Last year, for my round up of beer news that occurred in 2014, I summarized my thoughts on the scene generally with an uncharacteristic sense of optimism.
The “Ontario beer conversation” seemed to have leapt from blogs and bars to the mainstream and a seemingly constant series of newspaper articles and op-eds was bringing more and more of the general public into the beer world’s previously private world of fist-shaking, head-scratching, anti-monopolistic, impotent rage. At the close of 2014, change in Ontario’s frustratingly archaic retail beer system seemed not only likely, but practically inevitable.
“I really think 2015 is poised to be a big year for beer in Ontario,” I wrote, one year ago today, in a post that seems almost as painful in its earnestness as the Geocities website I once created for my high school punk band.
Because of course, as is often the case in this province, the reality of the change to the beer scene in Ontario has been painfully slow, unnecessarily complicated, and largely unsatisfying. And so, instead of the celebratory year we might have had, this year, if I had to chose one word to describe how I felt about the beer news that went down in 2015, that word would be “meh.”
Here are some of the major events and themes of 2015 in beer that have me feeling a bit ho hum as we look toward 2016.
While it seems like a distant memory now, my favourite news of 2015 might just be the campaign that The Beer Store embarked on to convince people it wasn’t actually a completely unfair monopoly. A few months earlier, Ed Clark had been appointed to lead an advisory committee to help the province figure out what to do with beer sales and it seemed like that monopoly might actually finally be in jeopardy. And so on January 7th The Beer Store issued a press release heralding a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT (all caps their actual choice): The Beer Store was happy to announce that “ownership was being opened up to all Ontario-based brewers large and small.”
The fine print of course was that this “ownership” was ceremonial at best, and that no one–either in government or representing small brewers–had been consulted on these plans. The result was that the move was so overtly transparent that virtually everyone piled on TBS in a glorious frenzy. Two of my favourite examples (among what must have been literally a hundred) are still Dan Grant’s piece for NOW and an editorial conversation in The National Post between Chris Selley and Jonathan Goldsbie. The fall-out had the Beer Store in full damage-control mode, releasing clearly-biased polling about their own announcement just days after the announcement occurred, buying up major ads in newspapers and issuing a press release almost every day for two weeks (even issuing three in one glorious day). This seemed like a great beginning to 2015 for craft beer fans as public sentiment shifted massively against The Beer Store, and the Minister of Finance and the Premier said teasing things like “I am going to proceed with redesigning and reassessing the Beer Store” and ““people can expect to see changes, absolutely,”respectively. Proponents of real change rallied, smelling blood in the water.
In March, at the annual OCB tasting event at the Ontario legislature hosted by the Speaker of The House, the only trade organization currently representing small brewers in this province made a fairly impassioned plea for the ability to operate their own retail stores. To me, this, and the public release that followed two days later, was one of the most overlooked and symbolic news items of the year for two reasons: 1) The proposal, outlined by Darren Smith, the owner of Lake of Bays Brewery and the Vice Chair of the Ontario Craft Brewers, was perhaps the most reasoned and straightforward case for change that I’ve heard presented on behalf of Ontario’s small and independent brewers. Smith outlined the need for better access to retail and, on behalf of the OCB, explicitly asked a room full of politicians and their staffers
to also allow us to open our own stores offsite, and to cross sell each other’s products, so as to cooperatively sell each other’s products in our own brewery retail stores, and to be able to open more stores as we believe the liquor control act allows.
This is almost literally the exact proposal I had outlined as a solution to our retail woes just three months earlier (which is not to say it was even a very original idea then) and, to me, has long been the only logical way to give brewers independence and responsibilty of the sale of the products they make. Of course, the event was also tellingly symbolic because, 2) It was uniformly ignored, both at the event I attended and in the days that followed when the OCB followed up their official release. When Smith gave his plea, they literally closed off half of the room at the Queen’s Park event and people talked over him and then, it would seem, the proposal fell on deaf ears during consultations with Ed Clark. Because just one month later…
On April 16, the province announced that beer sales would be expanded to grocery stores. Tucked curiously into a joint announcement about the “broadening” of Hydro One ownership, details of the new plan were scant, except that we would see beer in 450 grocery stores by 2017.
Shortly thereafter, the province released the page-turning 67-page report, Striking the Right Balance: Modernizing Beer Retailing and Distribution in Ontario which detailed the changes a little more–but ultimately still left people scratching their heads about what this new beer retail environment would actually look like. Included in the proposed changes were:
- Beer would be sold in 450 grocery stores, being phased in over three years, starting in late 2015;
- The Beer Store would be forced to open up ownership to small brewers, in an arrangement curiously similar to the proposal from early 2015 that was so roundly mocked;
- The LCBO would try selling 12 packs in a 10-store “pilot program;”
- An ombudsman would be appointed to field consumer and brewery concerns about all retail sales; and
- The LCBO would begin selling growlers.
