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Category Archives: The Beer Store

In Which I Realize I Have An MPP

(Editor’s Note: I once had an aunt who wrote letters to politicians. I believe she once lambasted Prime Minister Chretien over the rise in the price of a head of cabbage. It seems that the frivolity of subject has skipped this generation even if the letter writing impulse has not.

My MPP is Eric Hoskins. I met him once at an announcement of funding for the Ontario Craft Brewers. I don’t know who your MPP is, but I’m sure that they would appreciate hearing from you on the current debate about deregulation.)

Hello, Minister!

I am emailing you because I’m one of your constituents. I am periodically greeted by your smiling face when I check the mail and receive flyers. I am also Canada’s only national beer columnist, with Sun Media. I see the beer industry from a lot of angles. I work with brewers of all sizes and I have just written a book about the history of beer in Ontario.

I’d be writing to you as my local MPP, but you’re also in charge of Economic Development, which is a nice bonus.

I recently had Forum Research conduct a poll for me because I wanted to understand the mood of the province with regards to deregulation of The Beer Store. It turns out that people under 45 seem to be largely in favour of having beer sales in convenience stores. Rather than waste your time quoting numbers at you, I’m going to try and explain the history of the thing. It’s quite a niche subject, if I’m honest, so please don’t feel I’m being patronizing if I over explain.

The Beer Store is an outdated model. There was a time in the early 1980′s when it was perfectly adequate. When The Beer Store started in 1927, they didn’t have anything to do with retail sales to the public. They were meant to be a distribution system that the brewers in the province could take part in as a sort of co-op. It was partially owned by the participants. Over the decades, breweries consolidated and took each other over. In 1941, The Beer Store got into retail. By 1980, there were about three large brewers left. They owned the entirety of The Beer Store amongst them. This was alright because they were the only ones making beer. It made sense.

The problem is that they got arrogant. In February of 1985, they locked out the workers and shut The Beer Store down for a month. They forgot that they were not entitled to the support of the public. I can tell you that beer is a luxury good. No one really needs beer. Brewers depend on the public more than the public depends on them. If you’re a brewer of any size and you don’t listen to your market, you deserve what you get.

The problem is that since 1985, the market has changed immensely, but the structure of The Beer Store has not. Molson Coors is partly American owned and Labatt is owned by a Belgian/Brazilian consortium. The Beer Store, a system designed to serve the public of Ontario and sanctioned by the provincial government, is not even partly owned by Canadians.

Now, if I’m you, I’m thinking to myself, “Sure, but the jobs are onshore and they’re not going anywhere.” You’re right. Those jobs are important and retaining them is good.

However, currently there are something like 100 breweries active in Ontario. If the projections I’m seeing are correct (and I’m using actual declaration of intent from the breweries) we’re going to have something like 200 by the end of 2015. Some of these include the Ontario Craft Brewers, but realistically, 150 of those breweries will have no lobbying interest acting on their behalf.

There are going to be more breweries in Ontario than there have ever been. The high point was 155 at the time of Confederation.

The problem that we’re going to face as a province is that there is no shelf space for these 200 breweries. The LCBO is not obligated to stock their products. If you take a walk through the Summerhill LCBO in our riding, you’ll see that the beer section is stocked completely to the gills. I grant you that it’s a flagship store, but if you cast your mind back five years, it was not that way.

The Beer Store naturally claims that they’re doing a great job. They are doing a great job for extremely large brewers. The logistical system they have in place ensures that the very large foreign owned brewers do not have to compete against each other in convenience stores for the market. Even given that advantage, their sales figures are dwindling year over year. Simply put, they own a distribution system that is massively to their advantage and as Ontarians we have allowed this because up until 30 years ago, they were the only brewers.

But if you look at distribution from a small brewer’s perspective, it’s ludicrous. Let’s say that you’re a brewer based in Owen Sound. There’s an LCBO that is not obliged to stock your product. There are two Beer Stores and to get shelf space in them, you would need to pay a listing fee for the SKU and then a shelving fee for each location. It comes out to around $3000 to be able to sell beer in your hometown. It’s not equitable for a number of reasons, including the fact that you’re paying the money to a business your competition owns. The largest breweries will have their brands prominently displayed. Craft breweries could sell beer in The Beer Store in their hometown and no one would ever know they were there.

