Jury still out on move of beer sales to convenience stores

A long-time Ontario micro-brewer does not support a proposed move to sell beer in convenience stores.

The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario and the Ontario Convenience Stores Association contend that allowing the sale of beer in convenience stores would be a significant improvement for the liquor industry in Ontario, particularly that of the growing craft brew industry.

But for Ken Woods, president of the Black Oak Brewing Company, in Oakville, Ont., he is perfectly happy with the current system.

“The best way to get our beer to customers is with the LCBO and The Beer Store,” Woods said, “And we’ve been very successful through them.”

The Black Oak Brewery, founded in 1999, carries two beer brands at Ontario outlets of The Beer Store along with three brands at the LCBO. In the past year, the number of LCBO locations that stocked Black Oak beer grew to 130 stores across Ontario.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has made it clear that the provincial government has no plans for expanding the sale of beer to convenience stores.

Woods said at first glance the possibility of hundreds of new stores selling his product might be beneficial. However, he added that by allowing more competition in the retail space, prices would be more expensive for his customers.

“The current system works because it’s easy to get into places like The Beer Store and keep costs down.” Woods said. “While it would be more convenient to have beer at corner stores, it would cost more for brewers to get our product into each individual store.”

For craft brewers to get their beer into The Beer Store, they must first apply through the LCBO. It costs $2,800 for a brewer to file an application, but once approved it only costs a brewer $200 to get their product into a store.

Jeff Newton, spokesperson for The Beer Store, stresses that it is up to the individual brewers to get their beer into store shelves.

“The Beer Store doesn’t choose which beers go on our store shelves,” Newton said, “As long as the product fits under the definition of beer and is approved by the LCBO, the brewers (choose) which stores they want to go into.”

But for Ron Keefe, owner of Granite Brewery in Toronto, the current system does have some problems that need to be fixed.

“While The Beer Store and the LCBO have both improved over the past 10 or 12 years, it’s bizarre that beer distribution throughout Ontario is controlled by three brewers,” Keefe said. “It forces small-time brewers to compete for sales.”

Ultimately, Woods thinks that while the debate over the location of liquor sales in Ontario will intensify, it will be status quo for the foreseeable future.

“Change is difficult,” Woods said, “and it’ll be a while before the current system does.”