Liquid bread

The comparisons between the state of Britain's beer in the 1970s and the nation's loaf now are many. Today, real ale is embraced widely, so, asks Alex Vaughan, what can the Real Bread crowd learn from the Campaign For Real Ale's success?

Photo by Chris Young / realbreadcampaign.org CC-BY-SA 4.0

Photo by Chris Young / realbreadcampaign.org CC-BY-SA 4.0

The start of the 1960s saw great changes to the production and distribution of two of the most widely consumed fermented products in the UK: bread and beer. Throughout the 1950s, small mills, bakeries, breweries and pubs had either run out of business or been bought off. The following decade saw far more rapid and sweeping consolidation and vertical integration, with just three baking and milling concerns, and six brewers, monopolising the two markets. But further changes were afoot.

Bland fizz and bland fluff

Launched in 1961, the now infamous Chorleywood Process revolutionised loaf production. It allows quicker production times and the use of a higher proportion of home-grown wheats, but sacrifices flavour, nutrient profile and perhaps even digestibility to yield, profit and convenience. 

This roughly coincided with the major breweries replacing traditional, real ale with keg beer. Real ale is a living product, which continues to ferment in the bottle or cask at your local pub, developing a richer flavour and character. By contrast, keg beer only undergoes primary fermentation, being then pasteurised or filtered, bottle conditioned, and artificially carbonated.

Keys to success

The Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale came about in March of 1971, thought up by four friends disillusioned by the poor flavour and quality of mass produced 'fizzy keg' beers. Originally, it was all about the beer. Veteran members would have joined at a time when real ale was most at danger, reaching its lowest point in 2005 at 7.2% of beer's market share.

Within a year, the renamed Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) had 5,000 members. Over the next few decades it launched the Good Beer Guide and the Great British Beer Festival, campaigned for - and achieved - all-day pub opening, and helped to smash the big brewersí stronghold on UK pubs. Today, real ale's market share continues to grow, currently sitting at 8.2%.

The new generation of members seem to feel that the fight is now to protect and revitalise pubs. The organisationís combined aim of protecting real ale and community-oriented pubs is probably one of the keys to its ongoing success, bringing together membersí love of both beer and conviviality. People are particularly attracted by the social elements of the organisation, such as beer festivals and branch outings, as well as various other membership benefits. Camraís branches extend across the UK and depend on thousands of volunteers to operate, further strengthening the social aspect of the campaign. Today Camra has 180,000 members. 

Under the influence

The Real Bread Campaign was born in 2008. If you believe baking and retail industry figures, at that time around 80% of all loaves consumed in the UK were made by wrapped-sliced manufacturers, known as plant bakers, with around 15-17% made by supermarkets. Real Bread bakeries and the rest of the 'craft' sector were at risk of extinction. This was when the charity Sustain and baker Andrew Whitley came together to create a campaign with the goal of seeking, finding and sharing ways to make bread better for us, our communities and the planet.

Wanting to understand more about the links between these two movements, I spoke to Andrew to ask what influence Camra had on the creation of the Real Bread Campaign. In the 1970s, Andrew had witnessed the decline of good beer in London and joined CAMRA in its early days. He explained to me that 'real ale and Real Bread are kindred crafts, something anyone can do at home using similar ingredients'. 

He went on to point out how their similarities run deeper: "They also share a strong community link that comes out of knowing and engaging with oneís neighbours. Both movements create an alternative infrastructure for production and distribution of food."

On the rise

Eight years since the Real Bread Campaign began, where does Real Bread now stand? In May 2016, Kantar Worldpanel reported that industrial loaf sales had fallen by more than £130 million in just 12 months, while IRI found that supermarkets had sold 50 million loaves. 

While nobody seems to count the sales of small, independent bakeries (or even how many there are), in August this year, British Baker magazine reported that sales at GAIL's and The Bread Factory had risen by 41.5%, taking on more than 360 staff to meet the demand for their Real Bread.*

As for the Campaign, by November 2016 it had paying supporters in more than 20 countries, around 680 bakeries had added Real Bread to its map, and had more than 25,600 followers on Twitter. Its work has helped more than 10,000 children at over 150 schools learn to bake; encourage and champion the creation of more Real Bread businesses and secured Advertising Standards Authority rulings against misleading advertising by supermarket chains. 

The future

I asked Tom Stainer, Camra's head of communications, for some words of advice for the Real Bread Campaign. He said: "We've learned over the years that it's far more successful being a campaign for something rather than being a campaign against. Positively reinforcing whatís good about what you campaign for is better than deriding people for choosing not to support or eat/drink what you consider to be the best. Value and support volunteers and focus on raising the profile of the campaign as much as possible, ensuring politicians and the media take you seriously."

There is much scope for growth of the Real Bread Campaign, with Camra showing that people will come together to protect and support values of community and craftsmanship. I'll leave the last words to Tom:

"Remain passionate and focussed on your objectives and aims. The Real Bread Campaign has already been very successful in establishing itself and we hope it continues to grow."


Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 29, December 2016


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