Thursday, December 3, 2015

An Insider's View of the CAMRA South Fraser Situation

I have to let everyone know I am currently involved with the Campaign for Real Ale of BC as president of the Powell River Branch which also gives me a seat on the CAMRA BC Executive. Since 2011 I have held a seat on the CAMRA BC Executive representing either CAMRA Vancouver or Powell River which has given me a bird's eye view of what has occurred with the CAMRA South Fraser branch. The views put forward here are mine, and not sanctioned by CAMRA BC in any way, but things from my insider's perspective.
Before I get started here on the subject of the temporary, and I stress temporary, suspension of operations of the South Fraser branch of CAMRA BC, I want to just put it out there that we need to remember that this is just about craft beer.

So take a deep breath, relax and let us put things into perspective here.

This is not about finding a cure for cancer, fighting ISIS or about eliminating world hunger nor has anyone been put out on the street or lost their ability to feed themselves or their family.

No one from the CAMRA BC side of things has made disrespectful personal comments about those involved in CAMRA South Fraser nor made claims of intentional wrong doing.

Much has actually been done to insulate and protect those involved with the SF executive and that is probably the main reason the issues have not been common knowledge.

No one has been "thrown under the bus," to quote one of the tweets I saw out there related to this situation. People need to take responsibility for their actions or lack of actions in relation to their current situation, including myself and the rest of the BC executive.

From my perspective, the SF executive did not do a lot to help themselves. According to CAMRA BC president, Ari Dressler, they did not respond to multiple requests, "to provide budgets, minutes, financials and membership information".  They also did not help themselves by not representing themselves at the last BC Executive meeting after they had been put on notice from the BC president and the subject of CAMRA South Fraser had been put on the agenda.

Maybe there are valid and compelling reasons why these requests were not fulfilled and representation was not present at the last meeting, but I have not heard the reasons why.

And, on the flip side, if the BC executive acted differently and took more control early on in the branch's existence, the branch may have traveled down a different path and grown into a fully functioning and healthy branch of CAMRA BC.

On November 23rd, Dressler, announced, "that the CAMRA BC Executive has taken the difficult decision to suspend the South Fraser Branch of CAMRA BC until a vote can be held at our AGM (you can read the entire announcement here).

As a member of the BC Executive for the past five years, and having been there since Day One of the South Fraser branch, I can tell you this decision came after quite some debate, a debate that goes back over two years and three BC executives.

The decision was a difficult one but the difficult decision had to be made.

I know, in some circles, emotions are running high and people are going on the offensive to protect themselves or their friends. I get that and I get that everyone is entitled to their opinion and have the right to voice them, as long as those opinions are not attacking individuals or offensive.

I will put it out there that many of the negative comments on social media and complaints via e-mail are based on partial information, partial truths and a few bizarre and borderline delusional interpretations on what has occurred since 2013.

Quite simply, since inception, the South Fraser's branch executive teams, and there have been more than one executive team involved, have put CAMRA BC in a position of being in violation of  the Society Act of BC which jeopardizes the entire society's reputation and existence.

The CAMRA South Fraser branch executive has also, on an almost-continuous basis since inception, been in contravention of CAMRA operating procedures and policies, CAMRA BC by-laws and have not responded, whether intentionally or not, to numerous directives and requests from the CAMRA BC Executive to comply.

This branch has been a disaster on the executive level since the early days when the original executive disintegrated, with the majority quitting due to internal conflict, within the first two months of existence.The executives who have been dealing with SF since the first AGM were dealt a difficult hand as the branch's foundations were already unsteady, but from what I have seen, there has been little done to repair even the most basic issues, such as organizing a functioning bank account and keeping a current and accurate membership list.

This is not to say that those who have been involved with the CAMRA SF executive are not good people, lovers of what CAMRA is about and dedicated supporters of the craft beer revolution.

I really do really do believe that most, if not all, are good people.

This is not to say that these same people are banned from holding CAMRA executive positions again at either the branch or the provincial level.

If they are members in good standing, they have the right to run in yearly elections.

That is not what is at play here and no one has made those accusations.

