Although CAMRA has run plenty of successful campaigns in its 50-year span, it has also run the odd spectacular flop. The thing about a flop is to recognise when you’ve got it wrong, but one long running campaign the organisation continued to run was a dud, right from the start. “Flogging a dead horse,” is perhaps the best description.
"Make May a Mild Month" ran, in various guises, for what must have been several decades. The idea was to save the forgotten and some might say neglected, style of beer, known as Mild Ale. There are plenty of online sources should you wish to know more about mild, and also plenty of definitions of what the beer actually is.
Some of these are far geekier than others, but as history plays a part, with the definition becoming distorted over time, I will leave readers to conduct their own research, should they wish. For the purposes of this article, all you really need to know is that, up to and including World War II, mild was the staple drink in Britain’s pubs.
More than that, mild was THE drink of the working man, outselling more expensive draught beers such as bitter by some and more. A decade or so later, its fortunes entered a long slow and ultimately, quite painful decline. When CAMRA was founded, mild was still the logical companion to bitter on pub bar counters up and down the country, with most brewers offering both styles in their tied houses.
This could be why CAMRA set out to save it, but had the campaign spent more time bothering about the quality of the beer, rather than remaining fixated on the style, they might have arrested its decline. Instead, they concentrated solely on saving mild ale as a style and ended up on a hiding to nothing.
At its best mild could be enjoyable and satisfying, but at its worst it was thin, insipid, and totally devoid of character. Worse are the horror stories, from the “old days” of unscrupulous landlords, adding all the “slops” from a night’s drinking, back into the cask – yuck!
So, despite dozens of CAMRA members being “persuaded” into professing their support for mild, and going out of their way to drink it, the style was already in terminal decline. CAMRA’s efforts, however well-intentioned, couldn’t hide the fact that apart from a few honourable exceptions, the mild brewed by most breweries – certainly those that continued to produce it in cask form, was in the main inferior to the bitter(s) or draught pale ale they offered.
I became caught up in this hype back in the early 1980’s, when I became an active member of Maidstone & Mid Kent (MMK) CAMRA. This was the first CAMRA branch I identified with, even though I’d been a member since the mid 1970’s.
A bit of history first, to get us up to speed, I joined the Campaign in 1974, during the summer vacation from Salford University. The first branch meeting I attended was one held by Canterbury branch, at the City Arms, close to the world-famous cathedral. Hand-pumped Whitbread Trophy, brewed at the former Fremlin’s plant at Faversham, was the cask ale on offer, and jolly good it was too.
I later attended what was probably the inaugural meeting of Ashford CAMRA; Ashford being my hometown. My attendance at these meetings was confined to university vacations, and during term time I made no effort to go along to any events that must have been held by branches in the Greater Manchester region.
I saw no real need to attend local CAMRA events, as decent and cheap cask ale was available in most of the region’s pubs. Whitbread and John Smiths were the odd ones out, as they only supplied keg beer. I also had a busy social life – those were the days, and evenings when I didn’t go to the pub were few and far between. It wasn’t until I moved back to Kent in 1979, after buying my first house in Maidstone, that I decided to bite the bullet and become involved with the local and, it has to be said, highly successful MMK CAMRA branch.Faversham brewers, Shepherd Neame, were the main provider of real ale in the county town, with all nine of their pubs stocking the real thing. This was in sharp contrast to Courage and Whitbread, who owned the bulk of Maidstone’s pubs, but sold mainly bright, processed beer, served by top-pressure dispense.
After showing more than a passing interest in the branch, and volunteering to deliver its newsletter – Draught Copy, to local pubs, I was asked to join the committee, which I considered quite an honour. The branch chairman and secretary at the time, were keen supporters of CAMRA’s fledgling mild campaign – the bit about drinking it during May came along later, and encouraged other committee members to do the same. Cask (real) mild was only available in Shepherd Neame houses, as whilst a handful of Courage and Whitbread pubs served real ale, it was bitter only that was stocked, the mild being keg only.
This meant making a point of being seen to be ordering, and of course drinking mild. Shep’s mild was pleasant enough, but it wasn’t a patch on their excellent bitter – something went wrong with that later. The mild also suffered from low turnover, so many pints whilst still drinkable, were not exactly served at their best. Small matter, we all thought we were doing the right thing to save this dying stye of beer and were even proud of our efforts.
In our naivety we thought that our combined efforts would be sufficient to turn the tide and rescue cask mild from oblivion. How wrong could we be, as during the mid-1980’s, Shep’s announced that, due to falling sales and low turnover, they would be dropping mild in cask form and their pubs would now stock it only as a brewery-conditioned keg beer.
Talk about a kick in the teeth, all that posing with a pint of mild, all those excellent pints of bitter ignored in favour of a lackluster and inferior pint of mild. A lesson well learned, go with your heart rather than your head, don’t be guided by what others think and slavishly follow them.
CAMRA continued their increasingly forlorn, mild Campaign well into the 21st Century, encouraging branches and breweries to run special promotions of this style every May, but all to no avail. Looking back, I wrote an extensive article, five years ago, titled “Why I Won't Be Supporting CAMRA's Mild in May Campaign,” and an even longer one, the year before. Both questioned the reasoning behind CAMRA’s increasingly embarrassing Mild Campaign, but do make quite interesting reading, if you are at all interested in mild.
Six years on, my attitude hasn’t changed. If people are shunning a particular style of beer because its lacks character and appeal, then no amount of campaigning, arm-twisting or obsession by CAMRA, or any other group of people, is going to change things.
It seems I am not alone, because on Pub Curmudgeon’s blog, there’s a post from 20th February, written largely in celebration of CAMRA’s 50th anniversary. In the comments section, there’s a lengthy, and rather tongue in cheek contribution from a correspondent called “Mild Drinker Matt.”
It summed up neatly and succinctly, the points I’ve been
making about the absurdity of these campaigns, and it also made me laugh. Here's a taster, so you can see what I mean, but it's also a good way of wrapping up this article.
"My journey with CAMRA began when I saw an advertisement in Opening Times magazine for a ‘mild challenge’. Visit pubs, drink mild, collect tokens, claim a t shirt and most important of all, SAVE MILD. It didn’t work but that is not the point. Something needed to be done and they were doing something.”
“Mild’s decline continued. Year on year mild slumped in volume. It disappeared from pubs, it suffered quality issues of low turnover but every year I knew something must be done, so I did it and so did CAMRA. No one wanted to drink mild anymore as it was a bland wishy-washy sort of beer, but it needed saving and nobody else was trying to save it.”
I rest my case!