SOBA president David Wood is emphatic – “SOBA is not New Zealand’s version of CAMRA!”
“There are similarities, and I can see why people make that comparison. They are both advocacy groups, but CAMRA is a very niche advocacy group that advocates for real ale, and I think in today’s quickly evolving beer market that is a very short sighted thing to be advocating for still. We don’t discriminate - we’re not the Society of Craft Beer Advocates, we’re the Society of Beer Advocates.”
SOBA’s profile was probably highest in 2010-2011 when it took on DB and the Intellectual Property Office. The legal battle was over DB’s trademarking of the beer style Radler.
SOBA is still staunchly monitoring trademark applications to prevent beer styles being claimed, most recently preventing a brewer trademarking 'Farmhouse’. “We were prepared to fight that as far as it needed to go.”
The Radler case led to calls for SOBA members to boycott DB, but that fight is ancient history now. SOBA groups meet at DB venues, and SOBA secretary Dale Cooper brews for DB’s Black Dog brand.
David says SOBA now prefers “positive advocacy” such as festivals and events that expose consumers to new beer. “It’s a really good way of getting good beer in peoples’ hands, who may not usually have access to it.
“We ran one in Taranaki recently and that was hugely successful. It’s not a place that has a massive selection of beer, but we went in and provided 30 or 40 different beers people could try for an afternoon.”
“Because we are non-profit we can run an event at cost, which makes it really accessible for people to try beers they wouldn’t have had otherwise. And it’s a good way of growing the membership as well.”
Other events include Wellington’s Winter Ales, Auckland City of Ales festivals, and the annual SOBA Home Brew Competition. There are also frequent smaller SOBA events around the country, and SOBA publishes Pursuit of Hoppiness, New Zealand’s only craft beer magazine.
Two SOBA campaigns make it easier for craft beer fans to find the good stuff. One identifies bars with SOBA endorsement. “We give SOBA door stickers to good bars that have a good selection of beer. They don’t have to support SOBA, they just have to meet certain criteria which is quite easy if your bar has a focus on good beer – the quality and range of the beer, knowledgeable staff, pleasant venue, things like that.”
The other provides an online listing of the bars and retailers who provide discounts or other benefits for SOBA members. These vary from venue to venue, and can be checked out on SOBA’s website.
SOBA presents award certificates to good venues, retailers, brewers and craft beer supporters every January. Online voting will happen next month, open to all members.
David says at almost 1000 members, SOBA’s membership has doubled since August 2013, more or less matching the growth in New Zealand craft beer sales and consumption. Membership costs $35 for a year.
So in an environment where good beer is widely available and no longer a niche interest, is SOBA going to make itself unnecessary?
“I think as people get more passionate about beer they’ll see the benefit of being a member. Finding good beer will become a normal thing, and that makes SOBA more important. As the variety of beer grows, we will have to grow with it. There will be more things that have to be addressed from a consumer point of view, so we’ll be keeping an eye on it.”