Tag Archives: Steam Whistle

Beer and Running in Canada

I was recently asked to put together an article detailing 42 ways beer & running play together in Canada. Unfortunately the final copy turned out dramatically shorter and quite a bit different from what my editor led me to believe. So here’s the full article, pretty much as it left my word processor.

Maybe you’ve seen the conflicting studies about the merits of beer as a recovery drink. Does it really help with re-hydration or are you actually undoing some of the positive effects that come from a good run? The simple truth is a beer after running isn’t going to do you a world of harm, nor is it going to make you significantly more prepared for the next time you lock your laces. So just drink it and be happy.

Beer & running go together like race kits & Instagram. And in Canada, we pair a race and a chaser very, very well. From West to East, in downtown cores, country lanes and wooded trails, Canadian Milers love beer as much as Canadian Marathoners love beer. You probably don’t need any more reasons to put the two together, but the next time you’re sitting at a pub, trying to rub the knot out of your aching calf, here’s 42 things you can ponder about how beer and running intersect in the Great White North.

  1. The Beer Mile is Canada’s gift to the rest of the beer running world. Back in 1989, seven friends in their late teens and early twenties got together for the first unofficial run, in Burlington, Ontario.
  2. One of those seven was 17-year-old (underage drinker) Graham Hood, who would go on to finish ninth in the 1,500 meters at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
  3. Members of that original seven brought the Beer Mile to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where the Kingston Classic set down the official ground rules – known as the Kingston Rules – which still govern the sport today.
  4. In 1997, Canada’s Seanna Robinson set the Women’s world record in a time of 6:42. Her world-beating mark would hold up until 2014. Not surprisingly, Robinson was a student at Queen’s.
  5. American James “The Beast” Neilson, who brought the Beer Mile to new prominence when he ran sub-5:00 last year… is actually born and raised in Canada.
  6. On August 8th, Mississauga’s Lewis Kent ran the fastest beer mile ever – a blistering 4:55.78 – breaking the record Australian Josh Harris set just one day earlier.
  7. I spoke to Kent two days prior to his world-beating mark. The 21-year-old (get your head around that – he still gets carded every time he buys racing supplies) is confident he can still go faster. “I haven’t hit a plateau yet. Since October I have shaved over a minute off my time and continue to cut off big chunks of time. I feel I still have quite a bit of room for improvement, and aim to break 4:55 by the end of 2015.”

    Lewis Kent at the Toronto Spring Beer Mile. Photo: Koray Salih
    Lewis Kent at the Toronto Spring Beer Mile. Photo: Koray Salih
  8. Kent and his friends are pioneering a new beer running activity he calls the Pub Run. “We do our best to set fair teams of 5-6, and create a list of pubs you must run to, in order. The catch: each team must finish a pitcher at each bar.” The number of pubs and distance between each is based on the number of participants.
  9. Sidenote: Canadian sprinting phenom Andre de Grasse has to return to Canada if he wants to drink beer legally. The 20-year-old spends most of the year racing for the University of Southern California (USC).
  10. Beer Miles happen all over Canada but the most interesting might be the Trail Beer Mile an hour north of Ottawa… which means it’s in Québec, so 18-year-olds are welcome to join (actually so are the younger set, but they drink root beer, instead of the full-strength beverage from Ottawa’s Broadhead Brewing). Unlike a “traditional” beer mile contested on an oval track, this one loops a 400-meter path in the woods.
  11. Brennan Harvey, one of the organizers of the Toronto Beer Mile (which has run seasonally since 2012) recalls one memorable race when competitors started shotgunning still more brews 100 meters after finishing their four beer in four laps.

