How a Bachelor Party Saved British Beer

Forty years ago, British beer was weak and foul-tasting. Then four friends got drunk and had an idea.

In Britain, beer is as much a right as it is a beverage. Small town life has long revolved around pubs that, in turn, revolve around the taps standing tall as beefeaters behind the bar. As easy as it would be to believe that this has always been so (and will be so in perpetuity), Britain lost its way decades ago while stumbling home from World War II and the industrial revolution. The only thing that saved the British beer industry, which, by the late ’60s, was dominated by a handful of massive conglomerates churning out weak brews, was a boozy brainstorm.

Four friends got drunk while wandering the streets of Ireland looking for bonnie lassies and decided to change beer culture forever. In and of itself, that wasn’t particularly noteworthy. What was remarkable is that they actually did it. Ray Bailey and Jessica Boak tell the stories of the men who saved British beer and British pubs in their new book Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer. Bailey explained to Maxim how the United Kingdom’s brewers found their way back from the edge of oblivion.

Britain has long been known for its pub culture. How did a country of drinkers get to a point where it was no longer producing quality brews?

The brewing industry was under pressure in the post-war period and a lot of regional breweries merged or got taken over until there were six huge conglomerates running the vast majority of breweries. So, for starters, there was less diversity, and a lot of brand names and local beers disappeared. The big brewers genuinely thought young people wanted sweeter, fizzier beers, and that, combined with attempts to increase profits, led to heavily marketed beers such as Watney’s Red which no-one really seems to have liked.

Who were the men who decided they wanted to change the status quo and what motivated them?

Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, and Bill Mellor were journalists with their roots in the Northwest of England. They, along with a friend, Jim Makin, who worked at a brewery in Manchester, went on a lads’ holiday to Ireland in 1971. The night before they went, they had a really disappointing night on the town in Chester, and spent the whole flight moaning about how terrible and weak British beer had become. Bearing in mind they were in their mid-twenties, the purpose of the holiday was mostly to drink beer and meet girls, and, at first, the idea of setting up a campaign to save British beer was a running gag rather than a serious idea.

How did the joke become the Campaign for Real Ale?

Though they didn’t take it seriously at first, over the course of the next year, Graham Lees and Michael Hardman in particular did begin to wonder if there might not be something in it. The first annual general meeting took place in March 1972 at a pub in Nuneaton. Hardly anyone came, everyone got drunk, and the next week the local paper suggested that the pub landlord had been ‘had’ by con men. In the course of the next year, they really did get organized and (relatively) serious, especially when a young intellectual called Christopher Hutt joined the cause. He was only 26, but he’d written a book called The Death of the English Pubwhich was very influential. By the end of the 1970s, with 30,000 members, the Campaign perhaps began to take itself a bit too seriously.

They conducted marches in towns where local breweries were threatened with closure. As many of the early members were journalists, they quickly set up a decent newspaper called What’s Brewing and carried out tabloid-style investigations and ‘stings’ – for example, loitering in a pub near the Watney’s brewery and getting off-duty staff to say they wouldn’t drink Red because it was ‘shite’. Their most effective campaign tools were arguably the Good Beer Guide, first published in 1974, which was the first beer-centric pub guide on the market and a bestseller, and their increasingly impressive beer festivals.

What sort of beers did they want to drink?

The founders of CAMRA knew they liked some beers better than others but weren’t exactly sure why until they carried out research in pub cellars. The beers they didn’t like were kegged beers – heat treated, filtered, and given their much more aggressive fizz when their sealed containers were injected with carbon dioxide from a canister. They were easy to look after but too often lacked any real flavor or character. It turned out the stuff they did like was cask-conditioned, unpasteurised and unfiltered, and given its gentle fizz by live yeast as it matured in the pub cellar. It was, and is, somewhat tricky to look after properly, but is worth the effort. They came to call this ‘real ale,’ and produced a technical definition which has almost the weight of law these days.

Were there any specific beers that made a significant difference and got popular?

One of the single most influential beers must be Hop Back Summer Lightning, first brewed in 1987. It wasn’t the first ‘golden ale’ but, after it won a string of awards at CAMRA festivals, it kickstarted a trend for them so that there was more than just bitter, best bitter, and mild on offer in British pubs. Other brewers also began to realize that these very pale beers were the perfect ‘blank canvas’ for exotic varieties of hops from America, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

What difference did the arrival of new breweries make to British pub culture?

When the first wave of new microbreweries began to open, they ran into a brick wall: There weren’t many pubs that could actually stock their beer. Big breweries also owned almost all the pubs and their licensees were forbidden to buy outside beer. A few pubs which the breweries had either not managed to take control of, or had given up on, became ‘real ale’ destinations. They weren’t servicing ordinary drinkers thirsty after a day’s work but dedicated geeks who would travel miles to get to a pub selling something rare, strong, or interesting. A pub like the Barley Mow in St Albans, which had 18 ales on tap by the late 1970s, was a fundamentally new type of business. Most towns in Britain now have at least one ‘real ale’ pub, and that, for better or worse – some people don’t think they’re ‘proper’ pubs – is part of CAMRA’s legacy.

What is the best beer bar in Britain?

A few years ago, that question wouldn’t even have made sense. Now, we’re spoiled for choice. We’ve got a soft spot for Cask in Pimlico, partly because we stumbled upon it when it had only been open a few days and was still a real ale pub with no customers. The chain it started, the Craft Beer Company, now has bars all across London, including a huge new one that’s just opened in Covent Garden. Amazing.

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