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It’s common to hear people refer disparagingly to “boring brown beer” and dismiss it as all much of a muchness. However, as former Fuller’s head brewer John Keeling argues in this article, that is very far from the truth.
Yes, now of course there is much more choice of beer styles in absolute terms, but in practice there’s often much less variety across mainstream pubs, and we have lost the contrast provided by distinctive tied estates owned by a range of brewers, and the fascination of discovering new beers that had their own territory in limited areas. of the joys of travelling through the country was to try the local version of bitter. In fact, being `a born and bred Mancunian’ meant it was not difficult to find different versions. I grew up on Boddingtons, Robinsons, Holts, Hyde’s, and Oldham Brewery.
He forgets Lees, and within the Manchester area there was also plenty of real ale from independent brewers such as Marston’s, Higson’s, Thwaites and Samuel Smith, plus Big Six offshoots such as Tetley’s and Wilson’s, plus Bass and Whitbread to a limited extent. All the bitters, and milds, produced by these companies, had their own distinctive character and were often very different from one another. In no way was the drinking experience dull or samey. There was also far more real ale around in total than is often imagined, or than there is now, although availability was much patchier and it was very thin on the ground in London, thus leading CAMRA’s “Founding Four” to imagine that it was on the brink of disappearing.
It should also be remembered that, back then, the pubs were much busier, had a wider social mix of customers and often, despite the supposed introduction of “all-day opening”, were open for longer hours than they are now.
He also makes the important point that “CAMRA was formed to save the great beer that was being brewed and not to get people to brew great beer.” It’s often claimed today that CAMRA’s primary objective was increasing choice, but in fact this represents an attempt to rewrite history. In the early days, this was definitely not the case. Real ale was felt to be under threat, and so the core purpose was a preservationist one, to champion the beers that were already in existence, encourage people to drink them and spread the word about where they could be found.
The main focus of change was to persuade breweries to swap keg or top-pressure dispense for cask on the beers they already sold, not to add new ones. The days of microbreweries and multi-beer free houses, except in penny numbers, were still well in the future. Even new beers were virtually unheard of – the first major new beer launch of the “Real Ale Revolution” was Ind Coope Burton Ale, which didn’t come along until 1976.
Looking through the 1975 Good Beer Guide, all the entries on the page including Stockport were just selling standard beers, bitter and usually mild, from the likes of Ind Coope, Wilson’s, Whitbread, Boddington’s and Robinson’s. No premium beers (apart from one with Bass) and nowhere with more than three different ones on the bar. Of course there was choice, and there was plenty in Cheshire, but it was found across the tied houses of different brewers, rather than within individual pubs.
It may seem quaint now, but one of CAMRA’s main campaigning planks in its early years was the ending of local quasi-monopolies in the tied house market, which eventually triggered some half-hearted pub swaps between the major brewers in the late 1970s. Now, of course, the post-Beer Orders break-up of the erstwhile “Big Six” has pretty much entirely swept that local dominance away.
While CAMRA undoubtedly played an important role, it is probable that many of the changes in the beer market that it is linked with would have happened anyway to some degree with the change in emphasis from the glossy modernism of the 1960s to the more natural, traditional, “small-is-beautiful” sentiment of the 1970s.