Category Archives: Issues

Provincial Election Fuckery

It’s been a while since I’ve had anything to say about the alcohol retailing system in Ontario, but Tuesday’s media conference orchestrated by our soon-to-be-departing Premier really pissed me off. Suggesting that putting alcohol closer to where people live will somehow increase the instances of drinking and driving, while simultaneously boasting that Ontario’s rates have actually dropped since she gave Ontarians more access points… what the fuck, Kathleen?

She even brought the CEO of MADD Canada along for support. Armed with his opinions, Andrew Murie also told reporters that opening up the system further would lead to an increase in drinking and driving.

Let’s be clear: MADD’s tagline is “No Alcohol. No Drugs. No Victims.” They should add, No Details, because when asked how Ontario stacks up to Québec, he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – answer.

Let’s be more clear: MADD Canada has been a major beneficiary of LCBO charity for more than a decade. In 2016 alone, MADD cynically collected $2.4 million from a government body that not only promotes alcohol through various media, but also offers bonus Air Miles to encourage you and me to buy even more. Charming. It would be like the Canadian Cancer Society taking donations from the Philip Morris wellness program.

Now let’s revisit the drinking and driving statistics, because I actually have some. A few years ago I contacted the Alberta government to see how things changed when they opened up the system. In 1993, government depots sealed their doors and private liquor stores sprung up like prairie dogs. The most recent stats available when I checked (in 2014 – I would check again but it takes weeks to get answers to the next part) showed the population had grown from 2,975,000 (1993) to 3,971,000 (2012).

In that period of enormous growth, alcohol-involved accidents causing injury or death declined dramatically, from 1,699 (1993) to 913 (2012). That’s a 46% drop despite a population increase of 53%!

In terms of overall driving casualties, those involving alcohol declined from 12.6% to just 6.5%.

Nearly half.

That’s a hell of a lot more compelling than MADD speculation.

And though I’m loathe to give Ford Nation more ammunition, fuck Warren “Smokey” Thomas and the steaming stream of shit he spewed last Friday.

OPSEU’s President (the same festering garbage heap who warned that putting beer in grocery stores would lead to increased instances of domestic violence) referred to the notion of beer and wine sales in corner stores as “utterly stupid and irresponsible.” “Smokey” laments how such a move would be “great for the private sector” (Heavens, no!), while siphoning off revenue from the treasury… as though beer in corner stores wouldn’t be taxed. It would, just like cigarettes, but without the overhead and administration that comes with operating a giant agency staffed by government cashiers and stockpersons.

“Smokey,” responding to Kathleen Wynne’s 2015 pledge to open up the alcohol retailing system in Ontario

More stats: the LCBO sent a dividend of $1.956 billion to the provincial coffers in 2015/16. Additional revenue from beer and wine (The Beer Store, Wine Rack, licences, etc) added another $582 million. So, $2.538 billion in total earnings from liquor.

In the same year, Alberta’s government collected more than $855 million from liquor sales.

Ontario, that year, had a population of 13,976,000 people. Alberta counted 4,237,000.

So Alberta had just over a third as many people and also collected more than a third of what Ontario reported for revenue. Ever-so-slightly the Western province actually pulled in more per capita from liquor taxes… but also collected property, business and income taxes from the thousands of additional jobs those private liquor stores created. More employment. More revenue. More convenience. Oh, but less labour disruptions and long weekend closures, so there’s that.

For the union’s big boss man to suggest that giving consumers greater access will mean sacrificing hospital beds is as ludicrous as an adult insisting you call him “Smokey.”

Of course in that same news release “Smokey” also claimed that “year after year, the LCBO pours $2 billion a year into the public coffers,” when in fact that only happened for the first time last year.

If libraries get shuttered under a Progressive Conservative government, that’s because Doug Ford has shown an insatiable appetite for dumbing down the population. But on the issue of expanding liquor sales to private retailers, the evidence suggests he’s the only leader actually making sense.



Killing beer, LCBO style

Yeah, it’s a bit blurry, but not illegible. Take a look at the sticker on this bottle and guess why I’m sharing it.

Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca, at the King / Spadina LCBO
Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca, at the King / Spadina LCBO

If you didn’t figure it out already, here’s a hint: this photo was taken on October 23rd.