    Lewis Kent joins RunTOBeer, 2 days after setting the BeerMile world record.
    Lewis Kent (in orange) joins RunTOBeer, 2 days after setting the BeerMile world record. Photo: William Chaupiz, Night Terrors Running Crew
  12. Two days after recently setting the new world record, Kent and fellow Canadian Beer Mile teammate, Phil Parrot Migas, joined RunTOBeer, accompanying 110 others en route to Toronto’s Rainhard Brewery.
  13. RunTOBeer*Disclosure: RunTOBeer – Toronto’s craft beer running club – started in 2014 when I came up with the idea to get other runners together for a light workout before hitting a pub. Our first two runs, before we ever thought of naming the club, featured a grand total of two runners: Tej Sandhu & me. We now have more than 850 members, run at least once every two weeks and end our runs with free beer supplied by a sponsoring brewery.
  14. Out on the left side of the country, the East Van Running Crew does something similar, hitting up different breweries at finale of each journey. Crew leader Ryan Chilibeck says EVRC tested a couple other meeting points before trying breweries, but the magic just wasn’t there. “We tried Parallel 49 Brewery on a Monday Night in June of 2014 and it just felt right. There was free parking, it was a staple of East Vancouver and people got beer after their run… it was perfect. We have done just over 52 weeks of brewery meetings (with a couple of pizza/beer runs thrown in) and don’t plan on changing the format any time soon.”
  15. Chilibeck also drew my attention to the Bridge Brewing North Shore Growler 10k, wherein runners carry two 1.89l growlers (of water) the entire distance. What makes this particularly awesome is that 24 of the 25 registrants actually finished the run, which entitled each to one month of two growlers being refilled each week, with North Shore Pale Ale. BeerMeBC.com calculated that as “363 litres of beer that was given away, not including a few pints consumed at the event.”
  16. In Calgary meanwhile, the Calgary 5k Run and Beer Fest offers a unlimited amounts craft beer at the end of the short run, for a $39.99 entrance fee.,
  17. At the other end of the Dominion, the Fredericton Beer Run has been around since 2013 and this year attracted more than 300 runners, all of whom ended at a festival featuring 18 different breweries, plus cider and mead. Event spokesperson Lloyd Chambers said the run is staged annually on New Brunswick Day, to cap off summer long weekend. “We actually host the Fredericton Craft Beer Festival in March and the run came out of the idea of pairing our love of beer and running. We planned a small event to keep craft beer visible in the summer and it just took off.” The Fredericton Beer Run has 4k, 6k and 12k distances.
  18. Down the road in Saint John, they saw the success of their New Brunswick neighbours and pulled together the first Port City Beer Run in May of this year. Distances for that race were 3k, 5k and 10k.
  19. You know who else does 3k, 5k and 10k? RunTOBeer. We do things differently from any other club I’ve seen however. Rather than everyone starting at the same point, our 10k runners travel half the distance where they collect the 5k crew. 2k later we meet up with the rest of the runners and all drink together.

    At RunTOBeer, we all drink together... like here at Mill Street Beer Hall.
    At RunTOBeer, we all drink together… like here at Mill Street Beer Hall.
  20. RunTOBeer inspired the soon-to-launch Winnipeg beer running group, PEG Beer Run Club. Headquarted at PEG Beer Co – a brewpub expected to open this December in the city’s Exchange District – runs will take place Sundays, ending back at the clubhouse. Says President & Founder Nicole Barry, “Our run club details will be announced on Twitter @PEGBeerCo this fall. We are also planning a bike club, x-country ski club, and a yoga club. Craft beer and active living fit so well together.” Barry – who hoped to start the running club earlier, but broke her foot – likes to follow her own runs with a Phillip’s Bottle Rocket ISA.
  21. Steve Abrams, co-founder of Toronto’s Mill Street Brewery, has been a runner since high school, when he was active in cross country and track. In 2012, he started taking it more seriously to honour the terms of a New Year’s Resolution. “I woke up with a particularly brutal hangover and decided this was the year I was going to really get back in shape and complete a full Marathon. So I signed up for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, New Years Day and waited until the spring thaw to start serious training. I completed the Marathon with a less-than-stellar time but was proud nonetheless of the accomplishment.” His go-to beers after running: Pilsner in the summer, or a Mill Street Tankhouse or Oktoberfest when the leaves start to change colour.
  22. Another fan of Tankhouse is Canada Running Series Race Director Alan Brookes, whose office is stumbling distance from Mill Street’s Distillery District brewpub (not that he ever drinks during office hours, he assures me).
  23. Last year Mill Street hosted the first “beer run tune-up” in advance of the 2014 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. It was so successful that other Toronto breweries – Amsterdam Brewhouse, Left Field Brewery and Rainhard Brewing – have also hosted tune-ups with Canada Running Series. Mill Street hosted its 2nd annual, on September 13th.

    Coors Light Half Marathon, circa 1991. Photo: Canada Running Series
    Coors Light Half Marathon, circa 1991. Photo: Canada Running Series
  24. Brookes says his organization’s ties to beer go back to its earliest days, when Coors Light hosted its first Toronto Half Marathon (that year there was no Toronto Marathon). At the time, according to Brookes, the radio market in Toronto was becoming saturated, and classic rock station Q107 came up with a plan to hang on to Molson’s advertising dollars. Molson had got the license to brew Coors Light in Canada when it was still commonly tagged as The Silver Bullet. “It was positioned as a downtown, yuppie beverage.” The radio ad exec had the idea to go to Molson and say that if he didn’t start spreading his beer money around to all the other outlets in town, “he would give them this amazing, healthy lifestyle, six-pack of road races in downtown Toronto as a gift-with-purchase.” Instead of just getting just a bunch of 30-second spots “he would have these unforgettable, run experience occasions.” From that came the Coors Light Toronto Half Marathon and 5k.
  25. Winners in the early days – including American Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the first ever Women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984 – received trophies that resembled Coors Light cans with runners atop.

