Beer is Not Evil

Now that festival season is pretty much over, we can start looking back on the year. This is the year when the Beer Store monopoly story broke, when Left Field Brewery faught for and earned the right to serve at beer festivals despite having no brewhouse of their own (at the time), and when it became permitted to sell locally-produced wine at farmers markets (but not beer!). So with that in mind, I’m republishing this article, written for Windsor Independent, about how alcohol regulations in Ontario are disproportionally harmful to the local beer industry.

Ontario’s laws demonize humanity’s favourite drink

The Raise a Glass to Ontario Act, introduced by PC MPP Todd Smith , would allow Ontario breweries to sell their products in each other’s stores. If it passes, it will be a distinct change of pace from most of the province’s alcohol laws, which seem intent on limiting the growth potential of the craft beer industry and keeping beer lovers unhappy.

Prince Edward-Hastings MPP Todd Smith

In the context of the growing support for the privatization of alcohol sales, the bill could be seen as either a reasonable compromise or the first step in the right direction. The first amendment is as follows:

1. A manufacturer of beer or cider may sell, in stores it owns and operates, its own beer or cider as well as that of other manufacturers of beer or cider.

I think this is a great idea. My second favourite thing about the craft beer industry, after the beer, is how supportive they are as a community. In general, brewers happily cross-promote and have no reservations about expressing the virtues of beers produced by their competitors (providing those beers are well-made) and this is a component of craft beer culture that has held true to my experience in every province and country I’ve visited.

The bill would allow brewers to showcase the Ontario-crafted beers that they love, including rare or special occasion beers, and to distribute new beers more easily to test the market before applying for shelf-space at the LCBO or paying the prohibitively high listing fees at the Beer Store. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bill inspired many breweries to invest in expanding their on-site retail stores into large specialty beer stores.

This is, of course, if the Raise a Glass to Ontario Act is passed. Unfortunately, the province’s track record with beer laws until now has been piss poor.

Contract brewing

The sheer number of start-up breweries out there (more than 100 in Ontario in the last few years alone) inspires a lot of collaboration. Many head brewers learned the ropes working at other breweries. Many small breweries ship their kegs on trucks owned by the bigger crafters like Beau’s, Mill St. and Wellington. Canning lines are few and far between. And, most intimately, many start-up breweries are contract brewers: they make their beer in somebody else’s facility.

The cost of opening a brewery is somewhere in the $1 million area . That’s a big investment to make before you can even test out your first product. That’s why most small breweries start out as either nanobreweries, like Motor Craft Ales, or contract brewers.

Since few craft breweries keep their brewhouse at capacity 7 days a week, they can help to pay off that massive capital investment by renting out their unused capacity to others, so many of Ontario’s producers actually work together on a day-to-day basis, sharing equipment, trucks, knowledge and maybe even yeast.

Yet for some reason there’s a stigma against contract brewing, which has led to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) enforcing a law which excludes them selling their beer to Special Occasion Permit (SOP) holders such as beer festivals, one of the best ways for start-ups to reach new customers. The law only serves to hurt the smallest of Ontario’s brewing companies, which seems to be a trait shared by most of Ontario’s beer laws.

(It’s interesting to note here that contract brewers, because they don’t own their own brewhouses, also can’t open an on-site retail store, so their options are very limited.)

To privatization or not to privatize

For some reason the stigma against beer among law-makers extends beyond just contract brewers, for example: as of May 1st, Ontario wineries can now sell their wines at farmer’s markets. Why not breweries? Many craft brewers have taken cues from the wine industry, and many craft beer drinkers prefer to buy in single bottles anyway. It’s about time we do away with the “wine is classy, beer is trashy” stereotype.

The debate over privatization of alcohol sales is being most visibly played out in the PR smear campaign between the Beer Store and the Ontario Convenience Store Association (OCSA), but the black-and-white narrative they’re shaping is not the reality of the situation.

The question is not “should we sell beer in convenience stores?” – as the Raise a Glass to Ontario Act shows, there are plenty of different ways to reform the province’s alcohol retail system. Neither would privatization be a death sentence to the Beer Store – it will remain a distribution machine for its owner breweries (AB-InBev, Molson-Coors and Sapporo).

And let’s not blame the LCBO for this. Most of the stupid laws that hurt local brewers as well as craft beer drinkers fall under the jurisdiction of the AGCO. The LCBO is primarily a retail chain and, in my opinion, a really good one. It has its flaws, but at least the LCBO actively responds to changing consumer interests, unlike the Beer Store.

To privatize alcohol sales in Ontario does not mean the end of the Beer Store or the LCBO. It just means that our beer, wine and cider industries can grow on their own terms, sell directly to their audiences, and leave the LCBO and the Beer Store do what they do best.

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Session #92: I Made This

I haven’t participated in The Session since I hosted #80 a year ago, “ Is Craft Beer a Bubble?” but now I’m back to answer Jeremy Short’s excellent question:

“How did homebrewing change your view of beer? Do you like beers now that you didn’t before? Do you taste beer differently? Does homebrewing turn you into a pretentious asshole?”

Before answering the first question, I’ll answer the other three: yes, yes, and maybe.

I never liked domestics. I drank liquor and wine. But even before I loved beer, I was fascinated by it’s role in society, by its history and it’s significance, by pub culture. Before I loved the pint, I loved the idea of the pint.

So I did it backwards. It wasn’t craft beer that got me into homebrewing, it was homebrewing that got me into craft beer. When I started homebrewing about 5 years ago my journey to beer nerd-dom had just begun.

But when that first batch brewed from a kit turned out so very terrible, I knew there must be a better waym and I began to obsessively read everything I could find about brewing. I wasted massive chunks of my days pouring through homebrewtalk.com, memorizing recipes and comparing dozens of different ones for each style of beer to see how they did and didn’t differ from eachother.

