Hertfordshire – Home of the First CAMRA Real Ale Festival

Written by Les Middlewood

When words are spoken about CAMRA’s first beer festival, they almost inevitably relate to the famous beer exhibition that CAMRA held at the old flower market at Covent Garden, in the heart of London in 1975. An amazing event it was too, with 40,000 drinkers, 50 beers, bread and cheese and for CAMRA the encouraging surprise of the enormous queue of thirsty drinkers stringing around the atmospheric building, waiting for opening time, not knowing quite what to expect – except that real ale was on the up and that the campaign was beginning to capture the heart of the British beer drinking public.

Yet it wasn’t the first beer festival open to the public held by CAMRA – that was much closer to home. The honour goes to the Beer Exhibition held in St.Albans on Saturday 30 March 1974 which was arranged by the young Hertfordshire Branch of CAMRA. Two accounts of this ground-breaking event were written some years later, both for the Hertfordshire Newsletter, the forerunner of Pints of View. One was written by current Pints of View editor, Steve Bury in 1976 and one by Neil Campbell, a former Branch Treasurer, composed in 1981.

There sadly doesn’t appear to be a photographic collection to give us a visual record of the event, nor promotional material with which to illuminate a further account – neither would have seemed important at the time – but what follows below is an amalgamation of the two articles with some additional facts – testament to an event which would be replicated and grown in towns all over Britain in the following 45 years.

The Hertfordshire Branch of the Campaign had been formed in November 1972 and by February 1973 early campaigning exuberance in the Branch was already asking the question, “why shouldn’t we hold a beer exhibition to promote real cask ale?”. In March 1973 a small article in What’s Brewing read “Hertfordshire members may stage a beer exhibition later this year. A meeting of the Herts Branch in St.Albans last month decided to look for a venue for the exhibition which will probably include several different real draught beers.” A Branch Sub-committee of six members was given the task of finding a home which soon became a tough assignment. In September 1973 a follow-up article stated eight brewers had shown an interest in exhibiting their beers but that the Branch was now appealing for its members to help find a venue “anywhere in the county.” But by December the search had settled on the Old Market Hall in St.Albans, a building demolished many years ago. Initially the concept of an Exhibition was hardly causing a stir beyond CAMRA and there were concerns over whether a licence would be required or not. Branch Chairman Steve Warnes was quoted in What’s Brewing as saying “Twelve breweries have told us they’d like to exhibit their beers and we’re expecting more to follow”.

We must remember that in 1974 real ale outlets were at a premium – just two pubs in St.Albans (The Farriers Arms and the Lower Red Lion) and fewer than 90 in the whole of Hertfordshire. But CAMRA’s headquarters (which was now based in St.Albans) leant support and the planning of the event slowly gathered pace, as did interest from brewers. In his article Steve Bury remembered “We had the generous offer of a licence from Bill Quincy, the landlord of the Crown and Sceptre at Bridens Camp but it initially appeared that it wouldn’t be needed because we were planning to give the beer away”. However on the eve of the event the police changed their mind and at a special hastily-arranged sitting of St.Albans Magistrates, Bill presented his application at 5pm, the branch praying for a positive result and paying Bill’s taxi journey to and from the Crown and Sceptre. Fortunately, the event was given the green light.

In the lead-in to the event there was the not inconsiderable burden of collecting the beer. Neil said “I spent most of the week before the Exhibition travelling around the country collecting beers that breweries had agreed to let us have, but would not deliver”. Steve said “Some other beers were collected by members in a hired van, using a list of loading points like a drinker’s dream”. One member collected from Rayment’s at Furneux Pelham in east Hertfordshire arranging a personal brewery trip while he was there. The county was further represented by beers from McMullen’s of Hertford. Steve continued “Anyway, all the beer had arrived safely by Friday, all donated free, except for two firkins. We thought we had written to every brewery (including Watney’s who politely declined) but as the beer was being stillaged we had a surprise visit from one of the directors of Charrington’s who had heard from someone at Young’s about the event. He had requisitioned a kil of Charrington IPA and driven with it from the Mile End brewery in London to make sure that Charrington’s were there.”

By the close of Friday evening 26 barrels were all tapped and spiled – a range of beers from 14 brewers. The taps (brass and wood) had been begged and borrowed and the hall was decorated with mats, towels, posters and guides from the participating brewers.

The Exhibition had received good prior publicity in local newspapers – even in some of the national daily papers – and the tickets were snapped up. Neil explained “A decision was eventually taken to charge for the beer and so we sold it for an unbelievable 2p per half. I still feel at that stage that for the Campaign it was a major achievement…..my only disappointment was that admission had to be by ticket only and that all the tickets were sold in advance, many to CAMRA members. We were preaching to the converted and were unable to let in many of the locals to see what CAMRA was about……due to the restrictions placed on numbers allowed in the hall by the local council.”

On the morning of the event Steve Bury remembers the Branch organising team checking how well the beers had settled though he still found time to slip away to the Farriers and Lower Red Lion for a pint or two ahead of the Grand Opening of the Exhibition. Steve said “Soon the hall was filled with drinkers and deep discussion on the merits and qualities of the ales. Fuller’s, Adnams, Brakspear’s and Hook Norton were gaining the most interest as they were not then available anywhere in the county.” The event was given extra life and sound by the local Morris side. First beer to sell out was the strong Fuller’s ESB. People who arrived late made up for the loss by supping Greene King Abbot Ale and the beers were conveniently beginning to run out to meet the 9.30pm closing time that was demanded by Magistrates. As the last drinkers left the building it was noted that souvenir hunters had taken everything – posters, mats, the lot – even including the hand-produced barrel signs saying “2p per half pint”.

For the local Campaign it was a great success and indicated that such events could be a brilliant campaigning tool – bringing traditional cask beer to the drinkers. Feedback from the brewers was excellent, it had turned their heads and helped to convince them that there was a good future and demand for cask-conditioned beer. Festivals in Cambridge and Cardiff followed soon after that same year.

As word spread of the Exhibition’s full attendance, some local landlords gained the courage and confidence to take the real ale plunge, to put a barrel on the bar or fit handpumps.

It had all been a great success but any further local event would need to be bigger. It would take another three years of anticipation and hard work before the Branch was in a position to launch the first Hertfordshire Beer Festival which took place in the Student Hall at Hatfield Polytechnic in Hatfield, now part of the University of Hertfordshire. And it took until 1996 before CAMRA’s prestigious St.Albans Beer and Cider Festival opened its familiar doors at the Arena in St.Albans city centre.

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