CAMRA focusing on real change
Aims to educate beer drinkers and help update archaic liquor law
It’s a Tuesday night in Gastown, and the voice of change is in the air.
Nothing to do with the election of a new provincial premier, but a lot to do with the provincial laws Christy Clark now commands.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAM-RA) is in the Alibi Room and its members are talking advocacy at a special meeting.
Top of the bill is the bugbear of B.C.’s craft brewing scene: The outdated liquor laws that sit in place in Victoria with a century of dust sitting thick upon them.
CAMRA’s origins go back to 1970s England, where frustrated ale drinkers decided to act against the increasing dominance of bland megabrewery beer in pubs. It’s become a significant voice of activism in the U.K., currently numbering around 120,000 members.
B.C.’s CAMRA branch has a different charge: To enlighten consumers about the very existence of quality beer in a province that, relative to the U.K., has no brewing tradition.
“We are a combination of an advocacy group, an education group, we support microbreweries, we assist them any way we can, we promote the cask system, we promote restaurants to bring in good beer, we put together events so we can culture people and teach them about places like this,” says CAMRA B.C. president Lundy Dale, gesturing around at the airy interior of the Alibi Room, B.C.’s craft-brew HQ.
“Basically, we’re supporting the little guy.”
Supping a pint of -what else? -cask-conditioned ale together with Dale is Martin Williams, president of CAMRA’s Vancouver chapter, who further distils the philosophy behind the organization.
“It’s (about) consumers getting the beer they want, where they want it, served the way they want it. It comes down to that level of choice -consumers driving the taste and brewers responding.”
It’s this simple dynamic that’s being stymied by provincial law at all levels of the government-run liquor industry.
Williams regards distribution as the source of most problems -”from getting a product listed to getting it through the distribution channels, on the retail side and the pub side” -but adds taxation and various seemingly unfair rules that favour the domestic megabreweries of Molson and Labbatt.
Microbreweries are clearly up against it in B.C. -which makes the most recent sales figures from the provincial Liquor Distribution Branch all the more sensational. While domestic beer sales overall are declining, microbreweries’ packaged product saw an incredible spike of 40 per cent over last year.
You couldn’t get a clearer indication of demand for quality beer -apart from the increasing number of bars in the province offering craft beer and regular cask nights.
The demographic driving that demand is perhaps the biggest surprise. “It’s the girls,” says Williams simply.
For proof, besides Dale’s lofty position in the CAMRA tree, you just need to look at the lineup of CAM-RA Vancouver’s executive: Five out of the seven positions are occupied by women.
Flavour is perhaps the biggest factor in turning women on to craft beer, but the sense of community in the microbrewing scene really resonates, too.
“These are the most passionate people I’ve ever met, they love what they’re doing, they’re proud of what they’re doing,” Dale says.
“For us, they’re all friends, they’re all comrades. I never met a group of people who love each other and get along with each other so much. There isn’t any competition, other than friendly fire, just for fun.”
In other words, it’s a perfect movement for a grassroots organization to evolve around, where consumers and producers move in the same circles, connect and feed off each other -be it at CAMRA events, down the pub on a cask night, or just opening a craft beer at home.
“It all comes down to getting involved,” says Williams. “You get involved as a beer drinker. You get involved with the beer and where it comes from.”
In effect, the local becomes personal, and something worth fighting for.
Faced with the monolith of provincial law and the entrenched forces of the megabreweries, CAMRA’s battle to make craft beer more accessible appears to be a daunting one.
But the war is being won. “We’re seeing the vibrant culture in Washington and Portland and we’re going, ‘Why don’t we have that here?’ says Williams.
“Just a little tweak is all it’s going to take, it doesn’t have to be a whole revolution of the system.
“It’s an uphill battle fighting Goliath, but David didn’t use a big stone, just little one, well placed.”
For an extended version of this article, go to theprovince.com/beer