What is clear is that many involved in steering the SF executive were not able, for various reasons, to fulfill the difficult and complex duties, obligations and responsibilities of running a branch of CAMRA BC, despite guidance, advice, support, direction, directives and eventually official warnings.

Running a CAMRA branch is not an easy task.

I have both run the largest branch in the society and started a branch from scratch in a city where 99% of the people thought CAMRA had something to do with photography.

It is not all about organizing fun beer events, sending out a few tweets and Facebook posts.

It is a lot about dealing with people, being responsible and accountable. It is about being organized, keeping necessary records and managing finances while operating within the structural framework of the Society Act and CAMRA BC by-laws, policies and procedures.

It is about dealing with people and coping with, on some level, an-almost constant state of conflict while members are calling your integrity, intelligence and motivations into question.

And it is about putting in hours and hours of volunteer time.

Much blame has been heaped on the CAMRA BC executive for not providing support and guidance to the new SF branch.

I can tell you that I started the Powell River branch just weeks prior to the SF branch being approved and we received great support. We are now well over 100 members and growing quickly. South Okanagan is not even a year old and they are solid as granite, and if you speak to their executive, they will tell you they have received all the support they have needed to launch their branch, which is an active branch and one that represents itself well in the CAMRA BC executive.

So I do not think the problems lie completely with CAMRA BC as some have put forth.

This suspension, or probably a better term, hiatus, had to happen. It was done for the protection of the South Fraser members, and the protection of the society as a whole.

SF members should be concerned that their branch has never, and I stress, NEVER, had a functioning bank account.

Not quite true as apparently right now they do have a bank account but have no access to it and have seemed incapable of finding a solution.

The SF members should be concerned that their executive have not payed CAMRA BC its portion of membership dues - $5 from every individual and joint membership goes to CAMRA BC in order to allow it to operate and look after the administrative side of things.

The SF members should be concerned, especially as we are coming up to AGM season, that despite repeated requests for it, no comprehensive membership list has been provided to CAMRA BC.

These are just a few of the most worrisome things, but the list of issues is long and goes back to the branch's roots.

Having said that, the current executive have done some great things building CAMRA's profile in the region but as I said, events and tweets are not the whole of what a branch is supposed to be doing. I am not sure if they have grown the membership beyond what was inherited from Vancouver when the SF branch was formed because there is no current membership list to refer to.

This is not a CAMRA Vancouver power grab as suggested by some on social media and beyond.

CAMRA Vancouver has been quite vocal in that they have no interest in absorbing the branch.  They are doing so short term to give SF members a place to go. CAMRA Vancouver president, David Perry, actually excused himself from most discussions about CAMRA SF and abstained from any votes related to SF to ensure there was not appearance of conflict as he knew these unfounded rumours were out there.

This is a claim made by a few, that Vancouver wants to take over SF, goes back the the first executive of SF and some interpersonal conflicts. It has always been false and makes no sense as it was the Vancouver branch who most helped get the branch up and running and lent support.

To help highlight how this train of thought is false, there have been on-going CAMRA BC discussions over the past year or two about how to create smaller branches to better serve the members which flies in the exact opposite direction of the claim that Vancouver is power hungry and wants to absorb SF.

I, for one, would love to see a CAMRA East Van, CAMRA N Van, CAMRA Downtown, CAMRA Richmond, CAMRA Surrey, etc.

I am even in the process of trying to divide up CAMRA Powell River by creating a committee on the Lower Sunshine Coast to mentor them so that eventually they can have their own branch to better serve our members who live in that region.

Having smaller branches is a much better way to be inclusive and better serve the membership of certain areas.

The CAMRA BC plan is now, and always has been, to get the SF branch's affairs in order and have them grow to become a productive and active member of the society, upholding the values and supporting the mandate of the CAMRA BC.

What CAMRA BC is attempting to do is organize an extraordinary general meeting, or AGM, for SF members to discuss all the issues and to put everything on the table for SF members so that a plan for the future can be put into place to ensure success.

At this point a meeting cannot be organized as the SF executive have not supplied a membership. At this point CAMRA BC has no idea who is a CAMRA BC member in good standing of the SF branch.

