I should have known this would happen. We’ve spent so much time criticizing the curious state of beer retailing in Ontario that as soon as something actually goes our way, the only way people know how to react is to criticize it.
Yes, beer is available in 19 Loblaw’s-owned stores, 15 Sobey’s, a bunch of Farm Boys and about 10 more chains and independents. Good news, right?
The Superstore: Now featuring Beer
Apparently not. I’m hearing complaints along the lines of “The beer is unrefrigerated and relegated to two end-aisles”, though a quick question to staff reveals that at least 40ft of brand new refrigeration has already been ordered for the beer and will be installed in January. Or, “It’ll all be big domestics,” while Loblaw’s has dedicated at least 50% of its shelf space to independent craft beer (and no, Mill St. doesn’t count).
Look, I get it. I left Ontario when I was 22 and didn’t come back until I was 27. So on December 15th, when I stood next to a smart-serve certified cashier and watched an MPP cut a red ribbon tied awkwardly between the two end-aisles dedicated to beer, trapping the civilians innocently shopping in that aisle and wondering what all the hubbub was about, buying beer in grocery stores was nothing new to me.
Having lived in more “modern” alcohol retail environments, where booze can be bought in all sorts of establishments from state-run to independent and huge grocery chains to little mom-and-pops, I didn’t even have the novelty of it, let alone excitement, to make it seem like this was an important event. It felt less like the awards ceremony in A New Hope and more like the ending of Empire, when we’re happy that we haven’t lost the fight, but we know there’s a lot more work to be done.
When I spoke about it with a representative from a certain large brewery east of Toronto, I couldn’t resist running down the list of problems:
Grocery stores must be at least yea big
Products can’t be sold in anything larger than a six-pack
Prices have to match those of the LCBO
The LCBO acts as a wholesaler (ie. local stores can’t purchase beer directly from local breweries)
The Beer Store receives a cut of the profits if stores sell above a certain yearly allotment (I don’t know how they got away with this one)
Admittedly, these are real problems. But this is still a step in the right direction and many of the other complaints I’ve heard are petty and ill-informed. It doesn’t help that the criticisms come far too soon, based as they have been on only 1 of the 13 grocery stores that received licenses on December 15th.
Let’s back up for a minute.
In April, the province announced that “sometime within the next two years” beer would be sold in grocery stores. The response to this was “Um, okay but... (insert any complaint you can come up with)”. First and foremost, people took issue with that exceedingly vague timeline, expecting this, like most policy in Ontario, to take years to come into effect. Nobody (except perhaps Loblaw’s) expected to be buying beer from grocery stores on December 15th.
In September, the government allowed grocers to begin bidding on licenses to sell beer.
In November, the first 13 of a planned 60 winning bidders was announced and the government said that beer could be on grocery store shelves by Christmas.
By December, people still didn’t seem to buy it. The general consensus was “hopefully by the spring”. But then somebody leaked some information to Ben Johnson which he published on his blog on December 11th, claiming that beer would be hitting the shelves on the 18th.
Now it’s December 15th and there’s a big photo-op at a Loblaw’s in Toronto. Kathleen Wynne is hanging out with the presidents of brewing companies. Even as people got progressively less pessimistic over the course of the year, it’s still earlier than anyone expected. At 10AM from Windsor to Thunder Bay, the shelves are stocked, the staff is trained, there’s one “express” beer column and three more where you can buy your beer and groceries together.
By Christmas Day, at least three other grocers have also begun stocking beer.
Alcohol retailing in Ontario is a very strange thing. But at this moment it’s better than it has ever been. There’s enough local brewers in this province that nearly all of us can get our beer straight from the source. And for the first time ever we now have a fourth retail environment.
You can complain that it’s not enough. The LCBO is still in control of grocery store sales. The Beer Store is still too powerful. This is just disguising the fact that we still essentially have a duopoly on beer distribution. The Liberal Party is trying to distract us from more important things by appeasing to the popularity of beer at the moment.
Well, that last one is fair. There are much more important things we ought to be complaining about. Instead of whining about beer in grocery stores, celebrate a small step in the right direction and continue to demand more from your government.