June 28, 2013

An Alternative to Convenience Stores

Under Ontario's Liquor Control Act, Brewers Retail (The Beer Store) is the only retailer, other than those located on the site of a brewery, or stores owned by the provincial government-owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), permitted to sell [beer or other malt beverages]. The act and the company's articles of incorporation further stipulate that Brewers Retail cannot sell "hard liquor" (spirits), or consumer goods (like groceries).
Owned at its inception by a consortium of Ontario-based brewers, national and international consolidation has resulted in an ownership structure with only three shareholders, all of which are multinational brewing companies at least 50% controlled by non-Canadian interests.

From The Beer Store entry on Wikipedia

There is a lot of talk about privatising alcohol sales in Ontario. All sides have pulled in their studies to prove one point or another. Price, ease in which minors can obtain, change in drunk driving incidents etc. As with any debate both sides have good points or bad that they stick to with determination. I don't want to debate those points. Instead I would like to support a proposal I've heard.

The current situation doesn't seem entirely fair to me. In order to get their label placed on a wall, a small craft brewer has to convince, then pay, their larger competitor. This wall is often created to emphasize the big three's main brands while anyone else's brands are so tiny you have to be within a couple feet of the wall to read any of them. And this is for local, produced in province beers. Getting an imported craft beer is nigh impossible.

The LCBO provides a slightly better option, and in recent times has focused on increasing their selection of craft beers, both local and imported. However, there is still a relatively onerous process to get listed in an LCBO. Most small craft brewers aren't producing the quantity to justify the process.

Why not create a Craft Beer Store that follows similar rules to The Beer Store, but removes control of stocking choices from the big three? A co-op of local craft breweries fits with the original intent of The Beer Store that was lost because of all the consolidation. It would also allow these smaller, local breweries to list their beer in their local outlets without having to meet a process that is scaled to deliver to province wide outlets, like the LCBO. The LCBO, with it's mandate to sell other liquors, is unlikely to have the shelf space available in one or two local stores. A Craft Beer Store could be created to support and grow the local breweries.

A great example of this is Bieres du Monde in Gatineau, Qubec. Dedicated to Qubec craft beer, the staff I have met are very knowledgeable about their offerings and are more than happy to provide recommendations or answer questions about any beer they offer. Personally, I would love to be able to have a similar experience in Ontario.

Of course, there are many details to work out. What qualifies as craft? Can there be imports? Samples? I realize I don't have all the answers, but I think, instead of arguing about a convenience store's suitability for beer, why not talk about working with the model already available? Instead of having a system controlled by three of the larger retailers, let's open an avenue for the smaller places to band together and sell their beer. If we start talking about it these missing details will find their solutions.

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