First Draft Follies: Larry McCavitt And The Committee For Real Ale

Welcome to First Draft Follies, an on-going series here at the blog. The material is presented "as is" from the first draft of the manuscript that became the book Ambitious Brew. In a few places I added one or two words in brackets -- [like this] -- for clarification.

This edition concerns the founding of an American organization called The Committee for Real Ale.

The time is the early 1970s. Philip Morris had recently purchased Miller Brewing and introduced Miller Lite. Schlitz Brewing Company was being investigated for tax fraud, and Miller and Anheuser-Busch were on the verge of the great battle for the title of Biggest Beermaker on the Planet. __________________________________________________________

Schlitz’s law-breaking ways. Miller’s mountain of cash. “Lite" beer. These things, Larry McCavitt believed, were ruining American beer. And, being both a product of the sixties and a “typical New England rebel, he decided to do something about it. (*1)

McCavitt grew up in an Irish, working-class family in Brockton, Massachusetts, just south of Boston, a town where son followed father into the shoe factory or textile mill. Beer was part of that world. McAvitt’s father and grand-father drank beer at neighborhood taverns, or at the Lithuanian Club, where old men set their glasses of draft beer--Schaefer or Narragansett--on "beer warmers," saucers of warm water.

In an earlier era, McCavitt would have stayed in Brockton, worked at a factory, and become an old man sipping beer at one or another of the dimly lit beer joints around town. But he was born in 1943, part of that post-war generation that wandered off their parents’ paths. When McAvitt graduated from high school in 1961, he headed for Boston and college, a “real step up for the son of shoe factory workers, and a door into a different world than his parents had known. (*2)

He dived into the day’s politics. He campaigned for Eugene McCarthy and attended the ‘68 convention as a McCarthy delegate. In 1970, McCavitt and two friends crossed the Atlantic for a three-month tour that took them from England and Ireland to Finland and the Soviet Union.

Like other Americans, they experienced revelation in a beer mug, tasting heretofore unknown ales and porters, stouts and lagers, visiting small and nearly ancient breweries that bore no resemblance to the giant Narragansett brewing factory back home.

McCavitt returned to Massachusetts and more politics. In the early seventies, he won a seat on the Brockton city council, intent on finding ways to challenge, change, and improve the system. Then in the mid-1970s, a friend attending school at Oxford told McCavitt about [a British organization,] CAMRA, and how it was altering the face of British drink.

Here was something Larry McCavitt understood: organized resistance. In October, 1976, he and two friends filed incorporation papers for the Committee for Real Ale (CRA), a non-profit association organized to "inspire, through constructive leadership and forceful action, the development of the brewing industry" and "to sponsor festivals conferences [sic] and courses for those interested in the brewing and consumption of real ales and beer." (*3)

The Massachusetts Secretary of State approved their papers in January, 1977, and the group celebrated with a launch party at the Black Rose, a Boston tavern "with a reputation for fine Irish stout." (*4) It’s time, McCavitt told a boisterous crowd, "for a beer drinkers [sic] revolt against the insipid beer of America." “‘It is the shame of our nation that in all of these United States a man can hardly find a decent glass of ale, excepting that which has been imported from another coutnry at a premium price." (*5)

Over the next few months, McCavitt and his two co-founders squeezed the beer campaign in amongst their jobs and other political activities. They solicited members (annual dues $5.00) and printed bumper stickers that read “THE AMERICAN PEOPLE DEMAND REAL ALE/ SUPPORT THE COMMITTEE FOR REAL ALE. (*6).

A quarterly newsletter provided information about good local beers and the taverns that carried them, as well as reports about small breweries in other parts of the country; and news from the frontlines of "THE GREAT BEER WAR." "Anheuser-Busch vs Philip Morris-Miller is guaranteed to go 15 rounds with no clear cut winner, least of all the beer drinking public." (*7)

McCavitt’s most important piece of promotion consisted of a letter to the editor of the New York Times, in which he commented on a recent Times article about the Miller v. Bud saga.

"The so-called competition that August A. Busch 3d refers to as the spice of life is ridiculous," wrote McCavitt. "It may be the spice of life to him and the other beer titans, but it is a cruel fraud to perpetrate on the American public. Not only is there not much spice left in the watered down liquid they are trying to pass off as beer, there is hardly any taste or anything else." (*8)

At its peak, the Committee for Real Ale had more than two hundred members, most in the New England area, but some living as far away as California. That was not enough to sustain the group, which fizzled when one of the founders left town to take a new job and the press of other matters left McCavitt with too little time to pursue the crusade.

But like Britain’s Society for Preservation of Beers From the Wood, McAvitt was only slightly ahead of his time. Unbeknownst to him, and even as his own Committee faded into history, another crusader two thousand miles away charged on to the field. (*9)


SOURCES: *1: Lawrence McCavitt interview with Maureen Ogle, November 11, 2004.

*2. McCavitt interview.

*3: Copy of membership form provided by Lawrence McCavitt.

*4: Press release, The Committee for Real Ale; copy provided by Lawrence McCavitt.)

*5: "Beer Drinkers Now Fancy Themselves ‘Connoisseurs’ of Brew," Taunton Daily Gazette, January 19, 1977, p. 24; copy provided by Lawrence McCavitt.

*6: bumper sticker provided by Lawrence McCavitt.

*7: "The Great Beer War," newsletter, The Committee for Real Ale, volume IV. Copy provided by Lawrence McCavitt.

*8: Lawrence V. McCavitt, "Brewing Battle," New York Times, September 21, 1977, p. 3-3.

*9: See my series about the creation of the American Homebrewers Association. The series link leads to the last part of the series, which contains links to all the previous parts.