A potted version of National Camra History
Last updated Jan 2012
Sometimes it seems as if Camra has been going forever…
"25 years of campaign… …but still more to do!" March 16th 1996 was the Campaign for Real Ale's (Camra's) official 25th birthday slogan. That year the relentless consumer campaign celebrated 25 years of taking both the brewers and successive governments to task about the way the contents of their glass was not only brewed, but also priced & presented.
Many astounding achievements have been recorded for this voluntary organisation - formed in 1971 by four young journalists from Manchester, who, whilst on holiday in Ireland, discussed and decided that they could not accept the (then) dire situation facing drinkers inside British bars of the day. Cold, bland, highly processed, fizzy beer was the future according to most brewers and nobody else had dared to tell them that a decent pint of refreshing, traditional, flavoursome Real Ale was what people actually wanted. Only one in four pubs still stocked real ale and that figure was diminishing rapidly as big brewery brands such as Watney's Red Barrel, Whitbread Tankard, Worthington E and Scottish Tartan swamped the market. Cellar tanks were fitted in many pubs to speed up delivery of the new beers and "top-pressure" became widely established for those who wanted something that looked like real ale - even if it didn't taste like it!
From those humble beginnings in Limerick, those four journalists - Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Bill Mellor and Jim Makin - found that they were not alone in their opinions for long. Quickly an army of like-mined beer drinkers sought to join the cause and whilst most brewers initially dismissed the organisation, its rapid growth in the early seventies to over 28,000 members helped to give it credibility and muscle. Early campaigning may have been simple and direct, but it scored some worthy victories and helped to expose the cynical use of inferior ingredients by several Keg Beer producers, who rather arrogantly did not believe that drinkers needed to know that wheat, rice, pasta and potato starch plus some other even less savoury chemicals were regularly supplementing or even replacing the four traditional brewing ingredients of just malted barley, hops, yeast and water.
The success of the early campaigns assisted and encouraged a wider debate of the raw deal facing pub drinkers. Rapidly increasing beer prices (doubled in 5 years to about 30p a pint by 1975) encouraged many campaigners into price watching - whilst the diminishing strength of many brews during the same period led to another campaign to force brewers to display the reduced strength of their products. Initial exposure of the OG (original gravity) of many beers was achieved by Camra in its 1976 Good Beer Guide. Today it is a legal requirement to display such information at the point of sale and no longer the closely guarded secret it once was!
Success however, can often be followed by complacency - and that is a lesson the campaign learned in the early 1980s. After several popular wins over some big brewers, both local and national membership waned. As the early 1980s' financial recession deepened, prices became more and more relevant; people tightened their financial belts and the campaign nearly collapsed.
Then suddenly a huge revival of interest in Real ale saw new small breweries opening all over the country. After a steady decline in the number of brewers throughout this century there was suddenly a revival and local Camra beer festivals were able to promote them. Along with this new wave of commercial success a new term "micro-brewery" also became a popular - used to describe a generation of entrepreneurs who defied the older, more established trade and created a new niche market for"craft products" and who are in the main not dependent upon tied houses or loans or complex supply deals. At the time of writing there are over 800 brewers in the UK.
Membership of the campaign rallied too and soon started rising again as people saw and drank what they liked and wished to see it more widely available. Throughout the late 1980s and 90s and 00s the campaign matured and become involved in more complex pub and brewing issues, both at home and more widely in Europe, as the total number of members grew and grew year by year. By 1997 total membership topped 50,000 for the first time. By end of 2002 it had rised to 66,000. In 2011 it had risen to a staggering 130,000.
The continued threat of closure for the traditional pub and brewery, improved beer quality, wider consumer choice, a more relaxed approach to drinking hours, guaranteed full pint measure, beer pricing, lower government taxation, pub heritage appreciation and preservation, and a better understanding of the current brewery and pub chain business remain at the core of the campaigns concerns today.