Support the Campaign for Real Ale has hit a record high as it steps up its campaign to save pubs and traditional bitters.

Camra announced the recruitment of its 100,000th member at the five-day Great British Beer Festival at Earls Court, London, where tens of thousands of thirsty attendees sampled such hoppy marvels as Dr Hexter’s Healer.

For Camra, the membership milestone illustrates how it has galvanised the drinkers who frequent the saloon bars of Britain’s 53,000 pubs into action to save the country’s brewing heritage and architecture.

But the organisation's mission is almost as urgent as at any time in its 38-year history, given that small regional real ale breweries are being swallowed up by the national ale powerhouses Greene King and Marstons, and beer drinking is in in long-term decline, outshone by more "sophisticated" wine and the heady rise of vodka.

According to the British Beer and Pubs Association, 52 pubs a week closed in the first six months of this year, the fastest rate on record, battered by the smoking ban which has hit beery "wet-led" community pubs, a series of tax rises from the Chancellor’s beer escalator and a drop in spending during the recession.

Nonetheless, many drinkers feel that the presence cask ales at most pubs at all relies in part on Camra’s campaign against industrial bland beers. The organisation was founded by three friends in 1971 as big brewers were rolling out nitro-keg barrels with none of the traditional techniques and flavour of real ales allowed to ferment naturally.

Michael Hardman, Jim Makin, Graham Lees and Bill Mellor were bemoaning the state of British beer and pubs during a holiday in Ireland in 1971 when they hit on the idea of forming the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale.

Camra (later re-named the snappier Campaign for Real Ale) had more than 5,000 members by the end of 1973. In 1974 Camra’s first Good Beer Guide sold 30,000 copies in seven months and its supporters drank half the ale at its first festival at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge on the first day. In 1975, Camra’s first national celebration of real ale, the Covent Garden Beer Festival, became the forerunner of the great British Beer Festival.

Perhaps amusingly, tracing the membership of the organisation in these early days is impossible. "Our humble beginnings meant that we didn't have accurate membership records due to administrative procedures in the 1970's, early 80's" says a spokesman.

By 1989, Camra had 20,000 members and, by 2001, 60,000. Last year membership rose by 9.7 per cent.

Reflecting on the latest landmark, co-founder Michael Hardman said: "We would never have believed in 1971 that one day we would have 100,000 members. We would have hailed it as a roaring success if we had managed to attract 1,000 like-minded souls."

He dismisssed the stereotype of Camra members as pot-bellied, middle-aged men, saying they were "an eclectic bunch of young and old, rich and poor, men and women, bosses and workers, fat and thin, northern and southern."

He continued: "These are the remarkable and highly knowledgeable people who have made Camra Europe’s most successful single issue consumer organisation and fostered the emergence of thousands of new breweries providing an alternative to the bland offerings of multi-national companies for whom profit is all."

According to the BBPA, 10 per cent of the £16bn annual beer sales lasy year was real ale. "You could say its doing better than might be expected, but we’re in a very challenging market overall," said a spokesman.

As if to underline the fragility of bitter's hold on the nation's throats, asked by Camra to name its biggest achievement, 41 of the public answered the continued existence of real ale in most pubs.

Camra has a shopping list of demands to protect beer and pubs. It is campaigning for reform of the controversial beer tie that forces publicans to buy beer from their owners, minimum pricing to eradicate below cost pricing in supermarkets, planning laws to protect pubs and for the Government to protect well-run community pubs.

"We are overjoyed at reaching 100,000 members...," said Mike Benner, Camra’s chief executive.

"But while we may relax and raise a glass or two to celebrate at the opening of the Great British Beer Festival, we are not complacent and tomorrow the hard work campaigning for drinkers’ rights will continue."

Comments