Oddly enough, the layout of the 200 breweries in the province of Ontario is going to more or less duplicate the map at Confederation. Before rail, every small town had their own brewery. With craft beer, there’s a locavore tendency against globalization. That’s kind of nonsensical since most of the ingredients that go into making beer are shipped very long distances, but people don’t think about it that much.

This means that across the province of Ontario there are start up businesses that don’t have a reasonable avenue of sale to the public. There are going to be 200 of them. That’s a lot of jobs, and these businesses are going to grow and expand. There will naturally be a period of levelling where some of the lower quality ones are jettisoned from the market, but on balance 150 survivors might not be unreasonable.

The Beer Store could have addressed this. They could have adapted to the market at any point since 1985 when we started to have craft beer in Ontario. Currently they are attempting to dictate to government and to the people of the province of Ontario what is best for us. They have once again forgotten that they’re meant to be serving us and not the other way around.

We’re in a situation where there’s massive economic growth to be had. Failure to change the existing situation will actively hamper small town business in Ontario.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest what should happen. I don’t know that it should be convenience stores or grocery stores. I don’t see why we couldn’t allow a separate co-op for Ontario Brewers (people quote NAFTA at me on that. I have not read NAFTA. It is long.) If all else fails, we could always nationalize The Beer Store. All I know is that something has got to give.

One of the reasons I’m taking the time to write this to you is that, as MPP for St. Paul’s, you’re fairly likely to be around for a while. It’s a liberal stronghold. I appreciate that the Liberal party seems to have come out against change recently.

I don’t think that this is an electoral issue. It is demographic. Something like 50% of people under 45 are buying their beer at the LCBO. Breweries are cropping up all over the province. The writing is on the wall, especially when you consider how badly you have to perform as a monopoly to lose 50% of your potential clientele over 25 years. This isn’t going away and the citizenry are going to get vocal. No matter who is in charge, something’s got to happen.

I don’t know what you’ll be able to do with the information, but the good news is that as an electoral issue, it’d be a soft landing. 70% of citizens would be fine with the grocery store or convenience store. That number is going to increase if the PSA The Beer Store is running keeps getting airplay.

Thanks for your time. I hope I’ve provided some context for the issue.

Understanding The Beer Store

Since it is December, we are in that phase of the year when people talk idly about abolishing The Beer Store. You’ve got Martin Regg Cohn over at The Star doing a reprise of last year’s column. It’s a good party piece, but it’s unlikely to accomplish anything. Even Anindya Sen who released a number of studies and who is probably a very good economist seems not to have made an impact, although this might be due to the ease of dismissing a commissioned study.

I’ve taken a slightly different tack on the issue this year: I’ve actually talked to The Beer Store in an attempt to understand the problem. If you want to effect change, you’ve got to understand the motivations of all of the parties involved. It does you no good to vilify The Beer Store out of hand. It is not run by Darth Vader. If it were, the stores would feature more unsafe catwalks over giant pits.

Let’s put aside for a moment the shopping experience which has been famously awful. Let’s put aside the rhetoric that it is an outmoded eastern bloc style of organization.

Let’s instead have a look at the functions it actually performs.

The shopping experience tends to blind people to the fact that The Beer Store is actually a retail and distribution organization. Despite the insistence of studies to the contrary, it operates at a cost recovery basis. That is to say that it does not turn a profit. It makes enough money to pay for itself.

Please understand this: It does not make a profit. Intentionally. Anyone who is telling you different is flat out wrong.

This is not to say that the ideas of those people who are telling you it makes a profit are wrong. They’re absolutely right. If it were a retailer in a purely capitalist system, The Beer Store would be raking it in hand over fist. Anindya Sen claims that there are approximately 700 million dollars worth of incremental profits unaccounted for in The Beer Store’s operation. Let us account for them.

