A Shirt on Sunday: Campaign for Real Ale - 1990s
I’ve been drinking real ale for about 35 years, and been a member of CAMRA for nearly as long.
The Campaign for Real Ale was founded in 1971 and is the UK’s largest consumer organisation on a single topic, with nearly 200,000 members. The aim of the organisation is to champion the brewing and selling of real ale - top-fermenting alcoholic beverages that contain active yeast at point of sale.
Lager yeast is bottom-fermenting (hence it tastes like arse), and most high turnover beers are sold pasteurised, with the fizz coming from the carbon dioxide that pushes the fluid out. The active yeast in ale causes it to naturally ferment a bit more in the container and any fizz is therefore natural (which is why a lot of people say it’s flat). Ale should be served at cellar temperature, so that you can taste it properly (which is why a lot of people say it’s warm). The variety of ales is like the variety of wines - yes it’s the same ingredients and the same principles, but different water and different varietals of ingredients mean there’s infinite variety. The vast array of recipes means that ale is an ever evolving market, with new beers appearing and old brewers disappearing.
Fifty years ago, the choice of beers was limited and commercial concerns mean it was mostly sold pasteurised. A couple of organisations appeared and began campaigning to bring the craft back into brewing. In the 70s there was a massive move towards consolidation in the brewing trade, symbolised by what is known as the Whitbread ‘Tour of Destruction’; whereby the brewer bought out countless breweries around the country and closed them down so that they could import more Whitbread Best Bitter. Time and again they promised the breweries that nothing would change after the purchase. This was not true.
CAMRA found itself not only promoting the existence of real ale, but fighting some brewers of real ale as well.
It took a while. It took beer festivals, and the Good Beer Guide, and publicity and campaigning but we are now looking at a country overflowing with well brewed and well-tended beers from small and large breweries. There are professional qualifications for the care of beer in pubs. Bottle-conditioned beer is available in most supermarkets.
As a young drinker in Hampshire I saw my favourite beers disappear and new ones, both better and worse materialise in the local pubs. One of my friends became a member probably on his 18th birthday, and a couple of us joined up not long after. Many beer festivals have been visited since then. Many beer glasses purchased and brought homme to get dusty on kitchen shelves. Many beer guides purchased, thumbed through and annotated. A copy of the Good Beer Guide lives in the car and whenever we travel it defines our route, and while Janet can’t stand the beer, she tends to enjoy the pubs and with the rise of the gastropub, there are few things as nice as sitting in a country pub garden enjoying a leisurely lunch.
Recently there’s been a major spasm through the organisation as ‘craft beer’ floods the market. This is American-style beer - heavy on the hops and pasteurised. But at the same time it’s brewed by small breweries and is a flourishing independent movement. After a debate of near-Brexit animosity, the membership voted and CAMRA does NOT promote craft beer as ‘Real Ale’.
CAMRA is now devoting itself to saving pubs. The rise of big supermarkets and home entertainment means people don’t go out as much. Drinking patterns are changing through each generation and small pubs are being pushed out by the buying power of Wetherspoons and other chains. Give real ale a go next time you have a choice of what to drink - it’s bloody good!
The beer recipes are based on the oldest recipes the head brewer can find. This ale is so real that it's cloudy like a cider - no finings are used to clear the beer so it's also vegan-friendly!