Yes, Jolly Pumpkin bottled this ten months ago.

Over the summer, Calabaza Blanca was my favourite beer. Untappd says I had six of them, but those are just the ones I checked in. I’m sure I consumed at least 10.

Most recently I paired one with my Thanksgiving meal. The lightness of this beer’s body does wonders to brighten up a somewhat dense Tofurky roast. I noticed then, though, that it didn’t taste the same as the ones I enjoyed in the summer. It was less refreshing. Also, despite a few days resting in my fridge door, the carbonation unleashed a fountain on my table when I popped the lid.

Calabaza Blanca, it should be noted, is barrel aged, then bottle conditioned, but at just 4.8% it’s not an obvious choice for cellaring.

Calabaza Blanca in better days, with vegan, black bean tacos, hop shoots, red cabbage sauerkraut and sprouted beans
Calabaza Blanca in better days, with my vegan, black bean tacos, hop shoots, red cabbage sauerkraut and sprouted beans

Unfortunately, the LCBO has its own aging program. It’s called negligence.

Even though Calabaza Blanca is produced year round, the current Ontario stock has been warehoused for too long. It’s not the way this beer is intended to be sold.

To be sure of that, I emailed Jolly Pumpkin. Brewmaster Ron Jeffries sent me this reply:

I don’t really recommend aging our beers, as the wild yeast will continue to work even refrigerated and given enough time the beers will become over carbonated.

That being said, they also continue to sour, and a lot of folks like that, and so do age them.

I, myself, enjoy most of the beers at about eight months in the bottle – or younger. I have had Blanca that was five years old before and it was delicious, but a completely different beer. It was sweeter and rounder with a very strong note of candied orange. I preferred the younger bottles, though, as I found them more refreshing and balanced.

So beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think other than over carbonation, you’d be pretty safe at one to two years.”

Safe, that is, if it’s properly stored. At last week’s Ontario Craft Brewers Conference, representatives for the LCBO confirmed the warehouse is not refrigerated. That explains why a good portion of my Thanksgiving beer ended up on my table, while the rest tasted less than expected.

Not that I hope for fewer beer options in Ontario (because, fuck…) but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jolly Pumpkin, which has a stellar reputation, chose not to send more. If my Thanksgiving bottle had been my first I’m not sure I would have been so enthusiastic about buying my next. Especially at $9.20 per bottle.

The provincial government continues to insist we, the commoners, are well served by our current retail options. We’re not.

It takes two separate rounds – literally several weeks – of Ontario lab testing delays before a brew gets even approved for sale to the LCBO.  The neglect that follows is just another indication the crown agency clearly doesn’t understand or appreciate beer.

Organized Blabber

I had an interesting chat earlier this week with a couple other beer writers. They’ve been around longer than I have. They have a larger following than I do. They get invited to things I don’t.

One of the perks of being a more established beer writer is getting to attend events like LCBO tasting sessions for its new releases.

According to these writers – each of whom I have no reason to doubt – the LCBO is falling further behind each time it brings in new and (by Ontario standards) exotic labels.

Some of the fall styles, they tell me, have been in Ontario for weeks. Well that makes sense, it’s been autumn for a few weeks. The problem is these bottles still haven’t made it to the stores.

Most beer, as you probably know, doesn’t age well. In fact it can degrade fairly quick. The Amager Kåååd Spring IPA (6% ABV) that was imported from Denmark in March, yet continues to linger on several LCBO shelves… I’d be wary of that one.

Kåååd Spring IPA
Downtown LCBO locations still selling a well-travelled beer that’s sat around for eight months.

At last year’s Ontario Craft Brewer’s Conference, the head of one of the more respected Toronto-area breweries mentioned he had just taken control of his own delivery because the LCBO was doing such a poor job moving his beer. The government agency, according to many, simply can’t keep pace with industry growth.

In July, I asked the LCBO directly if it was fair to say the agency lacks the capacity to handle all the new craft beer coming to market. The response explained several ways the LCBO has supported Ontario’s craft brewers, but ducked the actual question.

