Thursday, August 11, 2011

Canadian CAMRA Studies #1: Fraser Valley CAMRA

Recent debates about the relevance of CAMRA UK gave me pause to muse on Canada's growing number of CAMRA chapters. On the face of it, the original aims of CAMRA do not seem to apply to Canada where there has never been a tradition of cask beer nor any particular threats to it. If Canadian CAMRAs are just Canadian Beer Appreciation Clubs, why not call them that and be done with it? Musings turn into obsessions pretty quick in chez smallbeer…

This is the first in a series of blogs in which I excavate the murky tar-sands of CanCAMRA and emerge, triumphant, with oily fists full of truth.


The best place to start seems to be with the most recent chapter in Canada: Fraser Valley CAMRA located east of Vancouver in British Columbia. As far as I can tell, the only chapters in Canada are in British Columbia: Ottawa had one that died, rumours of one in Toronto failed the Google test, and apparently someone absconded with Calgary CAMRAs funds, ending that venture.

I spoke with Vice President Jonny Tyson and communications guru Jason (whose position I regretfully failed to confirm) today to find out what their chapter is all about.  I will be publishing information about what seems to be a thriving beer scene in Fraser Valley on our BeerOnTheRock blog. Right now I'm only interested in the "why CAMRA"? question.

Upon calling Jonny I get the sense my question is already answered, as a familiar London accent meets my ear. It turns out that Jonny's love for cask beer and subsequent interest in CAMRA do indeed stem from a youth spent supping bitter in London pubs — an experience whose virtues were only truly appreciated upon Jonny's arrival in Canada.

"That taste and experience of real ale is something most Canadians don't even know exists. I think it's important to keep that going and to introduce it to people," says Jonny.

Fraser Valley's chapter was started by Mike Victory, Jonny, and a handful of other real ale converts whose passion for good beer was strained by the commute to Vancouver CAMRA meetings and the riches of the urban beer scene. They quickly realized that if they pooled their local member base they could stimulate the local scene and avoid the interminable #YVR traffic jams. Fraser Valley CAMRA was born in January 2011 and has grown from a core of 40 members to around 75 — aiming at 100 by Christmas.

Nice, but what have they achieved?

"Fraser Valley now has regular cask events. We've held two at Kingfishers and there will be one at Billy Miner — their first cask event ever. Kingfishers have given us massive support, they're a real hub for us. Our core members are very active and the scene is responding. The Billy Miner pub used to have one craft beer tap, they're installing something like fifteen now. Mission Springs brewery is supplying casks, Central City sponsor us, and local beer stores are filling up with craft beer."

OK so they love cask ale, but surely an organized Fraser Valley beer collective could have put the same pressure on local pubs and stores. Why borrow the CAMRA epithet?

"Cache. Maybe we could have nudged the scene, but the CAMRA name brings weight. It attracts more members. It's recognizable."

In other words it's a "brand" — a word I'm instinctively hostile toward, but I can see that I need to reconsider my prejudices based on the indisputable good the CAMRA name has done for Fraser Valley. Some of the grumpier Canadian drinkers you find moaning on BeerAdvocate forums about their miserable local scenes would do well to take a leaf out of Fraser Valley's book and get organized — it really can make a dramatic difference.

But when all's said and done, CAMRA UK was born out of historically adverse circumstances. They've even made a film out of it (incidentally the trailer of which features my own local, the Malt Shovel Tavern in Northampton). Isn't it sacrilegious to take a name forged in the fires of social conflict and append it to some beer geeks' unwillingness to select a designated driver to take them to a decent Vancouver boozer? What possible problems face the ostensibly thriving craft beer scene in BC???

"It's true, we don't have the same problems here. BC craft beer sales went up by something like 30% last year. But there are problems… Big brewers are looking to buy out craft breweries, not to mention the tied houses regulations in BC might be abolished. That could get nasty"

Jonny is right. Until now BC has enjoyed some sensible regulations that prevent large breweries from essentially bribing outlets to favour or exclusively stock their products. For anyone who has had the "pleasure" of trying to find a beer at a local hockey game only to find a choice of one or two (shit) beers at extortionate prices — this could be the future of BC watering holes if certain interests get their way. In such a scenario, one could imagine a real need for a dedicated consumer rights movement. I can say with confidence that CAMRA chapters such as Fraser Valley's would be ready-made for exactly those purposes.

Jonny and I end our conversation and I find myself reappraising CanCAMRA. What was hitherto for me an object of affection and mild derision has taken on the unexpected aura of a sleeper cell of underground resistance to potentially hostile forces intent on forcing me to drink Keiths pseudo-IPA. As the recent Vancouver riots have proved: we might as yet have absolutely no reason whatsoever to get miffed about anything at all — but British Columbians look to be more than ready for the ruckus should it eventually turn up. And that's at least in part thanks to CAMRA.


  1. Rick from BC Beer Blog ( wanted to leave this comment but for some reason his computer won't play nice with blogspot. I post it here for him. Incidentally, if any other readers have this problem, please do let me know ( dan AT-sign )

    Rick's comment:

    "CAMRA UK is about protecting a tradition. CanCAMRA was about bringing it back from virtual extinction. It's only been within the last two, or so, years that craft beer and Real Ale have grown in leaps and bounds in BC. CAMRA has played an important part in that.

    Certainly, an organized collective could replicate, to a degree, what CAMRA Vancouver and CAMRA Fraser Valley have done in pushing the scene. However, to have a greater impact, people need something for them to identify with and be a part of. Call it a brand, if you will, but this is a natural social mechanism that predates capitalism. A flag has served the same purpose for millennia.

    The media plays an important role in growing the movement. In writing their stories, they need labels and identities, backstories. It helps if there are spokespersons.

    This is why the CAMRA name has helped spur the craft beer/Real Ale scene here in BC. If we didn't have it, we would have created a similar organization, like PINT in the Netherlands or Zythos in Belgium."

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