Beer history

Non-keg, non-chemical, all-malt

Copies of the Campaign for Real Ale newspaper, What's Brewing.

Yesterday, we took delivery of around fifty mid-nineteen-eighties issues of the Campaign for Real Ale’s What’s Brewing newspaper, and have begun to immerse ourselves in the strange but familiar world they reflect.

Most interesting to us right now are the omens of the ‘craft beer’ vs. ‘real ale’ agonies of the last few years.

Our feeling that David ‘Firkin’ Bruce was the James ‘Brewdog’ Watt of his day are strengthened by a piece from Roger Protz in the May 1985 edition. He observed that Bruce had achieved something with which CAMRA was struggling: the Firkin pubs were popular with young, affluent, trendy types — typical lager drinkers, in other words — who were paying above the going rate for pints of bitter. He also noted that, though Bruce’s beer wasn’t ‘real ale’ in the technical sense (he used a ‘light blanket’ of CO2), nor was it utterly disgusting. How confusing!

In another issue, Protz — something of a controversial reformer — argued that maybe it might be worth considering serving cask ale a little cooler to give it half a chance to compete with lager. Furious letters ensued: it would be too little too late, argued one lobby; ‘Heresy!’ cried the other.

There were also some complicated manoeuvrings required to explain CAMRA’s position on SIBA (then the Small Independent Brewers’ Society). Though both organisations were ‘fellow travelers’, in a sense, SIBA’s members were not all ‘real ale’ producers. ‘We are trying to produce good beer,’ said SIBA’s chairman, Paul Soden, in May 1987. CAMRGB? Not quite: ‘Most of us produce non-chemical, non-keg, 100-per-cent malt brews.’ (Our emphasis.)

If he was making the same point today, he’d have to drop  the phrase ‘non-keg’.

Reading old issues of WB is how we’re rewarding ourselves for finishing the first draft of what is still called Brew Britannia. We know how to party. Woo.

Beer history Generalisations about beer culture

How to grow a beer consumer group

Chart showing growth in membership of beer consumer groups.

The chart above shows membership numbers for the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA, from 1971), the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW, from 1963) and the Campaign for Really Good Beer (CAMRGB, from 2011). It’s based on actual data for the first ten years of the life of the SPBW and CAMRA, as given in newspaper articles, and for the first year of CAMRGB. The red dotted line projects CAMRGB’s membership on a linear course, assuming it continues to grow.

You’ll note that CAMRA wins, so far.

If CAMRGB wants to avoid being an SPBW and instead emulate CAMRA’s early success (which it might not) what do its leaders need to do?

1. Avoid vague objectives and changes of course. The SPBW took an initially hardline stance — wooden casks! — which it then watered down. Their stance was never clearly articulated. When pushed, their president would admit that he wasn’t that fussy about beer.

2. Keep it simple. CAMRA started out as a campaign for good beer and against bad beer, with no clearer definition than that. The focus on cask beer emerged towards the second year after the founders visited some pub cellars and asked a few questions. It was dogmatic, yes, but it was an objective that could be expressed in a single sentence.

3. Get some journalists on board. Three of CAMRA’s founders were journalists and more came on board in the first couple of years. They knew how to write great press releases, grab attention and had contacts in the right places.

4. Democratise and minimise the cult of personality. CAMRA’s founders are still occasionally wheeled out even today, but Michael Hardman handed over his role as Chair in 1973, only two years after getting the ball rolling. There was a healthy turnover of committee members from then on, keeping things fresh.

5. Get a corporate sponsor. CAMRA had some solid support from John Young of Young’s brewery, and then later from other regional brewers. Their patronage put money in the campaign pot and gave CAMRA officials time to devote to the campaign. If Brewdog could be trusted to take a back seat, they might be good partners, or perhaps the quietly massive Meantime? UPDATED 18:10 7/9/2012.

6. Be ambitious in engaging the consumer. CAMRA began publishing a newsletter (What’s Brewing) in 1972; the Good Beer Guide in 1974, when the Campaign was only three years old; and launched their first national beer festival in 1975. The SPBW engaged government and annoyed brewers, but did little to talk to drinkers.

7. Be lucky and seize opportunities. There was a buzz about beer in the mid-seventies which CAMRA latched on to. Their big bump in membership c.1973 coincides with the publication of several books on beer and pubs and the launch of Richard Boston’s column in the Guardian. Mind you, there’s a bit of a buzz about beer now…

8. Support regional activism, don’t get sucked into London. The SPBW has regional branches and little central control, but the bulk of its activity was London-based. City of London based, in fact. CAMRA, being founded in the North West, by northerners, and with its first regional branch being founded in Yorkshire in 1972, was much more in touch with life outside the capital from the off. London CAMRA is just another (big) regional branch.

Disclaimers: we’re still members of CAMRA but haven’t yet taken the leap to join CAMRGB, though we watch its progress with interest. It currently has c.500 members and c.2500 followers on Twitter. It is still free to join but accepts donations.

real ale

Is old keg the same as new keg?

Watneys Red Barrel: detail of beer mat c.1968

In the ongoing discussions about whether CAMRA should or should not do more to support quality kegged and bottled British beer, one of the key sticking points is this: what makes the kegged beer of today any better than the bland kegged beer of the 1960s and 70s which provoke the campaign’s founding?

Or, to put that another way, is ‘new keg’ just the same shite as ‘old keg’?

Having read Martyn Cornell’s marvellous Beer: the Story of the Pint recently, we were prompted to contrast the motives of the makers of ‘old keg’ — big conglomerated breweries like Watneys — with those of the new breed of keg brewers.

Old keg: post-World War II, cask ale got weaker and became more temperamental until, to paraphrase Beer, a change of landlord or barmaid could be enough to push punters towards less exciting but more reliable bottled beer. Sales were dropping alarmingly. Kegged beer was the breweries’ response to that — a way of ensuring consistently adequate quality (less vinegar) but at the cost of excellence. The cask versions of their beer at the time were hardly earth-shatteringly brilliant either.

New keg: some smaller brewers, with a focus on flavour and quality, whether you agree with them or not, believe their beer tastes as good if not better without cask or bottle conditioning. (“Too fizzy” and “too cold” are subjective complaints). Others might prefer to cask-condition but, to expand their business, as an expression of beervangelism, or a bit of both, want to get their beer into as many venues as possible, and believe kegging will help them achieve that. Many of these beers are stronger, more intensely flavoured and much more varied than the cask conditioned beers commonly seen in the average pub.

What do you think? Are they the same thing?