    Alan Brookes with Joan Benoit Samuelson, 1991 (note the trophies). Photo: Canada Running Series
    Alan Brookes with Joan Benoit Samuelson, 1991 (note the trophies). Photo: Canada Running Series
  26. Vancouver’s Rob Watson, who finished eighth in the Men’s Marathon at the recent Pan Am games, generously sprinkles his social media accounts and podcasts with references to his love for craft beer. Follow him at twitter.com/robbiedxc
  27. Know who else loves beer? If you believe her Twitter bio, London, Ontario’s Lanni Marchant, who also happens to be the Canadian Women’s record holder in the Marathon.
  28. Canada Running Series is currently working with RunTOBeer to add more beer-related events to this year’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, including a visitors’ pub guide and post-Marathon festivities.
  29. Another RunTOBeer partnership is Canada Beer Run, which did its Toronto leg in September, starting and ending at the Mill Street brewpub. We did a Father’s Day tune-up run to boost exposure and registration for the Toronto Beer Run. All 500 spaces for the 11.5 km route, which paused at 3 Brewers on AdelaideSteam Whistle Brewery, Amsterdam Brewhouse and 3 Brewers on Yonge sold out. Canada Beer Run encourages costumes, water guns, whistles and plenty of other mayhem.
  30. The Toronto run spun out from the success of the Ottawa Beer Run, which launched in 2103 and now sells out an impressive 1,000 spaces. It’s grown so large that two separate routes – 9.5k and 14.5k options — are mapped to accommodate everyone. Along the way, runners sip from Big Rig, Lowertown, Beyond the Pale, Mill Street, Clock Tower, 3 Brewers and Kichesippi breweries.

    Canada Beer Run
    Canada Beer Run
  31. The model branched out even further this year, with Collingwood’s beer run set to debut in early October. Featuring stops at Side Launch Brewery, The Collingwood Brewery, Northwinds Brewhouse and a station serving MacLean’s Ales (from nearby Grey County), the actual route should be announced shortly. “We were thrilled to add Collingwood as a new event this year,” says Sara Sterling. “The response from the town, the breweries and the local folks has been awesome so far!”
  32. Look for the fourth location – Kitchener-Waterloo – to be added to the 2016 calendar.
  33. Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, doesn’t that region already have a run that coincides with the largest Oktoberfest outside Germany? They do. They have the K-W Oktoberfest 5k fun run. Oddly, it has absolutely nothing to do with beer.
  34. Edmonton’s Hash House Harriers seem to have found a way to include brewskis into any type of occasion, including snowshoeing during the winter and monthly runs on the Friday closest to the full moon. Impressive!
  35. Speaking of monthly runs, the Mikkeller Running Club now has chapters in three Canadian cities. Part of a worldwide network that started in Copenhagen in 2014, members purchase a Mikkeller Running Club t-shirt, which entitles then to a free glass of Mikkeller beer at the end of each run. So if a runner from Chicago happens to be in Toronto on the first Saturday of the month – as happened in August – he can wear the shirt he brought from home and still collect his drink at the end of 5k.

    Alex, with a Mikkeller Running Club shirt from Chicago
    Alex, with a Mikkeller Running Club shirt from Chicago
  36. Montréal launched the first Canadian chapter in May, hosted by Brasserie Harricana. The brewery itself only opened in December. “My partners and I are sports enthusiasts – our beers are numbered instead of named, in honor of our sport jerseys,” explains Head Brewer Mathieu Garceau-Tremblay. “When I discovered MRC on Facebook it seemed natural to host the chapter here in Montreal (I am a big fan of their beers). The owner Marie-Pier Veilleux ran marathons a few years ago – when I presented the project everyone here was really excited. We still don’t know what’s going to happen during wintertime. We will conduct a small survey to see if people are courageous enough to run at minus 20.”
  37. Vancouver’s MRC is led by Mark Galvani, a certified beer judge and manager of Steamworks Liquor Store in Gastown. Because Mikkeller Beer is curiously difficult to get into British Columbia, the Vancouver club ends each run at Steel Toad Brewpub, and drinks from the brewery’s own taps.
  38. The Toronto chapter of MRC came about after my RunTOBeer co-director, Tej Sandhu, happened to be in the U.K. when the London chapter debuted. One thing led to another, and we completed our first MRC run in June, starting and ending at the Bier Markt King West. Unlike our friends in Montréal, we already know we’ll be running through the winter.
  39. The Achilles 5k St. Patrick’s Day run starts and finishes at Toronto’s historic Roundhouse; home to Steam Whistle. The downtown brewery cheerfully shares its popular Pilsner at the conclusion of the race.
  40. If you’re looking for something a bit more rural, The County Marathon in Ontario’s Prince Edward County offers runners a free beer from Barley Days at the finish.

    RunTOBeer from Muskoka to Sawdust City, September 2015
    RunTOBeer from Muskoka to Sawdust City, September 2015
  41. Meanwhile, up in Ontario’s cottage country, Sawdust City Brewing organized a September 19th run, from Muskoka Brewery to their own brewery, some 13km away. RunTOBeer took 20 runners from Toronto, on a bus provided by Sawdust City. Brewmaster Sam Corbeil is a very active runner himself.
  42. Another trail run in the same area falls on October 4th, sponsored by Muskoka Brewery. It, too, is connected to RunTOBeer. We’re did a series of three “Venture Off the Beaten Path” trail runs in Toronto’s ravine and trails, with free pints of Muskoka Detour at the end of each session. Participants’ names were put into a draw for passage to the Muskoka run, with each additional pint of Detour purchased earning runners another entry into the draw.

