The future of real ale demands our continued vigilance, writes Roger Protz

Some years ago a top man at a national brewery solemnly told me that all the changes in the industry – the rise of small brewers and the much greater choice for drinkers – would have happened if CAMRA had never existed. The irony of that conversation is that the brewery he worked for – Whitbread – no longer exists while the Campaign is raising a collective glass to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

I believe he was fundamentally wrong. If CAMRA hadn’t manned the beery barricades for the past half century I have no doubt this country would face similar problems to many other nations in Europe.

I’ve been fortunate in the past few years to have been invited to beer festivals in Greece, Turkey and Hungary. They were small but vibrant events, manned by people with passion for their products but they painted a picture for me of the massive roadblocks that stood in the way of independent brewers.

The figure of 98 per cent kept cropping up. In each of these countries, global brewers – mainly Carlsberg and Heineken – account for 98 per cent of all the beer brewed and sold. It doesn’t leave much room for new small brewers to ply their trade.

Closer to home, an almost identical situation occurs in the Irish Republic where Guinness and Heineken – the latter owns Beamish and Murphy – produce 98 per cent of the country’s beer. There are now a host of new small breweries but they find it all but impossible to sell their beers in pubs as most outlets have loan-tie agreements with the big two. As a result, the newcomers have to sell to restaurants and supermarkets and also to export: fortunately, there’s a strong demand for Irish beer in the United States.

The picture is radically different here. The first Good Beer Guide published in 1974 listed just over 100 breweries. The current guide has close to 2,000. Back in 1974 breweries brewed in the main just two types of beer: mild and bitter. Today there are more beer styles than you can wave a stick at.

As early as 1976 choice for drinkers improved dramatically when Allied Breweries, one of the country’s big national brewers and best known for Double Diamond keg and Skol lager, launched a cask ale, Draught Burton Ale. The response from drinkers was so enthusiastic that the other national breweries started to either launch cask beers or dust off existing ones. That sea change wouldn’t have happened but for CAMRA’s tireless promotion of real ale.

Beer festivals acted as shop windows for cask and brought the growing choice to the attention of drinkers throughout the country. Who would have organised the festivals if CAMRA hadn’t existed?

A report in 1989 by the Monopolies Commission into the brewing industry bore out everything CAMRA had been saying since its inception: that the Big Six national brewers acted as a cartel, fixing prices, overcharging for lager, and keeping smaller brewers out of the nationals’ pubs. The report led to the breakup of the Big Six and the rapid increase in the number of new small breweries.

The small beer revolution gathered pace early this century when the government introduced Progressive Beer Duty that effectively halved the level of tax paid by small brewers. That break through was the result of a long campaign by the Campaign and the Society of Independent Brewers – and it’s fair to say SIBA itself wouldn’t exist if CAMRA hadn’t laid the ground work.

Today we can be proud of our achievements but we can’t rest on our laurels. One of the Campaign’s finest chairmen, the late Joe Goodwin, would say in his opening address to the annual meeting every year that there was no room for complacency. That’s as true today as it was back in the 1980s.

Little or no cask beer has been brewed for the best part of a year. All pubs have been shut for the same length of time. When life returns to normal we will need to redouble our efforts to save pubs, for without pubs real ale loses its lifeline.

If nothing else, we have learned over the past 50 years that beer drinkers’ liberty requires eternal vigilance.

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