Excuses I’ve heard for purchased tap lines

Taps for sale

Please forgive me while I drag this dead horse out of the stable so that I might beat it once more, but did you know that the practice of purchasing draught lines in bars is illegal?

Obviously you do know that, because you read my blog and are therefore brilliant, well-informed about beer, socially conscious, and, one can assume, extremely attractive physically. But if for some reason you were out of town or asleep when I wrote about the subject for Torontoist back in January, allow me to sum up the issue in a single sentence: The practice of paying a licensed establishment or providing that establishment incentives in order to guarantee a brewery’s exclusivity in that licensed establishment is illegal under the province’s liquor legislation, and yet it still happens all the time. 

And, as I discovered while writing that article and have confirmed in the time that’s passed since I wrote said article, bar owners and big breweries are typically wholly aware this practice is illegal, but, to put it bluntly, don’t give a shit.

Indeed, in the roughly half dozen establishments I’ve found myself  in recently that clearly have been bought out by big brewers, only one attempted to explain that the big brewer dominating their draught lines was a result of the bar owners’ tastes.

Yes, because I am a shit disturber, I actually make a point of speaking to someone about the issue whenever I see it and, as luck would have it, most bar owners or managers are happy to spout crazy bullshit about this exclusivity and all that bullshit ultimately all means the same thing: We were illegally bought out.

So here are some of my favourite things I’ve actually heard about why there is only one brand of beer being offered in a particular establishment or why one brewery is allowed to dominate an establishment’s tap tower:

“It’s a Molson house. They have strict jurisdiction.”
“We are kind of bound.”
“We have rules we have to follow.”
“We do have competitors here, you just have to find them.” 

The first three are clearly just outright lies. As a bar owner, no one has “jurisdiction” of your fucking keg fridge regardless of how many patio umbrellas they buy you.

And while it is true that bar owners have “rules” they are “bound” to follow, those rules actually aren’t set by the brewery with the deepest pockets, those rules are actually called The Fucking Law, and you’re breaking it.

The last quote here is my favourite because it boils down to an admission to the fact that the person I spoke with is wholly aware that the law states they can’t just serve one brand of beer, but because the establishment was a big venue, they literally hid a small amount of another brand of beer somewhere on the premises in order to be in technical compliance with the law while still appeasing their big brewer overlords. What an excellent fuck you to the law that’s supposed to prevent big brewery monopolies!

And it’s not just inquisitive drunkard beer bloggers with whom bar owners are willing to be nonchalant. I continue to hear, for example, from brewers who have approached new bars only to hear the owners say, “Sorry, I already sold all my draught lines” as though it were the most natural thing in the world. I’ve  even heard of a case where a brewer offered to donate beer for a charitable event but was shot down because a brewery had demanded exclusivity at the event! A fucking charity event!

Anyway, aside from the fact that I’d heard a few laughable excuses recently, I’m not really sure why I’m trotting this issue out again (Shameless attempt at web traffic? Utter lack of originality? Quiet you!) other than the fact that it continues to irk me. It’s just that once you start to pay attention to it, you see it everywhere. You can’t look at a bar’s tap tower the same any more once you realize it’s all just so much ready-to-be-auctioned real estate, and when something disappears at your local and a new beer replaces it, you can’t help eyeing it suspiciously.

But what is there to be done? Should we start publicly outing bars and breweries that are breaking the law? That seems like a good solution but can you fault people when it’s simply the norm? The most annoying thing about this issue is that everybody does it simply because everybody does it. Yes, even your favourite breweries have probably purchased a tap line or two in their day. So who’s to blame? Sleazy beer sales people? Greedy bar owners? The toothless AGCO that won’t enforce the rules? Where do I point my rage, internet? Where?!

20 thoughts on “Excuses I’ve heard for purchased tap lines

  1. Something that has always happened and always will. The big breweries have trained bar owners so that they know every keg comes with some sort of kick back, all new draught line installs will be paid for, and they will be stocked with free of charge glassware, coasters, signage and whatever else the brewery will put their name on.

    Craft brewers are starting to change that a bit in Ontario since many just don’t have the cash to pony up but their beer is good enough and in high demand that bars will serve it anyway.