How Social Is Your Beer? (Part III)

In my last piece I showed what might be the scariest thing about Twitter for business. Whereas other platforms allow you to control the comments, Twitter often becomes a playground of ridicule and scorn for messages that rub people the wrong way. It happens to Rogers, Starbucks and even The Beer Store.

If you offer up a controversial blog post, you can close it to comments. Something provocative on your Facebook page? You can block feedback there too. If you’ve pissed people off sufficiently on either of those forums, they’ll likely jump on Twitter to call you out.

Despite the fact Twitter seems to be the most popular forum for venting, it’s also a highly contagious platform for positive engagement. With approximately 100 million registered users and the ease with which folks can retweet (share your message with their followers), the potential reach is enormous. That people increasingly find it more convenient to engage with businesses over Twitter – either through public posts or direct messages – means any brewery would be crazy to ignore it. And very few do.

But some do it better than others (see Jordan St. John‘s observations below).

I’ve heard Twitter referred to as a customizable radio station. You pick the programs you want to hear. Like radio, Twitter is about immediacy. It can prompt action. It can take requests and give shout-outs. It’s highly interactive.

I personally relate to that analogy because I spent close to three years in commercial radio as an on-air announcer and promotions director; and two years before that doing college and university radio. A big part of my side income was doing on-location remotes, which was really sweet because they paid more than three times my hourly rate. The reason I kept getting called back to do them was because I was good in a room and knew how to instill a sense of urgency over the air.

When would a brewer want to inspire a sense of immediacy? How about when your new bière de garde finally clears customs at the LCBO? You can mention “Biere de Garde now in LCBO locations across Ontario,” or you can reveal “Biere de Garde (limited quantities) appearing at the LCBO today [with a link to your beer’s listing on the LCBO’s online database].” The first statement gives the impression your beer will be widely available on an ongoing basis. Hardly a priority purchase. The second suggests a certain exclusivity about your special release, and prompts action.

Another lesson from radio: Whenever possible, talk directly to the listener (singular). Compose the tweet with one person in mind. You’re better off saying “You’re going to love our new saison,” than “You guys are going to love our new saison.” The reader doesn’t care about everyone else. The reader cares about the reader. Personal is better than generic.

The jury is out on whether or not you need to follow back nearly everyone that follows you. At the very least you need to take a quick look at each new follower. If someone is tweeting about beer in your area on a regular basis they probably deserve a follow-back, even if it’s only Untappd check-ins you don’t care about. There are tools like TweetDeck (what I’m using) and UberSocial (for my mobile) that let you block out all the external noise and see only the lists of accounts you actually want to hear from. Make one column for beer writers, competitors and others relevant to the industry in a broad sense; another more focused on your clients, suppliers and staff; and one more for your friends or others you enjoy hearing from. Don’t display a column for the people you don’t really care about — they’ll never find out. As long as you’re following them, they can still DM you, which is good. You should be open to feedback no matter how your customers choose to reach out.

You definitely don’t want to follow just anyone. If an account is primarily about binge drinking or amateur porn, you’re actually endorsing that account by following it, whether or not you’re reading its tweets. Be at least a little bit selective.

Beyond just cutting through the noise, another great thing about a program like TweetDeck is the ability to schedule tweets, so if you have a message you want to get out at a certain time – say, 30 minutes before the start of an event – you can enter it days in advance and still be on site to set up the tent when the message drops. The danger, of course, is coming across as insensitive if you’ve pre-programmed something cute when the rest of Twitter is alight with details of a plane crash. I hearken back to the need for an SMM.

One common irritant that comes with scheduled tweets is the monotonous, repetitive messages some accounts send out. I don’t see it so much with breweries, but I can think of one pub I like, but had to stop looking at because its messaging was dominated, day after day, by the same list of reasons to support craft beer. I have no problem with the substance of the messages, but the repetition was brain-stabbingly Orwellian. One time while sitting in that particular pub I saw a tweet for their featured beer, so I ordered it. That keg, it turned out, had run dry days earlier.  Scheduling tweets does not give one the right to forget about them.

What else will prompt followers to tune out? The Twitter admin who spends approximately five minutes each day retweeting every ‘mention’ from the previous 24 hours, in succession, like it’s a task on a checklist. It’s better just to hit the ‘favorite’ star the way you might politely hit ‘like’ on the comment your well-meaning aunt posted on your Facebook wall. “Favorite” might be an overstatement for how you feel about the tweet, but at least it’s a polite way to acknowledge someone’s support without polluting your other followers’ feeds. Be selective in your retweets.

