CAMRA was formed in 1971, as the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale by four English beer drinkers, three of whom happened to be journalists. They happened to be on holiday in Ireland at the time, and observed the lack of decent beer. The choice was between Smithwick's from Kilkenny - sweeter and fizzier than the keg beer on sale in England, or Guinness. The four saw this as a warning of what could happen back home.
This was a quiet campaign, until the next year, when an older organisation, the Society for the Preservation of Beer from the Wood, who were supposed to be running a stall at a brewers beer exhibition in Alexandra Palace, were refused entry. SPBW and CAMRA had a picket outside the exhibition, and our three journalists were not slow to use this opportunity to obtain coverage in the national press.
It was not SPBW, but CAMRA that gained a reputation as a campaigning organisation, and a reputation as trouble makers among the large brewers. SPBW still exists, but the function of the organisation is now primarily social, leaving the campaining work to CAMRA. Although SPBW appears to be about the demise of oak casks and their replacement with aluminium counterparts, the aims and sympathies of this organisation are identical to those of CAMRA. Whereas membership of CAMRA has grown considerably, SPBW remains static, and most members of SPBW are also members of CAMRA.
In early 1973, CAMRA was renamed the "Campaign for Real Ale", and the term real ale was born. The term "ale" already meant a hopped beer brewed with a top fermenting, warm yeast (this is different from the unhopped drink of Shakespeare's time); the keg bitters and milds that Camra was campaigning about were ales. The popularity of lager was to come later, with massive advertising campaigns from the big brewers.
After the initial battles of the 1970s, seeing off keg bitter and mild, CAMRA have been kept busy by other "innovations", such as nitrokeg and widgets, not to mention lager, which has all but replaced in volume, keg ales in the large brewers' product portfolios. They have had to maintain a watchful eye on the large breweries, and developments in beer retailing - pubs and licensed premises, in particular, the following issues:
CAMRA has also been active in a similar campaign for cider, and have spawned an organisation called APPLE (though this looks like it could risk treading on the ground in the trade mark war between The Beatles and Mr. Jobs' company). CAMRA is also the founding member of the European Beer Consumers Union (EBCU).
Besides campaigning, the UK branch network organises many beer festivals throughout the year, most of which have cider and perry stands. These are seen as a showcase for many of the small brewers, who often brew special beers for such events. See CAMRA's website, http://www.camra.org.uk for details of beer festivals, and campaigns and how to join.
Beer: the story of the pint. Martyn Cornell. ISBN 0753311656