Thursday, April 10, 2014

Did you ever have to make up your mind?

I'm just a guy who likes good tasting beer. If possible, I'd like to get it in more convenient places while supporting local, small breweries. Given the amount of hyperbole on twitter lately between the Beer Store and the Ontario Convenience Store Association, I was beginning to believe that I was the only one. Either I was in the pocket of big beer and wanted to continue the monopoly while keeping craft beer down or I wanted escalated costs and wanton death and destruction of Western society as we know it. Which one to choose?

A few days, I was challenged to take a position and frankly, I didn't know what to say. I've been brewing at a U-Brew-it for a little over three years and seriously drinking Belgian and what is now considered craft beer for around twenty years and I feel unqualified to have an opinion on Beer Store versus Convenience store. This is not some feint where I'm taking the piss out of them but rather a reflection on the labryrinthine regulations and dense legislation surrounding alcohol sales in this province.

If it wasn't for Jordan St. John's poll, I wouldn't have bothered writing anything. It is only because most of my opinions are reflected in his findings that I feel confident to say a few things here.

The Beer Store is not something I necessarily want to protect. It is owned by three large multinationals on a cost recovery basis where they use the advantages in the regulation to boost their profits through reduced costs, advantageous product placement and pricing practices to licensees. I won't bother rehashing their arguments for the continued survival of the Beer Store but rather note that they do have one shining benefit, recycling. Our recycling program is damned good and any replacement would have to do as well or better.

As a consumer, although it is a pain in the ass, I can't imagine what type of patchwork returns would exist without them. I am old enough to remember doing bottle returns at the grocery store where we would only accept glass bottles from certain brands and not others. I can imagine a return to that era. There is a reason that bottle returns are no longer done.

The convenience store arguments are all around promises that cannot be kept, including an expanded ability for craft beer breweries, more jobs and a beer in every pot. They don't seem so keen on ensuring that there is a true open market for all stores, only convenience stores. Anyways, their claims are fairly spurious and their defense is rabid. I don't trust a convenience store to have the best interests of a beer drinker at heart any more than they support the local snack food industry. They are in business to make money.

In short, they both suck.

A few observations. Currently, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario already does risk based licensing. What does that mean? Studies show that more outlets selling alcohol (density) among other effects of privatization leads to rising costs due to alcohol. If people claim bias, it would be a weird claim that CAMH wants less money by reducing alcoholism. AGCO bases sales location on this reasoning. So, any new stores of any type would have to continue to undergo this licensing scheme.

Maybe the way forward is to modify our system slowly rather than taking the legislation out and burning it in the streets of our provincial capital. Modifications such as:

  • Open the market to any location while keeping AGCO methods of evaluation whether convenience store, grocery store or Tim Horton's. I don't care.
  • Allow for novel places of business while respecting AGCO. (Farmer's markets, co-owned craft beer stores, boutiques). Currently can only buy at LCBO, Beer Store, licensees, and on site breweries.
  • Allow for small breweries to enter the market easier by limiting SKUs at Beer Store and LCBO. Each brewery can only have so many products at a time.
  • Allow for either co-op stores of some type for small breweries from any where in the world or allow for small brewers to buy into the Beer Store.
  • Offer assistance for development of small breweries as is offered for other agricultural and manufactured products. Put another way, incentives to get people who are brewing out of other breweries their own place to increase jobs.

That's all I have come up with in the last few weeks. The message is clear, younger beer drinkers don't care for the beer store but all beer drinkers like greater access. Many believe the LCBO is doing a good job. Full stop.

My point is that this false choice between either a Beer Store or a convenience store is just silly. The good part is that in the past week, I have heard more play of the beer geeks, blogger, columnists and aficionados than ever before. Real experts are finally being heard and that can only be helpful when trying to move forward. Of course, their bias is more good beer.

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