Another thing to consider is whether your business needs separate accounts if you have more than one location. I think of Bier Markt, which now has a primary Twitter account (@BierMarkt), and additional accounts for each location. Considering, combined, they don’t produce an overwhelming amount of tweets, there’s no need to carve up the audience. If I lived close to the Don Mills or Queensway locations, I might still head to the Esplanade or King Street if an event appealed to me. It would make more sense to have one Bier Markt Toronto account that can be updated from each location. The Montreal satellite should have its own account, as should the forthcoming Ottawa and Square One shops, but dividing the 416 customer base just doesn’t make sense.

Brewpubs with multiple locations in the same city should also consider whether they’re producing enough content to make it worth sectioning the audience instead of consolidating the messengers. The Clocktower, with its four Ottawa locations, is an example of how it’s done well.

To recap:

  • Considering how much negativity Twitter attracts, be tactful with your messages.
  • Stay positive (start a personal account if you want to rant)
  • Use Twitter to inspire action and whenever possible format your message as though you’re speaking to an individual.
  • Spread out your tweets and schedule them strategically to make sure your message is reaching customers, even when you’re occupied with something else.
  • Be selective in who you follow, then even more selective in determining who is worth your time.

The next installment will look at Facebook. My own BrewScout page finally went live two days ago and already boasts more than 1,400 ‘likes’. How about that?!?


I just got off the phone with Jordan St. John (@saints_gambit), who insisted Steam Whistle (@SteamWhistle) deserved to be acknowledged for some serious Social Media Skillz.

Drawing my attention to the Ontario Brewmaster’s Cup of 2012 – a online contest pitting 16 of the province’s beers head-to-head in a bracket system, overseen by four prominent beer writers (two of whom may have participated in the Twitter-dogpile I mentioned in Part II) – St. John noted that each time “The Good Beer Folks” fired off a tweet encouraging fans to vote, shrieking bells would peal at OBC headquarters, calling to action a legion of scrutineers and ballot counters (or something like that). With just a few tweets each day they were adding several dozen tallies; enough to crown the downtown Pil as the King of Be… nope, not that… as the “ultimate winners!”

Seriously though… Steam Whistle has “developed several narratives for the same product,” St. John continues, meaning that the marketing team has built a broad cross-section of support despite only offering one type of brew. “In terms of actually purchasing beer in the market, popularity does matter.”


Hey Big Rock, I’m coming to see you next week and I’d like to introduce you to my friends.

Since my college days in Lethbridge, many, many pints ago, we’ve had a pretty solid relationship. Sure, we’ve seen less of each other since I moved to Toronto twelve years ago, but we’ve stayed in touch. Two, three times a year I’d come back to Calgary and we would share a table on the patio of the Ship & Anchor, belt out some tunes at Ducky’s or catch a game at Schanks. When my job took me to Red Deer, I took myself to The Rock because rumour had it you were hanging out at the bar under an assumed identity. I’m not positive that was you, but the conversation sure did seem familiar.

A few years ago I swung by your place to check out the Kasper Schultz. I see you’ve picked up some shiny new Nano gear from Specific Mechanical since then. Congrats! I’m pleased to see you’re still having fun conjuring your magic.

A few weeks ago I read a Herald article about how the company’s President recognizes the growth potential in Ontario. That Bob Sartor guy… he seems like a pretty sharp dude. You’ve got to like someone that encourages creativity, respects tradition and invests in being an industry leader.

As successful as you’ve been as a Regional Brewery, it’s inspiring to see you still take an active role in great causes like Unity Brew, and that you give social media props to the micros like Wild Rose, Brew Brothers and Alley Kat, which are also close to my heart. Your ongoing commitment to charity through The Eddies makes me proud to call you my friend.

People here in Toronto – they don’t know you like I do, but they do ask. I tell them about Ed McNally’s background in law and his successful court challenge on behalf of barley farmers. I tell them how your Brewmaster, Paul Gautreau, worked every position on the floor while building his impressive international brewing credentials. I tell them that if they’re ever lucky enough to get a McNally’s Extra on this side of the country they should invest in a good cigar to go with it. I speak of you often and I speak of you fondly.

Actually, that’s what I’m coming to see you about. When I’m sitting at the Town Crier, telling my neighbours about the beautiful combination of Fuggles (Old World) and Cascades (New World) that sets your IPA apart, they get it. If I could find SAAZ Republic on tap, I could also explain the subtle, peppery goodness that makes it distinct in the Canadian market and it would find plenty of fans here too. I want to talk to you about telling your story to more people out here.


This last year I’ve immersed myself in the industry. I’ve completed two of three levels towards my Prud’homme Beer Sommelier designation (the third to be completed this Spring), authored a slew of beer-related articles for The Toronto Standard and spent quite a bit of time on the road, getting acquainted with the beer scene in New York, Montreal, Belgium and The Netherlands. I’ve connected to the local industry, having made friends with publicans, beer writers, festival goers and other craft beer enthusiasts around these parts. They’re really good people here in Ontario. I know you would get on with them beautifully.

