The “Campaign for Real Ale” (CAMRA) began in 1971, inspired by four English “blokes” (guys) with a mission to “campaign for real ale, pubs and drinkers rights.” Today CAMRA has approximately 146,000 members, hosts more than 100 beer & cider festivals each year, and has a beer publishing arm that has produced over 30 books including the most popular annual beer book in Britain –Good Pub Guide and 300 Beers to Try Before you Die. (source reference – CAMRA website at above link)
Our Accidental Discovery of CAMRA
Right before moving to London, in the midst of packing our apartment and trying to figure out how to unwind a car lease, a colleague from Deloitte (where I used to work) slipped me a book and some great advice on moving to a new city. He knew that my husband and I were both passionate about beer and figured a book entitled London’s Best Beer Pubs & Bars would probably get some use! Needless to say, we used the pub guide map in the appendix more often than Google maps as we navigated around London during those first few months.
Reading the CAMRA guide was our first introduction to the real ale scene; becoming full-fledged, card-carrying members was soon to follow. Somewhat appropriately, the first piece of mail waiting for us when we opened the door to our new flat was the “couples membership” and a booklet of coupons for Wetherspoons! More to come on Wetherspoons pubs in the near future.
The 23rd Annual Battersea Beer Festival begins…
Held in the 100 year old Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre (3 miles south of Waterloo train station), the centerpiece of the main room is the altar to ale! There were over 150 real ale casks racked on two rows of scaffolding, extending the entire length of the gymnasium-sized hall. In the basement, there was a separate room reserved just for the ciders and a booth selling CAMRA books, souvenirs, and pub games.
Cider Bar is the Place to Be
11:30am on a Wednesday morning, and my volunteering experience started with my own private tasting of 15 of the ciders and perries that were available that day. The bar manager, “Cider Mike” (pictured on my right), informed me this was a necessary quality-assurance/ research step in the pre-festival set-up – how else would I be able to describe it to the customers?
Mike is a cider expert and his personality alone is enough to entice anyone over to the cider counter, even those who might label themselves as strictly beer and ale experts. Both Mike and Malcolm, his counterpart, were fantastic to “work with” – knowledgeable about the cider and perry products and made me feel comfortable as the newcomer volunteer! They were a great team. I’ve been told if I volunteer at future festivals, I am now an honorary member of the cider volunteer team.
The festival opened to the public at exactly 12pm. The early crowds are not unsurprisingly the most loyal CAMRA members who have probably scheduled work, holidays, and other chores specifically around an annual calendar of beer festivals. The first ones in avoid the crowds and get their pick of the specialty beers before the kegs are empty. There were a number of large round tables in the lower hall and as people filtered downstairs they saved seats for their friends and prepared to set up for the day. Most CAMRA festivals (as far as I know) have a best in show category, which is judged by the attendees over the course of the festival. Even better though is that most of the hard-core crowd brings their own review notebooks that look like rare-books!
When it’s fun to be in the Minority…
As you might expect, not only was I the only American volunteer (and probably only non-British one), I also happened to be one of only maybe three other women volunteers – a double-minority that made for some great conversations!! As customers noticed my American accent, they at first seemed surprised but even more perplexed when I began describing the nuances of the dry vs. sweet, or types of specialty cask (rum cask, whiskey cask) ciders available. Aside from the astonished looks, I think I also gained some respect this week among a few British beer and cider fans in London, and I absolutely enjoyed the experience. I’m definitely volunteering again; the only question is which festival!