Monday, January 31, 2011

Putting the CAM in CAMRA Vancouver

There was there was a full house and a festive buzz in the air at CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) Vancouver's Annual General Meeting held Sunday, Januray 23rd, at Surrey's Central City Brew Pub and the party atmosphere was due to more than just the free pints of Gary Lohan's two great casks creations and the $3.50 pints that are the norm on Sundays at Central City. Over the past few years, CAMRA's executive have worked very hard in regards to raising their public profile, recruiting new members, organizing/sponsoring events and supporting local businesses which has created positive energy that is quite palpable in the Vancouver craft beer scene. People interested in craft beer are beginning to sit up and take notice of CAMRA Vancouver as they present themselves as a more polished and professional group acting with purpose. This was my first CAMRA AGM and I was impressed with the membership support and with the new executive's plans to get members, beyond the executive, more active and involved.
A sign of the times that CAMRA Vancouver is actively trying to define their roll, focus and relate to their membership and beyond, is the open letter sent electronically, via their weekly newsletter and distributed at the AGM, entitled "CAMRA Vancouver, greater than the sum of its parts". This open letter, dated Dec 14/10 and authored by then President, Lundy Dale and current President (then Vice President), Martin Williams, defined what CAMRA Vancouver is all about. In the opening of the letter, Dale and Williams hinted at the fact that many, not involved in CAMRA's executive, did not have a clear picture of what it was CAMRA Vancouver does. The letter defined what CAMRA was all about, where they are today and where they were planning on going in the future and challenged the membership to get involved to guide the group's future direction and actions.
"Its getting there," states Martin Williams in regards to CAMRA Vancouver achieving its goal of being an effective consumer advocacy group. "We (CAMRA) are young, only eight years old in Vancouver. There is a desire to be more active and to have more to say. CAMRA is membership driven. The volume of the voice is dependent on the number of voices working in concert.
"What I would most like to see is membership in CAMRA increase and become more active. If 10% of our membership spent 2 hours a week doing some research into why we can't get the beer we want and served the way it should be served, we would have enough ammunition to make demands for real change to the rules that are holding us back. As it stands right now, we really don't know. We have a fairly good idea, but we don't have the facts to back us up. A more active membership would make for a more effective voice working on behalf of the craft beer drinkers." 
Until last year, I avoided buying a CAMRA membership because, to tell you the truth, I really did not see any reason why I should join. I have been aware of CAMRA since the 1980s, when I came across CAMRA beer festivals while living in the UK and came in contact with the group here in BC in the mid-1990s, but I could never really figure out what they were actually doing locally to campaign for real ale and craft beer. From my perspective, CAMRA, at least locally, was nothing more than a beer appreciation group who really had no obvious or definable campaign other than to organize the odd beer festival and discounts on craft beer. It seemed like a small, select group who used the name of CAMRA as an excuse to meet and drink beer. I often felt the CAMRA members I came across in bars and at festivals were nothing more than beer snobs who actually set back the campaign to promote craft beers by annoying and/or offending those who did not drink craft beer instead of trying to introduce them to and educate them about these wonderful brews. 
Now remember, this was my perspective and I know it may ruffle a few feathers, but I was not alone in thinking this way, having met many others who voiced similar thoughts. Whether this was true or not, this was one opinion of CAMRA that was out there in Vancouver, but because of the hard work done over the past few years and the explosion of the craft beer scene here in BC, this negative opinion held by some about CAMRA is fading away rapidly. And, in my opinion, rightly so, as CAMRA Vancouver is definitely moving in the right direction and truly organizing a campaign that is helping local craft brewers find their rightful places in the pubs, restaurants and liquor stores of our province giving local craft beer lovers more access and opportunity to consume local craft beers.
Vancouver Craft Beer Week (VCBW) co-founder, beer writer and former CAMRA Vancouver President,  Rick Green, agreed, at least in part, with my view of CAMRA Vancouver, past and present, when I queried him recently about his thoughts in regards to CAMRA's growth. 
"When I joined CAMRA in 2006, it was very much a beer appreciation group hanging out at (former brewbup/restaurant) Dix, really only trying to pick up new members from the low-hanging fruit at Caskivals," said Green, who included himself as one of the low-hanging fruit.
"In 2007, I decided to take over the CAMRA Secretary position from Jack Enright who, as a service to the membership, sent out an irregular e-mail with the latest news about casks, new beers coming out, events, etc. Considering that CAMRA was supposed to be a campaign, I thought that if we were going to be anything of the kind, we needed to increase the membership and communication."
Green, who comes from a multi media background, felt the best way to increase membership and communication was by publishing a regular e-newsletter that anyone, not just members, could subscribe to.
"If the quality of the information was sufficiently high, those who like good beer would probably forward it to their cohorts and our subscriber base would grow. We would then have a better means of converting those subscribers into members if they could be shown the value of doing so. The strategy succeeded and we saw our membership grow significantly."
Today the CAMRA Vancouver Weekly Newsletter, overseen by Ryan O'Connor, is sent electronically to approximately 900 people on a weekly basis, according to CAMRA Communications Director, Monica Frost's report at the AGM. Of those 900 people, approximately 50% are opening the letter weekly and nobody knows how many of those people are forwarding the newsletter to friends and associates who drink craft beer. The newsletter has recently made some major improvements and regularly lists craft beer events, such as weekly cask nights, beer festivals, food-beer pairings and beer tours, that are independant of CAMRA. The newsletter also supplies information about new arrivals at local liquor stores that feature craft beers and has links to many local beer bloggers such as myself.
CAMRA Vancouver's efforts to reach more people, has grown beyond their weekly newsletter. Anyone who has a Twitter (CAMRA_YVR) or Facebook account can follow CAMRA Vancouver and they have done an excellent job utilizing social media to promote all things relating to local craft beer. As well, CAMRA Vancouver has brought in Brooklyn Galloway to act as a Creative Design Director and as a result their website has more professional and polished look about it.
