This essay is an extract from a Masters thesis that investigates Voluntary Cultural Organisations, how they grow and how they work in the real world.
The full thesis included a section on The Quilters’ Guild Of The British Isles, but has been edited down for inclusion here.
What is the relationship between cultural objects and the voluntary organisations that come into being in order to protect, appreciate or promote them?
CASE STUDY: THE CAMPAIGN FOR REALLY GOOD BEER
The tape starts rolling, and Justin takes charge. He slides his goblet-like glass of Affligem, a reddish, 6.8% Belgian beer, next to my half-finished pint of Amstel and asks me to “stick your nose in one, and then stick your nose in the other”. I comply. The Amstel has the faint, sweet smell common to mass-produced lagers, but the Affligem smells richer, more florid. “Can you tell the difference?” he asks rhetorically. I nod, and think, “that didn’t take very long!” The object’s properties have imposed themselves on the discussion within the first few minutes of the interview.
Explaining CAMRGB: first attempt
CAMRGB was created in September 2011 by Simon Williams, a graphic designer and former music industry professional. Simon, then a member of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), discovered that CAMRA was excluding from their beer festivals any brewers whose beer didn’t meet CAMRA’s definition of “real ale”:
“I thought that this was if not wrong then very blinkered. And so I wrote an article around the time of the Great British Beer Festival that complained that CAMRA weren’t allowing some of our fantastic new breweries to exhibit due to their dispense style’. (email interview )
Simon is referring to the beer keg, the technological innovation that triggered the formation of CAMRA. In the 1960s, large British brewers discovered that it was easier to distribute beer in pressurised kegs as opposed to the traditional casks. Many beer drinkers resisted this change, believing keg beer to be inherently inferior. CAMRA was set up in 1971 as a voluntary members’ organisation to protest against keg and protect cask. To do so, CAMRA created a technical definition of “real ale” which excluded pressurised keg beer. For over 40 years, this standard has circulated throughout the British beer world, influencing the decisions of drinkers, pubs and brewers, and (arguably) helping to keep cask ale widely available.
By 2011, however, a new wave of small-sized UK breweries was seriously challenging the notion that keg beer is automatically inferior to cask. These brewers were, according to Simon, “deciding that the American Craft scene (with its kegs and bottles) was exciting and wanting to make similar beer in the UK”, which meant “almost immediately falling out with CAMRA.”
Objecting to CAMRA’s exclusion of such beers, Simon created a “Campaign for Really Good Beer” website with an eight-point manifesto, calling for greater freedom for brewers and an end to hierarchy and elitism in beer. The manifesto stated that “it is up to the brewer to decide how their beer is made and dispensed” and that “it is not for a select few to tell everyone what is or is not a good beer. The best way of judging if a beer is good is to listen to the people drinking it”.
The website quickly attracted attention, positive and negative, from across the beer world:
“I appear to have accidentally said something at just the right time to grab people’s attention and within a matter of days I was getting equal amounts of emails from people asking if the organisation was real and how they could join, and attacks (complete with swearing) from CAMRA members (some of them quite high up in the organisation).”
Since 2011, CAMRGB has grown to around 700 members (CAMRA has over 130,000). Simon and other CAMRGB members post regular beer reviews on the CAMRGB website (attracting 8000 hits per month) and organise virtual tasting events and occasional face-to-face meet-ups, in which they drink and talk about beer.
Towards an Actor-Network Theory account of CAMRGB
Above, a dispute unfolds: what is the right way to value beer? Actor-network theory (ANT) asks us to resist the impulse to boil down this dispute to “social forces”. In the ANT approach, we cannot treat every pint, hop, keg, and beer blog as the mute intermediary of “the rise of individualism” or “horizontal democracy”. ANT recognises what is plainly obvious to any CAMRGB member: that the way a beer tastes is important to how the beer, and beer in general, is collectively valued as a cultural object. Beer is a mediator in every dispute about beer.
We can develop a richer account of CAMRGB by looking not for “social actors”, but for the sources of uncertainty that bring actors into being: by letting our informants deploy controversies within the beer world, and by identifying the work of the mediators, human and non-human, by which those controversies are stabilised.
Uncertainties about “matters of concern” and the object-category
What is “really good beer”? Based on the informants’ accounts, there are many different “really good beers”. Brewers can coax virtually unlimited variations from the core ingredients of water, malted barley, hops and yeast. Beer is an “object-category”, continually produced and reproduced. The same is true of “good beer”: an object-category into which individual beers may be included or excluded.
What, then, are the controversies around this object-category of “good” or “proper” beer? According to group interviewee Matt:
“The obvious ones that people go on about is dispense method. You’ve got your sort of old school guys who like cask beer and they like it in a particular way.”
In other words, variations on the “cask versus keg” debate mentioned above. Here we find what ANT theorist Bruno Latour describes as a “matter of concern”: a topic of disputed factuality around which actors gather. CAMRA has sought to stabilise this uncertainty from a “matter of concern” (is keg beer always inferior to cask beer?) to a “matter of fact” (keg beer is always inferior to cask beer). It achieved a good deal of success because it was able to develop and circulate a standard definition of “real ale” based on cask production that convinced consumers to link “real ale/cask” to “good beer” and thus incentivised brewers and pubs to follow suit.
This required, and requires, work. Many mediators had to be employed for this standardised object-category first to be accepted by consumers (media releases, publicity materials) and then to connect effectively and durably to breweries and pubs. CAMRA’s laboratories test and certify “real ale”, report to CAMRA’s head office, which connects to a regional branch structure, producing magazines and organising beer festivals for CAMRA’s 130,000 members. A large network of actants continually enrols a vast number of people in an on-going process of collective valuation, constantly regenerating an evaluative scheme built around a stabilised definition of real ale. Reflexively and collectively negotiated in the past and stabilised through on-going work in the present, this evaluative scheme (good beer = real ale) then feeds into individual drinkers’ moments of evaluation: not determining their experience, but circulating to varying degrees within what ANT theorist Antoine Hennion calls “moments of attention” towards the object.
A new wave of innovative, keg-friendly brewers has destabilised this, however. As Simon puts it, this new wave is characterised by:
“…brewers really opening up to experimentation, trying new things, super high hop contents or barrel ageing, that kind of thing. But mainly it’s about new breweries not caring about CAMRA and having the “CAMRA says this is real ale” label on their product.”
This account is echoed by other informants: by producing new, experimental styles of beer and (relatedly) starting to disassociate themselves from CAMRA’s evaluative scheme, brewers are beginning to undermine the shorthand connection between “real ale” and “good beer” and reopen the controversy about the object-category.
This research doesn’t seek to explain the commercial logic behind the brewers’ move, but why and how private individuals are voluntarily organising themselves to support this shift, and what, if any, alternative processes of collective cultural valuation are being put in place as a result, via human and non-human mediators.
We can start with the “why”. In almost every account, two motivating factors for joining CAMRGB appear almost within the same breath: an attraction towards the new wave of beers (and brewers), and a repulsion away from CAMRA’s policies. David’s response is typical:
“I found the CAMRGB website and realised that it reflected my views as to what was wrong with CAMRA. I realised that I was following more CAMRGB members [on social media] and that we obviously liked the new wave of beers. […] CAMRA did a great job through the 70s and onwards but since the arrival of the new wave of small brewers its failure to modernise has been frustrating. It has a 1970s culture that doesn’t sit well in this day and age. Chairmen, secretaries of branches etc.”
For Claire, CAMRGB seemed like “a fun thing to belong to”, but she also:
“joined partly because I don’t feel that CAMRA supports the modern beer industry. Their narrow mindedness annoys me. And bland session ales are not something I am a fan of.”
“I just thought, well, I don’t want to be part of an organisation [i.e. CAMRA] that is so close-minded to a changing industry. The Campaign for Really Good Beer is just about that, good beer – regardless of how it’s served, you know, it could be served from a flannel squeezed into your mouth, if it tasted good, it’s fucking good beer!”
Informants’ accounts reveal dissatisfaction with CAMRA’s policies, but also suggest the ability of the beers themselves, currently in a state of innovation and experimentation, to influence their individual evaluative processes.
Objects as mediators in the moment of tasting
The taste of “CAMRA-approved” beer, for instance, seems to have played an active role in disengaging some informants from the CAMRA standard. As Mark explains, “the trouble with CAMRA is that they don’t have any sort of quality definition on it – [if] you brew beer that comes in casks, and your [yeast] ratios [are correct], it doesn’t matter how shit your beer is.” Other informants complain about the “stagnancy of the real ale reality of the average beer lover” (David), or the preponderance of “bland session ales” (Claire).
On the other hand, almost all CAMRGB members report a road-to-Damascus moment upon their first taste of American-influenced, hop-heavy beer. For Justin, the right beer creates “a revelatory moment where you realise that beer doesn’t have to taste the same – it doesn’t have to taste dull and brown, and bitter” (emphasis added). Simon, a musician, describes discovering a new beer as “the same feeling as putting a brand new record on and suddenly going, WOW!” And take David’s enlightenment in a San Francisco bar, recounted in a blog post:
“The sign said 42 real ales. What? 42 is a BIG number. Real Ales. In America? Could this be true? So we went in. And the world changed. […] This was a bar with 40 odd beers, some served in a manner that you would recognise in the Red Lion [i.e. cask ales], but others (lots of others) simply poured from a tap. The sort of tap that you saw with Coors, or Budweiser written on them. Though these had new names on them. And the beer board spoke of Russian Imperial Porter, Double IPA and strengths beyond 6 and 7 percent. All the way to 9! We stayed for a few hours. And were hooked.” (from a 2013 blog post, emphases added)
Note that David explicitly mentions that these beers were dispensed through the “sort of taps” of which CAMRA disapproves. The CAMRA standard is still one of the “devices” at play in his evaluative process, but good beer is being poured from “bad” taps: in this moment, the connection is undermined. The taste of a particular beer can also shake up wider personal schemes of beer evaluation:
“I hated Lambics/sour beers when I first tried them and then had a Fantôme and it blew my mind and I suddenly “got” sour beer. It was about readjusting my palate I suppose” (Simon)
Hennion’s notion of taste as a process of two-way attachment between taster and tasted is apparent in the above accounts: an attentively passive state (“readjusting my palate”) in which the drinker allows himself or herself to be surprised. Other mediators are already creeping into the accounts, such as the bar in San Francisco. We are moving towards the “how” of enrolment in CAMRGB, with traces of others appearing in CAMRGB members’ accounts of their beer appreciation.
Informants report that beer festivals, bottle shops and pubs all serve as sources of inspiration and knowledge, as do beer blogs and Twitter feeds (almost all participants are themselves beer bloggers and use Twitter). I was also surprised at how uniformly informants valued interactivity with brewers. David, for example, reports that the newer brewers have “a degree of approachability that you don’t get with the conglomerates.” Hearing back from a brewer after he has commented online about their beer is “part of an education process”, “a matter of getting an understanding of what they are aiming to achieve with a brew,” as “sometimes you might not understand a beer and their response can help you in that process.”
In the group interview, Matt, Justin and Mark all described the close relationships they had developed with individual brewers through face-to-face meetings and online interaction. Claire, meanwhile, attends “tap takeovers” in which a brewer will present their beers at a particular pub and engage in a Q&A session:
Most of them are friendly sorts who are more than happy to talk beer for hours 🙂 It’s also nice to hear their views on their own stuff too. Of course some are more active than others on twitter so you get some of that via that means too. It’s nice to share a beer with them too!
For Matt, this desire for interactivity has almost hardened into an expectation:
… At the end of the day, you’re brewing so that it’s going to end up in someone’s glass, and if you don’t want to speak to them and listen to their opinion, then you’re doing it wrong.
These connections are often mediated through non-human objects, particularly online resources such as blogs and Twitter accounts. In fact, Claire believes that without social media, setting up CAMRGB “would have been harder […] I think it was a major enabler.” These channels both connect and format communication, making them full-blown mediators, complete with their own risks and downsides: “because Twitter is such an immediate thing, it’s not considered, and people take offence very easily,” says Justin, who like the other group interviewees, reports feeling occasionally burned out by the “negativity” of online activity.
We can also consider CAMRGB itself as a mediator within its members’ moments of beer evaluation. CAMRGB events have included virtual tasting evenings themed around particular beer categories, e.g. Sour Belgian beers or single-hop beers, in which participants try beers at home and share their opinions on Twitter via the #CAMRGB hashtag, thus multiplying the connections between beers, brewers and drinkers. As David reports: “I certainly feel that I have taken an interest in styles of beer that I would not have considered as a direct result of CAMRGB engagement. […] I am drinking some styles now that I would have not touched if I hadn’t been introduced to them via CAMRGB – Lambics for [example].”
Collectives, individuals and VCOs in processes of aesthetic valuation
We can detect, therefore, the mediating influence of both the beer and the collective (directly, and via traces of other objects, frames and devices) in individual moments of beer evaluation. This is in line with Hennion’s core insight that traces of the collective are always brought into (but do not determine) our private, reflexive moments of tasting. In that sense, we might say that moments or processes of cultural valuation are always collective and never purely individual, with each private moment drawing from, and feeding into, a collective history (via mediators). We read the label – which may include the CAMRA logo – we pause to take in the aroma, we ask our companion what they think, we check (and maybe write) reviews online, all as part of the reflexive work undertaken on our own attachments.
