The 1970s saw a strong reaction against the modernism and “knock it down and start again” attitudes of the 1960s. “Small is Beautiful”, “The Good Life”, Laura Ashley, railway preservation and the real ale revival were all facets of this.
The initial premise of CAMRA was all about “preserving tradition”. It was like a beery version of the National Trust. Small family brewers, often employing antediluvian management techniques, were lavishly praised. Beers such as Ruddles County and Wadworths 6X were regarded with reverence. In many cases, these beers were post-war introductions, but even so it was the traditional image that counted. Classic pubs like the Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham and the Royal Standard of England at Forty Green in Buckinghamshire were spoken of in hushed tones. Wolves & Dudley adopted the famous advertising slogan of “Unspoilt by Progress”.
Throughout the 1980s, much the same remained true. Yes, there were a few micro-breweries springing up, but it was good that some dedicated people were seeking to revive the old traditions. But, eventually, things started to change. The growth of beer exhibition pubs, the freeing up of the pub trade after the Beer Orders, all helped contribute to a view that innovation and novelty were desirable factors on the beer scene.
And so it has led to the current situation, where the long-standing traditional beers are dismissed as “boring brown bitters” and the pubs that have served them for generations written off as dumps only suitable for old codgers. The future is, we are told, in cutting-edge bars serving craft kegs and innovative beers laden with New World hops.
It’s as if people originally signed up for a movement to preserve Lyme Park and St Pancras Station, but ended up instead championing the Guggenheim Museum and the Millennium Dome. Not necessarily a bad thing (although that’s debateable) but certainly something completely different.
I have nothing against the development of new beers and new bars, and obviously recognise that in a commercial sense every industry needs to move on and adapt to changes in consumer tastes. But I make no apology for saying that what really interests me, personally, is drinking traditional British beer in traditional British pubs, not triple-hopped American IPA in an uncomfortable, echoing craft beer bar. And that’s something that an organisation like CAMRA should stand up for and support even if it runs counter to short-term commercial advantage. Just as the defence of real ale was in the 1970s.
From time to time, I enjoy a pint and maybe a meal too in Wetherspoon’s, but it’s just a utilitarian satisfying of a need, in the same way as a visit to Pizza Express or the Bombay Palace. On the other hand, going to the Nursery, or Turner’s Vaults, or the Thief’s Neck, is in a small way drinking in tradition and history in the same way as a visit to Lyme Park or Moreton Old Hall. That may not matter to you, but it matters to me.
While some commenters always see any mention of CAMRA on here as a criticism, in my view CAMRA deserves praise both for its ongoing commitment to the National Inventory of historic pub interiors and for highlighting endangered beer styles. The championing of the “shock of the new” comes largely from voices either outside CAMRA or not aligned with its mainstream. I get the feeling that many stalwarts of CAMRA feel a profound unease about the beer and bar landscape we are now moving into, something often hinted at on the letters page of What’s Brewing.
The picture, by the way, is of the Traveller's Rest at Alpraham in Cheshire, one of the dwindling number of truly traditional and unspoilt pubs.