I guess the Ontario Public Service Employees Union isn’t aware of these worsening conditions because it’s now suggesting the LCBO should take on more responsibility. The labour union, Wednesday, published a media release insisting the province should strip away a lucrative line of business from those small enterprises that currently sell beer and wine in markets where there is no government liquor store.

OPSEU figures the LCBO could make extra cash by expropriating the agency stores’ share of the alcohol trade, keeping the income that currently goes to private, mostly independently-owned businesses.

Related: What's Stopping Ontario's Convenience Stores from Selling Booze?

“The best way to increase the LCBO’s dividend to government without increasing the social harm caused by alcohol is to rein in the LCBO’s Agency Stores Program,” claims OPSEU Majordomo Smokey Thomas. “Contracting in of existing sales” (read: “taking back what was already given”) would bring in an additional $50 million, he says “without increasing the social costs associated with drinking.”

If the labour union is genuinely concerned about siphoning more revenue from alcohol without increasing the risk of social harm, why wouldn’t they focus their attention on the Beer Store instead? Unlike agency stores, which generally serve a population that lives nowhere near LCBO shops, the Beer Store is often located quite close to government real estate. Taking away the Beer Store’s licence to sell would give the LCBO a near-monopoly on urban beer sales in Ontario.  Just imagine the earnings.

Hey, it might even save a few kids. OPSEU also figures “the LCBO model of public ownership is still the best way to minimize the net cost to society of alcohol.” Why it thinks that, I don’t know. It’s not stated in the release, nor does it stand up to unbiased surveys of other jurisdictions. Fact is though, the not-publicly-owned Beer Store has more locations than the agency stores, so by some Smokey kind of logic they’re probably doing more harm.

I’m not saying I believe the government should shutter the Beer Store, just that it’s a more logical target for this seemingly altruistic group. But of course the Beer Store is unionized, so there’s that.

Let’s be clear, what OPSEU wants is fewer outlets that demonstrate how well the non-unionized workforce retails alcohol. More convenience and accountable customer service – these are what OPSEU does not want you to experience. Its motives are so thinly veiled they’re pornographic.

This is the same organization – speaking of matters indecent – that successfully overturned the dismissal of six employees for using government computers to surf and spread porn. That happened while I was a member of the OPS, so you see why it’s really fucking difficult for me to take my former dues collector’s social conscience seriously.

OPSEU chose to attack small business. It did so while proposing more tasks for an organization that continues to fall behind, despite its remarkable advantage in dictating market conditions. The union’s position on stripping revenue from small town employers while claiming moral high ground is as absurd as it is pathetic. If Smokey and Co. can’t be useful in the ongoing discussion of alcohol sales in Ontario, they could at least be honest about their motives.

Do We Really Need Toronto Beer Week?

Toronto Beer Week
Toronto Beer Week

Today marks the one year anniversary of Josh Rubin‘s provocative article dismissing the relevance of Toronto Beer Week. Suggesting the city has outgrown TBW, the Toronto Star reporter pointed to the vast number and variety of events that fill the rest of the calendar year. One week’s worth of events could indeed be deemed redundant in a city that creates so many others.

Toronto Beer Week launch
The Craft Brand Company’s Chris Goddard launches Toronto Beer Week 2014. at the Amsterdam BrewHouse

Beer and food pairings aren’t exclusive to TBW any more than tap takeovers. Zwanze Day might be listed on the official calendar, but those quirky Belgians didn’t schedule it for our benefit. In fact nothing on the ten day agenda really needs to be part of a cohesive program.

When Rubin’s article dropped, the local community – the portion that spoke up, anyway – was largely indignant. How dare he not be supportive? Why write an article that criticizes? Whether or not you agree with him, it’s not the role of a journalist to be a cheerleader. Josh Rubin is no PR flack. He’s a respected writer paid to articulate his insights. His job is to get people thinking.

But getting people thinking is also exactly why Toronto Beer Week is relevant. It, more than any other event or series of events, gets people considering beer. Rather than just dissecting what’s in the cup, participants are reflecting on the year that passed. They’re recognizing familiar faces and starting the kinds of conversations that don’t occur when events fall weeks or months apart. They’re collectively pondering growth, opportunity and stumbling blocks.

Sandwich Board outside Rock Lobster on Queen Street
Rock Lobster is one of several venues along Queen Street participating in Toronto Beer Week

The Golden Tap Awards – arguably the marquee event of the week – celebrates the achievements of the entire province. It, better than any event, should be an example to others: it’s free to attend, doesn’t require a reservation or invitation and lets beer drinkers feel like their opinions matter.

To be clear, not everything to do with Toronto Beer Week is relevant. Four events on today’s schedule (three at the same venue?) have nothing to do with beer, other than to mention the brewery sponsor. I can’t imagine those pubs doing proper beer events are thrilled about being listed below deejays and a retro cooler giveaway. But that’s a small thing. It’s a distraction.

The fact that TBW got an exemption from the city to keep bars open until 4:00 a.m. is a big thing. That’s relevant. Last night I noticed a TBW logo in a pub I normally don’t even think about. Suddenly I’m curious to see what they’re doing. That’s relevant. I’ve heard brewery reps already discussing what they could do better next year. That’s relevant.

For all its perceived negativity, Josh Rubin’s article was actually a nod to how dynamic the city’s beer scene has become. But it was dismissive and somewhat misguided. Do we really need Toronto Beer Week? Yes, and as long as it continues to get more people considering what craft beer is and what it can be, its relevance will only increase.

Craft Beer Not Welcome at the Harbourfront Centre

In the eleven years that I’ve been vegan I’ve witnessed an explosion in the range of vegetarian options, both in shops and restaurants. Off the top of my head, craft beer is the only industry I can think of that has probably outpaced veggie cuisine (though to be honest, I’m not really trying too hard to come up with others so save your comments).

When I made the decision to give up animal product I was lucky if I could get a dry, crumbly veggie burger to go with my Amsterdam Nut Brown (by far the preferred savior for brown, fake meat in 2003). Now, of course, I can go to dozens of restaurants with a generous selection of menu options that fit my chosen lifestyle.

Craft beer joints, meanwhile, are multiplying faster than the rabbits I don’t eat. It’s a pretty good time to be me.

What does suck however, is craft beer pubs generally have almost no decent vegan options and most vegetarian restaurants care little about beer.

Beer as Part of a Healthy Vegetarian Lifestyle - Cancelled
CANCELLED: Beer as Part of a Healthy Vegetarian Lifestyle

When the Toronto Vegetarian Association (TVA) accepted my “Beer As Part of a Healthy Vegetarian Lifestyle” workshop proposal, I was thrilled. The Toronto Vegetarian Food Festival is the largest of its kind in North America. Just being given a time slot was a feather in my cap (metaphorically speaking… no birds were harmed in the awarding of presentations). I viewed this as a first step to helping other plant-based-diet advocates understand why an industry as dynamic and positive as beer largely ignores them. If more veg-heads appreciated beer and started demanding better options, maybe pubs and breweries would be more inclusive in their planning. Perhaps restaurants would stock more styles of beer.

Then Wednesday (four days before my workshop) I got an email from the Harbourfront Centre informing me Labatt has exclusivity on their premises. Other breweries’ beers are forbidden. “Perhaps Alexander Keiths beers could be used?”

Here’s the thing: it’s a food festival. It’s about flavour. It’s about options.

Cameron’s, when they learned I was participating, leaped at the chance to be part of it. When I wasn’t sure about the logistics (licensing, ID checking, etc), the Oakvillians were quick to assure me they were ready whenever I found out. And what styles would I like to serve? And do I need anything else? They tweeted the event, added it to their blog and Facebook page… generally made me feel like the success of my workshop was important to them as well. I wouldn’t cancel on such an enthusiastic sponsor days before the event, even if Labatt shipped cases of Goose Island to my door (which they’re welcome to try).

Forcing a festival presenter to pull stock from one brewery, whatever brewery, is ridiculous. It’s like telling a coyote he can only use ACME brand when he’s intent on nabbing a roadrunner.

I don’t begrudge Labatt gaining certain marketing considerations in exchange for shuffling funds into the Harbourfront Centre, but I do question the value of their sponsorship when they insist on painting an otherwise colourful venue beige.

I’ve already spoken to the TVA about doing a beer-focused event in the not-too-distant future. Stay tuned…