The Beer Store has more than 440 locations operating all over Ontario. Sure, there are a whole bunch in Toronto, but there’s one in Espanola and Wawa and Azilda and Coboconk. They’re everywhere. This is the retail component, which is customer facing.

Consider all of the stuff involved that does not face the customer.

There are the licensee sales. When you see the Brewer’s Retail truck out and about delivering kegs, that’s also The Beer Store. They have an online ordering system for licensees and people to staff it. They’ve got people driving those trucks. They’ve got administrative staff supervising those sets of employees.

There are the logistics of distribution to contend with. You can’t sell beer in Wawa and Coboconk unless you get the beer there in the first place. The Beer Store has six separate distribution centres which service the province. This means that beer intended for stores or licensees need only be shipped as far as the nearest distribution centre and The Beer Store will take care of the rest. Think of the logistical support needed for this.

There’s the bottle recycling program. I recall reading somewhere that your typical ISB bottle can be re-used between 18 and 20 times. The Beer Store controls the recycling of these bottles within Ontario. I forget exactly what the current consensus is on recycling beer bottles. It seems to change depending on the cost of cartage or freight. Anyway, it employs a number of people and The Beer Store has a really significant hand in it.

There’s also the Draught Services division which handles installations for licensees and line cleaning equipment.

What The Beer Store actually does is outsource services for the three extremely large companies that own it. I suspect that the only reason Sapporo is allowed 4% ownership is to keep it from becoming a subsidiary company of either Molson Coors or AB InBev based on shifts in market share.

Because these companies have contrived over several decades to own The Beer Store, they are able to outsource all of the following: Customer facing sales, licensee facing sales, draught equipment sales, distribution of their product to all corners of the province of Ontario, the ownership and maintenance of the physical buildings, the ownership and maintenance of the fleet of trucks required, the recycling of beer bottles for re-use predominantly by the owners of The Beer Store, the staffing and administration of the entire concern, insurance liability for the entire concern and the pensions of the entire concern.

Jeff Newton, a spokesperson for The Beer Store (and a dashed accommodating fellow), pointed out to me that smaller breweries could also take advantage of these benefits. The scale of the thing is prohibitive if we’re all going to be honest. There’s an initial investment involved that requires a lot of capital.

To be fair, I should point out the other thing that I learned. The LCBO has a markup which makes them a profit. Selling beer in The Beer Store seems to (once you recoup the initial investment) provide a greater profit margin for breweries. Sure, it’s a long term strategy, but it might work out eventually.

What all of this means is that all of the service fees that go into selling beer at The Beer Store essentially go into a pool which funds all of the above listed activities. There is a sliding scale of fees to have your products listed if you’re a smaller brewer, which is something of a concession. However, you’re still paying into a system which disproportionately benefits the large brewers in a substantial way.

The Beer Store doesn’t need to make a profit, which is why it doesn’t. Making a profit would be gilding the lily. The real benefit here is that the large brewers don’t have to perform many of the tasks I listed above. The Beer Store handles those for them. It also brings a certain amount of stability to the cold war like détente between AB InBev and Molson Coors in Ontario since they both benefit massively from their ownership and the status quo seems to be working.

This is what you’re contending with when you talk about privatization, incidentally. You’ve got a massively organized logistics and distribution company whose parent companies have some incredibly deep pockets and have contrived to create an oligopoly out of something intended to be a public service over the course of several decades. If you want privatization, you need a governmental figure willing to think further ahead than the next election.

Whether you like it or not the current structure of The Beer Store is absolutely brilliant. It’s actually genius. Just because it tends not benefit the consumer doesn’t change that.

The OCSA vs. The Beer Store

One of the interesting things that happened in Ontario’s beer scene this year is that the market is becoming increasingly contentious. The increased interest in beer is making it so that the status quo is becoming somewhat untenable. There are 155 craft breweries open or in planning as of this writing. That means a very large number of brands for which the LCBO does not have shelf space and a number of craft breweries which are not large enough to afford The Beer Store’s listing fees.

When you add to this the increased interest in the craft and import segments, you get players in the market who are more serious about effecting change than they used to be. Take the Ontario Convenience Store Association, for instance. They hired economist Anindya Sen from the University of Waterloo to produce a two part study that makes the case for privatization of beer sales.