    The tide is turning and the only way to continue to make up ground is for patrons to support bars that serve delicious high quality product from independent breweries. There will always be shitty sports bars that are exclusively labatts or molsons. Don’t give those people your money. It seems like every day a new establishment opens with focus on a craft lineup on draft.

    Like I said you will never end the kickbacks. It’s just part of the beverage industry. Money talks. But the positive thing here is craft breweries for the most part would much rather compete over who has the best beer rather than who can put the biggest sack of cash in the bar owners hand.

    If a bar is exclusive anything, fuck that place. This means the kickbacks are more important to them than what the customer wants.

    1. I agree that the only way to combat it now is to support good craft-beer-boosting bars and I also agree that smaller brewers suffer from an inability to “play the game,” as it were due to their less-deep pockets, but I wouldn’t be so quick to paint all craft brewers with the same “good guy” brush.

      Almost everyone plays this game, it’s not just the big boys–and it’s not just the sports bars.

      1. Good for you Ben for continuing to tackle the seedier side of supplying beer. It’s really simple. It’s illegal. Enforce it or start discussions about making certain parts of it legal (for instance, supply of draught hardware WITHOUT binding contracts, just good old customer service).
        Meanwhile, continue to expose and press for prosecution those who flagrantly give cash payments and regular free beer (one-in-five, for instance).

  2. I do not agree with everything in the blog.
    At Volo,we do not sell taps.
    Many offfers!
    It is not only the big guys offering to buy taps, many craft breweries are doing the same thing.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ralph. It’s always been my assumption that Volo isn’t a place that would buy taps.

      I’m interested to hear what I’ve said above that you don’t agree with.

  3. You are correct Tied Houses are illegal, but commercial agreements with breweries is part of business. You will find that Craft Brewers are also offering Free Kegs when X amount are purchased, and offering bigger discounts on more beer purchased. It isn’t just the big boys that do this now.

    Ultimately its still tasteless lagers that rule the roost in 95% of establishments we don’t frequent. Running a bar is something none of us on the Beer Blogesphere do, and hence commercial agreements and promotional beers are often how many stay in business. If these ‘Rent’ Beers help pay for my ‘Imperial X’ I dont mind.

    1. You really should mind, man. Commercial agreements aren’t “part of business.” It’s an agreement that’s explicitly forbidden by law. Specifically, the Liquor License Act states:

      “A manufacturer of liquor or an agent or employee of a manufacturer shall not directly or indirectly offer or give a financial or material inducement to a person who holds a licence or permit under the Act or to an agent or employee of the person for the purpose of increasing the sale or distribution of a brand of liquor.”

      And these “rent” beers aren’t going to help you get Imperial anything on tap. Quite the opposite, in fact. When taps are sold off to the highest bidder, they take over draught lines that might otherwise have poured new, small, or interesting offerings. Furthermore, the practice sets a precedent that tap lines need to be paid for–something that the makers of “Imperial X” can’t afford. Bar owners are far less likely to try a new craft beer on tap when someone else is willing to pay for the right to pour their lager from the same tap.

  4. Excoriate and alienate, perhaps even boycott the brewers who engage in this practice. Period. Craft brewer or not. I would say engaging in such practices is ample reason to dismiss a member from an organization that receives public funds.. Craft brewers must take the high road. We owe our existence to their mediocrity…never forget it.

  5. I think you have to start outing. Bars, brewers, craft or otherwise. Brewers & licensees get off scot free because rarely are they called out on what’s happening. That, and consumers aren’t aware so they can’t speak up with their patronage (or lack thereof).

    1. The AGCO investigates complaints–or at least that’s what they told me at the time of my initial article–but there are no hard and fast rules for the punishments. They investigate complaints and/or find offenses while conducting rare spot checks, then, if there is an offense, they determine penalties on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the severity of the offense, the offender’s previous offenses, if any, etc.

      Part of the problem is that while it seems clear that the practice is against the law when you interpret the legislation, no one seems to be doing anything to keep it from happening and if and when they ever did catch someone, there are no set penalties or consequences.

  6. Thanks for the great article! I work for a beer distributor and we take this on every day. It’s even more evident in public facilIties. I won’t name anything in particular but our new event arena that was recently finished has somewhere around 70 lines 65 of whloich are from one large brewer and they were all bought out pretty publicly. It’s an uphill battle when the law is obviously being broken but as long as the city takes advantage of it they will turn a blind eye. .

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