40 years of beers
PUBLISHED: 13:09 11 August 2014 | UPDATED: 13:09 11 August 2014
Founded in Ireland by a quartet of northerners, the Campaign for Real Ale decided on St Albans for its HQ in 1974. Over the past four decades, it has proved to be a consistent voice for beer lovers. Laura Vickers reports on the organisation's impact on the county and beyond
It began above a bike shop, at 84 Victoria Street, in a room with a huge hole in the ceiling. Michael Hardman, one of the four founding members of the Campaign for Real Ale, had moved to St Albans to write for the local newspaper but his love for ale started a new journey. He recruited local man John Green as CAMRA’s secretary and first paid employee, and the office was needed to house the group’s snowballing membership. By the end of the year, there were 3,000. By 1976 – just two years later – that had rocketed to 29,000, and a second, larger headquarters was needed.
The team members relocated to Alma Road, where they stayed until 1995, before moving to the current base in Hatfield Road. The group now has a whopping 161,000 members and is the largest consumer-issue campaign in Europe, with up to 80,000 copies of its Good Beer Guide – also launched 40 years ago – sold every year.
So what impact has this all had on the beer industry in Hertfordshire? Even in the early days, when Hardman remembers beer fans almost relishing their hatred of beers in their locals, CAMRA was encouraging brewers to take more pride in their work.
This resulted not only in better beers but a wider range, and it is thanks to the organisation that so many pubs in the county and beyond now offer cask ales and more options than just milds and bitters. Golden ale is now hugely popular thanks to microbreweries, but it might never have ended up behind the bar without CAMRA demanding it.
Herts is home to McMullen’s, one of the oldest UK breweries still in operation, but it is also lucky enough to have several microbreweries run by small but passionate teams of beer fans.
With the craft-beer movement continuing to boom in the UK (80 new microbreweries launched in 2013, taking the total to 1,200), competition is fierce, but CAMRA has made sure it has been there to help.
Thanks to its lobbying, including amassing a 100,000-signature petition, beer duty has been cut at the last two budgets, and CAMRA has further supported microbrewers by rallying for a progressive beer duty – something that hugely benefits brewers producing on a smaller scale, including several in the county.
Local brewers, many of whom are CAMRA members themselves, believe the roganisation’s presence in Herts has benefited their success, especially thanks to the events run by the local branch. Mark Fanner, of new St Albans company 3 Brewers says, ‘At a local level, CAMRA has helped promote our beers by featuring them at beer festivals, and by word of mouth with local publicans. At the Herts County Show this year, CAMRA held a stall giving out samples of our beer to help promote local micro-breweries.’
Steve Banfield, of Buntingford Brewery, echoes Mark’s gratitude to the beer festivals, adding, ‘Off the back of festivals come the CAMRA awards, in our case most notably for having our Twitchell judged the best bitter in Britain, and getting the silver in the Overall Champion Beer Of Britain awards at the CAMRA Great British Beer Festival in 2013.’
Ben Marston of Tring Brewery says St Albans’ Beer Festival is ‘undoubtedly’ one of the better ones for his company.
St Albans’ taste for beer has even led to it getting its own specialist merchant, BEER:shop St Albans, something of a rarity outside London.
Owner John Gudgin acknowledges CAMRA had a role to play in the company’s decision to start the venture there: ‘It has helped create such a strong beer following in the city, with so many excellent pubs offering cask ale, giving people a better taste for good beer, that it made perfect sense to open the shop in St Albans.’
It’s significant that amid reports of 28 pubs closing each week an impressive 50 of St Albans 55 pubs have stayed open.
Adam Richardson, landlord of the White Horse in Welwyn, won the title of Britain’s Best Pub Landlord earlier this year, and has had a remarkable response to his food and beer matching events. The people of Hertfordshire care about their pints.
So what of the future for CAMRA in Herts? There are still plenty of obstacles, not least the lack of press coverage for beer events, something of a sore point for founding member and journalist Michael Hardman: ‘CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival attracts 50,000 people, and more beer is drunk in the UK than any other alcoholic drink, but the press still doesn’t seem to care.’
Hertfordshire Life is committed to highlighting beer events in its monthly food diary, and Michael says attending them is the best way for new real ale fans in the county, recommending the St Albans Beer Festival (September 24 to 27) in particular.
CAMRA is also continuing to encourage younger beer drinkers to make better choices, introducing university-affiliated real-ale societies and promoting the Young Members Group for 18-30 year-olds.
Perhaps its most impressive current campaign is LocAle, encouraging pubs to serve beers brewed within a 20-mile radius to foster better support for our local breweries.
With the heart of CAMRA remaining in Herts, it looks set to help keep our county’s beer industry booming.