Beer drinkers here are awfully bright. They take pride in the contents of their glass. They love that Mill Street Organic is now 100% Canadian-sourced organic grain. Torontonians boast about Steam Whistle’s water conservation initiatives, which are both inspiring and good for the bottom line. They adore Beau’s – the first brewery in Canada to achieve B-Corp Status – for its all-natural approach to beer and benevolence.

Your own admirable initiatives – the barley and pea fields you’re planting, the customizable greenhouses for your hops, your generous festival sponsorships – would resonate with these good people.

I want to help, my friend. I’ve built a lot of goodwill on this side of the country. So can you.

I’ll be there next week. Please let me know a good time to stop by.

What’s Stopping Ontario’s Convenience Stores From Selling Booze?

Originally published in the Toronto Standard
Kathleen Wynne doesn’t want to talk about it, but Mac’s Convenience Stores is pushing for a change in the way we buy alcohol.

Tom Moher wants to continue the discussion. Realistically it’s the best he can hope for right now, because even if his makes his points effectively, Moher still has to work with others that would rather see him muzzled.

Armed with statistics and public opinion that support his case, he nevertheless has to be careful with his words.  Currently, as V.P. of Operations for Central Canada for Mac’s Convenience Stores, he oversees two locations in this province selling beer, wine, and spirits. Nearly 540 other locations in Ontario do not, and Moher would like to change that.

Unlike so many other critics of the current regime, he doesn’t advocate replacing the LCBO.  Mostly he talks about “augmenting” the system. Most of his network is found in rural and suburban areas of province, and those regions, he feels, are the most underserved.

He understands the LCBO is an enormous source of cash for causes and swears his company only wants to add to that. “The province,” he insists, “is leaving money on the table, because if they expand distribution they can also expand revenue.


What Mac’s is proposing shouldn’t be controversial.  Building on the experience of their liquor-stocked stores in Thamesford and Craigleith (and the 5,000 others that Mac’s parent company – Quebec-based Couche-Tard – sells booze from worldwide), Moher aspires to an Ontario where consumers can walk into any convenience store – but Mac’s, ideally – and grab a six pack with their nachos and lottery tickets.

“Our store in Thamesford – I’m very proud of that store. That store there is a great example of what success could look like in this province. We’ve operated an LCBO agency store for ten years plus, now. We had a 1,500-square-foot store. We purchased ten acres across the street, and built a 3,500-square-foot building. We added a gas installation to that store; we brew fresh coffee there; we have an expanded convenience store,; we have an expanded LCBO and Beer Store there,” explains Moher.

“We spent $3,000,000 on that store, and we would continue to spend that kind of money across the province of Ontario, either retrofitting stores or building new stores. And that’s private dollars.  That’s not government dollars. That’s not the hundreds of millions of dollars that get talked about potentially building new LCBOs.”


As ridiculous as it is that three foreign brewers own The Beer Store, Moher doesn’t concern himself with that. He should, but he doesn’t. I purposely bait him with it, trying to pry out some nugget of bitterness, but the most he’ll give me back is an expression of sympathy for the craft brewers that have to deal with them.

The two Mac’s agency stores that currently operate do so with The Beer Store and LCBO on site, but still staffed by Mac’s employees. So even though I suspect Moher appreciates how absurd our current liquor retail environment is, he can’t go around smack-talking his suppliers. In the Craigleith store, for instance, “we used to have to go to pick up our product from the LCBO. Now we’re getting delivery directly from the LCBO. The LCBO now has an employee coming on our lot. Now somebody has more hours on their side. I see the LCBO expanding their role as a wholesaler and distributor.” In other words, Moher feels if the government is worried about the appearance of putting jobs at risk, this is an easy offset.

It’s not difficult to see why the LCBO would shy away from increased competition. For years the Crown corporation has dealt with complaints about its unresponsiveness by ignoring its critics. Put liquor into the hands of leaner organizations that are better connected to the communities they serve, and the LCBO would have to learn to compete quickly or cease to be relevant as a retailer.

To its credit, the LCBO has made great strides in supporting the craft beer community.  Whereas a few short years ago it blocked labels like Flying Monkeys for daring to call its beer “Smashbomb,” now there’s a lot more recognition that the public isn’t as uptight as management assumed. Using Ontario Microbrewery Strategy dollars, it’s now increasing visibility of our local brewers (more on that later). The recent launch of the LCBO’s Beer Worldshows that it’s finally giving grain the kind of respect long given to grapes. However, that still doesn’t address the LCBO’s less-than-convenient retail environment.

It’s even easier to see why The Beer Store would shudder at the prospect of more players in the game.  At present, customers can typically only pick between the government shop or theirs. Ontarians are subject to what is essentially unspoken collusion; the LCBO sets the prices artificially high, safe in the knowledge that the Beer Store won’t charge less (or more).  Consumers are then asked to buy beer at whichever destination is less inconvenient.

