Now and then… from the editor’s chair: the beer scene and CAMRA

I first joined CAMRA at Sheffield beer festival when it was held at Hallam Student Union’s Nelson Mandella Building, which has since been demolished. I was actually recruited to join a national committee before I attended any local branch event – it was a new initiative to better recruit and involve younger members in the 18-30 age group. That would have been about 20 years ago.

Like any volunteer organisations, you need new younger people coming in and getting involved in order to keep things going in the future as the old timers step down from active roles – and also to keep fresh ideas coming an ensure we are in touch with the modern scene. The thing with younger volunteers though is naturally many drift off as a result of living live – they start to get careers and families taking up time!

The additional challenge for CAMRA back then was getting younger drinkers interested in real ale in the first place – it was viewed as an old man’s drink, lager was the cool choice, although some did buy into the marketing for smoothflow keg bitters that were the new thing.

When I first started drinking, Sheffield could still be divided up into quarters of bitter loyalty based on where the breweries had pubs – there were Tetleys, Stones and Wards areas, plus Whitbread still had a lot of pubs where you could get the likes of Trophy Bitter or Boddingtons on cask. Mansfield also had a notable estate of pubs in the city. Some of the classic regional/family brewers beers did appear too – so the likes of Timothy Taylors, Theakston and Black Sheep for example.

I can remember standing up at a CAMRA national AGM & Conference in Blackpool when policy on alcohol advertising was being debated and someone suggested big brewers should be banned from advertising but micros should be exempt. I disagreed – the likes of Tetleys was well marketed nationally and was considered a gateway into real ale for younger, inexperienced beer drinkers who may try that and then become a little more adventurous.

Not long after I joined CAMRA we saw Wards and Stones breweries close, leaving Kelham Island Brewery as the biggest in the city. Abbeydale was smaller and quite young back then and that was about it in Sheffield although there were one or two other small local breweries around Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster.

Another point to note back then was all pubs had to shut at 11pm (10:30pm on Sundays), if you wanted to drink later you had to go to a nightclub. Generally anywhere that was fun and lively around town on a Friday or Saturday night didn’t have decent beer and the fall back safe, widely available option for the discerning drinker was a bottle of Becks German lager. Kind of the role Brewdog Punk IPA plays these days!

A few key landmarks in the years that followed that changed the beer scene for me

  • introduction of progressive beer duty so small breweries pay less tax, giving them a chance against the big boys with big budgets. This resulted in a massive wave of new microbreweries opening. I admit some were better than others, some have stayed in business and some haven’t! We now probably have the most varied choice of beers we’ve ever had on the bars! On the negative side the market is crowded and not helped by restrictive beer supply ties operated by some big pub companies.
  • The launch and successful sales and promotion of Abbeydale Moonshine. When first introduced this was something of a revelation – a pale ale with New Zealand hops offering a citrus character.
  • Licencing reform – pubs and bars can apply for a licence to open for whatever hours suit their business, subject to local authority approval. It hasn’t led to 24 hour drinking and fighting that the media predicted, nor have we gained a European pavement cafe culture some hoped for either (probably the weather) – but you can now get a decent beer and relax in a proper pub after 11pm and there is no longer pressure on takeaways and transport when all the pubs kick out together at 11pm and the clubs kick out on mass at 2am
  • The craft beer revolution – OK, it is an American term and a lot of the language is marketing hype and fashion. There is also no definitive explanation of what exactly ‘craft’ means in terms of beer. However at the end of the day it has meant beer is speaking a language that appeals to a wider audience, it has people interested in different beer styles, discussing beer and enjoying it. It means there are lots of breweries producing good quality beer across a massive spectrum of styles and more pubs and bars are stocking it – across cask, keg, can and bottle.

Now going back to my earlier comments about younger drinkers, there has been a huge cultural change and generally it is the younger drinker that is embracing trying new things.

OK the old fashioned brown, malty bitter still doesn’t necessarily appeal – I remember a despairing conversation with a manager at the Varsity bar on West Street who had clearly had a memo from head office to try and be better at selling the ale but complained they were a student orientated bar and young people don’t drink real ale… looking down at his three handpumps, all filled with national brands of boring brown bitter I suggested he attended the student union beer festival where they sell out of over 50 different ales over 2 days to see how they did it…

The thing now with the craft beer revolution, those younger drinkers we struggled to attract to real ale are now drinking and experimenting with all sorts of different beers and enjoying it. OK, not all those beers are on cask or real ale and they don’t really care, but the important thing is they are choosing beers on the basis of taste and enjoyment and have the choice on the bar to do so, and that is why CAMRA was formed back in the 1970s – to keep quality, tasty beer options available on the bar. (It just happened real ale in a cask was THE quality option back then).

So the challenge for CAMRA now – well we still need to encourage people to join up and more importantly get involved, volunteer and enjoy – and in the current “craft” scene we need to ensure our image is relevant. Meanwhile from a campaigning perspective, the priorities have changed. Whilst we can take a step back from pushing for real ale to be available on the bars and to some extent from pushing some of the consumer issues – there are big campaigning issues keeping community pubs alive, keeping the cost of beer reasonable and keeping the anti alcohol lobby at bay – amongst other things.

Still plenty of campaigning, promoting and enjoying of beer to be done for many years yet! If you aren’t already a CAMRA member do consider joining. If you are a member we’d love to see you get more involved, be that coming along to socials or pub award presentions, helping deliver magazines, updating pub entries on whatpub.com or ultimately joining the committee and helping make things happen.

Sheffield’s beer scene is currently fantastic, vibrant and full of great people, great pubs, great beer and some fantastic initiatives -and we’d love to continue to be part of it!

Andy Cullen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.