CAMRA BC is a consumer advocacy group, run by volunteers who love craft beer, and lately it has been more about the consumers consuming than the advocacy, but that is a different blog post for a different time. What many do not understand that the branches actually have no legal standing on their own, other than having permission to operate under the CAMRA BC umbrella. There is only one society registered with the province, that being CAMRA BC. They hold all the insurances that protect the branches when they hold events, they are the executive who must report and file with the province each year.

They are the executive that is ultimately responsible for what goes on. But CAMRA BC has historically not micro-managed branches and have allowed local executives to do as they see fit as long as they are in compliance with the by-laws and Society Act.

Having rogue branches operating out there under the CAMRA BC umbrella puts the autonomy of all branches in jeopardy.

Could things have been done differently?

Of course.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Everyone out there has an opinion on how this could have been handled differently. CAMRA BC has learned much from this and safeguards are now in place, as to how new branches are approved, founded and built, that are a direct result of the initial and almost instantaneous problems identified with the SF branch's founding and structure. The South Okanagan branch is a prime example of this new process, a process that is constantly being tweaked, looked at and refined.

Should the general membership been more informed earlier?

Possibly yes, but again, how do you address a membership when you have no list of members to address? As well, CAMRA BC was trying to work to protect the feelings and reputations of some.

This is another lesson learned.

As a group, lets look at moving forward and fixing this instead of entertaining delusional beliefs, propagating untruths and pointing fingers. All parties want to see a healthy and functioning branch of CAMRA operating south of the Fraser. In fact, there is probably room for two or three branches in the area.

If you are an active member of SF, why not reach out to the executive who was elected in 2015 and push them to provide a membership list and financial reports so we can move forward and hold a meeting. Better yet, why not help get those things organized?

I, for one, want this meeting to take place sooner than later and I hope to be in attendance to be accountable for my role in what has transpired and to ensure the members get answers to their queries.  The answers I give may not be the answers they want to hear, but I will be truthful and forthright. My opinion is that this branch should have been shut down weeks after inception when multiple and serious issues were identified. I pushed for that at the time, but others wanted to give things a chance to work out.

Unfortunately, they have not worked themselves out and here we are.

I do not expect some to like this post, agree with it and that may include some within the BC executive but I felt that these things needed to be said. I have nothing against those who have been involved in trying to launch this branch and in fact do not know any of them personally other than from the odd meeting or event. I want what is best for CAMRA BC and the members who support what CAMRA is all about.

And, most of all, remember, it is only beer. Lets have some fun and fight the good fight of advocating on behalf of the craft beer drinkers of BC. We do not need to fight each other as there is enough conflict in the world already.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Mad Scientist & the $1000 Bottle of Beer

"It is the most interesting beer in the province right now."

A bold statement from any brewer plying their trade in a province with close to 100 craft breweries, but when it comes from someone as creative, innovative, and yes, as eccentric as Storm Brewing's James Walton, my curiosity is instantly piqued.

Whether Glacial Mammoth Extinction is BC's most interesting beer will cause debate among beer craft beer lovers, but what is not up for debate is that the $1000 price tag for a one-litre bottle makes Glacial Mammoth Extinction BC's most expensive beer! My research shows it is not only the most expensive beer on the BC market now, but that it is the most expensive beer ever sold in Canada.

Have I piqued your interest yet?

This beer is about more than what is inside the bottle, although the beer stands out as one of the most unique beers Walton has ever released from Storm Brewing, and that is saying something, but the hefty price tag has more to do with the packaging than it does the beer inside.

And that is no disrespect meant to the beer which is special.

In fact, Walton was so pleased with how the Glacial Mammoth Extinction turned out that he decided to give this beer special treatment, commissioning two East Vancouver artists to create unique works of art to package a limited release of 10, one-litre bottles from the 400 litres produced.

The Mad Scientist himself  & a $1000 bottle of beer
The beer comes packaged in hand-blown glass bottles created by Terminal City Glass Co-Op's Brad Turner.  These bottles are works of art in their own right but when you consider each bottle is adorned with a one-of-a-kind pendant, made by artist Richard Marcus, from 35,000-year-old mammoth ivory, you begin to understand why these bottles are Canada's most expensive beers.

"(It's) the only beer I have ever thought worthy of being treated that extravagantly," stated Walton when queried as to why he was moved to package his beer in such a unique and expensive manner.