Craft brewers have to pay their way in to The Beer Store. In other words, when Wellington Brewery got its product listed, a government-mandated kickback went to Labatt (AB-InBev, of Belgium), Molson (MolsonCoors, of Colorado) and Sleeman (Sapporo, of Japan).  What do you think the likelihood is that Ontario craft brewers would continue to associate with the companies that try to keep them down, if they could have their product retailed more efficiently by a non-competing interest like convenience stores?  Sales of mega-brewed beer is on the decline. If craft brewers pulled their support from The Beer Store, Molson, Sleeman and Labatt wouldn’t just lose listing fees, they would lose valuable foot traffic.

What’s more, they would probably have to drop their prices if they had more competition. Although Mac’s isn’t permitted to sell beer in Alberta, grocery stores there can, and nearly every week you can log on to online flyers and find Molson and Labatt product sold for a lot less than The Beer Store will give it to you here.

Publicly, at least, the craft brewers seem content. Last week, Minister for Economic Development, Trade and Employment Eric Hoskins brought his entourage to Steam Whistle for the announcement of a two-year extension to the Ontario Microbrewery Strategy.  For the 41 members of the Ontario Craft Brewers, this means another $1.2 million next year and again the year after.

“This money,” according to OCB President John Hay, “will be used to continue building the OCB brand, increasing visibility in LCBO stores, advertising, web and social marketing, events like Craft Beer Week and the OCB conference… and carefully looking at export opportunities.”

Officially, the OCB doesn’t have a position on the topic of expanded retailing options, but really how could it? To speak against a government that controls what gets sold at the LCBO and also hands out taxpayer dollars would be risky for all involved, even though craft brewers would clearly benefit by having more access at the community level.


In June, Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa said he wouldn’t rule out allowing convenience stores to sell alcohol.  This came on the heels of Mac’s claiming they would create 1,600 new jobs if given the chance to sell liquor at each of their 540 shops in Ontario. That coincided with the release of study that showed the province would collect more revenue by expanding the availability of liquor to convenience stores.

The 25-page document, produced by Professor Anindya Sen, an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Waterloo, examines not only Economic Theory (“the concept of product differentiation, which is a core concept in Industrial Organization theory”), but also studies the effect of full and partial privatization in provinces like British Columbia and Alberta.

It concludes “that increasing competition in the retail alcohol market is significantly correlated with an increase in per capita gross revenue, net income, and government revenue reported by liquor authorities,” and “government and consumers in Ontario should strongly benefit from some increased competition in the retail sale of alcohol.”

But almost immediately after Minister Sousa floated the possibility of expanding availability, the Premier shot it down.  “It’s not under consideration at this point,” Kathleen Wynne told reporters in Ottawa. “I think we have a good distribution network of alcohol right now.”

Hoskins also says the public is also happy with the current model. “Well I think we’re serving Ontarians well with the current system of distribution,” he mentioned at last week’s funding announcement. “You know there was a survey that was done recently that showed, I think almost 85 per cent of Ontarians are satisfied with the current system for distribution of wine, alcohol and beer.”

True, Ontarians might be satisfied, but Moher points to another study that shows most respondents still want to be able to buy liquor in convenience stores.  Last summer, stores across the province collected more than 112,000 signatures asking Queen’s Park to allow “the convenience of buying alcohol at responsible community convenience stores.”

Says Moher, “… that petition is the single largest petition put forward to Queen’s Park.  I would look at the single largest petition as an issue that needs to be explored and discussed further.”

Most would agree, but the government of the day – despite falling deeper into minority territory following Thursday’s byelections – doesn’t want to talk about it.

Your Advance Guide to Toronto’s Festival of Beer

Originally published in the Toronto Standard
Toronto's Festival of Beer
Toronto’s Festival of Beer

Five years ago I made my first trek to Toronto’s Festival of Beer, full of hope for a day full of hops. Not-so-inexpensive ticket purchased, I wandered down to Fort York and started the sampling.

First impression: Too many frat boy types

Second impression: Too little shelter from the sun

Third impression: Way too many frat boy types

The next year, I didn’t go back.

By 2011 however, I was contributing beer related articles to a magazine, so my tickets were comp’d. The venue had moved to the Exhibition Grounds, and several new breweries had popped up around the province. Things had improved considerably and by the following year – last year, from whence these photos originated – my biggest complaint was drunkenly losing my lens cap.

Yeah, jackasses still show up and it’s not a cheap way to pass an afternoon, but without a doubt this is a quality day out. The site is open, much easier to navigate, and offers a range of other beer-related experiences that enhance the sampling.

