The birth of Camra: “We knew next to nothing”
Good intentions, it turns out, are sometimes enough. The Campaign for Real Ale is now widely regarded as among the most successful consumer campaign Britain has seen, with (as of last week) more than 130,000 members, but when it was first conceived back in 1971 the founders didn’t really know that much about beer – except that some of it they liked, and some of it they didn’t. They didn’t understand what made cask-conditioned ale different from the new keg beer; they just wanted to do something to stop British beer getting worse.
It was in Europe’s most westerly pub (Kruger’s Bar in Co Kerry, whilst the four friends – Michael Hardman, Bill Mellor, Graham Lees and Jim Makin – were on a boozy trip to Ireland) that Camra first came into being, but the group (right, pictured at Camra’s tenth birthday party: (from left to right) Makin, Mellor, Hardman and Lees) were far from beer experts. “We knew next to nothing,” Hardman says. “The important thing that we did know was that we didn’t like some beer that was being foisted upon us by the breweries.
“Some pubs had taken out the sort of beer we liked – and I use that phrase ‘the sort of beer we liked’ because that’s all we knew it as, we didn’t know it as cask-conditioned beer or real ale or traditional draught ale or anything – we just knew that we liked a certain kind of beer, that wasn’t too gassy and had some flavour in it.”
Hardman, indeed, knew it only as “a pint of bitter, the cheapest you have got,” which is what he used to ask for at the bar. Having founded Camra, though, and made it rather more serious at a meeting 12 months after the Irish trip in Nuneaton, they soon discovered everything they needed to know – and that plenty of other people felt the same way about beer as they did. The march of bland keg ale – fuelled by brewery takeovers – would no longer be unchallenged.
“We found out about beer from all these people who joined us,” says Hardman, who was, like Lees and Mellor, a journalist. “We were overwhelmed by the number of people behind us – we grew to almost 2000 members in that first year, by 1973. The year after that, we grew into five figures because we started to get publicity.” Lees admits they never expected to be so successful so quickly: “When we got 1000 members, we thought we were the bees’ knees,” he says.
Camra drew members from all walks of life, Lees says. “Up in the North-west [where all four men originated] there were all kinds of people involved in the early days,” he says. “There were housewives and postmen and vicars and bus drivers and retired bank managers; it was really a very broad cross section of people. They had all been waiting for an organisation like Camra.”
Not everyone was pleased, though.The big brewers soon learnt that Camra were going to make their lives difficult. The organisation’s success forced them to make concessions. “One pivotal moment came when the big brewers, who had gone out of their way to ignore us, started to take notice,” says Lees. “We staged public marches through towns where a brewery was going to be closed. Then the media started to contact the brewers and they got negative. We were starting to get under their skin.”
And the big brewers – or at least, some of them – were turning back to real ale. Allied Breweries produced Ind Coope Burton Ale (“A beautiful beer,” says Hardman) and Watney’s – Camra’s real enemy – soon followed suit. It’s a fascinating story, a story that is now the subject of a lively documentary, “The History of Camra“, produced by David Rust.
Camra has enjoyed huge success since, even if Hardman and Lees have taken more of a back seat since the end of the 1970s. Lees has written books for the organisation and judges at the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) while Hardman, who went on to be a PR consultant to Young’s for 27 years, writes regularly for Camra’s publications.
They still clearly identify with the phemomenom they helped to create, though. Both men, for example, are annoyed by the persistent idea that Camra is for middle-aged men with beards and sandals. “That characterisation is rather unfortunate,” says Hardman. “When I look at people at the GBBF or the annual meetings, [people with beards] are a minority. You might as well go to the racetrack and find a couple of dozen people in sandals and beards and say all racegoers wear sandals and beards.
Hardman, though, quite rightly defends the right of people to dress how they like – as he does Camra’s position on the new craft keg movement. “We are the Campaign for Real Ale – we set out to safeguard that type of beer,” he says. “If people think that pressurised or processed beer is threatened, they can go away and set up the campaign for genuine Australian lager brewed in Scunthorpe. None of these beers needs any protection.
“People can drink what they want. I’ve never been against any other kind of drink, I’ve only been opposed to having beer foisted upon me that I don’t want to drink. Pubs that I had been going to regularly stopped serving the beer I wanted [in the 1960s]. It was the way the cask conditioned beer was being kicked out as if nobody wanted it that really upset us.”
Lees, who now lives and works in Bangkok, agrees. “Someone at the recent Camra London conference stood up and suggested that they should embrace craft-brewed keg beer. Well, that’s just nonsense in my book – it undermines the whole point of Camra. If people want to go off and campaign for that, fine, but it shouldn’t really be a part of Camra’s brief. There are far more important issues.”
Hardman, does, however, make one fascinating observation with regard to craft keg. “I think if keg beer had been of that quality in the ’60s and early ’70s, Camra might never have got off the ground,” he says. “Guinness for instance, has so long been a keg beer and if all keg beer were like that we wouldn’t have been too concerned, as long as there was more than keg stout.”
The future of the pub is a much greater concern for Lees. He believes Camra are right to focus on it. “Camra [these days] is a highly successful, slick organisation,” he says. “A membership of that size would have been impossible to imagine 40 years ago. I find it incredible.
“It’s possibly a bit bureaucratic these days – it wanders off on side paths but that’s inevitable in an organisation that has become middle-aged. I think some of the work it does is very beneficial – campaigning for the preservation of pubs, that’s the big fight for the next decade. Only 53 per cent of beer is now drunk in pubs. That’s an issue that Camra could pursue.”
Both men are optimistic about the future. With 840 breweries now operating in Britain – according to Camra’s own recent figures – it’s easy to see why. “I’m confident real ale has a future,” says Hardman. “Although both the quantity and proportion of the market has gone down, the variety has shot up. I’m a very happy man now. I can go almost anywhere and have a good time, drinking beers I enjoy. I’ve started to enjoy beer a lot more in the past few years. I’m very happy about it.”
Follow @Will_Hawkes on TwitterTagged in: beer, brewing, Camra, ireland, microbreweries
Recent Posts on Notebook
- Justin Webb on the medical advances in tackling heart disease
- The Photography Blog: 'Control Order House' by Edmund Clark - Photographing our response to terrorism
- Dementia Awareness Week: Should we keep an open mind to spiritual solutions?
- Hearing loss: An invisible impairment and a preventable disability
- Barking Blondes: When to vaccinate
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter