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  • Beer Store Blues

    Our fair province of Alberta is the envy of the nation when it comes to the availability of crafty beers.

    Seasoned boozers may recall the dark days of the ALCB, the government-run liquor stores that always reminded me of a bleak and vaguely soviet-esque dystopia, complete with surly government clerks, short hours of operation, long lineups, and frequent beer shortages.

    King Ralph changed all that in 1993 by privatizing liquor distribution province-wide, which caused thousands of new booze merchants and bottle shops to spring up almost overnight, and the availability of crafty imports to skyrocket.  It turned out that the disaffected and weary bureaucrats charged with choosing a booze selection for the citizens of Alberta figured that 3 brands of beer was plenty, and nobody wanted to drink those weird foreign beers anyway.

    The province of Onterrible still labours under a similarly bleak regime, in the form of The Beer Store.

    Like many Canadians, my first exposure to The Beer Store was in the quintessentially Canadian movie Strange Brew, starring none other than Bob & Doug McKenzie.

    For those not fortunate enough to have seen the movie, or perhaps spent any time in the center of the universe, The Beer Store was set up in 1927, just after Prohibition ended in Canada.

    The Ontario provincial government of the time was still wary of upsetting the overly shrill and uptight teetotaler demographic, so they agreed that all beer sales in the province would be handled through a single entity.

    Not wanting to sully their own hands with such a tawdry venture, the government outsourced to the task to The Beer Store, made of up a conglomerate of large Canadian brewers.

    Well, at least they were Canadian brewers at the time.  Today, The Beer Store is entirely foreign-owned, with 49% controlled by Molson (now owned by Coors), 49% by Labatt (now owned by Belgium-based InBev), and a whopping 2% by Sleeman’s (now owned by Tokyo-based Sapporo).

    The government-run LCBO stores are the only places to buy wine and spirits, and there is even a small beer selection at the government liquor stores.  However, The Beer Store controls 80% of the Ontario beer market, all the way from manufacturing, distribution, and sales.

    The government contract with The Beer Store is renewed every decade or so, with the last contract hashed out in 2015, and set to expire in 2025.

    The recently-defeated Liberal government had already announced plans to slowly extract themselves from the money-grubbing paws of the now entirely foreign-owned near-monopoly on provincial beer sales by allowing beer and wine sales in supermarkets, and eventually letting the contract expire in 2025.

    However, newly elected Premier Biff Tannen is nothing if not decisive, and announced last week that the provincial contract with The Beer Store would be cancelled ASAP, despite the early termination penalties that may run into the billions of dollars.

    The news comes as a delight to the craft brewers of Ontario, who found themselves shut out of the key distribution channels by every dirty trick in the book, as the foreign-owned conglomerates running The Beer Store heavily favoured their own products in the limited shelf space available.

    Independent brewers across Canada also rejoiced, particularly here in Alberta, where our open and market-driven liquor distribution system makes it easy for Ontario brewers to sell their wares here in Alberta, but our local Albertan crafty brews are nearly impossible to find on the shelves in Ontario, thanks to the draconian listing policies of The Beer Store.

    The beer drinkers of Ontario lucky enough to live near the Quebec border regularly slip across into La Belle Province for better selections and lower prices at every corner store.

    Indeed, Quebec has long held the most liberal and European-inspired attitude towards wine and beer in all of North America.  During the dark days of Prohibition in both the USA and Canada, Quebec was the one shining light in the darkness where it was always legal to get a drink.

    So, gentle reader, lift your pint glass in appreciation that King Ralph privatized liquor retailing in Alberta back in 1993, and pour one out for our Ontario brethren in the hopes that they too will soon have access to all the crafty goodness that we enjoy here!