How to campaign for real ale

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The Independent Culture
Why is the price of a pint going up faster than the rate of inflation? Why are we losing the heritage of so many traditional pubs? And why do all real ale drinkers have long hair and leather jackets?

"Not all real ale drinkers," Trevor Johnson interrupts. "You get a range of types here, from long-haired hippies like me to businessmen."

A quick glance around Colchester Arts Centre, where men in pin-striped suits are knocking back pints of Pendle Witches Brew next to Catweazel clones supping Old Ebenezer, bears him out. The town's annual beer festival might not, as they say on Question Time, represent a cross-section of the population - there are hardly any women present for a start - but it does appear that real ale is no longer the preserve of the hairy classes.

Trevor admits, however, that a visit to his local Camra (Campaign for Real Ale) branch will probably reinforce my prejudice. "Quite a few of us have long hair and leather jackets. I don't why, but there it is."

Johnson, 31, is the sort of "hippy" who can be trusted not only to organise a beer festival in an arts centre, but also to stop the takeover of a brewery. "Campaigning is our main thing," he says, downing another fruity, full-bodied bitter.

Whether it be petitioning Parliament to protect British beer, or persuading pubs to open during the afternoon, a real ale enthusiast's work is never done. But, surely, running a non-stop, three-day boozy binge is a devoted drinker's dream? Trevor thinks not. "There isn't time to drink. Each year I say I'm not going to do it again, but if that happened, nobody else would do it. If I'd been paid for all the hours I've put in I would be a rich man."

Besides, as a father of two, he has responsibilities. "It used to be 30 pints a week," he sighs, "but now it's down to four." Still, at least he can help initiate the youth of today into the finer things of life, like home-brewing. "My son was 12 days old when he had his first sup of ale from a dummy," he declares proudly.

RAAFs - Real Ale Activists with Families - tend to suffer domestic confinement less easily than most, for they have been removed from their natural habitat, the benign environment of the good old British pub. It is, according to Camra's newspaper, "a social institution, a meeting place, part of our way of life, something which helps define our sense of nationhood and individuality." Drinking canned versions of cask-conditioned ales or, horror of horrors, lager, is no substitute for the real thing. Mention the "L" word in Johnson's presence at your peril.

"It's trendy to drink lager but it's dead beer," he seethes. "There's loads of chemicals in it. You can buy it in any pub in the country and it's exactly the same. It's never been brewed in this country. We import foreign lager but you don't get Hovis bread sold in Belgium, do you?"

So what exactly has the Campaign for Real Ale achieved? "When the campaigning started 21 years ago, very little real ale was available," Johnson explains. "We were a dying breed."

The 1974 Good Beer Guide mentioned only a couple of pubs in his neck of the woods, but now more than 80 per cent have seen the light. Before Camra, you would not have got hundreds of people crowded into an arts centre to sample more than 50 beers and ciders.

As day turns into night, a few drop to their knees, which seems rather apt in a converted church. But, despite the increasing levels of inebriation, Johnson is confident that there will be no trouble.

"If it was lager, you might get anti-social behaviour. But this is different. When did you ever hear people complaining about real ale louts?"

ANTHONY CLAVANE

Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), 230 Hatfield Rd, St Albans, Herts, AO1 4LW

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