Wednesday, 16 March 2011

An undiluted success?

Today, the Campaign for Real Ale celebrates its fortieth anniversary. There can be no doubt that during its lifetime CAMRA has played a central role in promoting the appreciation of beer in Britain, and of ensuring real ale remains a widely-available, mass-market drink not just confined to a handful of specialist outlets. Here is an article I wrote six years ago reviewing CAMRA’s achievements.

However, there is an important piece of context that needs to be added. You sometimes read (although not, to be fair, in CAMRA’s press release) that the organisation’s campaigning led to a huge upsurge in real ale sales. In fact, the amount of real ale sold in Britain today is probably less than a fifth of that in 1971 when it was founded. The main reasons for this are the rise in lager from about 5% of draught beer in 1971 to two-thirds today, and the steady decline in on-trade beer drinking.

While real ale was hard to find in London and much of the South-East in 1971, it was still widely available in other parts of the country. Just think of the extensive tied estates owned by the likes of Wolves & Dudley, Home and the six (then) Greater Manchester family brewers, all overwhelmingly selling real ale in far greater volumes than today. Plus there were still large real ale bastions in the hands of the “Big Six” such as Tetley in Yorkshire, Bass in the Midlands and Courage across a wide swathe of the South and South-West.

From a London-centric point of view, the 1970s did indeed see a boom in real ale sales. But, across the country, there will have been very few, if any, years since 1971 that saw an absolute increase in volume sales.


  1. I agree with what you say, but it wasn't completely true everwhere. Here in Wirral a beer desert existed in the early 70s. Whitbread owned over half the pubs and didn't brew a drop of cask beer in Trueman Street. A lot of Tetley and Bass pubs sold keg or top pressure beer. So did Higson's although that's been forgotten in the nostalgic recollections of which were the good and bad brweries. That was it really.
    I've said before that in parts of Wirral the real ale battle was never won. I reckon we'll get our first pub with craft beers sometime about 2025.

  2. I accept that - real ale availability was much more patchy than it is now, or indeed was by 1980. Some areas were virtual beer deserts, in others it was thick on the ground.

    Greenalls sold little cask north of the Ship Canal, but in Cheshire the vast majority of their pubs had the real stuff. The huge amount of real ale brewed by Greenalls is something else that tends to be forgotten ;-)

  3. I was a student in Warrington in the 1970s, and real Greenalls was very hard to find, even though the brewery was in the town itself. The real ale tended to come from the tiny Greenalls brewery in Wem, whose output was not sold in Warrington.

    Before any takeovers, more than 50% of Higsons pubs did not sell real ale ~ the brewery said the pubs' cellars could not accommodate it. Liverpool CAMRA swallowed this argument at the time, but I never did because nearly all Higsons pubs were built in the 19th or early 20th century when real ale was the main beer around.

    Boddingtons exposed Higsons' lies when they took over the brewery and proceeded to put real ale into all Higsons pubs. That takeover was good for Higsons. It was Whitbread's takeover of Boddies that did the damage.

    Having said that, real Higsons was one of my favourite bitters.

  4. I was a student in Portsmouth in 1971 and a friend was an early adopter of CAMRA , I really couldn't see what the fuss was about coming from Manchester with , as you say, six local brewers. There was always Gale's Ales in the Fifth Hants Volunteer Arms.

  5. Greenalls had a very schizophrenic attitude to real ale. My drinking memories don't go back to 1971, but certainly in 1977 all ten of their pubs in Frodsham had real ale, and the vast majority of those in Chester. Plus the whole of the 240-odd pubs in the Wem brewery tied estate. Although too young to drink then, I remember seeing the Chester Northgate brewery right next to the city walls in operation in the 60s.

  6. Curmudgeon, OT, What Car pushing for zero tolerence to drink driving

  7. Yes, it's very easy to be subjective here (particularly if you have a jaundiced agenda to pursue) but while cask ale might not be sold in the volumes it was back then it is now far more widely available and the choice is bettter too. In the early 1970s my home town of Newark had 35 pubs. Five sold Home Ales (RIP) the rest sold keg John Smiths. There are now more pubs there selling cask ale with a far wider range than could have been dreamt of at the time.

    As for Cheshire my guess is that there has in fact been little diminution in the availability of cask but again the choice is hugely better.

  8. Well, sometimes you need Cassandra as an antidote to Pollyanna, John :p

    In contrast to Newark, back in the 1970s most of the pubs in Runcorn sold real ale (mainly Greenalls with a bit of Marstons and Tetleys). Now, in the old town, there's very little apart from Spoons. Three of the ten ex-Greenalls pubs in Frodsham have closed (you may recall visiting this one) and I don't think all those remaining sell real ale.

  9. I think what we may have seen is somethng of an evening out in the availability of cask. Those areas that had almost universal cask availability then have seen a reduction while those where cask was a comparative rarity have seen an increase. I know that's something of a generalisation but I think it may not be wide of the mark.

  10. I had to think a bit before I realised that by "evening out" you didn't mean "a night on the piss".

    Unlike 1971, it's also now the case that downmarket pubs are much less likely to have real ale.


Comments, especially on older posts, may require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. To combat persistent trolling, unregistered comments are liable to be deleted unless I recognise the author. If you intend to make more than the occasional comment using an unregistered ID, you will need to tell me something about yourself.