Crazily enough, if I had to chose one word to describe how I feel about the myriad beer news that went down in the year 2014, it would be optimism.
It’s not a word I use that often–I’m not even sure I’ve spelled it right–but looking over the events of the last year, it’s hard to think of any other way to feel about the events of the last year and what 2015 might bring.
2014 really was a year that saw the conversation about Ontario’s wacky beer scene jump from blogs and Bar Towel threads to much broader social media exposure, talk radio, television, and other mainstream media outlets. Given the shenanigans that have been exposed this year and how large the conversation has gotten, I feel like it’s kind of sort of OK to feel cautiously optimistic about what comes next. The momentum for change feels too big to go away this time around.
I really think 2015 is poised to be a big year for beer in Ontario.
Here’s a chronological list of all the newsworthy things that happened in the world of Ontario beer and got us where we are at the end of 2014. As you might imagine, the list skews hard to stuff I wrote about.
The beginning of the year in beer in Ontario was largely dominated by a loud and fairly trolly public battle between The Beer Store and the OCSA. The OCSA sensed there might be some opportunity for a new beer retailer in this province and started slinging mud at everyone’s favourite foreign-owned beer monopoly, and in response, TBS amped up their rhetoric, too (We recycle! Convenience store owners will give kids booze!). As a result, on social media and elsewhere, people started to take sides without ever really considering, hey wait, both these options suck. (In June, I got Beer Store employees to weigh in on the debate for an article in Torontoist)
In February of this year, I posted a story on my blog about the high prices that the Beer Store charges licensees for cases of beer produced by TBS’ owner breweries. That blog post piqued the interest of Toronto Life and I ended up writing a slightly longer piece for them that changed the industry forever. Just kidding nothing happened and they’re still gouging restaurants and bars.
In March of this year, I broke the story of Steam Whistle being unceremoniously shown the door at the Rogers Centre, ending just one year of the local brewer’s availability at the ball park and making the Toronto Blue Jays once again the only team in the majors that doesn’t serve local beer at their baseball games.
- The AGCO threatens to ban contract brewers from beer festivals and then The Beer Store saves the day
In May, thanks to an anonymous tip (from a douche bag, presumably), the AGCO decided to crack down on a never-before enforced rule that all beer served at events licensed with a Special Occasion Permit (SOP) had to be purchased from the LCBO, an LCBO Agency Store, The Beer Store or any Winery, Brewery or Distillery Store. Given that some contract brewers, like Left Field Brewery who shared the news of the crackdown, don’t yet sell beer in any of these places, their future participation in beer events seemed uncertain. Thankfully, help came from an unlikely ally and The Beer Store worked with Left Field to create an administrative loophole to allow contractors to keep pouring beer at SOP events.
- Flying Monkeys makes a stink about having to use the beer store and brings attention to exorbitant listing fees
Also in May, Barrie’s Flying Monkeys brewery were told they couldn’t list one of their beers at the LCBO and so, to prove a point, they listed the beer at The Beer Store and used the occasion to once again bring up the high fees that TBS charges to list products there.
In August, I broke the news of the new Bellwoods brewery location, but then shortly thereafter, I broke your hearts with the news that it might not have a store thanks to some archaic legislation. Thanks to my blog article, the province has agreed to look into the strange hectolitre threshold that exists for having a second retail stores. Just kidding again, nothing has changed.
- The CD Howe institute released an independent report which called for more competition in alcohol sales
In September, I got my hands on a vaguely hilarious marketing brief that outlined Labatt’s potential plans for marketing the shitty, faux Belgian wheat beer “Shock Top” and I posted it, with analysis, online. The leak sent some ripples through the interwebs as many outlets, beer-focused and otherwise, picked up the story of a big company trying to pass itself off as a craft brewer. To date this remains my most viewed blog post of all time (by a wide margin).
- Looking to top his own list-writing tendencies, local blogger uses his enormous brain to write a slightly ridiculous list of the 50 best beers in Toronto
- In October, Ed Clark the CEO of TD Bank, delivered remarks suggesting that the province make changes to the beer retail scene
In November, local filmmakers Peter Lenardon and A.J. Wykes released their documentary, “Straight Up: The Issue of Alcohol in Ontario” on the beers news aggregate site, Mom n Hops.
This is largely on here because I feel like I spent most of 2014 researching, writing, and pitching this article (and then having it rejected). It just went live on my blog a week ago and while it’s not exactly exploding the interwebs, I feel like I raised an issue that demands further conversation. The issue that four distribution companies handle all imported draught in this province seems to me like one worth talking about. The companies and the folks that work for them do a good job for the most part, but any time I see a small, closed group making choices that effect what I can get in my glass, I get a little pissy. I hope this issue gets a little more attention in 2015.
In early December, The Toronto Star wrote an article based on a leaked document detailing the agreement that exists between the province’s two retail beer sellers. I actually received the document from the same source, but I didn’t think it was newsworthy (feel free to scroll through the seven resulting Star articles and laugh at me for that one) given that there’s nothing that surprising in the document. However, Regg Cohn seems to have detailed the document with the perfect flourish of outraged indignation and the resulting outcry might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Since Regg Cohn’s article(s), the story has been picked up by myriad other outlets and with major news outlets piling on, more and more light has been brought to the issue of our wacky retail beer scene and, as a result, the premier actually said that Ontarians can “expect some change” in the new year on the way booze is sold in the province. That’s clearly cause for some cautious optimism.
The Toronto Star continues to pile on The Beer Store following Regg Cohn’s article on the alleged “sweetheart” deal and on December 26th ran a piece explaining just how much money The Beer Store, its owner companies, and the unions representing TBS employees all donate to provincial politicians. This really gets at the heart of how and why our shitty system is so ingrained in Ontario. Again, not to be too “inside baseball” but this probably isn’t “news” to people who pay attention to beer (the donation amounts, for example, have long been publicly available) but it’s pretty cool to see the issue detailed in a major newspaper. It also seems like the issue might finally be coming to a head sometime soon (or it would seem that there is at least one motivated editor at The Star who agrees) so even if the myriad articles coming from The Star are intended to drive traffic to their website, one hopes they might just be creating a larger and larger number of informed consumers. This most recent article, for example, pretty handily details all the reasons one should be annoyed about the continued existence of The Beer Store’s monopoly and is about as close to “required reading” as beer journalism has come this year.