Meet London’s original good beer warriors08 Mar 2017
By Will Hawkes
Before there was craft, there were the Crynes - and they’re still going strong as the London Drinker festival they founded opens for a 33rd year today
It’s the day before the London Drinker festival and organiser Christine Cryne is deep in conversation with Lotte Peplow, the American Brewers Association’s woman in the UK, about where to put the latter’s impressive variety of BA posters. Husband John, meanwhile, is battling with a new cooling system and - remarkably for a Camra festival - the serving of beer from kegs. “It’s new for a lot of our people,” he says. “There are different fittings, different serving mechanisms. They’re also very small compared to casks! But you’ve got to try something new.”
Christine and John organised the first London Drinker Festival in 1985, and will do the same for the final one next year. This year’s, which begins today and includes not only keg beer but lots of beer from the USA, is the penultimate event. Camden Council is planning to redevelop the Camden Centre, where it has been held for 33 years, and there’s no reasonable alternative in terms of price or location. “There’s nothing,” says Christine. “We had a look about five years’ ago but we’d paying for one day what it costs us for the whole time here.”
Even if that does prove to be the case, don’t expect to see John and Christine putting their feet up. It’s not really their style. The remarkably svelte pair have been key players in Camra since the 1980s; John organised the Great British Beer Festival between 1984 and 1986 - when it was held in Brighton (picture above) - and was national chairman from 1989 to 1998; Christine ran GBBF from 1992 to 1995 and has held a variety of roles within the organisation.
John is currently secretary of the London Brewers’ Alliance and Chairman of North London Camra while much of Christine’s time (when she’s not organising this festival) now goes on training: how to taste, judge and enjoy beer.
A lot has changed since 1985. An advert for that year’s event on the back of the London Drinker magazine promised 40 real ales and cider, plus foreign beers; admission was free in the afternoon and £1 in the evening. There was a happy hour from 5pm to 6pm; drinkers were advised to ‘come early to avoid disappointment’. “In the early days we served beers like Ruddles County and Marston’s,” says John, 63. “Getting cask beer was difficult, getting people to deliver it to you was difficult. There seemed to be a certain reluctance at the time to do so.”
That’s not the case now, although the beer isn’t coming very far. This year (hall pictured above) there are more than 150 draught beers, all London-brewed, including those served from a keykeg. The Camra volunteers working the keg bar have been on a trip to Hackney Brewery to ensure they know how to serve it. Everyone is ready, but not everyone is pleased.
“We’ve had hate mail!” says Christine. “Some stalwarts think having keykeg is the sell-out of sell-outs.” She doesn’t seem overly concerned. “For me it’s about also being commercial. We need to make this beer festival a success. Young people don’t distinguish between real ale and non-real ale - for them it’s all craft. That’s what we’re doing here: for people who aren’t into real ale, we want to encourage them to try it. If we don’t do that, how will we get those youngsters in in the first place?”
Anyway, John has a dirty secret: he’s served keg beer before. That was way back in 1969 when, at the age of 16, he poured pints at his local sports club in Blackpool. “It was very informal and family-oriented,” says John (pictured above with Christine and former Fuller's head brewer Reg Drury). “After that I worked behind the bar at Reading University to earn a few extra bob.” That’s where he and Christine met; they graduated in 1976.
John had joined Camra in 1974, and he convinced Christine to do the same. There were a number of pubs along the working-class Orts Road in Reading that served good cask ale: Morland, Wethered’s and Brakspear. “I used to drink my dad’s homebrew, and beer at parties when the wine ran out,” says Christine, who grew up in Berkshire. “The first beer I really liked was Brakspear. John said - ‘well, you don’t mind beer, try this’.”
The pair got married in 1978 (the wedding party drank bitter and dark mild from Paine’s of St Neots in Cambridgeshire) whilst living in Bedford. They founded the Bedford Beer Festival - which is still going strong - before heading for North London, where they still live. The late 1970s and early 1980s was an exciting time to be involved in Camra. “It was a young organisation, there was a lot of young people involved,” says John. “It was a great time … there was lots of enthusiasm in trying to persuade pubs to stock cask-conditioned beer.”
For both, organising the Great British Beer Festival remains a career highlight. “The first time I opened the doors when I was organiser … well, it was better than sex!” says Christine. “It’s a great feeling, a really great feeling. You get such a high from it.”
Outside of Camra, John worked as a tax director until his retirement in 2008 and Christine in a variety of roles including being CEO of a number of charities. She still works as a non-executive director at Dimensions, a not-for-profit organisation helping people with learning difficulties and autism.
This has helped them in their relationship, says John. “It’s been useful that we’ve never had the same job,” he says. “Our careers have been vastly different outside of Camra. Having the same interest is a bonus but sometimes …”
“We’ve generally done different things in Camra,” says Christine. “John has been on the finance side …”
“We’re obviously still together!” says John.
Any hint of negativity about the end of the London Drinker Festival is hard to detect. Both appear delighted with how London’s brewing scene has been revived over the past five or so years. They’re cask partisans but not fundamentalists. “I love beer!” says Christine. “What is there not to love? Both John and I were active on the European Beer Committee for a number of years; if you went to Denmark, for example, you never saw real ale … you couldn’t say ‘I’m not going to drink that!’ You have to appreciate different beer cultures.”
And Camra? It’s still got a crucial role, Christine believes. “If Camra doesn’t campaign for Real Ale, then nobody else will,” she says. Don’t expect these two to give up the ghost just yet, then.