How COVID has improved beer drinking in Ontario

Trying to find a silver lining to 2020 feels a bit like trying to stay positive about being trapped in the trunk of a stolen Sonata speeding down the 427.

We’ve all spent the last few weird and awful months wondering how we got here and where we’re going, and, just like you might if you were confined to the storage compartment of a Hyundai for a length of time, you probably feel like you could use a fucking drink.

But there is an upside to this — if you’re the kind of person who can find the upside to a viral pandemic increasing our substance use – and it’s that the vigour with which we’ve all embraced the drink has actually had an affect on the availability, politics, and culture related to beer. Yes, this pandemic is a lot of things, most of them terrible, but it also might just be the best time to drink beer in Ontario.

Ever.

Here’s why.

Common sense changes to Ontario’s liquor laws

Political action related to the pandemic in Ontario has been met with mixed reviews. A highly-contagious virus has endangered the more vulnerable in our communities, taxed our overburdened healthcare system, and threatens to collapse our economy. Many have argued that the government has been too slow to make any meaningful policy changes as a result. 

Except of course in one area. 

Yes, in light of the pandemic and ensuing lockdown, Premier Doug Ford has — perhaps predictably given his affinity for policy that opens up our access to the drink — changed rules so that restaurants and bars can sell alcohol with takeout food orders; offering the struggling hospitality industry a much-needed lifeline during dire times.

Licensed establishments seized on the opportunity and, as a result, the drinking public was afforded a handful of new options. London bar Pub Milos, for example, which offers one of the best draught lineups in Ontario, took to canning that draught in 950ml containers and likewise opened their extensive beer cellar for retail sales. Toronto’s Birriera Volo, a craft beer haven in the heart of Little Italy, pivoted to become Bottega Volo, tapping the owners’ other business as importers to fill the former bar and tap room with unique bottled imports for take-away. The result is that, in London you suddenly have the ability to order a Schnitzel dinner and take home something hard to find like a Reverence Barrel Works offering from Cambridge. Or, in Toronto, you can take out a bottle of Cantillion Rose de Gambrinus with your charcuterie.

Of course the change doesn’t just benefit upscale craft beer bars. Even shitty restaurants and bars can currently sell you beer to go so that if, for example, you want a couple bottles of Molson Canadian with your buffalo chicken quesadilla, you can call your local Crabby Joe’s and knock yourself out.

Brew pubs and breweries have even used these new rules to sneakily usher in “cross-selling,” an issue about which Ontario’s craft brewers have been lobbying the government for years. Toronto brew pub Indie Alehouse, for example, now offers bottles and cans of other breweries’ beers for takeout along with their own and Ottawa brewery Dominion City has introduced “Friends of the Dominion,” allowing Ottawans the opportunity to take home some great beer from across Ontario if you order from their food menu (which is literally just a bag of chips). It’s not exactly the Ontario Craft Beer Stores we’d all like to see, but seeing craft brewers offer up beer from their colleague breweries definitely feels like a crack in the 80 year old dam of prohibition era nonsense liquor legislation.

Beer delivery and improved online consumer experience  

Much like the pandemic has seemingly forced our provincial government to address the shortcomings of our liquor legislation, so too has it made craft brewers revise the way the sell their products in order to adapt to rapidly shifting consumer trends.

Yes, like a spawned Dilophosaurus who has had the sequence gaps in her DNA filled with frog DNA, craft brewers would not be contained.

Because beer breaks free, it expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously, but…beer finds a way.

Specifically, in a very Jurassic Parkian way COVID lockdowns have forcibly introduced craft brewers to the idea that it might make sense to have a way to ship beer not only to the people in your neighbourhood who aren’t leaving the house to pick up beer but also to the many, many people across the province who are suddenly shopping online and drinking more than ever before.

The result? Ontario craft beer has universally embraced ecommerce and almost all breweries are offering some form of home delivery. 

Cass Enright, the proprietor of the Bar Towel online craft beer community and the once-respectable Golden Tap Awards, even created the Ontario Beer Drinkers Index (or OBDI if you’re nasty) to index all the breweries offering delivery. “The pandemic has sparked a lot of breweries that weren’t offering delivery before to embrace it now,” he says. “The OBDI started as a way to keep track of companies that were offering delivery but has since become a little more work to keep up. Virtually all of them are offering some kind of delivery option now.”