The first part of the study is about the difference in pricing between two-fours in Ontario and Quebec. You can download it here.

I do not have a Ph.D. in Economics, but I’m going to try and walk you through the basic arguments here.

The methodology here was to choose five brands sold over a 22 week period and record data based on pre-tax beer prices. The period in question was Dec 2012-May 2013. The brands in question were Molson Canadian, Molson Dry, Coors Light, Budweiser, and Bud Light. The format in question was 24 341ml bottles. In Ontario, data was culled from The Beer Store’s website. In Quebec, it was culled from online pricing for Metro and IGA supermarket chains.

Dr. Sen’s findings were (for those of you who don’t want to wade through the PDF)

Quebec IGA Quebec Metro The Beer Store % difference IGA % difference metro
$26.08 $25.95 $35.56 27% 27%

 

Essentially, in Ontario we pay 27% more for a 24 of beer than people do in Quebec. That is essentially the primary conclusion of the study and then there are subsequent conclusions based upon that data.

Can you spot the problem with this study? The Beer Store could. They released a comment paper on the study on November 18th through the Earnscliffe Strategy Group. It is available for download here.

To their credit (and lord knows I’m a fairly vocal critic of The Beer Store) The Beer Store only lists one format of pricing on their website or in store. It’s the total amount that you’re going to pay for a thing. It includes both tax and bottle deposit.

The claim here is that the IGA and Metro prices that are listed don’t include bottle deposit or sales tax (GST and QST in Quebec.) If you remove from the average price of $35.56 the bottle deposit and applicable sales taxes (GST and HST in Ontario) the price difference is not $9.50. It’s $3.33.

The Beer Store’s study goes on to mention commodity taxes. In Quebec, these total about 50 cents a litre while in Ontario they total 91.62 cents a litre. As it turns out, this is the main reason for the difference in beer prices between Quebec and Ontario. The provincial commodity tax we’re charged is about 1.8 times higher.

 

 

Table 3:

Re-Stated Net Price Removing All Relevant Taxes & Deposits

  QC Average Price ON Average Price
Price after Adjusting for HST

and refundable Deposit

 

$26.02

 

$29.35

Adjustment for Provincial

Commodity Taxes

 

-$ 4.09

 

-$ 7.43

QC and ON prices on Equal

Basis

 

$21.93

 

$21.92

Adjustment for Federal

Commodity Taxes

 

-$ 2.56

 

-$ 2.56

Net Price after removing all

Consumer Taxes and deposits

 

$19.37

 

$19.36

 

Of course, this means that the data collected for the OCSA study was at best improperly fact checked and that any conclusions drawn from subsequent steps of the study are bunkum. This is dumb. It does not matter if you employ an economist to release a study if the basic and easily verified facts are incorrect. You cannot use an appeal to authority to point to an expert opinion if that authority demonstrably does not understand the problem.

And you know what? The OCSA’s study was released in August. No one questioned the thing. It claimed that The Beer Store was making 700 million dollars in additional revenue based on faulty data. It may have been wrong, but it sure got a lot of re-tweets.

This is the problem with the debate about Ontario and The Beer Store. Every time the subject of The Beer Store comes up just about any self respecting beer drinker is going to have an opinion about it. The problem is that aside from The Beer Store, no one actually knows how much money The Beer Store makes on an annual basis. The information is not disclosed to the public. The ability of interested parties like the OCSA to release a study claiming a 700 million dollar windfall is enhanced by this. It renders substantive debate on the issue ludicrous.

The end result of this go around in the Ontario Privatization Hoedown is that The Beer Store has managed to basically discredit any further studies the OCSA might care to produce. They have done this by understanding their own pricing structure. Frankly, it was kind of a gimme, but I have to applaud their restraint in not smacking it down on the second day with a cry of “Boo-Ya.”

What this should do is highlight the fact that the Ontario beer market is large and profitable and that in the next few years, organizations are going to fight over it. It is not being fought over for the benefit of the consumer, no matter how much the consumer might feel that they should have a say in the matter. Frankly, what we want is immaterial.

