course, but are also to be found buzzing around the international stands at CAMRA festivals, and spend their holidays in Bamberg. Then, on the other hand, there are those who are monogamous — whose true passion is for bitter and who regard any other type of beer, and especially lager, with disinterest, if not distaste.

Perhaps the current debate in the letters pages of What’s Brewing over the term ‘craft beer’ is actually just an extension of this argument from the 1970s and 80s? Look at some of the quotations above and substitute ‘craft beer’ for ‘lager’ and you’ll see what we mean.

This post was prompted by Tweets from @GroveHali about his experience working at a pub in Huddersfield.

  • If you were, or are, a member of CAMAL please tell us more in the comments below, or drop us an email via boakandbailey@gmail.com. As ever, corrections welcome, but don’t be a dick about it.
  • Main image: Detail from a beer mat advertising Cameron’s Ice Gold Cold lager c.1980, featuring (we think) Michael Robbins from On the Buses.

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34 thoughts on “CAMRA and Lager: Eurofizz or Pure Beer?”

  1. Interesting. I just finished a weeklong trip to good beer pubs throughout Yorkshire — often CAMRA-award-winning venues — and I couldn’t help noticing that while those pubs generally didn’t serve lager, if they did serve lager it was almost always Budvar.

    That is virtually the opposite of the situation in Budvar’s home country. In the Czech Republic, if there is a pub that focuses on serving several kinds of good beer, it will almost never have Budvar. Instead, it will offer several independent, regional producers and Pilsner Urquell.

      1. What I’m sure of is that when I did see lager in a specialty beer bar, it was usually Budvar. (As at the Fat Cat last Saturday.) And I’m sure I never saw Pilsner Urquell. And that is the exact opposite of what you see the Czech Republic.

    1. That’s something else it might be worth us digging into at some point: CAMRA’s particular fondness for Budvar.

      Roger Protz has been championing it for years but there is also the underdog appeal resulting from the brewery’s ongoing battles with Anheuser Busch.

      And perhaps conversely PU is out of favour because it is owned by SAB Miller?

      1. I think PU is “out of favour” because of the changes in production processes brought about by the SAB Miller ownership rather than the ownership per se. Budvar on the other hand has stuck to the “tried and tested” ways. At least I think that’s the narrative.

        1. That’s the narrative, but it’s not always correct. And the connection of Budvar to CAMRA is worth looking at.

          In late 2004, Budvar paid for a group of CAMRA members to come to the Czech Republic and give a press conference in Prague, during which they denounced Pilsner Urquell. Budvar had told the CAMRA group that Pilsner Urquell had reduced its conditioning time from 60 days to 27, among other things, and the CAMRA group rather credulously repeated these “facts” at the press conference.

          This, as it turned out, was not true. And the idea of Britain telling the Czech Republic what it should do reminded many people here of Munich in 1938.

          I wrote my own article about the brouhaha for the newspaper here at the time, and I interviewed Roger Protz over the phone about what happened. Here’s another reporter’s take on it:

          http://www.radio.cz/en/section/economic/british-beer-consumers-campaign-leaves-czech-brewers-with-a-bitter-aftertaste

          “Several Czech brewers this week even angrily suggested that Camra was somehow in the service of Budvar.”

  2. I don’t claim any specialist knowledge of this – & I’d love to hear more about CAMAL if anyone out there knows more – but you do seem to be distorting/oversimplifying your own story in a couple of places.

    The prevailing view among the most serious beer geeks was, then, that lager brewed in Britain was almost inherently terrible, while the Real Thing, from Germany or the Czech Republic, was more-or-less the Continental equivalent of our own traditional draught ales

    The quotes you’d just presented suggest that beer geeks had a perfectly rational aversion to most of the lager actually being brewed in Britain – mass-produced, inauthentic and poor quality – not this quasi-mystical prejudice against anything British. Was anyone saying “European good, British bad”?

    perhaps the message that some lager could be a good thing was simply too nuanced for many rank-and-file CAMRA branch members who liked drinking more than theorising: they heard only the second thread — that lager was in every sense like piss, worse even than keg bitter, nasty foreign muck.

    I don’t know where this last bit comes from. Even if the message had gone out that British lager was bad and the CAMRA masses had uncritically absorbed it, this surely wouldn’t have led them to the conclusion that lager was “nasty foreign muck”! In any event, the anti-lager publicity you reproduce is more anti-corporate than anything – which is in line with Hutt, Jackson et al.

    In short, you can tell the whole story without any vague feelings or irrational prejudices, and much more simply: well-travelled beer geeks announced that most of the lager available in Britain – and all the lager being heavily promoted to a mass market – was under-strength, over-priced and of poor quality; some CAMRA branches picked up the message and told their readers that all the lager they were likely to see was under-strength, over-priced and of poor quality. Which, at the time, it probably was.

    1. Phil — unfortunately for us, it’s relatively hard to find evidence of what rank-and-file members think/thought, but see Martyn’s comment below. Perhaps we’re reading too much into ‘Because it is Continental, imported and something special?’ in the Bradford leaflet.

