The question, as always, is “do you believe they’ll do it?”
The idea of beer in grocery stores is presently transitory. It exists only in an article in Martin Regg Cohn’s column in the Toronto Star. His word, although convincing and no doubt backed by leaks from the provincial government, is impermanent. At this point, beer in grocery stores exists only as an idea.
It is a good idea.
When Brewer’s Warehousing was started after prohibition, the main idea was to take the onus off the provinicial government. They wanted control, but could not afford the warehousing that went with storage and transportation of beer. Originally, Brewer’s Warehousing was a co-op between the brewers of the province. They worked together to have their products spread out as far as the individual breweries deigned fit.
The 20th century, both here and in America saw consolidation in breweries. The part unique to Canada was that the organization was government sanctioned. It ended up eventually with a small number of foreign owned corporations in control of a system that was meant to benefit small, local business. Currently, The Beer Store does not do the thing it was designed for. That enough is reason to seek reform.
It is inequitable. It is perverse: It perverts the intent of fair dealing that was established by the government in 1927.
It is unlikely that you will see the small brewers of this province come out in their own support in the coming days. They are terrified of the punishment that may be exacted against them. They deal with a system in The Beer Store that will gladly cut them down at any sign of trouble. They depend on the goodwill of their competitors at the moment for their existence. In what world is that a fair deal?
The Ontario Brewers, whether they be members of the Ontario Craft Brewers or not, are subject to poor circumstances. They may sell their product at their own brewery, of course, but further afield they run into difficulty. The LCBO is not obligated to take their product, and frankly, were they obligated so to do, they do not possess the shelf space to accommodate. The Beer Store requires that small brewers pay an organization owned by their largest competitors for the privilege of wholly inadequate representation. Even if everyone foolishly wished to do business with their largest competitors there would not be shelf space. It is an anachronistic model, outdated now by decades.
The difficulty is simply this: There must be change.
At last count, there are 233 breweries extant and in planning in Ontario and no room for them. In every county, maybe in every town, there will soon be a craft brewery. Mind you that the quality of the beer may vary from county to county, but I am not speaking to you as a critic. I speak only of the pride in geographical place that brewery may offer you. It is an additional institution in your community of which to be proud. It will provide business and tourism, employment and philanthropy to your community. It has been so in the United States for decades and in Europe for centuries.
I see legitimate complaint about the idea of beer sales through grocery stores. At most recent hearing, the information is that there will be 300 licenses auctioned off to large grocery stores. Naysayers are of the opinion such action will favour the large brewers. Personally, I believe them shortsighted. Were you to find yourself in America today in a grocery store in even the smallest town you would find craft beer. In Chattauqua County, New York, the Southern Tier Brewing Company brewed a beer that came second only to Busch on local shelves. In Anniston, Alabama, on the shelves of the Piggly Wiggly, you’ll find craft beer. In Utah, though it be only 4% alcohol, you will find small, local breweries on grocery store shelves.
The addition of grocery stores to the market will create hundreds of thousands of feet of shelf space in which craft brewers are adequately represented. For perhaps the first time in a hundred years in a non-governmentally sanctioned space, consumers will be able to view the product they are buying with their own eyes.
It is not an action without its problems: Larger craft brewers will dominate. Mill Street and Steam Whistle, Muskoka and Nickel Brook (once its expansion is complete) will take the majority of the craft beer space. This is simply a question of scale. Smaller brewers may not have the ability to compete immediately. This is an opportunity for the strong. If ever there were a tailfeather with which to attract investment, this is it. The craft sector will see expansion if the rumoured legislation is tabled and approved.
I worry about the smallest brewers: Those only now starting up. After all, had things gone only slightly differently, I could have been one of them.
Currently before the Ontario legislature (having passed its second reading) is Bill 67. Raised by Todd Smith, MPP for Belleville, it would see Ontario breweries enjoy cross sales. That is to say that the smallest breweries would be able to help each other along by offering the sales of each other’s products in their own stores. It costs taxpayers nothing and allows for growth and expansion in the parts of the market that are most helped by incremental improvement. It will serve the consumer with additional selection at little or no additional cost. It will help the small brewers immensely in the short term. To fail to lend them your support will simply strangle industry in its cradle and rob your community of employment and tax revenue.
As citizens of Ontario, it is in your interest to forget the question of whether grocery store sales are the best step forward in terms of consumer consumption. At this point ANY step forward is positive and the status quo will kill jobs. 233 businesses hang in the balance and in that number exist thousands of jobs that cannot be challenged by automation or outsourcing. Each of these breweries houses an entrepreneur who is doing his or her damnedest to provide you with a quality product. In a province where businesses like Blackberry and Heinz lay off employees to the detriment of the towns they exist in, it is ridiculous not to to support your local brewery. Your local brewery will provide a partner in your community for the long term in a way that the large brewers that own The Beer Store simply cannot.
I will ask you only this: to bet on the future of Ontario. Support beer in grocery stores and support Bill 67. Do not wait to see whether the government will do it. You employ them. Make them do it.