Beer history

The National Society for the Promotion of Pure Beer

News clipping: the NSPPB

We only have two sources of information on the National Society for the Promotion of Pure Beer (NSPPB, according to their official crest): a 1961 Daily Mirror article (18 December, p.5) and various paraphrasings of the same United Press copy about ‘wacky British societies’ from 1963. And, as it happens, we’d guess the latter was cribbed from the former, so it’s next to useless.

What do we know? The NSPPB was founded in around 1923 by Mr E.D. La Touche of Sussex. Looking into birth records, he’s probably the Edmund Digges La Touche born in Kensington, London, in 1882. Although he’s coy about where he lives when asked by the Mirror journalist — “It’s somewhere in Sussex… I won’t say where because I’m a church sidesman. The congregation might get the wrong idea.” — he died in Chichester in 1980.

Mr La Touche’s Christmas address to the other members of the society boasted of 13,218 visits to pubs over the 38 years of its existence, all ‘in the cause of Better Beer’. Those gathered — all three of them, including La Touche’s son Peter — raised their pint glasses and cheered. (The other members, in case you’re interested, were Roland Jones and Dudley Lee.)

A couple of observations:

  1. If The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood paved the way for CAMRA, could this even smaller ‘campaign’ group have in turn inspired the SPBW in some way?
  2. Campaigning for ‘pure beer’ is just one of several routes CAMRA could have gone down, and a theme they certainly flirted with. (Post to follow…)
  3. Mr La Touche lived to 98, while Becky Willeter made 90. Arthur Millard lived to 83. Could being obsessive about beer possibly be good for you?
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.

Beer history opinion

Alternate History

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.