Thursday 19 November 2015

History and myth

It’s become part of the folklore of CAMRA that, at the time it was formed, real ale had virtually disappeared in the UK, and was just kept going by a handful of small, fuddy-duddy breweries. Through its campaigning efforts, CAMRA succeeded in turning this situation around, resulting in a dramatic increase over a few years of both real ale production and availability.

However, this is basically a myth that has somehow ended up being the received wisdom. To be fair, I wouldn't say that Roger Protz or any other beer writers have ever claimed it to be true, but nevertheless it is now generally believed. The key thing that CAMRA has done is to stimulate an unprecedented boom in interest in beer, the number of breweries and the variety of styles produced. But, because of the decline of pubs and the switch to lager, there's a lot less real ale being brewed now than in 1973, even though it's in a higher proportion of pubs. There are probably very few years between 1973 and 2015 that have seen an absolute increase in the volume of real ale brewed, although 2014 was one of them.

While not belittling CAMRA's efforts in the 1970s, it was to some extent pushing at an open door. There was already a reaction against giant, faceless corporations and bland, homogenous products towards something more small-scale and individual, and some kind of return to popularity of "traditional" beer was always likely. Most successful campaigns of any kind are tapping in to a public sentiment that already exists.

Plus, once they looked into it more deeply, the Founding Four discovered that, across the country, there was a lot more real ale being sold than they thought from their experience in London, albeit much of it in the Midlands and North and dispensed from electric pumps. Real ale wasn't in any imminent danger of disappearing and many of the breweries producing it were well-run, forward-looking companies who had reached the conclusion that that way of brewing, distributing and serving their beer made business sense.

“What?” you may well ask. “There was really more real ale in 1973 than there is now?”

Yes, absolutely, and by a huge margin. The thing people forget is the rise of lager - 10% of the on-trade beer market in 1973, 70% now.

In 1973, the British brewing industry produced 34.7 million bulk barrels. Assume 10% of that is off-trade, and 10% lager, it leaves 27.8 million for on-trade ale. At a very rough guess, about 30% of that was real ale, with maybe another 10% being beer that started off as real ale but ended up being served under top pressure. So the amount of real ale served as such was 8.3 million barrels. If anything, I feel that may be an understatement.

Compare that with 2014, when total on-trade beer sales were 13.5 million barrels, of which real ale accounted for about 2.2 million barrels. So it's only around a quarter of the 1973 figure.

Looking at the brewery section of the 1977 Good Beer Guide, which for most brewers won't represent a huge change since 1973, we find:

  • Banks's - 800 tied houses, the vast majority of which sell unpressurised beer
  • Bass Worthington - thousands of pubs across the country sell Bass Worthington products, often in true draught form
  • Boddingtons - All 270 tied houses sell real ale
  • Home - 380 out of 400 tied houses sell real ale
  • Robinsons - 317 out of 318 tied houses serve the beer without pressure
  • Shepherd Neame - 210 of the 220 tied house sell real ale
  • Tetley - real ale is available in many of the 2,200 tied houses on both sides of the Pennines
plus plenty of others.

The big beer desert had been London and parts of the Home Counties dominated by the Big Six. Across the country, availability was far more patchy than today, but plenty of areas were teeming with it. Many of those Banks’s and Home pubs would have been big, busy, working-class boozers with the diaphragms in the pumps constantly shuttling to and fro dispensing vast quantities of mild and bitter. You just don’t see pubs like that any more.

I grew up in Greenall Whitley Land, but south of the Ship Canal the majority of their Cheshire pubs sold real ale, plus all the Wem ones. And at university in Birmingham in the late 70s, most of the M&B pubs had real ale, albeit usually dispensed from freeflow electric pumps that were hard to tell from keg dispensers. You wouldn't really go out of your way to drink Brew XI and M&B Mild, though.

(This is a slightly expanded version of comments I made on Paul Bailey’s blog on his post Revitalising the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. The whole thing is well worth reading)


  1. Interesting post, if a bit strawman-y in parts - I certainly never thought CAMRA were the only people in 1970s Britain who cared about beer, or that they brought real ale back from the dead.

    You're right about the rise of lager - arguably CAMRA won the battle and lost the war (B&B's book makes this point). Interesting point about CAMRA's SE focus making things look worse than they were. Then again, if CAMRA - or the broader movement for decent quality beer spearheaded by CAMRA - hadn't managed to make the Big Six think again about keg everywhere, a few years down the line many or most of those regionals would probably have followed suit.

    big, busy, working-class boozers with the diaphragms in the pumps constantly shuttling to and fro dispensing vast quantities of mild and bitter. You just don’t see pubs like that any more

    You don't, and I want 'em back! The historian E.P. Thompson was described once as "conservative in everything except politics" - him and me both.

  2. It just goes to show, that for all CAMRA's bluster and self-importance, it took until the craft beer movement kicked off for us to actually see a rise in the amount of cask ale sold.

    CAMRA's watch was one of inexorable and catastrophic decline. Their pompous old git image and obsession with irrelevant and polarizing technical details have probably done more harm than good over the years.

    Thank god for the craft beer movement actually trying to shake off the fuddy duddy image and start trying to get the U30s actually interested in high quality British beer again.

  3. The rise of crisp clean cold fizzy cooking lager was always going to do away with much brown pongy beardie dishwater. It's just amazing it didn't do away with it all.