Pretty soon I was writing all my own recipes and inviting everyone I knew to collaborate on brew day so that I could share my obsession and show people how easy it was.

To get back to the question at hand, first and foremost my palate wouldn’t be anything close to what it is if it weren’t for homebrewing. I used to taste a lot of beers with a friend of mine and it was very clear that he tastes beer like a beer drinker and I taste beer like a beer maker. I taste beer through the lense of brewing, as if I’m trying to reverse engineer the recipe, naming the malts, the hops, the yeast, etc.

That means that I have very little patience for flaws, fermenting too hot being the main offender in my experience. So maybe I am a pretentious asshole, but I’d say I’m more like a bass player who cringes when he hears somebody play bass badly, especially if I’m paying for the pleasure.

I don’t brew professionally, so I don’t want to buy a beer from someone who can’t brew as well as I can.

Snob alert.

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Bringing Back LCBO Alcohol?

I like the LCBO. It’s not without its flaws, but living in Montreal has really made me appreciate the LCBO’s attitude toward beer. Quebec is 99% devoid of any non-Quebecois craft beer. For 360 days per year the beer culture is isolated, the 5-day Mondial de la Biere festival being the one and only time local drinkers can expand their horizons.

Having said that, a recent suggestion that the LCBO should resume distilling their own spirits, a practice that ended in 1996, strikes me as laughable. Folded into an article filled with Orwellian language and a curious amount of righteous indignation, the suggestion seems to be at odds with the writer’s poor opinion of the LCBO, described as “our humble and benevolent alcohol overlords”.

If you really hate the LCBO so much why would you want them distilling their own spirits? It seems to me that liquor control and liquor production are best kept separate. LCBO producing their own beverages would cause the same conflict of interest that I have vocally decried about the Beer Store.

If you think Ontario’s alcohol retail is bad now, just imagine if the LCBO were operated like the Beer Store. Since they discontinued their line of spirits almost 20 years ago, the LCBO has only gotten better at serving the discening drinker. The one thing they do best, their selection, is the one thing that LCBO alcohol would put into jeopardy.

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Today in Beer Laws: No Contract Brewers at Beer Festivals

For a variety of reasons, brewers rarely participate in political discussions, and I respect the attitude of just getting on with making (hopefully) good beer. But Left Field Brewery, which opened last year in Toronto, has piped up to call everyone’s attention to another absurd piece of legislation with is stiffling the growth potential of small start-up craft brewers.

Left Field Brewery: Why we won’t be serving beer at festivals this summer

It’s a good time too. The Beer Store debate is as heated as ever and the amount of people who are going to pay attention to beer politics in Ontario is probably at an all-time high. And this latest tidbit is news to me:

It’s recently been brought to our attention by the AGCO that as a contract brewer, we’re only allowed to sell beer to three parties; The LCBO, The Beer Store and Licensed bars & restaurants. That list specifically excludes Special Occasion Permit (SOP) holders … including beer festival organizers.” – Mark & Mandie of Left Field Brewery.

The irony is that even Left Field Brewery is an SOP holder, since they’re co-hosting the dim sum festival YumCha! this weekend – meaning that they can’t serve their own beers at their own festival.

SOP holders would also cover any markets and private events on top of major beer festivals like Cask Days, which in this market of near-monopolistic beer sales are one of few ways that new breweries can get their beer into the hands of potential customers.

“Events and festivals are the single best way for us to sample our beers with the public and are one of our few opportunities to interact directly with beer drinkers.”

So what is this all about? Left Field Brewery is (for the time being) a contract brewer, which means they make their beer at somebody else’s brewery. This is actually pretty common. When I volunteered with a brewing company in Melbourne, Australia, there were at least four breweries that worked out of the same facility. It’s a reality and it’s a necessity in the craft beer world.

The cost of opening a brewery is somewhere in the $1 million area. That’s a big investment to make before you can even test out your first product. That’s why most small breweries start their lives either as contract brewers – since only the largest of brewers actually keep their brewhouse at capacity 7 days a week – or as nanobreweries like Motor Craft Ales.

For some reason it seems there’s a stigma against contract brewing. Left Field’s beer is “brewed at licensed breweries, has been lab tested by the LCBO and is consumed safely at over 60 bars and restaurants every day,” why should they be treated any differently than other brewers?

The law only serves to hurt the smallest of Ontario’s brewing companies, which seems to be a trait shared by most of Ontario’s beer laws.

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Follow-Up: Long Live the Beer Store

I have this sinking feeling that the March issue of my beer column in The Windsor Independent is going to be the most widely-read thing I’ve ever done. That being likely, I want to clarify something: The Beer Store is not the villain of the piece.

Even in the short amount of time since my article made the rounds, it has become increasingly obvious that the Beer Store is a heartless, fear-mongering enterprise that will stop at nothing to maintain its monopoly on private alcohol sales in Ontario. Case in point, the new Beer Store-managed Twitter feed “Ontario Beer Facts” (@ONBeerFacts), where they play fast and loose with the definition of “Facts”.

2014415-beer-store-adWorse yet is their 80s PSA-inspired TV ad in which they suggest that convenience store clerks are evil, pedophilic incompetents.

This contrasts with my experience in Vancouver last week at the (privately owned) Brewery Creek Liquor Store. I asked a staff member which beers were must-trys for somebody only in town for a couple days and he basically gave me a crash-course in BC beer. He was passionate, articulate, and really knew his shit.

Would you get that kind of treatment from a Beer Store clerk? No chance. That kind of behaviour could get them fired – no joke! Beer Store employees are prohibited from recommending anything, probably because the owners, Molson and Labatt, know that no educated beer drinker would ever recommend their products in good faith.

Keep reading…

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