Contract brewers will no longer be allowed at Ontario beer festivals

Left Field Brewery

Yes, that’s right, as of May 1st, you can now buy wine at Ontario’s farmer’s markets but today, it seems, marks an unprecedented decision by the province to restrict beer from being sold at beer festivals.

Sort of.

Mark and Mandie Murphy, who run Toronto brewing company Left Field Brewery, have just informed me that the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) has told them they will no longer be able to pour their beer at any events that have received a Special Occasion Permit (SOP) to sell alcohol.

As Mark told me, “We’ve been informed by the AGCO that as contract brewers we’re not allowed to sell beer to SOP event holders, which would preclude us from participating in beer festivals.”

According to the law, Mark explained, SOP permit holders are allowed to serve and/or sell alcohol at their events but, if you check out the details of an SOP, you’ll see this:

Once an SOP is issued, all alcohol for the event must be purchased under the permit from an authorized government retail store (such as an LCBO, an LCBO Agency Store, The Beer Store or any Winery, Brewery or Distillery Store). 

So, because Left Field Brewery is a contract brewery that doesn’t sell their beer at the LCBO or The Beer Store and uses the facilities at Barley Days or Grand River to make their products under their own manufacturing license, they can’t sell their beer at events that have SOPs.

Here’s the problem: Most beer festivals are run using SOPs. Contract brewers have already been selling their beer at events with Special Occasion Permits for a long time. Left Field Brewery, who has been on the scene for just over a year, just announced plans to build their own brewery in East Toronto and the reason they’ve been able to do that is because Mark and Mandie have been hustling their asses off, selling their beer and meeting people at beer festivals run with Special Effing Occasion Permits.

For some reason, someone at the AGCO just realized that this is contrary to the law and decided to pull the plug on an event that Mark and Mandie had planned to hold next to the location of their future brewery. (Mark and Mandie just posted some details about the fiasco over on their own blog).

I can’t speak to why the decision was made given that this rule has been being broken for a long, long time, but the decision marks a pretty significant (and shitty) precedent if it holds. What it means is that, if the AGCO is going to stick to their guns on this issue, the only beer you’ll be allowed to get at beer festivals with SOPs is beer that’s already for sale at The Beer Store, the LCBO, or onsite retail stores. Which is a little counter to the point of most beer festivals.

Also, contract brewers, who largely build their brand and spread word about their products through festivals like the Toronto Festival of Beer and the Beach BBQ and Brews Festival (which are both licensed through SOPs) are now going to be extremely limited in the ways they can market their brands and build their businesses (not to mention how hard it will make it for festivals to bring in diverse and up-and-coming brands) and, while there are arguments for and against the contract brewing model, Mark and Mandie and others like them are proof that it can be a viable way for people who are passionate about brewing beer to start a brewery.

This then, really has the potential to hurt small breweries in Ontario–who already have a tough battle fighting the big guys.

Mark tells me that he’s reached out to his MPP and the Premier’s office, and their blog post includes this call to action:

If you agree that the laws should be changed, please write to your local MPP, the Ontario Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Employment, Eric Hoskins and to the office of the Premier, Kathleen Wynne asking that small contract breweries like ourselves be allowed to participate in beer festivals.

Do Mark and Mandie and other contract brewers a favour and write an email or two today, share my blog post or theirs and get the word out. If this is the shape of things to come it’s not only going to make things tougher for fledgling contract brewers but it’s also going to affect the quality of the beer festivals we all love and the small brewers who depend on them for growing their business.

30 thoughts on “Contract brewers will no longer be allowed at Ontario beer festivals

  1. How does this work if the festival is run by a bar (onsite or offsite) like Griffin Gastro, the Rhino or Imbibe in Kitchener?

    1. Licensed venues wouldn’t need an SOP. They’re for events at places that don’t normally serve alcohol, i.e. event spaces or outdoor venues. It’s my understanding that it doesn’t matter who’s running it, it’s the physical location. So Griffin Gastro can run an event in the park, but their bar license doesn’t mean anything there, they still need an SOP. (Brewers or bar owners, feel free to correct me if that’s wrong)

    2. A license extension is possible to use if the event is attached to your establishment.
      eg: we extend our license for parking lot parties behind our pub

      A caterer’s endorsement is possible if the person with the liquor license ISN’T the event planner.
      eg: we are hired to provide our license & insurance for weddings & events run by other people
      ***the license holder CANNOT advertise or promote the event

      An SOP is possible to license an area for a person or group throwing the actual event.
      ***the license holder CAN advertise and promote the event

  2. I have to wonder if the people that enforce these things ever thing of the real-world consequences of doing so. It reminds me of little kids playing monopoly and just yelling “Because those are the rules!” whenever someone questions anything. Without going into the pros and cons of contract brewing, enforcing laws like this just make it so much more difficult for new contract brewers (many of whom hope to eventually become full-fledged breweries) to gain any sort of foothold, word of mouth etc.