  4. Let's not forget the as-then around 250 Sam Smiths pubs, most of which sold cask beer, from wood.

    @ py - The rise in cask volume is generated from ever increasing sales of draught Doom Bar and other national brands, not from the 'craft movement' whose sales are but a drop in the ocean compared to the big guys.

    @ Cookie - brown pongy beardie dishwater has been replaced by cloudly golden grapefruit pongy hipster-beardie dishwater.

  5. I don't think that's true, actually. I know GKIPA has falling sales, and I imagine the same is true for most bog-standard bitters from the big regional breweries.

    The main growth area is from the hundreds of regional Craft Breweries like Oakham, Adnams, Dark Star, St Austell, Thornbridge, Taylors etc etc.

    The big sales driver is the new style of hoppy cask ale, like Ghost Ship, Citra, Hophead, Proper Job etc etc.

  6. @Phil - the key point of the post is that there was actually a lot more real ale around in 1973 than now. Whether real ale would have survived without CAMRA is something we will never know - it's the classic "Great Men vs Historical Forces" debate. I'm sure some kind of beer revival would have happened, but it may have ended up as something on a smaller, cottage-industry scale.

    While it's outside the scope of this blog, it's also an interesting point that many Socialists actually have a strong streak of small-c conservatism in some areas at least. I've seen it argued that much of Corbynism is about nostalgia for the pre-Thatcher era. And the Luddites were against "progress" ;-)

    @electricpics - yes, the Guide says of Sam Smith's "The majority of the 300-plus tied houses serve unpressurised beer". There are plenty of other significant breweries with a 90%+ real ale status, such as Brains, Gales, Holts, Shipstone and Thwaites.

    The use of the term "pressurised" is something that has died out now. In those days, apart from "proper keg", there was a range of other non-real dispense systems such as top pressure, tank and bright beer.

  7. I think you are definitely right Mudge, with your assertion that CAMRA’s founders based their perception of cask ale disappearing on their London experiences. Had they looked further they would have found that even in the nation’a capital, Charringtons were serving the real thing in most of their London pubs, and fron hand-pumps as well.

    I am old enough to remember the cylindrical bar-mounted electric pumps. When I went up to university, at Salford, I found most Boddingtons and Robinson’s pubs using them, as well as many Holts and Hyde outlets. I agree the free-flow pumps were awfully confusing, and wonder whether this may have muddied the waters as well.

    It’s also alarming to see that total on-trade beer sales have halved since the early 70’s. No wonder so many pubs have closed. Times have definitely changed, and those pubs of yore, dispensing vast quantities of mild and bitter, are nothing more than a pleasant memory.

    ps. Thanks for the link back to my article.

  8. As well as the rise of lager as the standard working mans pint, we've also seen a rise in wine drinking and a move to home drinking.

    In terms of alcohol consumption, I gather 2004 was a high water mark, regardless of beer consumption or pub going.

    I think spirits may be in decline to. Though vodka has become popular as a neutral mixer, whisky and brandy have been in decline as have port and sherry.

    I think my fathers generation drank bitter in the pub and a whisky at a house party. Sweet sherry for the lady. My generation are more likely to move between lagers and wines. Neither being so defined as a male or female drink as they once were.

    As for alcopop booze, though the formulations have changed from spirit to cider based I don't see people sticking with them as they age. It's starter booze, as it was in the 90s. As people hit 30 they pick something they think is a little more adult and sophisticated.

    Don't lament these changes. Many of these changes are simply a society becoming more prosperous. When given choice, people didn't choose to stick with weak brown dishwater mild. They also bought cars rather than ride on buses and went abroad on holiday rather than Blackpool.

  9. @Paul Bailey - in fact beer production continued to increase until 1979, when it was 40.5 million barrels, which is 17% above 1973. I did a blogpost about the long 1959-79 pub and beer boom here.

    @Cookie - yes, obviously I know we are overall much better off now than we were forty years ago. We are also better off in many other ways - longer life expectancy, lower crime, road deaths cut by 75%. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't lament some of the good things that have been lost.

  10. The greatest thing we have lost is smoking in the pub.

  11. I'd 'much' rather drink a pint of Brew or M&B Mild than anything I tasted from both the Wem and Greenalls breweries in the 80's. Brew XI was probably better than you think. I quite liked it myself, though admittedly Ansells and Everards and Highgate Milds were better than the M&B stuff.

  12. And of course you could smoke in pubs then unlike the souless, joyless,antiseptic pubs of today which very few people go to for the night now !!!

  13. I just re-read the 1st edition of the Beer Guide and a few things jumped out. There were more entries (1,500) than I supposed, all with short to non-existent descriptions. The practical shortcomings in the 1st Guide are well known, (e.g. surveying most of Huntingdonshire on an afternoon as noted by Paul, so it's clear that early campaigners thought there was quite a lot of good beer about back then.

    The proportion of big brewery beer that was real, as noted by Mudge, is what surprised me. But reading the brewery section in the 1st Guide now, most of the descriptions are optimistic about unpressurised beers. There were also plenty of breweries back then, even if they tended to serve smaller catchments (for better or worse).

    I'm not quite old enough to compare average quality between then and now though !

  14. Bernie the Pub Landlord23 November 2015 at 14:17

    Pain in the arse, cask beer. Punters for it are all penny pinching old codgers and it goes off in 3 days. What you need is craft keg, a product that lasts and punters pay top dollar for.

  15. Craft keg indeed. Sad to think that after all the years fighting for Real Ale we have tossers talking about keg beer and even advocating drinking the rubbish. To see how bad it is just try some Brew Dog !


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