When CAMRA was formed in the early 70s, the British beer and pub landscape was very different from how it is today. Approximately 90% of beer was sold in pubs and clubs, and 90% of that was ale – either bitter or mild in various forms. People weren’t “keg drinkers” or “real ale drinkers”, they were bitter or mild drinkers, and what CAMRA was trying to do was to to raise awareness of whether that beer was real or pressurised in some way. It also needs to be remembered that in those days non-real beer covered a multitude of categories beyond keg as such – blanket pressure, top pressure, bright beer, tank beer etc. But, at this time, it was correct to say that cask beer, when well kept, was almost universally better than any form of pressurised beer, so the simple dichotomy of “real ale good, keg beer bad” contained a substantial element of truth.
Of course there was at that time one clearly-defined group of “keg drinkers” – those who went for the big brewers’ premium keg beers such as Watney’s Red, Double Diamond and Worthington E, but even there they identified with the brand rather than the category. These were among CAMRA’s first targets and within a period of about five years they had reduced them from being seen as an aspirational product to something irredeemably naff. “Keg drinkers” as such didn’t re-emerge until the early 90s and the rise of “smooth” as a distinct product. At first, with products like Caffrey’s, the brewers hoped to reconnect ale with a younger market, but it has been increasingly characterised as the choice of older, working-class male drinkers. They do specifically ask for “smooth”, though, whereas nobody really used to ask for keg.
In the long run, cask has won the battle against keg, which now accounts for a smaller proportion of the ale market than at any time during CAMRA’s existence. But ale has decisively lost the wider battle against lager, which has come to represent 70% of the on-trade beer market. The spectacular rise of lager is often thought to have really taken off in the hot summer of 1976. This was harder to oppose than keg ale, because it wasn’t possible to point to a direct “real” alternative, and so inevitably lager drinkers themselves began to be stereotyped. Initially they were seen as effete “shandy drinkers”, but as lager gained popularity amongst a new generation of drinkers, they metamorphosed into the laddish followers of George the Bear, and in a sense lager became the drink of the Loadsamoney generation. Obviously this was easy for the beer buffs to look down their noses at, but they started to realise that in Germany and the Czech Republic you could actually find some excellent lagers, so it became more difficult to condemn the whole category. You won’t win any converts by asking What’s the matter, Lagerboy?, and it’s noticeable how nowadays it’s vanishingly rare to see any working-class man under 40 drinking ale, either real or keg.
In the early 70s, bottled and canned beer only made up a small proportion of the market, and it didn’t matter all that much when CAMRA decided to make bottle-conditioned beer, which was down to a small handful of products, the packaged equivalent of real ale. But in the longer term, as drinking increasingly moved from the pub to the home, this proved to be a strategic error. Bottle-conditioning is great for strong speciality brews but, because of the practical difficulties of storage, pouring and consistency, it is never going to be a realistic option for everyday quaffing beers, something that the brewers had realised long before they started dropping cask on draught. So, when all the well-known real ales started appearing in bottles, CAMRA lumped them in the same category as cans of Long Life, while encouraging small breweries to produce bottle-conditioned ales which qualified for “CAMRA says this is Real Ale” but were often highly inconsistent products that did not encourage repeat purchase. It’s commonplace for the drinkers who choose cask beer in the pub to buy the bottled versions for drinking at home and refer to them as “real ales”, even though strictly speaking they aren’t. Drinkers see the two as equivalent even if CAMRA doesn’t. One CAMRA magazine notoriously declares “tins are always very, very bad”. The likes of Beavertown might have something to say about that!
Forty years on, the beer scene is far more diverse than it was in the early days. Lager has come to dominate the market – much dull or indifferent, some truly excellent. We have imports from all over the world, the craft beer movement has brought a bewildering array of styles and flavours, and we have high-quality beers from small new breweries appearing in keg form, some of which technically qualify as real ale. The old certainties have gone, and it no longer makes any sense to dismiss entire categories of beer out of hand or suggest that the people who drink them are ill-informed. Most of us, including most CAMRA members, are to some extent “repertoire drinkers” now, and don’t religiously stick to the same product on grounds of principle. I rarely drink anything but cask in pubs, as I make a point of choosing pubs that serve decent cask, but I’m certainly not the kind of person who sits at a wedding drinking bitter lemon with a face like a wet weekend because the only beer available is Foster’s. If you want to encourage people to try something new, denigrating their current choice is not a good way to go about it. It is good news that CAMRA has at last officially recognised that championing Britain’s unique contribution to the beer world and a key part of our national heritage requires a positive, outward-looking approach rather than refighting the doctrinaire battles of forty years ago.