  3. I suspect someone has formally complained to the AGCO and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it was a well established craft brewery doing so.

  4. FINALLY someone is thinking of the children!

    But on a serious note, it sounds like ONbeerfacts are getting pissy after everyone crapped on their campaign.

  5. we have an election coming!
    lets get changes made
    If Kathleen Wynne can loosen up the wine market we should pressure her to do the same for our Ontario Breweries…contract or otherwise

  6. wow…,It seems that this law is somewhat Draconian. Can someone please explain the Intent of this law? Why can you sell kegs to the bars and not be allowed to pour beer from the same batch at a special occasion permit ? what percentage of beer sold through The Beer Store and the L.C.B.O. is produced by Canadian Owned breweries ? Why would the A.G.C.O. single out Left Field Brewery as their enforcement initiative without first serving notice to ALL contract brewers and beer festivals organizers that may be risking their S.O.P. (perhaps unknowingly) ? So many questions. please explain or change this unnecessary hurdle

  7. I don’t really know “how” the law works; however, here’s a kicker. I actually GO TO BEER FESTIVALS to see what’s NEW on the market. NOT to buy what I already know is on the Beer Store and / or LCBO shelves. This really sounds like one more example of “Special-Kinda-Stupid” bureaucracy.

  8. this is a prime example of people having jobs they have no business having. cronyism? plain ole stupidity? head-stuck-in-a**? this sort of thing is very bad and very wrong and unfortunately extremely common…

    the only other way this could at all be possible is if there’s corruption at play… i.e. large e$tablished player$ trying to squash competition. I mean, it’s hard to be in the business of selling horrifyingly poor product (with heavy profit margins) when craft brewers are teaching people about quality.

  9. What’s the history of this law and when was the last time it was enforced (if ever)?

    If there’s a silver lining somewhere in this mess, it might be that this case can generate the necessary public outcry to amend this law and legally protect these opportunities for contract breweries (even if there has to be some limitations). There’s a bit of a parallel to the CFIA’s re-definition of ‘local’ last year where restaurants were suddenly fined for menu labelling/advertising that didn’t align with the outdated 50-km radius definition; widespread debate followed and the CFIA held a modernization consultation. A new interim definition now includes the entire province as well as a border buffer (but of course there’s been backlash to that too). It’s a different ball game, but I think we can sense the will for change to help support new and innovate food & drink producers in the province.

    As you and others have said, festivals are a necessary venue to build that customer base and buzz to launch a new product.

  10. Why is there no online petition for this? make it happen why put the effort in to just letting the people know the problem, give us an easy way to help. Easy is the key for mass signatures.


  12. Ontario is so f#$%king backward. It is the biggest joke in the western world. Canada is run by America anyway , in so many ways – this is a typical example of big USA beer companies, that own the ‘Canadian’ Beer stores, keeping this horsecrap going. What a joke…The USA however, are very liberal and accepting of the beer industry, including acceptance of all the micro breweries..

    1. Since when was (and is) Canada run by the USA? Also, where did you get the idea that all of the big beer companies in Canada were run by U.S. firms? Only half are. ABInBev (formerly Interbrew SA, owner of Labatt’s) is Belgian-Brazilian; Diageo plc, which makes Guinness and other beer brands, is British (as well as SAB Miller, which is partly South African) and Sapporo which owns Sleeman’s, is Japanese. Only Molson Coors is partially owned by it’s American part, Coors.

      I can see that you’re angry about this law, but as I said above, your rant doesn’t help things.

  13. So…AGCO decides to review an often overlooked regulation around the same time that TBS runs fear mongering commercials regarding retail alcohol sales (evil convenience stores!).

    I smell foreign power lobbying…

    1. Kudos for taking some initiative. I’m not sure that it’s factully correct to say that the AGCO has started enforcing the rule, because they haven’t really across the board; Left Field Brewery is the only contract brewer thus far who’s been warned.

      I support your efforts, but frankly I think it’s a better move if you, as a festival organizer, just continue to support contract brewers. 

      If the AGCO wants to start enforcing this rule they’ve never enforced before, make them.

      On Tue, May 6, 2014 at 9:02 PM, Ben's Beer Blog

  14. BOYCOTT the LCBO, and the Beer store. Buy directly from local breweries, many of them will deliver to your door. Or just brew your own beer/alchaholic beverages, its not hard to do. Its time for the people step up and smash the government monopoly.

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s