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.

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.

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…