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A pint of ale (Photo: Pixabay, Pexels)
08 April 2021

CAMRA – 50 years on

United Kingdom | Had it not been for the pandemic, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) would have celebrated its 50th anniversary with a great number of live events. After all, it has created life-changing experiences for its 180000 members across the country.

Its achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider that it is truly a grassroots organisation, says Laura Hadland, the author of the book “50 Years of CAMRA”. Despite having no commercial backing, CAMRA has brought huge change to a multi-billion pound industry for the benefit of the consumer.

Ms Hadland’s book, which was released in March 2021, is more than a history book. It describes how and why CAMRA began, and how it works. She also covers CAMRA’s various campaigning activities, from the early protest marches to behind-the-scenes parliamentary lobbying.

Focus on beer, breweries and pubs

Today, CAMRA’s main activities can broadly be divided into three areas: beer, breweries (eg. protests against their being taken over) and pubs (how to save them).

It will be remembered that CAMRA was set up by four young men: Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Bill Mellor and Jim Makin. Three were journalists and the fourth a member of a brewery’s office staff. The idea for CAMRA was born on a long pub crawl around Ireland in 1971, when the four were appalled by the quality of the beer and the poor choice in pubs. They resolved to start their own society to push for better beer quality and choice. And so CAMRA was born.

Because many members of CAMRA were journalists in the early days, CAMRA was basically a PR consultancy that did not charge for its services. The group of people were very successful at placing stories, Ms Hadland argues, which in turn led people to respond to those stories. CAMRA was a positive campaign that stood for something, namely real age versus kegged beer.

CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide

“Unsurprisingly for an organisation founded by journalists,” Ms Hadland says, “they crafted a fairly sensationalist newsletter aimed at catching the eye of news desks around the country.” It was a very effective early campaigning tool as well as being good for keeping the membership informed. The name of the monthly newsletter was What’s Brewing, coined by founder Bill Mellor. It was first released in June 1972 as a two-page sheet.

Many tourists to Britain will know CAMRA as the publisher of the “The Good Beer Guide”. The annual guide is a mammoth undertaking: The Good Beer Guide 2020 and 2021 both contained over 4500 handpicked pub entries, as well as some 1850 breweries and 7500 beers.

How to organise a grassroots movement

As a grassroots organisation, CAMRA’s structure has not changed in 50 years. A National Executive elected at the Annual General Meeting oversees operations centrally. A paid team of staff supports them, although in the early days, Ms Hadland points out, the “paid staff” consisted solely of the company secretary, John Green, who was put up in a rented room above a St Albans (London) bicycle shop.

Per Ms Hadland, the national organisation supports a network of regions, which in turn administer local branches: 220 in number (2020). Branches allow every member of CAMRA to have ready access to local campaigning and events.

CAMRA organises beer festivals, local ones as well as national ones. The Great British Beer Festival has been going since 1977. It equally looks after real cider and perry, for which it campaigns relentlessly.

Campaigning for changes to duty and excise has been a way of life for CAMRA throughout its history. Thanks to its efforts, the Small Brewers’ Relief, a tax reduction, was introduced in 2002. CAMRA also scored a victory when the Beer Duty Escalator, an annual tax hike in excess of the rate of inflation, was scrapped in 2013. Between 2008 and 2013, this equated to a 42 percent tax hike on beer.

CAMRA and its critics

Over the decades, CAMRA has received its fair share of denunciations: from their erstwhile opponents, the Big Six brewers, whose streamlined offerings CAMRA criticised, not least their disregard for real ale. Private Eve, a satirical magazine, disparaged CAMRA’s members as men with big beer bellies and big beards, falling down drunk all the time. Others have complained that CAMRA has become overly bureaucratic, to which Ms Hadland retorts that an “organisation with 180000 members and an annual turnover in the region of GBP 16 million [USD 19 million] has a lot to administrate.”

CAMRA equally had to contend with accusations that it is dominated by Old White Men (the average age of its members has crept up to the mid-50s, from the mid-20s originally). But it received the most condemnations for having missed the boat on craft beer.

Ms Hadland confronts this criticism head on when she writes: “CAMRA had helped to create the conditions for the rise of craft beer in the UK, by nurturing and expanding the beer drinking population and thereby creating a market for new brewers to enter. Despite this, people outside the organisation see them as hesitant to live in the brave new world they helped to create. This is perhaps because a mistrust of kegged beer was, and remains, hard-wired into parts of the longer serving membership. A significant contribution to this public perception was delivered courtesy of the marketing machine that is BrewDog brewery, whose early promotion relied heavily on setting themselves up as exciting new upstarts in opposition to the boring old fogies of CAMRA.”

Saving pubs

Over the past half century, CAMRA has fought and won many battles on behalf of the consumer. Alas, its biggest battle will come when covid-19 has been dealt with. As Ms Hadland points out, “there will be a battle cry to revive what CAMRA is really about because without pubs, without beer, without cider, we might as well all pack up and go home. And that would be devastating.” All of the people she interviewed for her book concurred that pub campaigning will be a key future battleground. Because well-kept real ale can only survive and thrive if there is someone to serve it properly.

 Ms Hadland’s highly recommendable book is available from CAMRA’s website shop1.camra.org.uk/book-author/laura-hadland/.