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
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)