Friday, February 5, 2010

Free Our Beer!

(Friday night beer is on hold, my girlfriend won't let me drink while I'm on anti-biotics, feel free to tell us what you're drinking in the comments)

That is the rallying cry for Ontario beer lovers (and the name of a darned good blog on the subject as well). Unfortunately for those of us who enjoy beer (or any alcoholic beverage for that matter), Ontarians suffer under a prohibition era, puritanical, alcohol distribution regime. There are two parts to this travesty, the government run Liquor Control Board of Ontario and the government sanctioned monopoly of the Brewer's Retail, The Beer Store.

For years, a small but vocal group of beer enthusiasts have lobbied the government to do away with our antiquated liquor retail system. The movement built up steam last year when the joke of a set up was featured in a series in the Toronto Star by Dana Flavelle (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Video). Flavelle rightfully focused on the Beer Store. Although I don't support the LCBO, I don't begrudge those that do. In fact it ensures incredible availability for smaller Ontario towns and, believe it or not, gives Ontarians enviable prices on many products. The same can't be said for Brewer's Retail. It should not exist, simple as that.

Up until a couple years ago, I, like most Ontarians I bet, believed the Beer Store was an agency of the Ontario government. It isn't. The Brewer's Retail was created as a kind of co-op for Ontario brewers. The idea was to protect local breweries from the multinationals. Today the Beer Store is owned by InBev, Coors, and Sapporo. These three non-Canadian companies are responsible for about 90% of beer sales in Ontario. Read that again. The Ontario government grants sole rights for the sale of 90% of the beer (both retail and commercial) in Ontario to three companies based in other countries.

The idea is absurd on its face. Unlike the LCBO, which is public (which generates revenues for the province, whose mission it is to serve the Ontario people, who open up their books for all Ontarians to see), Brewer's Retail is a completely private venture. We can't take a look at how much their owners are profiting from the monopoly. More than that though, it's clear that the Beer Store is abusing its position. Anyone have an "express" store near your house? These are built to benefit the major brewers (the owners) at the expense of local brewers and LCBO purchased imports. The set up discourages consumers from tasting new products. The marketing in any Beer Store features some beers more prominently than others (guess which ones). And the very nature of the provincewide retail operation means that stocking fees for small Ontario brewers are prohibitively expensive.

Imagine for a second if Diageo was given the rights to liquor sales in the province and suddenly Guinness, Crown Royal, and Bailey's were all you could seem to find anywhere. Or if Ford were given the rights to car sales and suddenly you were only able to find Mustangs.

It's a bad joke. Worse, the government knows it's a joke. They know it because their own study in 2005 told them so. The abuses of Brewer's Retail have been widely publicized, Brick Brewing of Waterloo has been especially vocal about its run ins with the beast. Same with Beau's in Ottawa, whose expensive bottles were being destroyed by the Beer Store despite the small brewer's attempts to have them returned.

All sorts of nonsense excuses are trotted out to justify the continued public support of the beer barons. It's for the environment. It's efficient. It's about Ontarian "values". Somebody think of the children! Meanwhile, the government allows certain wineries to open up their own boutique stores. But when the Ontario Craft Brewers request their own stores? Sorry, no. The Beer Store has sole rights to all domestic beer sales.

It's enough to make you cry. The stubborness of the Ontario government on this issue is very strange. What do we gain from Brewer's Retail? What is this hold that Labatt's and Molson have over the Government of Ontario that prevents them from looking at the system with just the tiniest bit of common sense?


  1. Mort Subite Kriek Lambic. Thought I'd treat myself to something a little different and it didn't disappoint. For those unfamiliar with the style, it's a cherry beer. In fact, it's a sour cherry beer (although the label says cherry juice rather than cherries, but that's where the juice comes from, so you can hardly accuse the Belgians of failing to deliver as advertised). And it’s wonderful... if you like sour cherry beer. There’s not a lot more to say about it because it completely fulfills all the expectations you have when you imagine either the aroma or the flavour of a sour cherry beer. In the glass, it's a nice ruby red with a light pink head. The cherry is pleasantly obvious in the aroma and the lambic yeast signature is also detectable. The cherry flavour registers quite tartly at first (probably because you have to rewind your taste buds from all of the "beer" elements they might have been expecting). If you overthink it, you can probably claim to have found some red grape flavour and aroma in the glass as well, but it's pretty much cherry first, last and only.

  2. Heh, an appropriate beer given the subject of my post. Ontario beer drinkers once came very close to getting one of the best kriek beers out there, Cantillon's. Unfortunately when this world famous beer was tested by the LCBO the cherries (Cantillon's version is all natural) gave off a chemical similar, or part of, cyanide. The entire shipment was sent to Quebec and we never saw a drop of it. Good choice.

  3. If I recall my recent experience at Algonquin College's Beer Course, cherry pits actually contain cyanide. (Google Google Google... Yep: I'll skip querying what the "good" was in your assessment of the choice to ship the whole lot of Cantillon over the river (as we call Quebec from here in Ottawa). But I also seem to recall that in order to ingest a quantity sufficient to cause you harm, you'd have to consume so much that your liver and kidneys would be at risk of failing long before the cyanide from cherry pits even began to show up in detectable amounts. (Of course, I could just be recalling a study funded by the Cyanide Institute of Canada, too.)

  4. "Good choice" on the Mort Subite. The shipping off of the kriek was a tragedy.

  5. Shiner:

    I'm afraid I've nothing beery or lagerish to say, just a few words of admiration and of thanks for the kind words you've pronounced here on my behalf. Naturally, I shall add you (belatedly) to my blog roll. Keep up the good work!

  6. Thanks Sir Francis, appreciated!