Photo cred - Thomas Hawk
In a recent announcement, the Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne decreed that the state-run monopoly on beer sales would come to a halt. 450 grocery stores will be given the right to sell beer in designated places during designated hours. The new ruling will result in increased competition and availability of alcohol across Ontario. It's a big change for everyone, from craft brewers to lazy people, beer people and people on a budget.
Wait Wait Wait Wait. You Can Only Buy Beer in The Beer Store?
You know this. Only government-run LCBO stores and The Beer Store can sell beer in their various locations. Smaller craft breweries can sell their own canned beer but their sales are strictly monitored and restricted.
This law is something that Torontonians are only too used to, but comes as a shock to anyone who visits Ontario unprepared. Folks from elsewhere are frequently surprised when they call into their local Wine Rack for a tasty pack of Creemore Springs only to have the cashier shrug and say, ‘It’s Ontario, buddy.'
Photo cred - Justin Kern
Surely That’s Not Fair?
No, it’s not. In other places it’s seen as perfectly normal and reasonable that you should be able to go into an off-licence, supermarket or grocery store and be able to buy beer. And not only buy beer, but be able to buy beer and wine together. Without an LCBO near, you're going to have to make two separate trips.
Photo cred - lintmachine
So It’s Only Lazy People the Old Laws Effect?
No. No no no. While the laziness factor is an issue, what is a much more important issue is how the government has been enforcing a monopoly on beer sales for the last few decades.
The Old Laws not only prohibit who can sell alcohol but also what alcohol they can sell and how they package and handle that alcohol. A recent controversy was started by a whistleblower who revealed that in 2000 the LCBO and Beer Store colluded together to carve up territories and restrict the availability of alcohol, with the LCBO refusing to sell 12 or 24 packs of beer. The LCBO also agreed that they would refuse to sell to restaurants beer that had not been brewed by the foreign shareholder companies of The Beer Store.
But I Thought The Beer Store Was Ontario-Owned… That Ain’t True?
That ain’t true indeed. There’s a myth that The Beer Store is government-owned and that they don’t make profits, they only ever break even. The Beer Store is actually owned by Brewers Retail Inc., which is comprised of three different internationally owned companies: Sleeman, Molson Coors and Labatt. If you think these beer companies are in the business to break even, you’re mistaken. They’re not selling beer in Ontario as a philanthropic measure; they’re doing it to make money.
Photo cred - Premier of Ontario Photography
So Why Has the Government Kept the Monopoly going?
Well that’s the question. If The Beer Store is not actually benefitting Ontarians, giving them the best value while maintaining high standards and above-board business practices, why have they been allowed to maintain a monopoly?
Money Money Money. Politicians enjoy money, and perks, and donations to political campaigns, and money. One thing Big Beer has is money. They donate to political funds. They host fundraisers. They buy politicians dinner and drinks and all sorts of fancy, fancy gifts. Politicians like being coddled, so they allow The Beer Store to continue their practices.
Surely That’s Not the Only Reason?
No, and don’t call me Shirley. State-run restrictions on alcohol sales are a disputed issue anyway and each province has its own laws and ideas regarding the consumption and sale of alcohol (see here for a lovely infographic). There are frequent arguments about controlled sales versus an open market and many contrasting viewpoints on what that means for the economy, society and the health and wellbeing of citizens.
The beer lobby has been quick to exploit this debate. In the spirit of similar corporations trying to introduce confusion into the fast food market and legislation affecting climate change, beer companies have been fanning the flames, sponsoring studies that dispute open market theories and using comparisons with other provinces to lend support for the monopoly. For example, Ontariobeerfacts.ca is a slick website with cool graphic designs offering simple, indisputable ‘facts’ about The Beer Store and it’s importance in Ontario. The website lists independent studies and surveys stating the benefits of the current system and the danger opening up the market would pose to the health and economy of Ontario.
Of course, Ontariobeerfacts.ca is in fact run by Canadian National Brewers, a lobby group representing Labatt, Molson Corrs and Sleeman, the three shareholders of The Beer Store.