As a side note, the average price of those five brands at the moment at The Beer Store is $34.55. That may have been an unintended consequence.

Discount Beer February – Labatt Products

I have been a little bit surprised by the willingness of the large brewers to engage with Discount Beer February as a concept. So far, Labatt, Molson and Sleeman have all jumped on board and have either sent, or are sending, samples. I suppose it’s not that strange when you consider that these are brands that don’t get a lot of attention, especially from a credible reviewer. It also says a lot about each brewery’s self awareness that they have sent the things that they have sent.

As far as I can tell, the main component (possibly the only component) required for showing up in the Discount section of The Beer Store’s website is price. Since the minimum pricing for beer in Ontario is now $29.35 and nothing in the Discount section costs more than $30.00, I feel like it’s safe to assume that all 60 brands listed are competing on the basis of $0.65 worth of wiggle room per flat of 24. That’s about three cents a bottle in pricing variation when you factor in the occasional sale.

Labatt is responsible for 14/60 brands in the discount section of The Beer Store, which is not bad, when you consider that 9 of those are various Lakeport brands that they must have picked up in 2007 and which have not yet phased out of the market. The remaining brands are variations on Busch, Lucky Lager and Labatt Blue. The following paragraph will probably cause some consternation over there.

They didn’t send Labatt Blue, and I suspect that this is due to the fact that they don’t consider it to be a discount brand. The pricing falls squarely into the discount category. I don’t believe that it has been this way for very long; maybe three years.  It had been for a very long time the national flagship for Labatt, and I further suspect that the global focus of parent company AB-InBev on Budweiser, Stella Artois and Beck’s as their representative brands might mean that Blue is less relevant. For folks working in London, Ontario there must be some sting in seeing Blue priced as it is. I’m not busting chops here. I’m simply pointing out the cognitive dissonance that must be taking place as the global strategy changes.

Enough maudlin Canadiana. Let’s focus on what they sent over:

BRAVA (a taste of summa, apparently.)

The Brava brand was acquired from Lakeport in 2007. It’s meant to be a response to the popularity of Mexican lagers like Corona and Sol. That would have worked fine in 2007, but since the advent of lime flavoured lagers, you would have to wonder why a canned version of a beer whose main attraction is the ability to shove a lime in the bottle would be necessary.

There is definitely an aroma of corn here and what hopping there is is grassy. You could easily take the piss out of Brava, but you have to remember two things: First, the template is Corona, which is not exactly a palate wrecker. Second, it is designed to be drunk as cold as possible, not entirely unlike a Brazilian Chopp.

VERDICT: Unfortunately, it’s February, so cold beer in quantity is not really a priority. Were it summer, I’d suggest that you’re really only buying Corona for the iconography that goes with it, so why not Brava? Also, good luck getting the radio jingle out of your head anytime before march.

LUCKY LAGER

Lucky started in 1934 in San Francisco at the General Brewing Company. It has walked a long road to get where it is today, ostensibly including several rebrands under other labels. You know that generic white can with “BEER” written on it that shows up in the 1984 movie Repo Man? People think that was Lucky Lager. Ordinary People, man.

It is apparently to Vancouver Island what PBR is to hipsters. It was always a West Coast brand.

I find Lucky to be somewhat harshly carbonated. It has almost no hop character, a corny body and a relatively sour finish to it. I don’t find much to recommend it. I suspect that the reason it exists in Ontario is because it does so well out west.

VERDICT: I don’t get it. I think the cult following out west is probably a residual thing like Olympia has. The vaguely retro look can supports this theory. I guess they probably wouldn’t think much of Laker out there.

BUSCH

Busch was introduced in the 1950’s, the first AB product introduced after the repeal of prohibition. The website says they’re using two-row, six-row, munich malts and corn. It also lists four hop varieties, which doesn’t really make any sense to me, since at least two of those varieties didn’t exist in ’55. The slogan suggests that it tastes as smooth as its name, which also doesn’t really make any sense to me.