Which brings us to the beer itself.

Walton, Storm's iconic owner-brewer, has earned the nickname of The Mad Scientist in BC craft beer circles and is well known for thinking outside of the box when it comes to brewing beer. From brewing and aging Belgian-style lambics close to 20 years ago, before anyone in BC but the ultimate beer geeks knew what a lambic was, to his current trend of creating weekly weird, wacky and delicious "Brainstorm" kegs for growler fills at the brewery, Walton has not let the restrictions of established beer styles or current brewing trends limit his imagination.

Art meets craft beer

The Glacial Mammoth Extinction is a prime example of how far Walton is prepared to push the limits.

Walton took his formidable Imperial Flanders Red Sour Ale, which is an 11% (a Storm 11%) sour bomb meant for those most adventurous craft beer drinkers, and froze it, in two stages over a month, to -30 Celsius. The high-octane, boozy liquid which remained was then placed into French oak barrels and aged for two years. What has come out of this intense and complicated process is a 25% ABV (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) nectar that tastes more like fortified wine or Port than beer.

In keeping with my philosophy of not rating beers, I will only say that I liked it when I recently had a wee nip at Storm.

Actually, I liked it a lot and yes, I would not hesitate to order and drink it again.

For those who tasted this beer last year, when Walton released a keg as a sneak preview of what was coming, the extra year in the oak barrels has treated this beer well, mellowing it out and allowing the more subtle flavours to come to the fore. It is highly drinkable even at 25%.

That is as close to a review as you will get from me.

The official description I received from Storm Brewing states that the Glacial Mammoth Extinction is, "a sweet, rich, viscous 100% malt beverage that resembles Port more than beer".

Glacial Mammoth Extinction tasting notes (from Storm):
  • Colour
    • dark brown
  • Nose 
    • raisins
    •  prunes
    •  black cherries,
    • Sherry notes
  • Taste
    •  initial sweetness
    • tang of acidity on the front
    • umami
    • prunes
    • muscat grape
    • soy sauce
    • tannins from the base beer as well as tannins from in the barrel combine together to balance the sweetness
  • Mouthfeel
    •  thick with nice legs from the alcohol
For the majority who cannot afford $1000, Glacial Mammoth Extinction will be available for growler fills at Storm Dec 5th at a still-pricey-but-far-more-reasonable price of $40 for 0.5 litre or $80 for a litre.

Walton told me the Glacial Mammoth Extinction is "bullet proof" and "likely infinitely stable" in regards to cellaring, stating that the beer may go flat in the flip-top bottles but that it will not go off so if you can afford it, it might be worth the risk to put some of this away to see if and how it ages.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Recent Craft Beer Price Hikes Nothing More Than BC Liberal Asshattery

"Let's put things in perspective: every month, some prices go up and some prices go down -- just as any other retail cost of good -- but we're talking about cents here." - Suzanne Anton as quote by Bill Tieleman in The Tyee June 9, 2015 concerning BC beer prices.
The Reality Since April 1, 2015:
  • 55 beer products deceased in price;
  • 19 beer products showed no change in price;
  • 94 beer products increased by less than 1%;
  • 219 beer products increased between 1% and 5%;
  • 123 beer products increased between 5.01% and 10%; and,
  • 74 beer products increased by more than 10%. ****

I know just a short month ago I stated I was packing it in as a blogger, but this latest BC Liberal move, which saw them randomly hike the prices of beers, mostly craft beers, without telling the breweries ahead of time or giving them a cut of the increase, has me foaming at the mouth and I feel compelled to vent here before I explode.

Damn you BC Liberals and your BC liquor policy reforms.

This latest price hike on June 2nd was a blatant kick in the crotch to BC craft beer consumers who have been the driving force behind the growth of the flourishing BC craft beer industry.

What an asshat move!

As a side note,  I am submitting to the Urban Slang Dictionary the following :
Asshat- (noun), definition, "BC Liberal politician".
Asshattery - (verb), definition, "actions taken by BC Liberal Party related to BC liquor reforms").

