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What Ontario Beer Drinkers Are Missing -- And How to Find It

Posted: 09/11/2013 10:12 am

A recent Globe and Mail headline concerning a private sector push for convenience store beer sales said it all: "Beer: Not coming to an Ontario corner store near you."

Just like separatist talk spikes in Quebec, every decade or so, there is a half-hearted effort from Progressive Conservatives and those in the corner store industry to push the sale of beer, and gasp, maybe even wine, in corner stores.

Ain't gonna happen.

Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak can talk about corner store sales or selling the LCBO until his face turns a nice shade of Tory blue, but I'll bet him a two-four of overpriced suds that we'll still be driving to depressing beer store outlets -- or LCBO liquor palaces -- a decade from now.

It all comes down to money and um, convenience. The LCBO provides a steady stream of revenue into Queen's Park coffers ($1.65 billion a year) and a growing chunk of that is coming from beer sales, which makes the honchos of the real "Beer Store" kind of pissy.

The convenience aspect comes in when you consider that the no Ontario government (whether red, orange or blue faced) really has the will to change a system that works, even if it doesn't work in the interests of the province's drinkers.

Anytime the privatization efforts get serious a series of ads from the liquor selling establishment imply little Jimmy and Janey will get easy access to booze from the corner store or how the roads will be overrun with drunk drivers. It's a sobering enough scenario to stall whatever weak privatization momentum exists.

The fact that three foreign-owned companies (okay, half-owned in Molson's case) should continue to operate a de-facto monopoly in what may be the most profitable retail environment in the world should also be a topic of discussion. But let's stick to the brouhaha of this week.

The reality is that Ontario needs more booze retailers, particularly in the beer realm, but hundreds or thousands of corner stores selling six-packs of the most popular beer brands addresses the wrong issue. Rather than giving Ontarians more of the same, the province should open competition up to a select group of retailers with a business plan to sell people what they can't get their hands on currently.

The sad truth is that "The Beer Store" does an intentionally lousy job of selling beer. Their stores, even revamped ones, still have an East Bloc feel to them. Big brands are pushed and you have to expend some time an effort buying beyond the Big 10 featured brands.

That's a feature, not a bug.

The Beer Store's owners, namely Molson Coors, Labatt and Sleeman, do not want you feeling comfortable, strolling around and sampling. Instead, shuffle forward in line, eye and dismiss the crappy beer-themed merchandise, order your 24 or 12, and get the heck out. Store design awards be damned.
That's why the LCBO is stealing an increasing share of beer sales. It puts in a tad of effort and its focus is on foreign beers and local micros. The LCBO celebrates beer -- half heartedly -- while The Beer Store celebrates efficiency.

On a recent trip to the Liquor Mart in little Boulder, Colorado, I saw firsthand what we were missing. It almost brought tears to my eyes. The location, in what looks like an old grocery store, sells 2,000 plus beers. (The mighty Ontario Beer Store carries 350, by way of comparison.) I think every single one of those 2,000 brands was on display in their aisles. Foreign beers, specialty beers, Colorado beers and national microbrewery offerings. You can check out their website (liquormart.com/beer). Read it and weep.

I've written on the beer business for a couple decades and have been fortunate enough to go on brewery-sponsored journo jaunts to Europe and the U.S. but I have never before seen a selection like this. I must have spent a good half hour grabbing bottles off the shelves. Nobody bothered me, presumably because that is the default behaviour of most first timers.

Ontario beer drinkers' tastes are changing. We're buying less big brand two-fours and more craft six-packs and singles. That's why Mill St. Brewery is such a hit with its innovative offerings. That's where the market is going.

If a university town of 100,000 souls like Boulder can support a Liquor Mart and its 2,000 beers, why can't Toronto support two or three? Or one apiece for the likes of Hamilton or London or even staid old Ottawa?

We don't need Mac's selling us six-packs of Coors Light and Budweiser. We do need a homegrown version of Liquor Mart selling us Maui Brewing Bikini Blonde or Boulevard Smokestack Series Dark Truth.
Most of us Ontario beer "consumers" don't know what we want, we just know that we aren't getting it now. And I'm willing to try all 2,000-plus varieties to discover what I really want. I bet you are too.

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