I should have been in Nottingham last week to raise a pint or two to celebrate 50 years of the Campaign for Real Ale.
Like a Seventies rock band, it’s still on the road, belting out its familiar refrains. But like so many of the groups from that era, it can be argued its most important and original work came in its first flush of youth.
CAMRA’s legacy is guaranteed. The array of draught beers that greets you on the bar of almost every pub in the land is testimony to that. Cask beer is alive, even if its fortunes have fluctuated from time to time, and the craft beer revolution has its roots planted in the general enthusiasm for brewing that campaign stalwarts have championed.
But the ambition of the founders five decades ago also gave us the Good Beer Guide, edited for much of its history by the venerable Roger Protz and the blueprint for the multitude of pub guidebooks that have followed.
Similarly, the Great British Beer Festival was launched early on, and similarly replicated on a smaller scale across the country. Local beer festivals are now as much part of British life as the garden fete.
But perhaps the most radical innovation, certainly the most relevant to modern pub operation was the creation of a company called CAMRA (Real Ale) Investments, the campaign’s pub owning arm.
Headed by a young former Ford executive called Chris Hutt, who was also the campaign’s second chairman, it set out in an age dominated by national brewers to acquire free houses and stock them with cask beers from brewers of all shapes and sizes from around the country.
By the end of the Seventies it had pubs in places as widespread as Hampstead, Bristol, Cambridge, Manchester and Leeds. It was as radical then as Wetherspoons or Loungers proved to be in later years. Most importantly to open those sites, Hutt had to take on both the licensing authorities and the vested interests of the established brewery pub owners.
The work he did, hiring QCs to take the inevitable appeals, and winning a lot of the time helped to pave the way for today’s more relaxed licensing regimes.
He was not alone though. Another early CAMRA chairman called Chris Holmes, an economics lecturer by day, took on similar licensing fights in towns like Newark.
Hutt and Holmes went on to become successful pub group entrepreneurs - Hutt running the likes of Wizard Inns and later becoming chair of Geronimo Inns, and Holmes with Tynemill, now Castle Rock Brewery. Both also became founders of the ALMR, the pub trade body that now forms part of UK Hospitality. Bringing those two into the pub market is something else we should thank CAMRA for.
Now in a time when Government is looking to take more control of the way the pub and wider hospitality sector operates, we should not forget the pioneering spirit of the likes of Hutt and Holmes, and later Wetherspoons’ founder Tim Martin, in relentlessly pushing to win new licences by taking on the powers that be and the restraints on trade that they enforced through the licensing and planning systems.
Few of you will remember the days when all but two pubs in the whole of Birmingham, for instance, where owned by either Ansells, part of the giant Allied Breweries, or Mitchells & Butlers, a cog in the Bass empire. Breaking down those local monopolies was vital in creating the innovative, entrepreneurial pub and restaurant market we know today.
Pushing back on the creeping influence of politicians on the industry may well prove to be the biggest challenge today’s industry faces in the months and years to come. There should be no letting up on defending the market’s freedoms to trade.
Oh, and why was I going to be in Nottingham last week? It should have been for a reunion of so-called CAMRA pioneers, those who played a part in that important first decade, organised by one of the four founders Michael Hardman and hosted by Castle Rock. I had a small walk-on role back then, but was hoping to meet up again with old friends like Chris Hutt, Chris Holmes, Roger Protz and Michael Hardman – and toast their not always obvious disruptive legacy.
Although the pandemic got in the way, the good news is the event is only postponed. Until then.
Peter Martin: Licensed to disrupt
I should have been in Nottingham last week to raise a pint or two to celebrate 50 years of the Campaign for Real Ale. Like a Seventies rock band, it’s still on the road, belting out its familiar refrains. But like so many of the groups from that era, it can be argued its most important and original work came in its first flush of youth.