But how did the CAMRA logo get on the label in the first place? Perhaps all of our aesthetic or cultural judgments are collectively produced to some degree, but some are explicitly and reflexively so. Specifically, some collective processes of valuation are institutionally mediated: they start with controversy and negotiation and end (or are temporarily stabilised) with a unified collective statement, a “we, the undersigned”. This is the sense in which we might meaningfully understand VCOs as sites of collective processes of cultural valuation. VCOs attempt to give visible, institutional form to object-centred groups (or anthropologist and cultural theorist Georgina Born’s “value communities”) through the deployment of resources: membership cards, meetings, websites.
Moreover, VCOs are one of the actants that actually bring groups into being: helping to turn similar interests into shared interests. Simple phrases such as “beer geek”, “foodie” or “football fan” also do this work, assuming that they can make enough connections with other actants to circulate effectively and durably. A VCO can go further, however. Through its connections to various mediators, it can (if it chooses) reflexively produce and circulate its own explicit evaluative standards and schemes: standards that can then sometimes serve to define, stabilise and reinforce the boundaries of the group it purports to represent (while always, as we have seen, being at the mercy of the object in question).
In which ways can we understand CAMRGB to be involved in this kind of group enrolment, and which, if any, evaluative schemes is it trying to put in place? Again, Latour suggests that we start by identifying the uncertainties and controversies that give rise to group formation, rather moving straight to the actors: looking at how groups are made to talk, which anti-groups they are mapped against, and how group boundaries are delineated and reinforced.
Uncertainties about group formation and agency
By starting with uncertainties about groupings in the beer world, we are able to look at CAMRGB not just as a self-contained group, but also as an actant that translates and mediates a wider network of actants. In a 2011 blog post reflecting on the varied feedback generated by the CAMRGB manifesto, Simon attempts to stabilise an emergent controversy:
It appears, from what’s been happening over the last few weeks since CAMRGB began is that there are two distinct camps of people – They all love great beer, but they have distinctly different ways of expressing it. (emphasis added)
Simon concludes: “we’re on the side of people who love to drink beer and experiment and take chances”. The group being traced here is not just CAMRGB, but a wider group of experimental, open-minded drinkers and brewers. CAMRGB has not “invented” this group, but for any such group to persist, actors must constantly retrace the connections between the entities of which the group is comprised: small breweries, adventurous drinkers, hoppy or experimental beers, bloggers and tweeters, terms like “modern”, “craft” or “artisan”, a certain design aesthetic perhaps, and now CAMRGB. Simon is only one “recruiting officer” among many, but it is through actors like him that, as Latour puts it, “groups are made to talk”.
Is CAMRGB attempting to represent the “new wave”? Not quite. As Claire says, “the exact boundaries probably flux”. While informants’ accounts reveal a strong affinity to the “new wave” of beers and brewers, the CAMRGB website has also posted favourable reviews of traditional real ales as well as beers from large, commercial breweries. Some CAMRGB members also belong to CAMRA. CAMRA’s exclusion of modern beers from its events may have prised open the controversies in which CAMRGB members are now engaging, but CAMRGB does not seem to be seeking to stabilise them by becoming the “craft CAMRA”.
Of course, our informants did explain their decisions to join CAMRGB in terms of their disappointment at the hierarchical “1970s culture”, “narrow-mindedness” or “close-minded” approach of CAMRA – what Simon refers to as “the Real Ale hegemonic myth of judgemental authority – the few telling the many what is good/right/etc.” In Latourian terms, CAMRA does seem to be an “anti-group” against which CAMRGB seeks to map an emerging group. However, this anti-group is not always described as the same, clearly defined actant. Informants offer a range of figurations. Sometimes, the actant is simply “CAMRA”, especially when talking at a remove about how official definitions affect beer festivals. This changes when the attention shifts to closer interactions, however:
Mark: To a certain extent CAMRA I suppose, although not necessarily CAMRA themselves, but those CAMRA stalwarts who basically, especially on Simon’s blog, just constantly attack him as soon as he criticises anything that they like…
In other words, a minority of hardliners (“one percent of CAMRA members are just Luddites, really,” says Matt). When talking about their interactions with individual CAMRA members (a group that includes Justin and Mark), the CAMRGB informants can be generous: “most of them just like a pint”, says Matt. On holiday in Rome, Justin befriends a CAMRA branch chairman and introduces him to new varieties of beer: “he’d never had a black IPA before and he was delighted to drink a black IPA […] he was like – this is really a lot different from what I’m drinking.” Mark, meanwhile, tells a wonderful anecdote about the secretary of his local CAMRA branch:
Mark: […] the social secretary, if I see him in a local pub, he will acknowledge me and speak to me, but there’s a few times I’ve seen him in Bristol in [new wave beer pub] BrewDog, and he just stares right through me. I absolutely love it, he just like […] I don’t know whether he’s scared that I’m going to ‘out’ him or whether he’s thinking, that’s obviously not him because he wouldn’t be in here!
