Recently on The Craft Beer Diaries, Ryan Heighton looked at how cross-province beer sales in Ontario, Canada (where I also reside) suck, and how online beer sales direct from the brewers still has a way to go to be really effective.
It’s an excellent read on the archaic laws here in Ontario, especially given it’s from the perspective of a lawyer.
However, if cross-province sales are bad enough, they still pale in comparison to the laws here in Ontario itself when it comes to buying craft beer, thanks to the provincial government and a closed loop mindset of foreign-owned “distributors”.
Craft Beer Purchases in Ontario is a Frustrating Experience
With the exception of a few grocery chains that were allowed to sell beer in the last year or so, if you want to buy beer of any kind in Ontario (craft or otherwise), you need to buy it from either the Beer Store, or the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario).
The Beer Store is owned by Molson-Coors, Labatts (part of the ABInBev monopoly), and Sleeman (who are owned by the Japanese beer maker Sapporo). It also accounts for around 80% of the beer sales in Ontario.
The Beer Store also has some exclusive rights, thanks to the deal with the Government of Ontario – the ability to sell large 24 and 12 packs of beer (which came under fire in 2014), and license to sell beer to restaurants and bars.
Until recently, trying to get a decent craft beer at the Beer Store was pretty much a pointless effort. This is where the LCBO came in.
While better known for wine and liquor sales, the LCBO at least offered a decent selection of craft beer, at least if your local one was a fair-sized outlet and they gave up shelf space for it.
As for the local craft brewers, they were only really allowed to sell from their own brewer, or pay a premium to get some shelf space at the Beer Store or LCBO, something many can’t afford.
Not only that, but because the Beer Store is owned by the corporate brewers behind Budweiser, Labatts, Coors, etc, craft brewers are essentially paying their competitors for the privilege of sitting beside them on the shelf.
How messed up is that???
And there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel, either.
Grocery Store Space, But No Craft Beer Expertise
As I mentioned earlier, the situation has improved a little bit, with grocery stores now allowed to sell beer and wine directly from their shelves, as opposed to separate wine stores within the outlet (and nearby Beer Stores or LCBOs).
While this is good news, it’s still a half-hearted attempt by the Government to distract from the fact that they continue to monopolize sales of beer, and to the detriment of craft brewers.
Licenses still have to be given by the LCBO, which means the small craft brewers that can’t afford the fees charged by the LCBO get no shelf space.
On top of that, there’s no real expertise on what craft beer you should be choosing, if you’re new to the scene.
Unlike wine sales in grocery stores, where there’s usually a dedicated and knowledgeable member of staff at hand, you’re up the proverbial creek without a paddle if you ask what beer you should choose, or what it pairs well with.
Compare this to the experience you get when you’re at a craft beer festival, with employees from the brewer sharing their passion and knowledge of the beer.
Or at your local brewer, or brewpub, where questions are answered with expertise, love of the product, and a desire to see you really enjoy the right beer for your current need.
Now try and get that at your local Loblaws and see how far you get…
Time for Independent Craft Beer to Step Up
This post was inspired by a few tweets I saw earlier today around the topic of independent craft beer retail outlets. The first was from the excellent Indie Alehouse in Toronto:
Its time we let independent craft beer stores open in Ontario and let craft brewers sell each other's beer at their stores.
— The Indie Alehouse (@indiealehouse) July 27, 2018
As the conversation around that shows, it’s a more than valid point that is long overdue.
In most first world countries you can buy beer, wine and spirits at you local grocery store. Canada is very backwards in this respect. Ontario even more so with foreign companies controlling the sale of beer
— Roger That (@LUCKYGUYNL) July 27, 2018
Get out of here with your logic! This is Ontario, only laws from the 1930's work for us! "Paid for the the Beer Store, cause they are allowed to sell each others beer at their stores…"
— Komal Patel (@aofebeer) July 27, 2018
New Brunswick allows craft brewers to sell each other's beer. How backwards, eh.
— Jason (@Jzpaik) July 27, 2018
These tweets, and many others like them, show that no-one is sold on the idea that the Beer Store has anyone’s best interests at heart, except for those mega-brewers that own them, and the “beer” they produce.
It shouldn’t be this way. I’ve traveled to many countries, and Ontario remains one of the most backward, ridiculously-regulated places anywhere when it comes to fair and open beer sales.
The government shouldn’t have their hand in how beer is sold, but be responsible instead at making sure people are educated about the dangers of beer and over-consumption/alcoholism/treatment.
As well-known craft beer lover Drunk Polkaroo shares, we’re no dummies when it comes to why we continue to be screwed by legislation.
It's another revenue stream for the government and private businesses. Imagine a bottle shop run by people who are passionate and knowledgable about craft beer…damn, that might be a dream but one we may see
— Drunk Polkaroo (@DrunkPolkaroo) July 27, 2018
Ontario craft beer lovers have been screwed over enough by corporate brewers and government “protection”. It’s the 21st century – let’s have a retail system that belongs in this century, and not the last one.