I am not the target market for this beer, which sponsors fishing tournaments, hunting and Nascar. It is 4.6% alcohol, making the existence of Busch Light somewhat questionable. The market exists, though. It’s 9 on the big 10 list at The Beer Store.

Busch is, well, it’s light and watery. Despite the fact that it’s an adjunct lager, there’s not a great deal to indicate that fact. There’s no DMS corn aroma, but there’s also not a great deal in terms of grain presence. There is detectable hop bitterness, but you really need to be wanting to find it. There are no off flavours.

VERDICT: I can see why people would drink this. If cold, it would be refreshing. As long as you were drinking it while doing something else, it would be fine if uninteresting. In fact, I suspect that when people say “hold my beer and watch this,” this is the beer you’re left holding as they are taken away in the ambulance.

LAKEPORT PILSENER

Number 8 on the Big 10 list at The Beer Store is Lakeport Pilsener. This is another brand acquired in 2007.

As you’ll recall from last week, Lakeport Pilsener is the beer that replaced Laker for Lakeport in 1996 or so. It was, putatively, brewed to exactly the same recipe as Laker Lager. I imagine that it has since evolved into a distinct product. Lakeport Pilsener has significantly more hop presence than any of the other Labatt offerings so far, but there’s not much in the way of hop aroma. The bitterness is all on the palate. What adjunct there is, is minimal and there’s a detectable cereal grain thing happening.

VERDICT: For the money, this entirely acceptable. You can sort of see why Labatt bought them out. I don’t think you’d want to drink it anything but really cold, or think about it too much.

Labatt did send one other product, which they seem to perceive as a discount brand despite the fact that it’s priced out of the category by six bucks: Labatt Crystal. I’m not going to review that at the moment, since I have plans for it for later in the month.

DISCOUNT BEER FEBRUARY

I have currently been writing professionally about beer for two and a half years. Next week will be the beginning of my third year with Sun Media. I’ve discovered that if you write about beer all the time, you run into a few small problems that nag at you.

The first is that you end up with fatigue. It’s not exactly palate fatigue. It’s not like hops have a cumulative effect and the alpha-acids aggregate in your cerebrospinal fluid. At least, not as far as I’m aware. It’s more like novelty fatigue. There are truly great and interesting things happening in Ontario as far as the development of new flavours go. Lackey’s doing good things. McOustra’s doing good things. Volo, Nickel Brook, Bellwoods, Indie Alehouse, Beaus… The envelope push is a constant in the craft beer scene at the moment. That’s a good thing, but familiarity with that breeds contempt for it.

At its purest, this kind of brewing is about innovation and it’s incredibly personal. This, when you strip away the marketability of the thing, is about a man and a conceptual vision of a product. The first batch might not make it. The third batch might not make it. It’s about honing a beer to make it adhere to a vision. This is part of what gives craft beer its wonderful appeal. The finished beer is the result of hours and hours of thought and inspiration and effort.

But it’s still, what, like, 60 litres of pilot batch? That’s like… 110 pints when you count spillage. If it’s 4oz glasses, it’s still not that many of them and probably less than the number you’d come up with because of more spillage in service. I have a national audience at Sun Media. I can’t write about a beer which, if it is any good and people come back for another sample, will get tried by maybe 80 people. By the time I write about it, it’s gone and it may never come back.

Because it’s not utile, I am thence forced to look at something that should be intellectually thrilling because it’s out there in bleeding edge, Chuck Yeager Stick Of Beeman’s territory with some amount of detachment.

It’s the detachment that’s fatiguing. I feel like I should be just tickled as all hell that I get invited to try this wild, wacky stuff, but instead it’s like “Uh… What can I write about this?” I can’t write about everything: Microsoft Word has a file size limit. I don’t want to offend people by not writing about them, especially if their only sin is being middle of the road. The end result is that I sit here in a deep blue funk, drinking too much coffee, afraid to go to events that I would probably enjoy.

Potentially the worst part of this is that when you’re talking about the entirety of craft and import sales in Ontario, and this is the bread and butter of every single one of us writing about beer, these market segments make up 20% of the beer market in Canada. There are just a huge number of people who are not drinking this stuff, and whose interest in reading about it is therefore pretty minimal.