Okay, back on track now with  my rant...
Approximately 40 new breweries have opened in BC the past few years and many more are in the planning stages. Yes, BC breweries are producing world-class brews, but without consumers to purchase them these beers would most likely never be brewed commercially. As well, businesses and jobs associated directly and indirectly with the craft beer industry would not be supported or created, and local economies not spurred on in communities across the province.

I can just imagine the conversation in the BC Liberal Caucus meeting.

Question: "We need to increase government revenues folks, where can we screw the general public next?"
Response: "Well this craft beer seems to be selling well and has increased sales by about 40% over the past few years, why don't we just raise prices there? We don't need to tell anyone. Breweries are too busy making beer and consumers are too apathetic to do anything about it, not to mention, they are beer drinkers. We can just keep the difference. No one will notice..."

I wish the BC Liberals would at least buy me dinner and give me a little kiss before bending me over the table and, well, you know where I am going with that one. I'm going to let you fill in the blanks and keep this PG rated.

This price hike could finally be the move that kills the goose laying the golden eggs.

We already pay outrageous prices for craft beer in BC and this is not because of the craft breweries who produce it. There is a tipping point for prices where consumers get turned off (and pissed off) with the cost of the goods in question and begin to think long and hard about making purchases and look for other options.

In communities like mine, Powell River, craft beer is just becoming accepted in the mainstream thanks to our local brewery, Townsite, who have blazed the trail. There are many beer drinkers here just discovering craft beer and who are converting over from the mainstream lager swill that was the only choice in town for decades.

Restaurants, pubs and private liquor stores are just starting to support the industry and offer craft beer products regularly. Many businesses were previously hesitant to sell craft beer due to the fact that it was a new in this market and, more often than not, more expensive than the national brand lagers. Pricing is far more important in communities where jobs, especially higher paying jobs, are hard to come by.

Higher-priced products, due to the harsh reality of economics and family budgets, are a hard sell when there are cheaper, although inferior, options . Pricing craft beer beyond those consumer thresholds could stall out this industry in markets outside the major urban areas and tourist resorts.

This scenario is playing itself out in many communities around BC. Not every market is like Vancouver and the Lower Mainland where the consumers are used to paying ridiculously high prices. This move to increase prices yet again, just for the sake of increasing government revenue, will slow down sales in these smaller markets and could possibly confine the craft beer revolution's spread across the province.

Most of the smaller breweries operate with a slim profit margin and are trying to find the balance between making a reasonable profit and not alienating consumers due to price. Our liquor prices are artificially high in BC, boosted by our government who rake in hundreds of millions of dollars a year on booze. We are paying high prices because the government controls the final prices of booze in this province, not the manufacturers.

A prime example was just prior to the April 1st change over to the government's new alcohol pricing system. The Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) contacted craft breweries (and I am sure all booze manufacturers in the province) and gave them a chance to adjust their wholesale prices; the price manufacturers set to sell their products to the LDB. The catch was that the government was not telling the breweries how much the government was going to mark up these prices, so the breweries had no idea what the final price on their products would be on the shelves.

The brewery folks in BC literally had to guess as to how much consumers would be paying for their beer and were hoping they guessed right on their wholesale pricing. Setting the price too high (underestimating the mark-up) meant potentially alienating customers because of price increases and setting the price too low meant a decrease in revenue for the brewery for no reason whatsover.

But at least both the industry and consumers were aware that prices were about to shift April 1st and were, although in most cases unhappy, prepared.

The June 2nd, prices went up again for some craft beers without warning or consulting the craft beer breweries or explanation to consumers that this was government driven and not a decision from the breweries themselves. I know of one brewery partner who found out about the price hike when they saw the increased price of their products on the BC Liquor Store shelves!

And not a penny of the latest increase is going to the breweries.

Suzanne Anton and her crew in charge of all things boozy in BC keep up the mantra, of "don't worry, some prices will go up by a little, some will go down. This is the reality of the consumer market. It is only a few cents here and there..."

Yes Minister Anton, let's put things in perspective.

The reality is that since April 1st (stats from CAMRA Vancouver update):
  • 10% of Beer products have dropped in price.
  • 3% of Beer products have shown no change
  • 87% of Beer products have increased in price

If you look at which products have been increased, the majority are craft beer products made here in BC. How the Hell is that a sign that the government is supporting the BC craft beer industry and small businesses, under which category most craft beer breweries fall under?

