Beer history real ale

The Great Air Pressure Schism

Illustration from the 1978 Good Beer Guide.

In 1977, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) had its first real wobble when Truman tested their faith by launching a beer in the south of England which was dispensed using ‘air pressure’. It exposed some gaping holes in the definition of ‘real ale’ around which 30,000 members had rallied and nearly split the Campaign in two.

We’ll be honest: our understanding of (and interest in…) the many different methods of dispense is fairly limited, though we’re having to learn as we go. Air pressure saw otherwise ‘real’ ale pushed out by air (not CO2 as with ‘top pressure’, of which more another time) which was pumped into the cask/keg, rather than being ‘drawn’ out as was more usual. A pretty fine distinction as far as most people are concerned, right? Nonetheless, Truman’s Tap Bitter, which they seem to have intended as a sop to CAMRA, was ruled ‘unreal’ by the National Executive — the air pumped in, they felt, would stop the beer breathing and make it ‘fizzy’ — and serving it did not, therefore, make pubs eligible to appear in the influential annual CAMRA Good Beer Guide (GBG).

Scottish CAMRA activists were incensed. Air pressure was common in Scotland and they’d tended to considered beer served that way to be ‘real ale’, without question. There ensued an entire year of increasingly bad-tempered and geeky debate in the pages of What’s Brewing until a messy compromise was reached whereby air pressure was declared acceptable, but it was left up to local branches to decided whether pubs serving air pressure beer would be on their GBG list. A fatal split was, by all accounts, narrowly avoided, but ill will lingered on between factions for some time thereafter.

The simple fighting message of 1973 — keg bad, real ale good, let’s get drunk! — had suddenly turned into something rather boring, bureaucratic and muddy: what was ‘real’ was no longer crystal clear. Richard Boston, having grown increasingly irritated by CAMRA, said snippily: ‘When someone gets round to writing the history of fatuous arguments, their discussion will surely deserve a prominent place, alongside those of the most pedantic of medieval theologians.’

CAMRA lost around 8000 members between 1976 and 1978, dropping from 30k to 22 in a little over a year.

Illustration scanned from the 1978 CAMRA Good Beer Guide; That Richard Boston quote is from a long article about air pressure and CAMRA in The Guardian, 9 July 1977; and Roger Protz covers the the row in some detail in his 1978 book Pulling a Fast One.