Nothing whatsoever to do with beer, but if you look at maps of the distribution of electoral votes in the US Presidential elections of 1896 and 2000, it’s very striking how the party representation has been pretty much exactly reversed. Red states have become blue, and blue red. And it seems to me that something similar, although maybe not quite so drastic, has happened to the availability of real ale in Britain, at least south of the Scottish border.
Although the organisation rapidly spread throughout the country, the four founder members of CAMRA were London-based journalists, and certainly in the early 1970s the situation for real ale in and around London was pretty bleak. The 1977 Good Beer Guide says that “Greater London is no longer one of the worst counties in England for real ale”, which suggests that a few years previously it had been. Most of the pubs were owned by the “Big Six” national brewers, and the vast majority only sold pressurised beer. Apart from Young’s pubs, all of which sold real ale, there was only a scattering of outlets, and even Fuller’s, who have outlasted Young’s and are now one of the most respected family brewers, sold pressurised beers in most of their pubs. As late as 1977, only 16 out of 111 had real ale.
Outside the capital, the situation was often little better, if at all. The 1977 Guide still describes North Devon and much of Norfolk as “beer deserts”, and says that, apart from the handful of pubs it lists, there’s little to be found in any of Norfolk. In the whole of Cornwall, which must have had getting on for a thousand pubs, only 120 had real ale.
In contrast, across large swathes of the industrial Midlands and North, there were major independent breweries who sold real ale in all or virtually all their pubs – Banks’s & Hansons in the Black Country, Hardy’s & Hanson’s, Home and Shipstone’s in Nottingham, and Boddington’s, Holt’s, Hyde’s, Lees and Robinson’s in and around Manchester. Added to this, there were still massive tied estates belonging to members of the Big Six which were mostly real, such as Bass Mitchells & Butlers across the Midlands and Tetley’s in Yorkshire and on Merseyside. Much of this beer was served by electric pump, so it may not have been immediately obvious that it actually was real until you looked into it more closely. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if in 1975 half the real ale sold in the country (by volume, if not by number of outlets) used electric dispense.
You still sometimes hear it said that when CAMRA was founded, real ale was on the point of disappearing in Britain. In and around London, that may not have been far from the truth, but across the country as a whole the situation was in fact rather healthier. This helped encourage the always rather mistaken view that real ale was something of a proletarian drink.
Fast-forward forty years, and things have been turned on their head. London is enjoying an unprecedented boom in specialist beer pubs and craft beer bars. Across all the rural counties of the South and East, from Cornwall to Norfolk, you would be hard-pressed to find any prominent pub that didn’t serve real ale. The only keg-only outlets would be youth-oriented bars and a few back-street and estate pubs in places like Camborne and Great Yarmouth. Counties like Surrey and Buckinghamshire report over 95% of all pubs selling real ale.
On the other hand, many of the independent brewers in operation in the 1970s have been taken over and their estates scattered to the four winds, Nottingham having suffered especially badly. The Big Six brewers have been broken up and their pubs largely transferred to pub companies which in the 1990s started the systematic removal of real ale except where they saw a clear commercial justification. Most of the surviving backstreet and estate pubs owned by pubcos now only have keg beer – indeed it’s now almost seen as a defining feature of the classic estate pub. I can remember when a pub crawl of Levenshulme in South Manchester included twelve or so pubs with real ale; now there are only two, and none on the main road. Yet a few miles down the road in Didsbury and Chorlton, new bars have opened up and it’s pretty much ubiquitous.
In my home town of Runcorn, as late as the mid-80s, most of the pubs sold real ale, predominantly Greenall’s, and most of those sold mild as well as bitter. Now, with the exception of Wetherspoon’s, there’s virtually none at all except in a few food-oriented pubs on the periphery. Much the same is true of many other industrial towns in the North and Midlands.
So it’s an interesting reversal of fortune how, in many cases, the areas where real ale was once sparse now have it in abundance, and where it was once plentiful it is now rare. And, of course, for at least twenty years the preferred drink of the typical “working man” has been cooking lager, not mild or bitter.