These price hikes are stacked on top of the price hikes many BC communities endured last year when the BC Liberals reintroduced "happy hour" which they paired up with new minimum drink price scheme (click here to read) which impacted those going out to a licensed establishment for a drink.

Now we are getting nailed on our take home purchases.

I am sick and tired of the cynical and entitled nature of this government. Their liquor policy reform consultations were supposed to be held to help find out the wants and needs of British Columbians and alochol industry stakeholders. I am quite certain not one craft beer consumer put forward they wanted multiple price increases applied to their favourite beers. I am also certain not one craft brewery representative put forward the desire to have craft beer prices go up while brewery profit margins stayed the same or decreased slightly.

Wake up consumers. Start writing letters, e-mails to those in charge. Start letting your local MLA, no matter what party they are from, know this is unacceptable. If not, we are going to continue to see the BC Liberals choke off the industry until it stalls out due to decreased sales secondary to ever-increasing prices.

(****statistics from the Campaign for Real Ale of BC - Vancouver Branch)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

It's a Wrap

Four and a half years ago I decided to combine two of my great loves, writing and craft beer, and the VanEast Beer Blog was born. When I started, I had no real idea what I wanted to focus on, but my interest in politics and my connections in the craft beer industry soon sent The VEBB down the political road and I was lucky to be writing during some very interesting and tumultuous times in the evolution of both the BC craft beer industry and BC liquor policies.

Many times it was my friends in the craft beer industry who fed me inside information about issues and problems. They came to me because they could not, or would not speak out because of a very real fear of reprisal from the BC liquor bureaucrats and they knew I would speak out loudly knowing I was out of reach. To all of you, and you know who you are, thanks for feeding me such great leads and tips that allowed me to make a few politicians, liquor inspectors or LCLB-LDB brass squirm for a few moments when their complete and total lack of common sense was exposed.

This blog has never been wildly popular but judging from the comments and e-mails I did receive, I found a dedicated following among many of the politicians and bureaucrats involved in forming, implementing and policing BC liquor policy and craft beer industry shakers and movers.

And probably more surprising to me, the mainstream media began to monitor what I was writing and on several occasions took a post I had written and ran with it, sometimes, much to my amusement, blatantly lifting words from this space and placing them in a more highly visible place in their television or print reports.

Not all have agreed with what I have written, but that is the nature of writing about contentious subjects, especially when personal opinions are put forth. I tried my best to use my journalism background to investigate what I was writing about but I could never resist including some sort of Paddyrant and those who know me know that I can be fairly straightforward and blunt when the mood strikes me.

I am proud of what this blog has accomplished in regards to highlighting the good, the bad and the ugly of the BC craft beer and liquor industries and the policies that govern them. I am pleased I have been able to help out a few friends when they needed a little help from someone outside the reach of the politicians and bureaucrats.

And I take a certain satisfaction, as I mentioned above, that I have been a major pain in the ass for a few of those who contribute to the asshattery that takes place related to BC liquor policies and the enforcement of same.

But as you have probably guessed, the time has come to shut this space down, well, at least as far as new content goes. My growing family responsibilities, work responsibilities and time spent having fun growing Powell River's Campaign for Real Ale of BC branch takes up more than enough time to make it very difficult for me to spend the time and resources to keep the VanEast Beer Blog going. It may not seem like writing a few words now and then would be time consuming, but trust me, it took a lot of time and effort to produce most blog posts I posted.

Not that it matters. There are many out there writing about beer. And let's face it, this was always just about craft beer and my love for it and to tell you the truth, I'd much rather be enjoying a craft beer on my deck while chatting to friends than writing about it.

I will still be around, still involved in advocating and supporting BC-brewed craft beer. I am still involved with the Campaign for Real Ale of BC, at least through 2015 and will still be found sipping a Fat Tug or two craft beer spots around the province.

So thanks to all who have supported this blog, whether you were a fan of what I said or read it in order to get pissed off and voice extreme dislike for me as a blogger and in some instance, as a person.  I think the comments highlighting how misinformed and stupid I was brought as much joy and motivation to me as those who voiced positive support.