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.