Privately Owned Craft Beer Stores Would Have Far Better Options

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A wide array of local and popular craft beers are available at many privately run stores in the U.S.

On a recent trip to the U.S. a very close friend of mine picked up a number of craft beers for me at a private beer and wine store just outside of Lenox, Massacusetts. The selection there was quite typical for a craft beer store. Many local brews from the nearby Berkshire Brewing Company were on offer, along with several small breweries from neighbouring or nearby states, including Tröegs Craft Brewery from Pennsylvania, the Smuttynose Brewing Co. from New Hampshire and Cisco Brewers from Nantucket Massacusetts. They also had great craft beer favorites from Sierra Nevada and Stone in California. Until yesterday I’d never tried many of the beers from these fine breweries, mostly because Ontario’s monopolistic liquor retailing laws make it next to impossible to sell them here. The Beer Store simply isn’t interested in selling stuff that isn’t brewed or distributed by one of the three major breweries that own the Beer Store. The LCBO won’t bother with U.S. craft beer unless they can get it in large quantities at a significant discount.

The only other way to enjoy beers such as these is to go to places like Beer Bistro in Toronto, but you can only consume them on the premises. If you want to grab a mixed 6 pack of really interesting beers your only option is to drive to Buffalo and buy it there. There is an amazing selection of beers out there and the U.S. is enjoying a craft beer renaissance the likes of which have never been seen. Ontario has just begun to expand its craft beer market, so it has some way to go before it is at the same stage the U.S. is at currently. But without the ability for smaller producers to get their products to consumers in an economical way, the growth of the industry and the craft beer movement here will be exceedingly slower. Some craft brewers won’t survive long enough to capitalize on the growing market trend. Every year more and more people switch to craft beer, mainly because they want to taste more flavorful and interesting brews. They also want variety.

There is a much better way to sell beer than making a selection from a giant wall of labels. But the Beer Store likes it this way. Notice the “Big Ten” on the end? Bigger than all the other labels and most likely a Molson, Labatt or Sleeman product. Big surprise though considering they own the store.

The LCBO does offer better variety than the Beer Store, but good luck finding anything from a relatively small craft brewery from outside Toronto.  The Beer Store may have over 350 brands from over 90 countries but it’s a challenge trying to find something different to try based on the tiny labels on wall all while standing in line.  The Beer Store is a terrible retail experience.

We all deserve a better beer shopping experience, like those available to our neighbours to the south.  If a private store opened up that just focused on craft beers there would be a dizzying array of choices available and would more than likely have a knowledgable staff who could educate people about the finer points of certain craft beers.  Established craft brewers like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada would likely be in demand, but so too would smaller craft producers who wouldn’t normally receive this sort of exposure.  Craft beer drinkers are open to trying new things all the time and the number of people who put themselves in that category is growing every year.  With the help of stores like this, the Ontario Craft Brewing industry would mature and grow at a much more substantial rate and that can only be good for the province.

Imagine a store in Ontario with a knowledgeable staff and wide variety of choices that you can actually pick up and examine? We can dream.

Beer drinkers and craft brewers just need that chance to grow.  Reforming the liquor laws is the best way to do that. If you live in Ontario, let your local MPP at Queen’s Park know you support private beer stores.  They are the only ones who can change the laws.

Expanding the LCBO Again. Really?

LCBO opening soon?

The Progressive Conservatives are calling on the Premiere to halt the expansion plans for the LCBO and consider beer and wine in corner stores instead.

After record breaking profits this past year the Ontario government intends to spend $100 million expanding the LCBO by opening new stores across the province.  The PC party has rejected this expansion and is calling on the Liberal government to revisit the antiquated liquor laws of this province and change the way beer and wine are sold.  Premiere McGuinty rejected the Tory proposal and said “the Liberals feel Ontario is a safer place if liquor sales are done by the government-owned LCBO”.

What a load of nonsense!  The Beer Store isn’t government owned and McGuinty doesn’t appear to have a problem with them.  The Beer Store is a privately owned and operated company and they account for 80% of the beer sold in Ontario.  Not to mention the more than 200 convenience stores with special licenses to sell LCBO products around the province.  How are they any different than any other corner store owner?  If there is a vetting process for the special licenses, why not use that same process for the remaining store owners who wish to sell beer and wine?  Bar owners must have all their staff be Smart Serve certified.  Why not apply that same standard to store owners?  Bars across the province manage to serve alcohol properly to people and they aren’t all government owned or operated.  You would presumably need to apply for a license to sell alcohol and the last time I checked, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) has some fairly strict guidelines for licensing.  Dalton McGuinty doesn’t make sense.

