Seasonal Releases and Brewery Features at the LCBO 1

One of the hardest things to deal with in life and in beer writing are those moments when you’re legitimately surprised. Surprise seems to be the LCBO’s stock in trade these days. Gone are the underwhelming release schedules of yesterday. For the last four months or so, they’ve been actually impressive in terms of the selection of beers that they’ve been bringing into the province. There was the Dieu Du Ciel feature, the winter release replete with the full Ola Dubh lineup, the Utopias lottery and now a brewery feature for Norrebro. Add to this the fact that you can now purchase the Sam Adams/Weihenstephan collaboration Infinium, and you end up with a pretty impressive portfolio of beverages.

Whoever it is that’s in charge over there is now seemingly trying to expand the selection of craft beer in Ontario. Good on you, nameless faceless government employees! We appreciate the effort!

I like to think about things from a logistical point of view whenever possible, so I’ve been thinking about this development. It’s almost like the idea that there’s no market for beer like this is being challenged from within the LCBO. It seems to me like it would be difficult to figure out exactly what the market will bear without actively pursuing that information. If you stand in the beer section at your LCBO, you can see that there’s a limited amount of shelf space to work with. That means that past a certain point, there’s not a lot of ability to stock a huge number of products. In order for the process to be profitable and for the beers being sold to remain fresh, a certain amount of volume has to move.

As long as there’s no outlet that exists specifically for the sale of Ontario Craft Beer, the LCBO basically has to stock local craft beer year round. And it sells! According to this nifty press release I was sent earlier in the week, Ontario Craft Beer sales are up 52% at the LCBO in 2010. That’s not peanuts, and it means that there’s definitely demand for these beers. Their market share will almost certainly expand, and that means that the LCBO will probably attempt to expand their supply. I would, if I were them.

It does, I would think, create an interesting problem for craft beers from other countries. It suggests that with Ontario Craft Beer taking up more shelf space, the LCBO will be hard pressed to include products from elsewhere as general listings (viz. stuff that’s available year round.) The seasonal releases and brewery features are incredibly useful for this reason.

Not only does it mean that there’s only a set amount of beer to be sold, it creates its own interest and demand. If you know, for instance, that Panil Barriquee Sour is only going to be available for a couple of months as part of the spring release, a couple of interesting things will happen. Beer writers will write about it, probably pointing out the recent trend towards sour beers in North America (“Sour is the new Hop.” “Pucker up, Ontario.” That sort of thing.) and we’ll eventually get more lambics and brett fermented beers.

The fact that you can only get Panil for a couple of months creates a body of hype around it and it will sell out. Beer nerds will sock away a couple of bottles to be enjoyed at a later date and novice beer drinkers will probably give the beer a try because they heard about it somewhere or because it’s something they’ve never seen before. The LCBO will run through its stock relatively quickly and the cycle will begin again with some other beer.

Look at the Norrebro feature as an example. I’ve been tracking it on and it’s just flying off the shelves. It’s aided by a couple of things. The nice folks over at Roland and Russell sent Norrebro a consignment of Ontario Maple Syrup and the Ontario version of the La Granja Espresso Stout is brewed with it. It gives the release a good local interest story. (I, personally, think that the maple syrup may interfere slightly with the coffee aroma, but what do I know? It’s still pretty nice.) Even the Little Korkny Ale is moving pretty quickly and you would think that the price point ($21.95) would be prohibitive.

The Sam Adams/Weihenstephan Infinium ($14.95) arrived on shelves this week and there seems to be genuine interest despite some lackluster online reviews. It will be interesting to see what happens with this one, since beer nerds are wary of it. It’s certainly not the first beer to use the same techniques as Champagne. There’s Deus. Charlevoix also has quite a nice one. Ithaca in New York has a real humdinger in this style (albeit with some Brettanomyces). I suspect that this will sell primarily to beer novices who will be impressed by the bottle and the idea behind it. After all, it’s about the same price as a Freixenet or Henkell Trocken, so if you look at it that way, it’s not much of a risk. Potentially not a bad choice for Valentine’s Day, actually.

Essentially, what I think is happening is that the LCBO is testing the waters and trying to figure out exactly how much interest there is in releases like this and they’re slowly discovering that there’s a good deal more than they imagined. It’s a really good thing because it develops relationships with importers and means that there’s likely to be more of these releases in the future.

I suppose that what will happen is that releases like this will continue increasing in variety and frequency, until a point is reached where sales reach equilibrium with demand and there’s a backlog of inventory in storage or profitability is called into question. It’s a fine logistical problem and it’ll be interesting to see how the LCBO handles it. It’s not as though there’s a shortage of products people would be happy to see on the shelves. The question seems to be at what rate the public’s enthusiasm for craft beer both local and imported continues to grow.

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