      1. As now I really don’t think there was a collective view from what I recall (I wasn’t active in the 1970s but have been involved since about 1980). I do however recall one active local member dismissing Kolsch as “Euro-piss” which certainly (and perhaps over-pithily) does reflect the mindset of at least part of the membership then.

        1. As an addendum re the Bradford leaflet – looking back it is perhaps too easy to read unwarranted significance into what at the time may have just bee the author’s casual turn of phrase.

          1. We’ve dropped Bradford CAMRA a line to see if they’ve got a copy in their archive — might help to see it in context. Wonder if their old newsletters are archived online? Will check.

      2. I would have said the main point of that list was the last line – i.e. CAMRA wouldn’t deny that lager was cool & sparkling (etc) but wanted to point out that it was being really heavily marketed & that this might have turned a few heads. And if they did refer to the ‘imported’ angle later on, I’ll bet it was to make the point that most British lager wasn’t imported (but was mass-produced ch*m*c*l f*zz).

        Really this is just another instalment in my long-running argument with you about CAMRA, early CAMRA in particular – you seem to start from a position of “why did these strange people believe these strange things?”, whereas I’d say that the evidence shows that we* believed some quite sensible things for perfectly good reasons. I don’t think either perspective is totally valid; they both miss something out. Mine, for instance, is ill-equipped to explain CAMRA members saying stupid things about beers they didn’t like!

        *’We’? I was far too young to join CAMRA at the start – and actually didn’t join until a couple of years ago – but I was a fairly well-informed sympathiser from very early on; I wasn’t there exactly, but I feel like I wasn’t far away.

  3. Your piece is extremely well-written and interesting, and perhaps points to more themes which could be explored under the general heading. As someone who joined CAMRA back in 1976, I had a passing relationship with lager in my late teens. Most brands – Harp, Skol, Heineken, etc – tasted the same, or should I say not tasted as they had no discernible flavour. Carling was perhaps the exception, and many years later a lager-loving friend complained to me about the bar offerings at an event I was helping to organise where Carling was the only lager available; he didn’t like it because it tasted! However, British lager was so weak and tasteless precisely because, I would suggest, of the way it was consumed and by whom. Necked in copious quantities by mainly men, mainly-ish young, for whom quantity was more important than quality. The term lager louts did have some original basis in fact, I would say. Witness the fact the Becks produced Becks Vier as a 5% beer was considered too strong for the target consumer in the UK and the amount they drank in a session. This follows on from the UK being the only country where Heineken was 3.4% and not 5%. Having tasted the 5% version some years ago at the brewery in the Netherland, it wasn’t that bad. Not to my taste but surprisingly good quality. So, there is a cultural aspect in the development of British “lager” – and I use the quotes deliberately as the mass-produced lagers were never lagered properly. Now some may accuse me of being a bit of a snob, but we do need as a society to differentiate to some extent to those who drink because they enjoy the flavour and accept intoxication as an unwanted occupational hazard, and those who drink to get intoxicated regardless of what it is they’re drinking. If anyone says that’s me being a snob, I don’t care! There is certainly some snobbishness in some of the anti-lager comments you have quoted.
    I have over the years become more familiar with German and Czech beer and I particularly love Bavarian beers. Some of these are as good as the top British real ales – just different and a product of a different culture. And, yes, you do see copious volumes of 5% or 5.5% beers being consumed in cities like Munich, but it doesn’t seem to have the same effects and outcomes as in some British cities. The cultural aspect is important, and considering the conjunction of “foreign” beer with British drinking culture cannot be ignored.
    Personally, good beer is good beer, whether from Manchester or Munich. I have over-indulged in both those cities, but only because I really enjoyed what I was drinking. If I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t drink it – hence so-called British lagers do not feature as I find them bland, over-fizzy and more likely to give me a hangover (something I very rarely suffer from nowadays). But there are those who do like them, and that’s fine, whether it’s the flavour they like (or they don’t like more flavoursome beers, possibly) or whether it’s a peer-pressure thing, matters not.

    1. This follows on from the UK being the only country where Heineken was 3.4% and not 5%.
      Not the only one where it was less than full strength: Heineken in Ireland was, and still is, 4.3% ABV. In the other direction there’s also a special Irish version (or badging) of Beck’s Vier, also at 4.3% ABV.

      1. a special Irish version (or badging) of Beck’s Vier, also at 4.3% ABV.

        I haven’t made an ‘Irish’ joke in thirty years, but sometimes it’s awfully tempting.

  4. Yes, the ersatz, top-fermented “lagers” made by some of the family brewers back then were famously grim. I suspect the nadir was Robinsons’ Einhorn – truly terrible stuff (even Robinsons tacitly said so – “it’s not a product we’re particularly proud of”). Strangely it hung around for a long time and was only discontinued a few years ago (its last redoubt being a pub called the Bull’s Head in Kerridge where one regular – who went by the perhaps unsurprising name of ‘Fat Fred’ – was known to drink a gallon a day of the stuff).