This is why, for the month of February, St.John’s Wort will be hovering gently in the DISCOUNT BEER Category of The Beer Store.

You may consider it something of a busman’s holiday. The great thing about discount beers is that, as far as I’m aware, no one has ever bothered to cover them. These are brands which do not necessarily merit a PR representative. Let me tell you how I know: I have written to all of the producers (or will in the coming days) in order to request the standard two bottles of beer for review (In case one breaks in transit or there are off flavours or it’s any good and I’d kind of like a second one). There are 60 beers in the discount section. It is not worth the time of the producers of these beers to open a case and pick out two beers. They seem hell-bent on sending the minimum size of packaged beers.

They care enough to get some free publicity, but not so much that honest evaluation of the product will lead to tears in some delicate soul’s mash-tun. They know that it’s the discount section. Believe me. They know.

A friend of mine, Andrew Walsh (who judging by the photographic evidence in TAPS magazine is no stranger to the aftereffects of cheap beer) once claimed that his favorite beer was Brava. “What do you want for 30 bucks,” I am paraphrasing him as saying. In some sense, he’s right. These are utility beers, not really designed for maximum flavour. They aren’t hip. They aren’t trendy. The only way they’re getting near a barrel is if Donkey Kong throws one at the display. They are more or less likely to be consumed in great volume by people who think that a 24 is worth $29.95 and who are primarily concerned with the mood altering effect.

I’m not one of those people. I haven’t bought a 24 since student life in New Brunswick. I’m a prospective beer judge. I’m Cicerone Certified Beer Server and with any luck a Certified Cicerone by the end of the month. I went to brewing school (for a while). I’ve designed (in collaboration) some pretty well regarded stuff and I read voraciously on the subject of beer.  I’m decided to take this seriously.

Evaluations will be completed on all 60 beers listed in The Beer Store’s discount category. The samples will consist of 4-6 ounces. The notes will be honest, but will reflect the fact that these are not products intended to stand up to significant overthinking. Marks will not be deducted for the fact that the brewery has sent me 48 times the amount of beer I require and therefore forced me to find creative ways to get rid of it.

Look: Lager makes up something like 90% of the total beer market. Discount lager probably makes up something like 30% of that, which makes it larger than the entirety of craft beer. Intellectual honesty therefore demands that someone actually look at the Gorgon. If nothing else, by the end of the month, we will be able to crown a champion and we may have ushered in the era of the discount category beer snob. Even a trailer park beauty pageant has a winner.

I have the feeling that by March, I’m really going to be looking forward to a barrel aged something or other with six kinds of hops and 78 well chosen IBUs and a grain bill the size of Venezuela.

The Beer Boutique

Yesterday, I went to the launch of The Beer Store’s new venture: The Beer Boutique.

See? It's pretty ok. Plus, later, I ate some of that cheese.

One of the criticisms that I keep hearing about The Beer Store is that it is something of a monolithic entity. As one of two corporate entities that is allowed to sell beer in Ontario (I am excluding brewpubs here for the simple reason that comparatively speaking their output is Lilliputian) it operates under a privileged position. For a very long time, there was no competition to speak of for The Beer Store. The difference between the LCBO and The Beer Store in terms of mandate is that the profits from the LCBO go to the provincial government and the profits from The Beer Store go to the owners of The Beer Store: Molson, Labatt, and to a far lesser extent, Sapporo.

If you’re the LCBO, it therefore makes sense to appeal to consumers. If remodeling the stores, as they did during the 1990’s, can increase profitability, it makes sense to do so. It increases the revenue for the province; People like to shop in places that cater to their tastes. If you have stands with samples and a wide selection of products and a pleasant atmosphere, consumers will spend more. Never mind for the moment that consumers don’t have a choice but to shop with them. They’re the only game in town for Liquor. Aside from The Wine Rack, they hold a monopoly on wine. The point that I’m making is that people will spend more if they like the store that they’re in. More sales equal increased provincial revenue. A remodel is a good long term investment, since the mandate is to create profit for government.

