Life begins at forty: CAMRA's 40th birthday

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Real ale, Beer, Campaign for real ale, Great british beer festival, Camra

CAMRA: 40th birthday
CAMRA: 40th birthday
As the Campaign for Real Ale celebrates its 40th birthday, Michelle Perrett charts its evolution from cask promoter to political heavyweight.

What do four British beer fans on holiday in Ireland, the Beer Orders and Monty Python have in common? The Campaign for Real Ale, of course. As the organisation celebrates its 40th birthday, Michelle Perrett charts its evolution from cask promoter to political heavyweight

Ever sat over a pint with a few friends and come up with a history-making idea? Of course you have — who hasn't? But for four beer-lovers in an Irish boozer in 1971 that whimsy became a movement so powerful it has gone on to be described as 'the most successful consumer organisation in Europe'.

This is the group we know and love as the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), or the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, as it was originally known. Its founders, those four beer fans on holiday in County Kerry who were fed up with the fizzy, bland beers back home in Blighty, were Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Bill Mellor and Jim Makin.

"If you look back at CAMRA's roots I suspect they never expected it to turn into this," says CAMRA chief executive Mike Benner. "This was about four guys who were sick of rubbish beer. All of a sudden opinion columns appeared in The Guardian and other newspapers saying there is actually something in this."

Before the founders knew it, more than 1,000 people had contacted them about membership and a huge consumer movement was born.

Taking on Watneys Red

A year later CAMRA's first annual general meeting was held at the Rose Inn, Nuneaton, Warwickshire. By 1973, it had 5,000 members and a new name was introduced — the Campaign for Real Ale — simply to make it easier to say.

The first Good Beer Guide was published in 1974, followed by the first Great British Beer Festival in 1977 — not bad in six years.

But it was in its early days that CAMRA first began to flex its new-found muscle and make its mark. A successful move against Watneys Red Barrel (later named Watneys Red), a keg beer, was the first real PR success for the consumer group.

CAMRA considered the beer tasteless and when Watneys put support behind the brand with a high-profile marketing push called the Red Revolution, using images of Khrushchev, Mao and Castro, all enjoying a pint of the brew, CAMRA decided to actively oppose the prominent campaign.

It was strongly critical of the beer through its in-house magazine What's Brewing and used any opportunity to push the attributes of real ale. By the end of the decade, keg beer products such as Watneys Red had disappeared from the UK, due to the backlash from CAMRA. Watneys even started to introduce real ales into its portfolio.

By the time the 1980s arrived, the organisation was becoming more political. Benner says: "If you go back to the late 1980s, there were only a few staff and far fewer members. But we put in a huge body of evidence to the Monopolies & Mergers Commission, which eventually led to the Beer Orders. A lot of good work went into that. Despite the problems with that legislation one of the really great things to come out of it was the guest-beer provision."

CAMRA was also heavily involved in changes to licensing laws and all-day opening in the late '80s. By 1995 it was lobbying for Sunday afternoon opening. "It's unthinkable these days that you couldn't go to the pub on a Tuesday afternoon — changes like that have been important to us all," Benner points out.

CAMRA was fighting the onslaught from lager and nitro-keg ales by the 1990s and then in 1997 it reached a milestone as its membership hit 50,000.

Revolutionary progress

The noughties saw more revolutionary change as the group tried to modernise and broaden its appeal, especially to women. A marketing push saw CAMRA launch its 'Hale Ninkasi, goddess of beer' campaign in 2001. A year later, the group appointed its first female chairman, Paula Waters. She called for the industry to brew a beer for women, advised brewers to change their marketing tactics and encouraged pubs to offer samples to women.

However, it was when Mike Benner took over as the organisation's chief executive in 2004 that a more strategic approach was taken.

Benner was responsible for reorganising its campaigning functions and finances, and instigated a restructure of the team at head office. The group now had a strategic business plan concentrating on five major issues: the guest-ale law, a full pint, planning changes, progressive beer duty (PBD) and promotion of real ale. This approach was groundbreaking and has served as a basis for many other pressure groups.

"We set a model for consumer campaign groups that other organisations are trying to follow — and we are particularly proud of that," Benner says.

The 'super-complaint' to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) about the operation of the beer tie raised yet more controversy when it was launched in 2009.

CAMRA claimed that rents and beer prices charged by pubcos were putting tenants out of business and damaging choice for customers. Serious criticism was levelled from some in the trade who said it should focus on promoting real ale and stay out of pubco agreements. CAMRA withdrew the appeal against the OFT's decision not to refer the tie to the Competition Commission. However, this is not the end of the fight for CAMRA.

"This is not done and dusted," Benner promises. "Just because the appeal was withdrawn it doesn't mean we have withdrawn from the issue. But people need to realise that we need to lobby for Government to recognise the essential role of community pubs. One aspect has to be that the tie is working fairly, but there are lots of other elements such as reforms to planning laws.

"We do so much work for pubs, as that is where people drink real ale. So when pubs close there are fewer outlets for real ale."

Four decades of achievement

Forty years on from that conversation in Ireland, the consumer organisation now boasts a membership of 120,000 people and has strong political influence over a range of drink and pub issues.

Benner says: "I think it is fair to say that CAMRA saved real ale. The threat from those huge international companies would have forced real ale into niche status. It is still our national drink and if you look where the market is going, it has been bucking the declining beer trend. A lot of that is consumer driven and surely down to the actions of CAMRA."

As the organisation moves into its middle age, Benner says it will stay true to its roots and continue to support real ale. "We are now in the position where we have become this really serious group, particularly on community pub issues, because without community pubs there is no real ale."

CAMRA facts

• TV presenter Jeremy Beadle was voted onto the national executive of CAMRA at its second annual meeting.

• The message about the quality of Watneys Red Barrel beer even made it to stardom as part of a Monty Python sketch.

• CAMRA is a founder member of the European Beer Consumers Union (EBCU), which brings together independent voluntary consumer groups to lobby for drinkers' interests at a European level.

• A CAMRA Investment Club, holds shares in various companies, including Adnams, Black Sheep, Fuller's, Carlsberg and Mitchells & Butlers.

CAMRA aims to:

• Protect and improve consumer rights.

• Promote quality, choice and value for money.

• Support the public house as a focus of community life.

• Campaign for greater appreciation of traditional beers, ciders and perries.

• Seek improvements in all licensed premises and throughout the brewing industry.

The truth behind the beardy, weirdy image

Beards, sandals and a bunch of strange-looking men drinking murky ale has been a stereotype of CAMRA members for many years. But the group is fighting against this view, claiming that only 1% of its 120,000 membership fit into that stereotype.

Benner says: "It is a common myth. But I am a great believer that we should not fight against what we are. We are proud of what we are.

"As an organisation we welcome people from different geographic and demographic backgrounds.

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