Origin Malting & Brewing Co. of Strathmore, Alberta, proudly describes its Last Post Brown Ale as a medium-bodied brew that “smells and tastes of fresh brewed coffee, dark chocolate and some citrusy yeast character.” The beer won two silver medals at the Canadian International Beer Awards this year and was voted best in show at the Alberta Beer Awards.
But if you live in Ontario, you won’t be able to get your hands on it — or on any of Alberta’s award-winning beers, for that matter.
Last week, the government of Alberta launched a trade challenge under the Canadian Free Trade Agreement arguing that its alcohol producers lack access to the Ontario market. Deron Bilous, Alberta’s minister of economic development and trade, complained that very few — only around 20 or so — of the province’s products are currently stocked in Ontario liquor stores.
He has a point: the LCBO has a terrible record when it comes to offering new spirits and beers, particularly from upstart craft brands. Alberta isn’t being singled out here: Ontario liquor stores don’t offer many products from the rest of the country, either. British Columbia wines may be widely acclaimed, but just 24 reds are available through the LCBO — versus 66 from Oregon, 73 from Washington State, and 653 from California. Prefer whites? As a former drinks writer, I’d love to be able to recommend Tidal Bay wines, which can be made only in Nova Scotia; they’re a zesty and refreshing way to wash down a scallop. Alas, the LCBO carries just two Nova Scotian wines — and neither was in stock when I checked this week. There’s bad news for cider lovers, too: the SAQ, Quebec’s liquor monopoly, lists 177 ciders made in that province; the LCBO stocks only one of them. And so on.
Brad Goddard, director of business development and government relations for Big Rock Brewery, based in Calgary, says that Alberta beer producers face a number of difficulties when it comes to getting a shelf listing at the LCBO. The company has two streams for new product applications: one for Ontario, one for everyone else. Small Canadian breweries are forced to compete for shelf space against the world’s biggest brands. Sales performance is a criterion; as a result, few Canadian craft producers, which tend to have small home markets, get through.
“Ontario is the market everyone wants to get into,” Goddard says, noting that it’s by far the largest in the country. Companies that can’t break into it, he adds, have a tough time growing. (Big Rock opened a satellite brewery in Toronto last year, so it’s now treated as an in-province supplier.)
Now that the Alberta government has taken action, talks are set to begin. The Canadian Free Trade Agreement allows the other provinces and territories to join in, and they have until Friday to declare their intention to do so. Either side can walk away after 120 days to let a panel of arbitrators decide the issue. If neither side has called a panel after three years, the dispute is dropped.
Even if a panel were to take Alberta’s side and force Ontario liquor stores to create more shelf space for out-of-province products, the LCBO wouldn’t be obliged to offer the full range of made-in-Alberta products. Nor would it be able to: there would inevitably be winners and losers.
But there may be another way, one that would offer consumers more choice — and perhaps appeal to Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government, which was elected, in part, on a promise to liberalize and modernize alcohol sales in the province. When Ontario’s trade representatives meet with their counterparts from Alberta (and from whatever other jurisdictions decide to sit in), how about they strike a deal permitting Canadians to order alcohol online from anywhere else in the country?
Since 2012, Ontarians have been allowed to bring a certain amount of alcohol across provincial borders — the current limits are three litres of spirits, nine of wine, or 24.6 of beer. (The CBC reported in July that a working group established by the CFTA has recommended doubling these allowances.)
If the provinces let their residents buy liquor online from stores in other provinces, they’d create a true nationwide common market for booze. Ontarians could buy any Alberta beer that was sold online; Albertans could buy anything the LCBO has on offer.
Sure, cross-country liquor purchases may lead to a loss of revenue for the LCBO, the Beer Store, and other players in Ontario’s quasi-monopoly alcohol market — especially if their prices and selection aren’t competitive with their counterparts in other provinces.
But as a fan of well-made brown ales, I wouldn’t feel much pity for them. And I suspect Premier Ford wouldn’t either.
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