  5. Ironic that Bradford CAMRA was one of the first festivals to feature real Lager courtesy of the estimable Olaf Schellenberg.

      1. Olaf Schellenberg is a lovely man and well worth hunting down. Provided German beers (incl those tabletop cask things) for Cambridge CAMRA feats (including a gloriously (in)authentic Oktoberfest in October) when I lived there.

  6. The apparent anti-British bias stems from concern about authenticity of source, which back in those days was a big thing in CAMRA. “It won’t taste the same now it’s been moved to another brewery” was a common refrain, and obviously something brewed in Northampton would never be as good as the equivalent brewed in Copenhagen.

    You don’t hear it so often nowadays, when craft brewers have proved it’s possible to brew brilliant, tasty beers in industrial units and railway arches, and concern about “beer miles” makes importing beer from Seattle not look quite such a good idea.

    I initially started drinking on lager and back in those days tended to avoid Carling as it lacked what I would now recognise as a “noble hop” character which some of its competitors, notably Heineken, had in a subdued form. This is probably why I’ve not been hugely impressed by BrewDog’s This.Is.Lager because, while it has plenty of hops, they’re not the right kind of hops.

  7. I have to say that my memory of Camra in the 1970s is that many members did indeed feel that ALL lager was nasty foreign muck, even if it was the finest that Bohemia or Bavaria could provide. Of course, as I’eve said before,, while Camra was campaigning furiously against keg bitter, keg lager was inexorably growing to the point where it would dominate the British beer market: if St Albans had spent less time attacking Watney’s Red and DD and more time attacking Skol, Harp and Hofmeister …

    1. I think that would have been more difficult, as you can’t point to a direct “real” equivalent of lager, and also it tended to appeal to a new generation who weren’t interested in all that twiggy hippy nonsense.

      The keg brands like DD and Watney’s Red were positioned as premium products to appeal to drinkers who felt they had a bit more discernment and deeper pockets. CAMRA succeeded in making these beers seem utterly naff and by 1976 many of those who drank them had moved on to singing the praises of Ruddles County.

    2. Martyn — that’s another half-researched blog post: the them and us relationship between the urban sophisticates of the National Executive and down-to-earth drinkers in branches. Certainly NE candidates in the 1980s often seem to have campaigned on the basis that they were ‘rank and file’ and wouldn’t, like that last lot, lord it from their ivory tower in St Albans.

      1. I read What’s Brewing for a good decade if memory serves in the 80’s and my recollection is that the more thoughtful CAMRA writers always respected European lager of the utmost authenticity such as Pilsner Urquell. Roger Protz and of course Michael Jackson were in this group, they never had the casual dismissiveness of (it appears from comments above) much of the the rank and file. Of course their opinion at that time generally was based on locally-brewed examples or imports such as bottled Holsten which didn’t really give the picture for the best European traditions.

        In general I recall a respectful and inquiring attitude amongst the writers for the traditional elements of the European scene. The distinction of course with real ale was always maintained, as is still done with craft keg, but the two stances were are not inconsistent.

        Gary

  8. It is paradox that many CAMRA members have always supported real ale while happily supping continental beers, not only when they came across them, but actively seeking them out. And lagers were included too. While UK brewed lagers were universally despised by CAMRA Members, I don’t recall the same general antipathy that Martyn recalls.

    It is also my recollection that Camerons brewed Ice Gold Lager, not Ice Cold, but if you have a source for the latter, I’ve been wrong all these years.

    Not for the first time I suppose.

    1. I remember drinking Stella Artois in Belgium in about 1975 (with my family – I was under age) and thinking “wow, this is the good stuff”. “Proper Dutch Heineken” was well-regarded too.

      It’d be interesting – and quite funny – if the CAMRAscenti had had an irrational prejudice against British lager because it was British, while the masses had a down on it because it was foreign muck, but I think the truth is a lot simpler: when lager conquered the (British drinking) world, most of it wasn’t very good, and people who cared enough about beer to be into real ale didn’t like it because it wasn’t very good. And I guess there was a tribal CAMRA element who didn’t like it because Real Ale Good Everything Else Bad, but I’m never sure how big that group really is.

      1. Phil, you’re right. And Stella in that period was a good beer in Belgium, rather different than it is today, in my opinion.

        Gary

      1. I have been around. I remember supping it in Stockton in 1976. I was on a course in nearby Billingham where I stayed in the digs of a Mrs Colpitz. Supped a lot of Godawful beer there.. Seem to remember Harp, McEwans Best Scotch and Exhibition. Not fondly.

  9. I could get involved at length in this, but instead I’ll just say that my TV geek partner, who has on numerous occasions threatened me with his On the Buses box set, confirms it is indeed Michael Robbins in the pic.

    1. Great — thanks! There must have been an accompanying TV ad but, as it’s not on YouTube, it might as well not exist.

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