(For a complete list of the proposed changes, see my April 21, 2015 blog post, here).
days and weeks months that followed without any more developments, there was lots of rumour and speculation about what beer in grocery stores would actually look like and I chatted with not only the CEO of Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers but also Charles Sousa, Ontario’s Minister of Finance, to try to get some hints.
- The buyouts in Ontario get started
The Ontario Beverage Network, née Mom n’ Hops, website, announced in November that their Ontario Brewers Directory, which lists open or “in progress” breweries in Ontario, now includes more than 300 breweries. This is awesome for all kinds of reason. For one, it means craft beer in this province is inarguably gaining traction in the market place: People are buying and supporting beer made by small local brewers. The quality of the beer that we have access to will thus surely only continue to increase and, with increased numbers in the market, presumably small brewers will be able to demand more changes to a system that has been historically unfair to their business and we’ll be able to get that beer in more places (some day).
It’s also funny to consider that this news of Ontario beer’s exponential growth broke while fellow beer writers Jordan St. John and Robin Leblanc embarked on an effort to document all of the province’s beer for a forthcoming Ontario beer guide, ostensibly ensuring that the guide would be out of date by the time it is published. Which isn’t so much funny “ha ha” as it is funny “ha ha.” (You should totally still pre-order their book though, obviously).
- Loblaws becomes the first grocery store chain in Ontario to actually sell beer
With much fanfare, thanks perhaps in part to a wily beer blogger who leaked the story four days ahead of time, Loblaws was joined by Premier Kathleen Wynne to announce on December 15 that they had commenced beer sales at 19 Loblaws locations and that 58 other grocery stores would soon be joining them in stocking beers both craft and macro on their shelves. The announcement was the culmination of literally months of speculation and rumour and is almost certainly THE big takeaway news item for beer in Ontario.
And this is definitely one of the news items that’s got me saying “meh” at the close of 2015.
Supporters and makers of craft beer in Ontario have long been clamouring for change to a system that inarguably favours the three mostly-foreign-owned beer companies who are the only entity allowed to operate private retail beer stores in this province. And while proponents for change have offered up myriad solutions–full-scale privatization that allows anyone to obtain a license to sell beer, full-scale regulation that sees only the government overseeing booze sales, craft brewers operating their own stores, etc.–the first change that we see to beer sales in Ontario in roughly 100 years is to bring in another, heavily-unionized entity with its own powerful lobby groups and to hand them the right to sell beer?
That’s a kind of logic that sure only flies in Ontario.
It’s almost as though, realizing they couldn’t please everyone with any policy changes they opted to make, the province decided to please no one. Sure, craft brewers get more shelf space, but they also have yet another third party to oversee the sale of the products they make. Grocery stores get to sell beer, but only in six packs, and only up to a certain limit per year. The Beer Store gets to continue operating, but now has to “compete” with another retailers. Ontario consumers who spoke fairly loudly and clearly about disliking how unfair the Beer Store is have another place to buy beer, but The Beer Store continues to exist and to have the exclusive right to sell as much beer as they want and in any formats they want.
Frankly, it’s bullshit.
Sure, yes, it could just be the beginning. It might be a great thing that exposes more people to craft beer and “normalizes” its purchase and consumption. Maybe the general public will begin to embrace small and local beer and, as a result, politicians will make life easier for small brewers in this province, seeing that it’s only logical to help small business operating in our backyard to create jobs and bring in tourist dollars.
Sure, maybe logic will prevail.
But to me there is too much evidence to suggest that policy related to beer in this province isn’t usually shaped by public desires, logic, or fairness (see this Toronto Star article from Martin Regg Cohn almost exactly one year ago that detailed precisely how much money they three big beer companies who own The Beer Store throw at all three political parties).
And for me there are far too many “outs.” Grocery store sales as well as growlers and 12 packs in the LCBO are being tested via a “pilot project” that will encompass multiple years (years!) before widespread implementation. Who knows which way the wind might blow in the time it takes to roll out these initiatives? I’ve only been writing about beer in Ontario for about five years now and I’m already cynical and bitter enough to know better than to count any chickens before they hatch.
So beer in grocery stores. It’s not a bad thing. It’s not a good thing. It’s just kind of…a thing.
What do you think was the biggest beer news of 2015? Also, stay tuned. Next post I’ll share my predictions for 2016.