Photo cred - Doug Kerr
So What Happened to the Monopoly?
They changed the law! In early April the Premier’s Advisory Council on Government Assets recommended the need for ‘material foundational change’ in the way beer is sold in Ontario and called for a ‘level playing field’.
A few weeks later, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that beer would soon become legally available in selected grocery stores. Major beer companies have agreed to a price freeze on beer until 2017, and have promised, pinky-promised not to indulge in price-fixing after that. Craft beers from smaller brewers will also increase their shelf space on The Beer Store floor to a minimum of 20%. Go craft ale.
Wow, Finally a Politician Doing What’s Right! Hurray!
Not so fast, Skippy. It’s been speculated that the reason for this action is less about beer and more about what the focus on the beer does. When people are busy cheering for more beer, they’re busy not paying attention to other issues that are unpopular with voters. Like a $10.9 billion dollar deficit. Like selling off 60 per cent of the utility company Hydro One, which is being seen as a move that is sure to cause higher utility rates. A popular measure like making cheaper, more easily available beer is sure to gain more traction in public consciousness and social media than say, an austerity measure selling off a utility company.
It’s akin to your boss holding a boozy party for all her employees. She throws a keg into the centre of the room and everyone cheers, then she mutters under her breath that there will be no Christmas bonus.
Oh God. So What’s the Good News?
Well, the good news is that while it may be a sneaky move with ulterior motives behind it, it is still a good move in itself. Up to 450 businesses will be given licenses and will be able to sell beer in specially designated areas. Retailers other than The Beer Store will also be allowed to sell 12 packs of beer.
Photo cred - TorontoJoe
Yes! YES YES YES YESSS!
Yes yes. While the reasons for the retraction of the monopoly are murky, at least we can celebrate that the silly law will soon be in the silly past. While no one truly knows what will happen next, at least we know we can wonder about it while eating our organic Metro pear and apple salad with a can of Steam Whistle to wash it down.
But Not Wine? Not Vodka?
Nope, not yet, But, dominoes, man. Dominoes. Now that this monopoly has been struck down, who knows what’s next. Maybe it’ll end up a bit more like Quebec, where the deps sell cheap, bad wine and expensive beer, while the SAQ and the more upmarket retail stores sell expensive, better wine and tasty beer. Or maybe it’ll stay the way it is.
They've said you'll be buying cans of Boneshaker with toilet roll and canned peas by Christmas, though they've been keeping wonderfully vague about the timeline of the whole thing.
What About My Local Corner Shop? Beer there?
Nope. No chance. Again, the reasons why are vague. All that matters is that you won't be swigging an IPA from your local convenience store any time soon.
Photo cred - Bob Mical
What Does this Mean for The Beer Store?
They are not pleased. They just lost a very lucrative, very comfortable monopoly. Only don’t expect them to go gently, there’s still plenty to fight for: packaging laws, pricing freezes, the space craft brewers get on their shelves, the right to open more stores. The beer lobby is big and powerful and they can still push around smaller retailers. And while they might be confronting The Beer Store in public, politicians still want their support.
It probably means a downturn in sales though, which could mean the loss of jobs. That’s no fun.
Surely It’s All a Bit More Complicated than ‘MORE BEER’?
Of course it is. There are a range of different opinions on what this means for drinking rates, taxation, long-term pricing, and the impact on health and families. Does privatization means more or less transparency? Perhaps the government and The Beer Store being so cosy together meant that the worst abuses of the beer lobby were monitored and curbed. Will a spurned beer lobby now take on more insidious business methods? Will the fact that alcohol is more readily and cheaply available mean an upturn in alcohol abuse and its related knock-on effects? Will it lead to an increased culture of binge-drinking? Is this a step away from a more mainland European style of drinking (a beer with lunch, some wine with dinner), to a more Ireland/UK (Six pack of lager and a burger on the way home) style of drinking?
Time will tell, but for the moment Torontonians can be happy that by next summer they’ll be able to buy a home barbecue kit, some Montreal spice rub, a twenty pack of chicken wings and a twelve pack of Molson Canadian all under the same roof. Party on, Wayne.