Personally I was a latecomer to real ale and by the time I saw the light in 1980 Red Barrel was already a memory and the good stuff was widely available. Looking back to that time, and the real ales which were around, the truth is that quality and choice was hugely worse than it is today. The then Big Six brewers produced most of the country's real ale and much of it was insipid stuff. Even the regional brewers had a tendency to play safe. In these parts, Tolly Cobbold of Ipswich owned a lot of pubs and their beers were pretty difficult to love. Greene King ales were much better, especially Abbot, but, even then, IPA was at best OK and most GK pubs served their beers under carbon dioxide pressure which didn't help. Micro-breweries were in their infancy and their products were rare round here. Nonetheless many cracking real ales could still be found Adnams, Youngs, Batemans, Ruddles, Brakspear etc.) and for many of us there was no looking baclk.
Fast forward 30 years and the real ale scene, both locally and nationally, has never been healthier. In our area virtually every pub sells cask beer and, increasingly, they offer a good choice of quality ales, including those brewed locally. Cambridgeshire has 13 breweries against just two (Elgoods and Paines) in 1980. The rise of the micro-brewey, invariably run by beer enthusiasts, has resulted in an explosion of distinctive beers in a gloriously bewildering variety of styles.
But something else has happened recently – keg beer has got better, or at least some of it has. For many brewers, especially younger ones, taste is the key factor and method of dispense much less important. Breweries like Meantime and Brewdog see no problem in promoting keg versions of their beers and Brewdog have been (it seems) deliberately provocative on this score, selling only keg beers in their three bars and indulging in a well-publicised spat with CAMRA over their trade stand (ultimately cancelled) at this year's Great British Beer Festival. All this has been accompanied by calls from some quarters (including one locally-based former CAMRA National Executive member) for CAMRA to embrace these quality keg beers and effectively move from being the Campaign for Real Ale to the Campaign for Great Ale.
My own view is that CAMRA goes down that road at its extreme peril – and many of us wouldn't join the journey. The CAMRA brand has taken forty years to establish and is now well respected and influential. Real ale is our unique selling point and changing the message would cause major confusion – “just what do you stand for?”, people will say. An advantage of real ale is that it can be defined whereas Quality is inevitably a matter of subjective judgement. I reckon Wells Eagle to be a quality beer but several friends consider it dull. Conversely, I find German Kolsch beers the epitome of blandness while others love them to bits.
The key factor here is that we're the Campaign For Real Ale, not the Campaign Against Keg Beer. I have no problems at all drinking keg beers, both in bottles and on draught, if I think they're worth supping. When I go to Belgium, I often go for the draught version of a beer rather than the bottled, even though the former is keg and the latter “real” - and so do most CAMRA members. Over here there are many great bottle-conditioned beers but ditto ons which aren't – Brewdog's American Double IPA (produced for Tesco) is one of the finest beers I've tasted.
CAMRA has always been about choice. If people want to drink beers which aren't "real” that's absolutely their prerogative and none of our business. What we want to ensure is that high-quality, well-presented real ale is very widely available and we still have plenty to do on that score. If folk want to set up an organisation to extol the virtues of what they consider to be top quality beers of all kinds, good luck to them – I might even join. And if someone starts a campaign to bring back Watney's Red Barrel, well.......