“We believe it’s a system that enables us to provide greatest guarantee to moms and dads that when a 16-year-old or 17-year-old shows up to buy beer or some liquor, that we have the necessary measures in place to ferret them out and deny them access to alcoholic beverages,” said McGuinty.

“So that’s the choice we’re making. We think it’s safe, we think it’s secure.”

So basically he is saying that everyone who isn’t an LCBO employee is some sort of degenerate that would rather sell liquor to a minor and risk losing their license and their livelihood.  Business owners aren’t going to risk it for the sake of a few extra bucks.  They’ll card everyone under 25 like they do with cigarettes and guard the public interest.

I think it’s time the voters of Ontario were treated like adults and that Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals accepted the fact that we as a society aren’t children that need protection from themselves.

Beer Sales in Corner Stores IS Good For Craft Brewers

After seeing a very well written article by Brendan Ross (torontoist.com) I couldn’t help but completely disagree with the assertions some Craft Brewers in Ontario are making about beer in corner stores. As part of a petition started by Joanne McMurchy, a convenience store owner in Vanessa Ontario, a campaign through the website FreeOurBeer.ca has garnered over 112,000 signatures in support of the cause.

Ken Woods president of Etobicoke’s Black Oak Brewing believes that if convenience stores could sell beer, smaller craft brewers would lose out. He believes that big brewers would use “aggressive marketing strategies and the money to pay for premium positioning in corner store fridges.”

Bar Volo in Toronto

Bar Volo in Toronto is one of many craft beer bars serving an amazing array of local craft beers from Ontario and Quebec.

Mr Woods is right about that, it is likely true for many corner stores, but not all of them will be keen to roll over so quickly for the big brewers. Think about all the bars out there that were once completely dominated by larger companies. Over the last few years there has been a shift in public appetites for craft beer. As a result many “craft beer only” bars have emerged, with more and more opening every year. The beer drinking public is demanding local and craft beers in bars, why wouldn’t the same thing happen with corner stores? There will most certainly be craft and local beer supporters amongst the ranks of the thousands of stores out there. Isn’t that market better than the cost prohibitive Beer Store option?

The Beer Store currently accounts for nearly 80% of all beer sales in Ontario. For many small and local craft brewers the cost of selling their beers in the big brewer owned monopoly is so high that many cannot afford to do it. As a result they miss out on a huge market as it is. How can it be worse than it is now for craft brewers than it is at the Beer Store?

Once corner stores can sell beer and wine, pretty much anyone who wants to open a store can do it too. This means anyone with a passion for craft beer will be able to realize a dream and sell great craft beer to everyone else. These sorts of stores will draw people in with a much better retail experience than what the Beer Store can offer. The result will be more people being made aware of craft beer because the Beer Store isn’t interested in promoting them in the same way.

The Beer Academy

Learning about beer isn’t just for beer geeks anymore. The Beer Academy in Toronto is all about beer education and has it’s own craft brewery on site, making excellent beer.

The article also quotes Michael Arnold from Trafalgar Brewery in Oakville, who was once a supporter of the corner store idea more than a decade ago. With respect, the marketplace for Craft Beer has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, even more so the last 2 to 3 years. Toronto can now boast beer education programs and even Beer Sommeliers and Cicerones have emerged to enlighten the drinking public about the joys of well-made artisanal beers. It isn’t the same landscape of beer drinkers that it once was. Many more people are discovering just how great craft beer really is and many more join those ranks every year.

Cameron’s Brewing President Bill Coleman seems more supportive of the idea, citing that small breweries in Quebec and New York have benefited from having beer available in corner stores. He believes that they have very strong local craft beer cultures and doesn’t think Ontario is quite as developed yet. Both Quebec and New York have had beer available in corner stores for quite some time. You could argue that having that sort of market place allowed the local craft beer culture to grow and thrive in those places. Ontario doesn’t have that opportunity because of the retail restrictions. Creating an environment where small producers have more exposure than is currently available will allow the scene to grow and mature the way others have.

Shopping for Beer

Buying beer should be an interactive experience. Seeing the beer and being able to examine it before purchasing is a great way for smaller producers to increase exposure to potential new customers.

Breweries with operations in rural areas such as Neustadt Springs, Church Key and Beau’s could open up storefronts in the city featuring their own beers and reach a much larger market. Groups of rural brewers could pool resources and money to open Beer Co-operatives in every major centre in Ontario. Having beer and wine in corner stores is a good first step. It isn’t ideal for craft brewers but it opens the door to more possibilities and could lead to much bigger and better things for the industry. This is an opportunity Ontario Craft Brewers should be embracing and supporting as a means to an end. Ontario is ready to develop a solid craft culture and this is potentially a great way to do it. Everyone in Ontario deserves to have the best beer.