The realities of the pandemic made it evident that breweries that didn’t find a way to offer beer for home delivery in a way that was priced competitively were going to miss the boat on a way to stay afloat for the next few months.  Which, yes, is a pretty shitty circumstance to be facing if you make beer (“Hey there’s a viral pandemic and also adapt your whole business model or go broke”) but it is undeniably good news if you’re a person who likes to drink that beer.

Breweries that previously were happy to embrace a hyper-local business model have now found themselves begrudgingly adapting to a newly-accessible marketplace and a province-wide customer base. Godspeed Brewery, which brews fantastic and near flawless beers, was largely built with the intention of being a neighbourhood hub to service its East Toronto clientele. That’s great if you live in East Toronto, but if were anyone where else in Ontario, you were pretty much shit out of luck. Until now. Thanks to changes brought about by lockdowns, Godspeed Brewery now offers their entire lineup for province-wide delivery so even we non-Torontonians can enjoy a Nana saison with Japanese Shichimi Spices or Ochame Green Tea IPA. Same goes for Ottawa’s Tooth and Nail Brewery, whose fantastic Vim & Vigor pilsner was previously something beer nerds might seek out, lust after, and trade for given its scarcity in the before-times. Now you can easily order a case and have it sent right to your door. 

Yes, it’s now easier than any time in history to try fantastic beer from all across the province. Whereas in pre-COVID times a tasting tour of the province would come with the hassle of arranging travel between tap rooms and the now unthinkable task of putting on actual pants, one can now purchase beers from Kenora to Vankleek Hill and have them delivered to your doorstep at the same time within a couple days for a low fee. I can do a 2000km tasting tour on the couch in my basement and I don’t even have to pause Longmire.

As an added bonus: Breweries’ websites don’t suck as much as they used to. Whereas in pre-COVID times you’d be lucky to find accurate contact information and correct hours of operation on your local brewer’s home page, the sudden need to compete with every brewery in Ontario for online retail dollars has meant breweries better have an updated site with an accurate and up to date list of what’s available in the bottle shop or run the risk of having customers click to the next brewery on their list.  

COVID has, obviously, meant a lot of bad things for the beer industry (in addition to killing hundreds of thousands – let’s not lose sight of that…). You can’t really enjoy a pint the way you did before. Depending on when you read this, you are actually only allowed to visit bars, breweries, and brew pubs with people in your family bubble, need to observe strict social distancing rules, wear a mask when you get up to go to the bathroom, etc; and so in a lot of ways drinking beer has technically gotten much worse. I realized the other day that, because I have immunocompromised family, I haven’t actually had draught beer in eight months. That clearly sucks.

And breweries are going to close. Make no mistake that the pandemic will almost certainly have lasting financial impacts on the beer industry and many small breweries will close their doors for good before this is all over. That too isn’t great.

But this viral pandemic has forced the beer industry to take a laser-like focus on the best possible customer experience for housebound people and that has meant that it is now easier and more convenient to get craft beer in this province than ever before.

Ironically, the lockdown has finally opened the retail beer market. 

And of course, once you’ve poured the beer out, it’s pretty hard to put it back in the bottle. This past week, the Associate Minister of Small Business and Red Tape Reduction, Prabmeet Sarkaria, confirmed that the Ford government will allow restaurants and bars to add booze to takeout orders permanently, and thus it seems clear that more common sense permanent change will follow.

Consumers now have expectations about what beer delivery and online beer commerce can and should look like and, presumably now that people have seen the province wasn’t burned down in a blaze of alcohol fuelled riots and we can actually adapt to liquor law updates like reasonable adults, we might just get to continue to expand alcohol sales further. Of course, right now, liquor legislation should not be anyone’s top priority and once we see an end to social distancing and put away our face masks, it’s unlikely anything — including the beer industry — will ever go back to “normal,” but during a time when we all feel like we could use a drink, it’s a least nice to know that getting a good one has gotten a little easier.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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