"Our overall image has been taken to the next level of professionalism with our new website," states Frost. "We are also very active in giving updates and communicating through our social media outlets, such as Facebook, our Weekly Newsletter and Twitter."
Another focus of CAMRA Vancouver, dating back to the Rick Green days, has been to focus on organizing and sponsoring events to try to promote the cause. According to Green, who became president in 2007, he and his executive decided to try to bolster the membership and encourage local businesses to feature craft beers by this means.
"We also put a concerted effort into supporting events and hosting beer events as another way to attract new members and to demonstrate to other establishments what could be done to better serve their customers," states Green. Althought organizing beer festivals pre-dates Green's days with CAMRA, organizing and sponsoring events took on a more significant role during his era and has continued to grow in importance and popularity. Last year CAMRA Vancouver really came into their own as far as events go with their final event, The Winterfest of Ale, held Dec 4/10 at St Augustine's, selling out well ahead of time, leaving many disappointed. In my opinion, it was one of the best CAMRA festivals in quite some time, with the event attracting an eclectic, cross-section of craft beer lovers to sample the impressive line-up of beers. As well as hosting and sponsoring a festivals, CAMRA supports the local cask nights, which are held almost every night of the week around the Lower Mainland and and various other beer events such as beer-food pairings, Vancouver Craft Beer Week and BeerTourist,  helping them be successful by promoting them and getting the word  out there and them.
Lundy Dale, who stepped in for Green as president in 2010, believes that supporting events is a key way to reach out the the general public, to promote craft beer and build CAMRA's membership. 
"While Rick Green was aboard as president, his strength was media and he was great at getting the word of CAMRA out there. My strengths lie in organization and events. Our membership increases with every event." This combined effort of supporting and sponsoring events and reaching out to the membership, and beyond, utilizing social media and the internet, is paying off and helping expose CAMRA to a wider audience. 
"In the past year we have been actively engaging members, supporters, the general public and bloggers in a movement towards supporting craft beer and specifically the local community," explained Frost. "Our growing member and corporate support base is an indication of some success with that (strategy) but also the fact that at our events, the number of non-members to members is usually split evenly at about 50%. That tells me that our social media efforts are being seen and we are drawing new people in. One of our focuses for 2011 is converting that interest to memberships which in turn raises the volume of our voice in the community."
Even though CAMRA's individual and corporate membership is growing, their events are selling out and their support is bringing more and more people out to events independent of CAMRA, they are not about to sit back and admire their handiwork. CAMRA is now looking to broaden their role and try to encourage their members to really effect change in the craft beer industry by becoming more educated about the issues in order to act as a credible lobby group.
"Every time there is a change in executive, things change," explained Dale, who is moving on serve as president for CAMRA BC. Dale went on to say that when she took over for Rick Green  as CAMRA Vancouver President in 2010 and Martin Williams took on the roll of VP, there was another slight shift in focus towards becoming a more vocal consumer advocacy group.  
"Martin has the passion and the energy to get the word out there and make things happen," says Lundy. "I am looking forward to working with him on a number of projects that will be suitable for all of CAMRA BC."
As mentioned above, Williams would like to see a more active and vocal membership. His belief is that CAMRA really should be greater than the sum of its parts.
"I'd like to see CAMRA become a research machine," says Williams. "We should know all the rules as they apply to our beer, what their intention was when they were being implemented, and whether the current situation has evolved from then.
"I do want to see CAMRA having a more active voice. Our voice should have weight. We should be referenced whenever beer policy is concerned. However, as I said as the AGM, we have to have something behind the mouth before we open it. If CAMRA is to be credible, what is says must have value, have a basis in reality and ring true. That can only come if we understand the questions, our goals and the goals of those who would have craft beer, and the enjoyment of it, out on the back shelf. That all might sound very heavy, but changing policy, dealing with political issues is heavy, and mostly boring details."
It is this kind of energy and purpose that lured me into the fold of CAMRA Vancouver and has me putting fingers to keyboard to tap out this blog. I want to be involved and have my voice heard. I no longer see CAMRA as just a beer appreciation group, even though all involved certainly do appreciate good beer. It has turned in to something more and if people like Williams have their way, CAMRA will become the voice of change in the future. But as Williams pointed out to me, even though Vancouver's carft beer scene has exploded, we have a long way to go.
"Even today, though the population is close (in numbers), Washington (State) has 150% the number of breweries than BC," says Williams. "I needed to play a role in changing that. The first step was joining CAMRA Vancouver.
"The second step was getting involved."
So if you are sick and tired of seeing the ridiculous price we pay for beer here in this province, or annoyed that your craft beers get served in frosted glasses that taste like soap, or that your local pub/restaurant/liquor store does not offer local, craft beers maybe, like me, it is time to get involved and make your voice heard. If enough of us shout at once, in unison and with something informed and intelligent to say, maybe someone else will take notice. 
Even though Williams is dead serious about trying to organize to shake up the status quo, he still keeps things in perspective.
"In the meantime, we can drink fine ale while we work, laugh some and enjoy some good comradery, as we fight the good fight," says Williams. "We have the right to drink good beer, made by the traditional methods, served as we like it.
"It is a right worth fighting for."
Now that sounds like a campaign I want to be apart of.
If you want to learn more about CAMRA Vancouver, check out their website where you can get all the information you need, subscribe to their newsletter and join the ranks.