Big Wreck
Big Wreck on the big stage (Photo: Dan Grant)
Big Wreck
Loving Steam Whistle, loving Big Wreck (photo: Dan Grant)

TFOB used to hand out an “Enjoyment Guide” to enhance the guest experience, but this year’s edition opted for an app instead (it goes live July 17th). This year’s fest is July 26 – 28, but to help you pre-plan and really get the most of your big day out, I offer this:

  1. Don’t wait to get your tickets. Saturday is already sold out.
  2. I wore a Vitamin B1 patch, which is widely thought to prevent hangovers, to the 2012 event. Whether or not its effectiveness was all in my head didn’t really matter because my head was fine the next day.  It worked for me the same way milk thistle does wonders for others. If you want to minimize the next day’s suffering, purchase your hangover preventative ahead of time (surprisingly, last year, nothing of the sort was sold on-site).
  3. I’m also a big fan of bringing travel-size hand sanitizers to events like this. There’s a whole village of portable toilets and no way to police who else is using the handwash stations. Drinking lowers your defences. This is an easy barrier to apply.
  4. Sunscreen… trust me, the novelty Steam Whistle hats are a special kind of greatness, but they aren’t magic.
  5. Bring a bag. There’s plenty of swag to be had. Have it!
  6. This has been an especially wet spring / summer.  If your Vitamin B1 patch isn’t repelling the mosquitoes you should probably have something else that will.
  7. Plan your route.  The 2012 guide boasted more than 200 brands of beer to choose from, and they were very spread out.  It’s worth noting that money buys position, so it’s going to be easier to find beef jerky than a Berliner Wiesse.
  8. Be prepared for the smell.  It’s right near Lake Ontario, so that’s one thing. Portable Toilet Village is another experience altogether.  Then there are unexpected treasures the younger set tend to leave behind when they become light struck.
  9. Work within your limits.  Your ticket gets you in the gate and a taster size cup that goes with you from booth to booth (don’t lose it… replacements are not free). From there it’s up to you how much you will drink, and it’s your wallet that decides.  Tokens are $1.00 each (non-refundable), and drinks are either one or two discs each.
  10. Get it into your head that when it’s done, it’s done.  Toronto’s Festival of Beer is under a special licensing agreement which allows the event to be held in a public space.  Respect last call and don’t shout at the staff who have no control over the matter. Vendors can’t keep serving when the licence runs out.

If you’re really planning ahead, hang on to the tokens you don’t use. Last year I collected  a bunch that other people threw away at the end of Sunday, and added them to the few left in my pocket.  According to TFOB’s website, the same tokens get used year after year.

Great Lakes
Great Lakes Devil’s Pale Ale Hearse (photo: Dan Grant)


Last week I wrote about the barrel-aged trend that is becoming increasingly popular.  In addition to Sawdust City’s, also be on the lookout for barrels from Nickel BrookFlying MonkeysGreat Lakes and Beau’s Fellow beer specialist Sam Gould (@TheBarleyBabe) and I took the initiative to try a couple of them. Here’s a small taste of what you will be tasting.

Nickel Brook’s Old Kentucky Bastard (10.0%)

Started as: Bolshevik Bastard Imperial Stout

Pours: black, with a creamy, mocha head

Nose: Bourbon, dates, dark cherry

Look for: Ruby Port-like aroma

Palate: cold coffee, chocolate, booziness, Christmas cake, vanilla

Finish: long, smooth and slightly bitter

Flying Monkey’s The Matador Imperial India Pale Ale (10%)

Pours: hazy, burnt orange with an eggshell, foam head

Nose: wood, almost exclusively

Look for: grapefruit pith

Palate: pine, pineapple, toffee

Finish: Long and nicely bitter

Photos from Toronto’s Festival of Beer

The Toronto Standard just posted my latest article: Your Advance Guide to Toronto’s Festival of Beer

It’s shorter than most of my other articles because I wanted to let pictures tell more of the story, but the editors only ran with three of them.

Here are more photos from a truly great day out.

Entrance to Toronto's Festival of Beer
Entrance to Toronto’s Festival of Beer


The Great Lakes 666 Devil's Pale Ale Hearse
Dancing on the Devil’s Pale Ale Hearse
The Great Lakes 666 Devil's Pale Ale Hearse
Dancing on the Devil’s Pale Ale Hearse
The Great Lakes 666 Devil's Pale Ale Hearse
The Great Lakes 666 Devil’s Pale Ale Hearse
Steam Whistle hats!
Steam Whistle hats!
Steam Whistle hats!
Big Wreck’s Ian Thorley
Steam Whistle hats!
Dude in a Steam Whistle hat checking out Big Wreck’s Ian Thorley
Steam Whistle hats!
Steam Whistle hats!
Steam Whistle hats!
Steam Whistle hats!
Steam Whistle hats!
Steam Whistle hats = romance
If you can't get a Steam Whistle hat, this will do.
If you can’t get a Steam Whistle hat, this will do.
Great Lakes Caskapalooza
Great Lakes Caskapalooza
Flying Monkey's
Flying Monkeys
Mill Street
Mill Street
Mill Street went with a carnival theme in 2012
Mill Street went with a carnival theme in 2012
Portable Toilet Village
Portable Toilet Village
Splashing around after knocking back a few
Splashing around after knocking back a few