Once we open the black box of “CAMRA”, most of the actants inside suddenly appear rather harmless. Our informants seem to identify the most troublesome actants as the CAMRA definition of “real ale” (and its ring-fencing of CAMRA beer festivals), “boring brown beer”, CAMRA’s organisational structure, “1970s hierarchical culture” and a minority of dogmatic CAMRA members (the kind who will walk out of a pub if it doesn’t offer a CAMRA discount, notes Mark).
We can see how we might have been misled had we begun our analysis with CAMRA and CAMRGB as the central “social actors”. By instead looking for sources of uncertainty or controversy, a different antagonistic figure emerges from the informants’ account: the figure of the closed-minded drinker who judges others, or (connectedly) close-mindedness as an abstract mode of being. This perhaps provides a more accurate account of how CAMRGB seeks to define itself: by aligning itself to thoughtful and open-minded behaviour with regard to beer. Simon says as much in a 2011 blog post:
“We want more people to think about the beer they drink and become more adventurous in this world of watery bland lager”.
We see traces of this when the boundaries are defended from unwelcome intrusion. For instance, most informants are keen to disassociate themselves from the phrase “craft beer”, dismissed as a “marketing term” by Matt and source of snobbery by Mark: “we shouldn’t try to be dismissive and exclusive about [beer], otherwise you become what CAMRA are.”
Indeed, Simon stresses repeatedly that CAMRGB is valued because it provides “non-judgemental, open and accessible” support network. This openness isn’t exactly “anything goes” relativism: as Claire suggests, “everyone agrees that Carling is rubbish”. However, consider Simon’s description of CAMRGB’s first event:
“Not one person was disparaging about cask vs keg etc. And the chap that drank lager all night wasn’t held at arms’ length either. He likes lager, he knows why he likes lager, he buys well made English lager such as Freedom and Anarchy and his reasons are equally as valuable as the people drinking cask and keg.”
The emphasis is on thoughtfulness and appreciation – but crucially, the beer has not disappeared from this account. Remember, we are not trying to “boil this down” to by introducing a “social force” of tolerance that expresses itself symbolically through beer. The lager-drinker has his own attachments in which the beer is very much a mediator, and these attachments are respected by the group because of their reflexivity. In turn, whatever “open-mindedness” exists in this scene is brought about by the presence of different beers and the personal evaluative schemes they inform.
Conclusion: Valorisation and Evaluation
As a VCO, how is CAMRGB mediating the cultural value of beer? I have mostly referred so far to collective processes of cultural “valuation”. Based on this account of CAMRGB, it may be helpful to introduce a further distinction between processes of valorisation and processes of evaluation. CAMRGB valorises beer, asking us to “celebrate beer because beer is brilliant”, but holds back from producing collective evaluations: “there is no bending to the will of the group as a whole,” says Simon. Unlike CAMRA, which continues to marshal resources towards the circulation of a fixed evaluative scheme, CAMRGB acts, according to Simon, as “a focal point through which people come to realise that they can and already do (by drinking beer and talking about it) take an active part in what’s going on in the world of beer.”This conception, which is echoed by other members, recognises the role of collective in individual processes of evaluation. Its aim, however, is to ensure that the inevitable presence of the collective is as enriching as possible, by equipping an open-minded, adventurous approach to beer and a non-judgmental approach to other beer lovers. Equipping, because success will require various types of work backed by various chains of mediators.
 For the sake of readability, it can be assumed unless otherwise stated that direct quotes from Simon, Claire and David are from individual email interviews conducted in June-July 2013, and quotes from Matt, Justin and Mark are from a group interview conducted in July 6, 2013. Exceptions include references to blog posts and the CAMRGB website, and are marked as such.