Work in progress: The CAMRA biography

While we all now find ourselves in lockdown, and furloughed from our day jobs, the time to continue with freelance projects has never been more surprisingly abundant. In my case, the biography of the Campaign for Real Ale is occupying much of my time, to the point where I am not pitching for any other freelance work because I am so busy.

It seems a bit of a shame, because interviewing tens of people over the last three months for the biography as the Coronavirus pandemic has unfolded has given me quite a unique insight into how people think the brewing and pub industries are being, and are likely to be affected as the crisis continues, and hopefully in the not too distant future, dissipates. Perhaps that is something for me to get my teeth into when the first draft is in the bag.

Working on the CAMRA biography

Preparing for the 50th anniversary of CAMRA in March 2021, I have been undertaking interviews with a wide range of people. They are CAMRA old guard, the new wave of CAMRA volunteer, brewers who look into the organisation from the outside and more. The aim of completing so many interviews, time consuming as they are, is to try and build up a balanced picture of the impact the consumer organisation has had. It was described as the most successful consumer organisation in Europe in the late 70s by Lord Young of Dartington, the founder of the Consumers’ Association and they haven’t really let anyone forget it. But I am trying to look objectively at the evidence and discover how wide reaching (or otherwise) that influence was.

Following a short piece in this month’s What’s Brewing, I have also had the privilege of having quite a large number of ‘rank and file’ CAMRA members reaching out to me with amusing anecdotes, or detailing their own CAMRA stories. These are fascinating, and many chucklesome narratives will certainly make it in to the book, but as I move forward with the drafting process I am becoming conscious of just how limited on space I will be, and how few of these stories will be captured in full.

Opening Times 1989 - CAMRA Manchester Grotneys Ride Again

Gathering Stories

So I decided, with permission, to share one of the stories with you that has been shared with me. It is the story of Steven Hughes, a fantastic reminisence of why he joined CAMRA and what he found when he got there. Steven is absolutely typical of the people I have spoken to so far that joined CAMRA in the 1970s – open and witty, light hearted and generally a little self deprecating. But I hope what shines through is the honest passion that people like Steven have for beer, for pubs and for the friendships that they have made through being a CAMRA member. It is this spirit that I hope to capture in the 50th anniversary celebration book.

Steven Hughes

Following graduation from University College of North Wales in Bangor in 1977, I moved to the West Midlands to take my first full time job in children’s social care. I shared a staff house with colleagues who were all seriously into their real ale. I think most were CAMRA members or supporters. Bonding over pints was a great way of spending our off duty time particularly as the work involved anti social hours and split shifts. Having grown up in Wrexham, I followed the pattern of most drinkers there by supping the local brew, a session lager. This was a bit of an institution popular across the whole of North Wales [Wrexham Lager, 1882 – 2000] This became my first problem as colleagues, who all became good friends, half jokingly said that they could not countenance taking a lager drinker out on the town. This was a time when the so called Big Six breweries where producing what could only be described as sub-optimal products, real ale was scarce, and lager drinkers were deemed to be in desperate need of conversion to the joys of cask! 

Anyway, our first evening out together got underway and I sportingly agreed to abandon lager and try this marvellous real ale option. This led to my second problem. There appeared to be an unusual amount of smirking and knowing glances exchanged as they recommended a “session beer” namely Ind Coope Burton Ale. I quite liked this, but thought it tasted a bit strong [my slim and now rather grubby 1978 GBG lists the strength as a most precise 1047.5 OG*]  It was soon time to move on to our next hostelry.

Alternating light and dark ales helps…

“Try this dark ale for your next pint, alternating light and dark ales helps you better appreciate different flavours” they suggested. My suspicions aroused, I sipped this carefully, realising it resembled a strong barley wine. The local Border Brewery back in Wrexham  produced such a drink [Royal Wrexham barley wine if memory serves]. I then twigged that this pint of Marston’s Owd Roger [a powerful 1080 OG**] was all part of the plan to see how quickly they could get me into a tired and emotional state. This no doubt was in similar vein to the initiation ceremonies popular in those ancient times. 

Having uncovered the plot at this early 2 pint stage, I slowed right down and just ordered halves as others continued quaffing pints [no options of one or two thirds of a pint in a choice of branded stemmed glasses in those days]. I recalled an old sign behind a pub bar which started with the following: “This bar is dedicated to those fine gentlemen who reach contentment before capacity…….” [Regarding the “gentlemen” bit, it was 1977!] My strategy sorted in line with this fine sentiment, I could enjoy the evening in the sure knowledge that I would arrive at work the following day in good nick. As for my new found friends…….

I was successfully converted from lager to cask beer

To sum up, I was successfully converted from lager to cask beer, I joined CAMRA in 1978 I think it was, and have enjoyed cask ever since. This background has left me somewhat conflicted about our relationship with “craft beer”, but I do enjoy sometimes taking home this sector’s good quality offerings – often in cans. It’s a far cry from trying to break into a large tinned beer offering [Watneys Party Seven anyone?] with assorted chisels and screwdrivers back then! It’s interesting to see how CAMRA now seeks to engage all drinkers and pub/club patrons as opposed to looking down on their drink of choice [but lager is still a bit beyond the pale isn’t it??!! ]

Finally, a couple of years ago an ex-colleague/friend moved back to this area. We now meet up every two weeks to drink cask beer [I still enjoy alternating light and dark ales], put the world to rights, and reminisce about those days that began some 43 years ago.

*1047.5 OG is about 4.8% ABV ** 1080 OG would be over 9%

Thanks to Steven for giving permission for his words to be shared. If you would like to share a story with me for the CAMRA biography, just get in touch via the contact page.


Bestselling author and freelance drinks writer. Champion of pubs and breweries. Occasional printmaker.

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