Change is brewing

Leaside’s Amsterdam Brewing Company and other Ontario craft brewers have a stake in a Canadian restaurants association’s recent proposal that Ontario bars and restaurants should be allowed to offer “off sales” of beer. (In effect: take-out.)

For the moment, let’s just put aside the fact that some places are already legally doing it because they’re eateries with on-site breweries. And the fact that off sales are a reality in other provinces and other countries. Even with those realities, beer-to-go is a debatable proposition in Ontario — like almost anything to do with alcohol sales and consumption in this province.

But a more universal system of off sales is long overdue. Customers can purchase a beer while sitting in a restaurant or bar, so why should this be any different? In some provinces, including Ontario, people are able to take home a bottle of wine they did not finish drinking, as long as it can be re-corked.

Part of the problem is that The Beer Store has traditionally enjoyed a very sweet deal with the provincial government. There are signs that this is about to change — but for the moment, The Beer Store is the only place in Ontario where you can buy beer in bulk. So it owns roughly 80 percent of the beer market — while the LCBO gets a big chunk of what’s left… leaving craft brewers with only about four per cent. The Beer Store is made up of three shareholders: Labatt’s owners are from Belgium; Molson is now owned by Americans, and Sleeman was bought by japan’s Sapporo.

Queen’s Park has been making noises about allowing beer sales at big supermarkets, and about charging The Beer Store a “franchise fee” for its quasi-monopoly. In part to defuse that, The Beer Store has offered craft brewers more of a stake in its operations. But that’s too little, too late. It’s time to loosen Ontario’s system for selling beer, and that should include off sales.

Considering the growing profile of Amsterdam Brewing in her own home riding of Don Valley West, it may be that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has been sensitized to the need for modernity in Ontario’s alcohol policies. But her steps continue to be very measured. Wynne has spoken on the topic of off sales and has neither ruled them in nor out. But she should consider the boost to craft brewers across Ontario if off sales were more widely allowed.

Some wineries already have kiosks in grocery stores that are able to sell bottles of their red and white, so why shouldn’t breweries get the benefit of a more liberalized environment?

Lets hope that a decision is made soon; the last thing anyone would want is to become dehydrated while waiting.