Wigan ale enthusiasts raise a glass to 50 years of Camra
Half a century ago a group of real ale enthusiasts, fed up with the poor choice of beer available, started a movement which would completely transform pubs and pints.
The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) has in 50 years done an enormous amount of work in raising awareness and boosting the popularity of traditional British beer styles.
And now Wigan enthusiasts are joining fans across the country in raising a glass to Camra’s achievements over half a century.
When Camra was set up in 1971, a handful of large breweries dominated the beer map and traditional cask ales were losing out to keg beers.
While the diversification of beer types in the 21st century has not been met with unanimous praise, many long-term Camra enthusiasts say the situation for beer and ale is now extremely rosy.
Current Wigan Camra branch chair Sandy Motteram said: “I think Camra has been a really important movement. If you look back to the early days pubs were just selling industrial keg beers that weren’t made particularly well but were very widely available and there was very little choice.
“You look at where we are today and it has come a very long way, which I don’t believe would have happened without Camra.
“Locally the campaign has gone a long way in saving some pubs and our branch area is now sustaining eight different breweries.”
Camra’s presence in the borough goes back to its early days, with Billinge beer fan John Robinson, who is still a member, setting up the South Lancashire Branch which included the borough in 1974.
The inaugural meeting took place at a watering hole in Lowton and for a decade brought beer fans from Wigan, St Helens and the surrounding areas together to enjoy their chosen tipples.
In 1985 the branch split into Wigan and South East Lancashire, the arrangement still in place today.
Peter Marsh, whose association with Camra spans 40 years and who spent time as Greater Manchester regional director, looks back fondly at the organisation’s earlier days, when it had a decidedly underground rebel spirit and its comments about one commercial beer in a guide were so negative it was threatened with legal action by the outraged brewer.
However, while he celebrates the organisation’s achievements in preserving more time-honoured styles he admits to being ambivalent about where the ale world is currently going.
He said: “If it hadn’t been for Camra we wouldn’t have real ale as we know it now.
“But now we have a lot of craft beers, with brewers going for hoppy beers and brewing them unfined so they are cloudy.”
For Brian Gleave, who has been involved since 1977 and is still on the organising teams for the Wigan Beer Festival and the Bent ‘n’ Bongs Beer Bash each year, recent developments are also something to be pleased about.
He said: “There have been a lot of changes. Back then in Wigan the area was dominated by about three brewers. Quite a lot of pubs sold real ale but it was normally just mild and bitter.
“Mild was only about 3.3 or 3.4 per cent and bitter 3.6 per cent, so beers have got stronger. There’s now a vast choice of beers.
“A lot of traditional pubs have closed, there were lots in Ince in those days, but there has been an explosion in micropubs.
“When we started the Wigan Beer Festival that showed people what beers were out there from further afield.
“I think we will still have cask beer because for a lot of people it’s the best type, but there’s more good beer than just cask now.
“There’s a lot of good beer that isn’t real ale, and in the ‘70s that just wasn’t the case.”
Sadly, though, such a prominent milestone as Camra’s 50th anniversary could not happen at a worse time, with the pub industry shut except for deliveries due to the Covid-19 pandemic and awaiting permission to reopen from the Government.
Peter said he was concerned about ministers’ understanding of the present position, saying brewers will need time to make quality ale and get it to pubs and could miss out if inns are given the go-ahead to start again at short notice.
Sandy said the current situation makes it all the more vital drinkers get down to their locals and do not rest on their laurels.
He said: “Right now is one of the hardest times the pub and brewing industries have ever had to face, with limited support from the Government.
“It’s more important than ever that local groups like Wigan Camra do everything they can to help support the industry.”
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