For decades, no one thought much about how cider was regulated in Ontario. Since the beverage was a fairly niche product, there wasn’t much sense in creating a specialized regulatory framework for it — so the provincial government just applied the same rules used for wine, another drink made from fruit.
But cider is now booming in Ontario: Between 2015 and 2016, the LCBO saw a 54 per cent increase in sales of locally made cider. And the heightened demand has highlighted the problems with treating cider and wine alike.
Much of the trouble stems from what’s known as the five-acre rule, which only allows producers to sell directly to customers if their retail shop is on land with at least five acres of orchard. The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario says it created the rule to support the province’s wine industry — to encourage both rural tourism and rural economic development. It's why Ontario has a booming wine tourism industry, in large part: you can go to a winery, taste a wine that isn't readily available at the LCBO, and if you like it, buy a bottle to take home.
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Since cider is regulated as a wine, cideries are subject to the same stipulations. Except in that case, some cider-makers maintain, the rule is a hindrance rather than a help.
Some producers appreciate the motivation behind the rule. “Our members have agreed for now that it protects the agricultural identity of cider,” says Tomas Wilson, the president of the Ontario Craft Cider Association (OCCA) and the owner of Spirit Tree Estate Cidery in Caledon. “We’re trying to tie into farming and rural job development.” Wilson notes that OCCA members regularly debate whether they ought to lobby for the rule to be changed, but at each occasion, the majority of members have voted to maintain the status quo.
But other producers — particularly those in urban areas — find the regulations punitive. Chris Noll and Adam Gerrits opened Brickworks Ciderhouse in 2013; it remains Toronto’s only cidery, with drinks available for purchase at LCBOs but not at their own location. There isn't space for five acres of orchard in Toronto, and thus Brickworks cannot sell on-site.
Noll says that when he’s explained the rule to people, their response has been along the lines of: “If you have five acres in Toronto, you’re not concerned about selling alcohol. You’re more concerned about your yacht in Monaco.” Noll believes that Brickworks is helping apple growers in the province, pointing to the 2 million litres of Ontario apples the company bought in 2016. He anticipates they will purchase more than 3 million litres this year.
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In Hamilton, Collective Arts Brewery started selling cider in 2016, three years after it launched as a craft beer business. It has a retail shop and tasting room for its beer, but without the requisite five acres, it’s prevented from doing the same for cider. “If we were to [follow that rule], we would need to set up our facility somewhere else, where most of our drinkers wouldn’t be,” says Matt Johnston, the company's CEO. “Everything here is produced locally, but it’s actually hurting our ability to sell local products.”
James McIntosh, owner of The Duxbury Cider Co. in Meaford, supports the five-acre rule, because he believes it helps prevent people from opening urban cideries that are more focused on making money than producing quality ciders. However, he also wants to support his local growers. “I’m not in the cider business to be in the apple business,” he says. Though he has begun planting apple trees himself in order to open a tasting room — a costly measure, when setting up a high-density orchard can run between $10,000 and $20,000 per acre — his farm is already surrounded by other orchards. “The reason I’m in cider is because all my neighbours complained about the price of apples,” McIntosh explains. “I said, ‘I’ll make cider and I’ll buy your apples!’”
But even when cideries have large enough orchard acres to sell to the public, wine regulations continue to be a problem. Laws stipulate that the more alcohol there is in a beverage, the less of it can be served at once — so although ciders typically have only four or five per cent alcohol by volume, they’re treated like wines, which more commonly have 14 per cent alcohol by volume. “Because we’re considered a winery, I can only pour a five-ounce glass of cider in our bistro,” says Spirit Tree’s Tomas Wilson. “That’s all I’m allowed to pour. And my customers are like, ‘Is this is a joke?’” To get around the problem, Spirit Tree offers tasting flights of a series of small glasses.
Brickworks is exploring the possibility of opening a hybrid bar and brewpub in Toronto, where they could offer their ciders on-site. However, unlike other brewpubs, they wouldn’t be able to sell their products to go. Reflecting on the craft-beer boom in Ontario, Noll points out that craft breweries opened first in cities like Toronto, and then craft beer bars followed. Due to the five-acre rule, he sees the reverse happening for cider. If the rule were lifted, he thinks cideries would be opening in every city in Ontario, which would get more people excited about the beverage.
“We never asked craft brewers in the city whether they owned their own wheat farms, or their own barley farms, or their own hop farms,” Noll says.
“Cider is consumed like a beer. It’s part of a beer-drinking occasion, quite often,” says Johnston, who would like to see regulations for cider more closely mirror the ones for beer. The provincial government is inclined to agree: It has been working to update Ontario liquor laws, and in 2016, the Premier’s Advisory Council on Government Assets recommended changes to Ontario’s cider rules, noting that, “Although cider is officially classified as a wine in Ontario, it is considered by consumers to be more comparable to beer.”
Local cider producers say that any regulatory adjustments would also have to include taxation changes: Currently, cider is subject to a mark-up of up to 60 per cent at the LCBO, like bottles of wine; they’d prefer to see that rate reduced so it’s closer to beer’s mark-up, since the two beverages have similar alcohol by volume. A bill is now before the legislature proposing to do just that, although it has yet to receive its second reading, despite being introduced in October.
The hope is these changes can make cider a more profitable proposition, and encourage the growth of the industry in Ontario. “I feel for the guys who are solely focused on cider: We’re holding back our cider business, because there is very little margin in it,” Johnston says. “But we love cider. We want to do more of it.”