  1. This comment is via Rick Green who sent me a comment via Facebook due to technical difficulties with posting his comment here.

    "Excellent post, Paddy!

    One thing I'd like to point out is that Vancouver Craft Beer Week is currently the one time where craft beer gets a high profile throughout the city. Those campaigning for change, be it with government regulation or just getting better beer at their local pub, should use the opportunity to make a co-ordinated push for change at this time.

    VCBW was begun with the intention of bringing craft beer into the public limelight. So even if people may not be able to make it to any of the events, they can still add their voice to help get us closer to our goals."



  2. Thanks for the feedback Rick
    If we all keep pulling in the same direction, with a co-ordinated effort, we will eventually see some progress!

  3. Involvement of members is key to a beer community to achieving the greater good. Rick did a lot of good work in increasing 'Cask' Beer nights in Vancouver. Though I'm not a fan of Cask beer myself it does get a lot of people asking about 'beer' and 'what is cask beer?'. Most cask beer I had in the UK last year was complete crap.. but again that is my opinion for which everyone knows I state.

    CAMRA Vancouver has a huge role to play in the development and encouraging the beer scene beyond the 'beer nerds', and it does involve groups like VCBW to spread the message of beer to those beyond us.

    Vancouver has grown incredibly since the time I arrived in 2008, to when I left end of 2010. When you come to countries such as Australia you realise how good Van has it, but also how much it has to go compared to Seattle 3 hours away.

    Good post Pad..

  4. I agree Vancouver has come a long way in the past few years and it believe we will continue to grow. But to effect real change, such as addressing our ridiculous liquor laws, taxation policies and to educate bars and restaurants on what we want to be served and how, we need to be more active.
    Right now, CAMRA and other organizations, like VCBW, are on verge of organizing this type of campaign, but we need less rhetoric and more action.
    And we need to show those involved in the hospitality industry that craft beer is a viable product to sell to increase the craft beer presence beyond just a few specialty tap houses. I would like to be able to walk into any place that sells beer and find craft beer on their menu.