Tuesday, August 2, 2011

CAMRA Obscura

A Victoria CAMRA Member

CAMRA is a hot topic for bloggers right now. People are debating the absence of brewers and types of beer at the Great British Beer Festival, whether CAMRA is at some sort of existential crossroads, and how best to represent good beer now that the "craft movement" has departed from what have traditionally been considered the best brewing practices.

To my knowledge, only two Canada-based beer writers have waded in with any force on what are chiefly British concerns (my excuse is being British; Alan will gatecrash any party whose guests include beer and passion). It is to their credit that no UK folk have told us to fuck off on the basis that it has little to do with us (perhaps they will now I've admitted I'm an imposter). But I have wondered whether it is my business and, frankly, why I care so much.

My wondering has led me to this answer:

Like many, I look for meaning in beer. I'm a sociologist, but also a hormonal marxist who cannot help but seek solidarity with others in my passions and pursuits. Something about the way the North American "craft beer community" (or worse, "movement") is packaged in various social media outlets feels phony and tacky to me. More power to them and no disrespect to the individuals involved, but gestures like the I Am a Craft Beer Drinker video make me cringe inside. I can't identify with it.

I get great satisfaction through companionship and spanning time with local drinkers, brewers and writers here in Victoria. But I also hunger to connect beyond that, which is why at least half of the beer writing I read regularly is about the complicated world of UK beer. Beer culture in North America – like a Hollywood movie – has a neat and knowable history, clear-cut baddies and goodies, and a current feel-good triumphalism. In many ways thrilling yet unengaging. British beer has an enigmatic history, diverse sagas and side-narratives, and complexly-developed protagonists — of whom CAMRA is certainly one. More Mike Leigh than James Cameron.

CAMRA in particular fascinates me. Alan flippantly observed a parallel with the Tea Party — a comment that I found more insightful than perhaps he intended. Like the original Tea Party, CAMRA shares a common tragedy with all insurgent movements: successful revolutionaries often find themselves in the dubious position of becoming establishment conservatives. CAMRA's original struggle — to save cask ale culture from mass-production (which happened to favour kegging beer) — plays a similar role to the American Constitution for modern Tea-Partiers: it offers a stubborn lens on a political landscape whose struggles have shifted considerably, pitching those with many common interests against one another for the sake of antiquated loyalism.

With this in mind, I sit here with my CAMRA Victoria membership card in my hand and experience a bit of a revelation. What has CAMRA in Canada got to do with UK CAMRA? Besides the love of good beer, I can't work out what the affinity could possibly be. There has never been a cask-ale tradition here let alone a threat to it. CAMRA Victoria started well after the early-1980s good beer trend started.  A few internet searches later and I realize that I cannot find any up-to-date references of any CAMRA chapter outside BC (besides some old mentions of CAMRA Ottawa — which seems to be defunct).

Suddenly feeling a chill, I wonder if CAMRA UK even knows about us. Another internet search reveals no links at all! I recall a recent article about an enterprising businessman in China who set up an exact replica of an Apple Store — down to the shelf-fittings and polo-shirt wearing uber-geeks — and sold Apple merchandise for months before being rumbled. Are we imposters? Am I in a cult? Am I part of an underground splinter group with secretive aims to subvert NA craft beer optimism with archaic, esoteric in-fighting? AM I A REPLICANT?

North American beer culture just got interesting for this CAMRA member…


  1. I think what's really interesting is the extent to which it's starting to feel like a conversation between the two sides in a religious schism, and it's getting more black-and-white as the days go by. I'm sure yesterday I detected a hint of keg-good/cask-bad in some tweets. Worrying, and, I think, that some CAMRA members are fuelling by being rigid and dogmatic.

    And you are a replicant.

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    i'm fairly sure the canada group would have been set up by a mix of British expats and bedazzked canadian tourists who wanted to get cask beer where they live, fair enough I say

  5. I personally don't understand the fuss. Cask beer is beer, keg beer is beer, bottle-conditioned beer is beer. Hooray beer?

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