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.
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.