Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November 2013
The distribution of cask beer in the UK now is a mirror image of that when CAMRA was formed
A STRIKING feature of the British beer scene is how, in the years since the foundation of CAMRA, the pattern of availability of real ale has been dramatically reversed. The four founder members were journalists who had moved from the North-West to London and been shocked by the poor beer they encountered. The 1977 “Good Beer Guide” says that “Greater London is no longer one of the worst counties in England for real ale”, which suggests that a few years previously it had been. Most of the pubs were owned by the “Big Six” national brewers, and the vast majority only sold pressurised beer. Apart from Young’s pubs, all of which sold real ale, there was only a scattering of outlets, and even Fuller’s, who have outlasted Young’s and are now one of the most respected family brewers, only had real ale in 16 out of 111 pubs.
Outside the capital, the situation was often little better, if at all. The 1977 “Guide” still describes North Devon and much of Norfolk as “beer deserts”, and says that, apart from the handful of pubs it lists, there’s little else to be found in any of Northumberland. In the whole of Cornwall, which must have had getting on for a thousand pubs, only 120 had real ale.
In contrast, across large swathes of the industrial Midlands and North, there were major independent breweries who sold real ale in all or virtually all their pubs – Banks’s & Hansons in the Black Country, Hardy’s & Hanson’s, Home and Shipstone’s in Nottingham, and Boddington’s, Holt’s, Hyde’s, Lees and Robinson’s around Manchester. Added to this, there were still massive tied estates belonging to members of the Big Six which were mostly real, such as Bass Mitchells & Butlers across the Midlands and Tetley’s in Yorkshire and on Merseyside.
A myth has grown up that, when CAMRA was founded, real ale was on the point of disappearing in Britain. In and around London, that may not have been far from the truth, but across the country as a whole the situation was in fact much healthier, something that helped encourage the always rather mistaken view that real ale was a working man’s drink.
Fast-forward forty years, and things have been turned on their head. London is enjoying an unprecedented boom in specialist beer pubs and craft beer bars. Across all the rural counties of the South and East, from Cornwall to Norfolk, you would be hard-pressed to find any prominent pub that didn’t serve real ale. The only keg-only outlets are youth-oriented bars and a few back-street and estate pubs in places well off the tourist trail. Counties like Surrey and Buckinghamshire report over 95% of all pubs selling real ale.
On the other hand, many of the independent brewers in operation in the 1970s have been taken over and their estates scattered to the four winds, Nottingham having suffered especially badly. The Big Six brewers have been broken up and their pubs largely transferred to pub companies which in the 1990s started the systematic removal of real ale except where they saw a clear commercial justification. Most of the surviving back-street and estate pubs owned by pubcos now only have keg beer – indeed it’s now almost seen as a defining feature of the classic estate pub. Twenty years ago, a pub crawl of Levenshulme in South Manchester included twelve or so pubs with real ale; now there are only two or three, and none on the main road. Yet a few miles down the road in Didsbury and Chorlton, new bars have opened up and it’s pretty much ubiquitous.
So it’s an interesting reversal of fortune how, in many cases, the areas where real ale was once sparse now have it in abundance, and where it was once plentiful it is now rare. And, of course, it has to be recognised that the preferred drink of the typical “working man” has long been standard lager, not mild or bitter.