The various recent discussions about the Cask Report made me think how, during the lifetime of CAMRA, the market for real ale has been totally turned on its head, and the beer enthusiast has moved from observer to active participant. In the early 1970s, interest in real ale was almost an archaeological exercise. It was a declining product, produced by old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud breweries, sold in grotty backstreet boozers and drunk by middle-aged and elderly working men. Keg beer, in contrast, was fresh, modern, youthful and glitzy. Of course that's a bit of an exaggeration, but still essentially true.
In the early days of CAMRA, many of its supporters felt that they were just marking the passing of an era, in the same way as steam locomotive buffs were. Possibly in the future there might be the occasional brewpub producing real ale on a cottage scale, a bit like a preserved steam railway, but no more than that.
However, it didn’t work out like that. The rise of CAMRA chimed with the popular “small is beautiful”, “Good Life” ethos of the 1970s, and before the end of the decade we were seeing new beers like Ind Coope Burton Ale being launched, the first micro-breweries springing up and multi-beer exhibition pubs starting to appear. As we know, this process has only intensified in the following decades.
This is not a bad thing – indeed in some ways it is a very good thing – but it means that the nature of the relationship between producer and consumer has fundamentally changed, and is far more interactive. Brewers and pub operators are far more aware of what their customers want, and responsive to their requirements. It is a very big change from basically exploring a static or declining field of interest. It is almost as if the National Trust, aware of a wide and growing interest in stately homes, had suddenly decided to start building new ones. But that wouldn’t by any means be greeted with universal joy. And God doesn’t make any new birds for twitchers.
While the steam locomotive analogy only goes so far, you could regard the construction of the Tornado as an example of producing an “enthusiasts’ special” that takes railway preservation beyond the mere role of being a custodian of the past. But of course even that is only the equivalent of recreating 1940s Draught Bass rather than creating something entirely new.
And now, ironically, the joy of unexpectedly unearthing the past is more likely to come from visiting an obscure working men’s club and finding on the bar an 80s-style font for a keg beer you thought had disappeared twenty years ago, or finding one of the last pubs still dispensing cask beer by electric meters.