If you’re The Beer Store, on the other hand, and you control 85% of beer sales in the province, you don’t really need to do that. There are a number of protective systems in place. First of all, by its nature, beer is sort of unwieldy. The LCBO simply doesn’t have room to stock two-fours of beer. Or cases of twelve, for that matter. The Beer Store, for a very long time had the privileged position of being the only place you could buy beer in quantity. It still does, as a matter of fact. You had no choice but to shop with them, and if the store was dingy and grey or depressing and smelled like spilt beer because of the bottle return and you had to pick out which beer you wanted from a wall of empty bottles only to have them whisked out of the back room on a system of rollers, well… tough. In fact, the outsides of many locations are still dated from the last branding change.

Eventually, what I suspect must have happened was that the market changed sufficiently for the LCBO to take beer seriously. Since The Beer Store had a monopoly on volume sales due to space restrictions in the stores, the LCBO went after single bottles and high quality products. You can find some kind of craft beer in just about any LCBO south of Sudbury at this point. I’m told, for instance, that the Sharbot Lake selection is surprisingly robust.

The LCBO must have made enough of a dent in The Beer Store’s market to make them rethink their policy of having stores that sort of make you feel as though you’re waiting in the passport office (Passport to flavour country, amirite?!?!).

So you’ve got The Beer Boutique.

It’s a large box store with walls filled with cold beer. There are large concave shelves to show off a number of the products. There’s a large oak table as the room’s centerpiece, which is lit by hanging piping in which sections are replaced by fluorescent tubes. The floors are sort of a diagonal wooden parquet and the walls are brick faced. It comes in at 2700 square feet. They’ve chosen basic black for most of the accent pieces and those sections are periodically interspersed by monitors showing information about beer. It’s nice.

It reminded me of a Couche-Tard (Mac’s Milk) that I had been in in Outremont last week and I said as much during the event. I mean, it was a particularly nice Mac’s Milk. What I essentially mean by that is not that it’s low rent. The thing is that it’s obviously a scalable, reproducible design. You could work with the design in that store and send it just about anywhere. It would play equally well in Ottawa or London or Kingston.

The people I was talking to (some pretty high ranking Molson and Labatt guys and one Beer Store employee whose name I didn’t catch, but who reminded me of the Spiderman villain The Kingpin, mostly because of the baldness and pretty darn swanky suit and silk pocket square) seemed a little crestfallen that I thought that. But that’s surely the point of the thing, isn’t it? You want it to be repeatable. They seemed to be under the impression that they had created something unique and interesting, when in reality, that’s not what you want.

Look, if you’re in a Bed, Bath and Beyond, you know it. There’s branding everywhere. Usually, the layouts are similar to the point where you can find a terrycloth robe, a rattan hamper and a Shake Weight blindfolded. It’s a measure of corporate branding. It’s the bare minimum for a successful chain.

It’s just that these guys are new at this, so my comments may have seemed unnecessarily churlish, when in reality, I’m simply thinking ahead.

The thing that surprises me about it is the pervasive impression that I got that the store was an experiment. “We’ll see how it does,” said The Kingpin. I wondered if it would work with the Liberty Village demographic, being as how it’s a mix of young professionals and some people of artistic temperament. No one can really say. It seems like hip young people might be a hard market to sway. I wonder if they’ve done that on purpose to try it out in an area with a difficult population to project. That would be a good idea. They might surpass their expectations in other markets based on that data.

Understand, though, it is pretty much a window dressing. The products are the same. The policies are the same. The new design throws the size of the craft beer section into pretty sharp relief. It’s half the size (maybe two thirds the size) of the buck-a-beer wall. It showcases just about every brand they have. I had no idea until yesterday that we had Keystone Light in Canada. I could have lived without that knowledge.

This is the Craft Beer section. Nary a two-four in sight.

On balance, it’s a nice store, but I don’t understand the timidity. They shouldn’t call it The Beer Boutique. The concept is a fallacy, since the concept includes no additional boutique products. It’s just a nicer store. What they should do is invest in renovating all of The Beer Stores to make them like this. Sure, the initial outlay would be some gargantuan sum of money, but it might make people want to shop there. It worked for their competition.