beer column

in case you missed the show last night
here are my notes from my beer column on cbc radio 1's on the coast with stephen quinn:

On February 8th the Provincial Government announced revisions to the liquor laws of British Columbia.  The nine changes all sound like solid decisions that will boost the economy and keep liquor producers, vendors and consumers happy.  Two of these changes to the laws are of particular interest to the craft beer community and are causing springs in steps and big smiles on beer lovers' faces.
Past liquor laws in this province, often maligned as archaic, did not generally allow for breweries to have on-site tasting rooms, nor did they allow breweries owned by the same parties as restaurants or pubs to have their beers carried in those restaurants or pubs.  This latter rule was referred to as the tied-house rule.  At first blush it may sound backwards to not allow a pub owned by the same people as a brewery to be allowed to carry their own beer, but there was a purpose to the tied-house law.  The law was in place to keep the market open and prevent a monopoly.  It meant that one mega-brewery was prevented from buying up pubs and restaurants and selling only their own products there, severely restricting consumer choice, particularly in smaller communities.  So, now that that law has been changed, are we in for a loss of consumer choice come March 1st?

I don't think so.  I think that Energy and Mines Minister Rich Coleman and the rest of the cabinet has listened to CAMRA and other advocacy groups as well as the brewers themselves and come up with a plan that loosens up restrictions sufficiently to open up the beer market without allowing for monopolies and unfair practices.  The tied-house rule has not been stricken from the books entirely.  It has been changed to  "Small- and medium-sized liquor manufacturers will be allowed up to three common ownership and business relationships with licensed establishments located off their manufacturing site."  Which means that a small or medium sized brewery may have a financial relationship with up to 3 retail level licensees (e.g. bar, restaurant, private liquor store, caterer). Exempted retail level licensees would have to offer a "range of products" from other manufacturers along with the "tied house product". Meaning that the big boys are left out entirely from being allowed to sell their beers in pubs or restaurants that they own, and medium-sized breweries can't buy up a bunch of the pubs in town and only sell their products there.  This may sound like a bit of a far-fetched concern, I mean who wants to go to a pub that only offers one beer?  But if you look at how many labels some of the big conglomerates now own, folks other than beer geeks might be hard-pressed to notice that the 20 beers on tap all come from one mega-company (the two biggest beer companies on the planet - AB InBev and SABMiller - now own more than 200 brands based in 42 countries).  

So what? you might ask.  If they don't notice, is it really restricting choice?  Perhaps not immediately, but it certainly is restricting the market and it makes it harder for smaller local companies to get their feet in the door.  Those breweries would have to either buy their own pubs and restaurants to sell their beers in or pin all their hops on independent pubs and restaurants being willing to carry their beers.  I am all for people choosing to drink mainstream beers.  If you like it, why not?  Obviously people like those beers if their brewers are so successful.  But I want to be able to try a broader selection of products, and I prefer to find local products.  And I am not alone!  The new tied-house rule will ensure that you get to drink what you like and so do I.  And that mainstream beer drinkers have the opportunity to try other beers at their local watering hole.  Beers they might just like!  

It also means that now St. Augustine's can use a few of their 40 rotating taps to serve Parallel 49 brews, and that the Alibi Room will be able to use some of their rotating taps to serve Brassneck brews once that brewery is up and running.  Steamworks will be allowed to provide beer to both existing Rogue locations, and the new one when it opens; and Main Street Brewery will be able to supply beer to the Cascade Room.  Anthony Frustragli, one of the owners of St. Augustine's and Parallel 49 says: "We look forward to sharing the beers which we so carefully craft at Parallel 49 with our valued customers at St. Augustine's."    Mark James, owner of the Mark James Group brewpubs (including Yaletown, Big Ridge and Whister) is happy about the changes.  Now his brewpubs and restaurants can sell Red Truck Beer as well, a brewery also owned by him:  “We have long-wanted the freedom to include our portfolio of B.C.-brewed, award-winning beer and premium spirits with those products of different suppliers in our liquor primary and food primary licensed establishments.

The changes to the tasting rooms laws will be more slowly implemented.  The new rule comes into effect on March 1st as well, and but as it provides that "Brewers and distillers now can apply to have an on-site consumption area such as a lounge, tasting room or event area" it will be some time before the first tasting rooms are open.  I think it will be very interesting to see how many brewers apply for tasting rooms and how quickly those tasting rooms open.  Tasting rooms for breweries are an important first step in reaching new customers, and a fabulous tourist draw.  Breweries and distilleries will now be placed on a more even footing to wineries in respect of the operation of their tasting rooms. They will now be able to obtain lounge, special event area, tour area and picnic area endorsements for their licenses. Previously, brewery and distillery tasting rooms included arcane restrictions about pricing and serving quantities that seriously limited their utility. This change brings B.C. more into line with other jurisdictions, such as Oregon which has seen huge growth in its artisan breweries and distilleries.

However, and its a big however, its the municipalities who will be handing out the licenses for these tasting rooms and event areas.  Past CAMRA Vancouver President Paddy Treavor has been trying to get an answer from Vancouver City Hall with respect to how they plan to deal with the applications that will be pouring in.  This is the response he got yesterday.
The Campaign for Real Ale Society of British Columbia welcomes the revisions to the province’s liquor laws. CAMRA anticipates that "these changes will further boost the current boom in craft brewing that has given consumers significantly more locally-produced products to choose from." and about the tied-house laws, CAMRABC President Rick Green says “We are pleased to see that the revisions are measured and should help protect, if not improve, consumer choice.”

However, there is one change to the liquor laws that worries CAMRA, that of relaxing rules around how liquor manufacturers can promote their products in bars and restaurants:  "With a Canadian beer market significantly dominated by multinational industrial brewers, CAMRA BC is concerned that the simplifying of rules around how these companies can promote their products in bars and restaurants will result in greater anti-competitive activity.  CAMRA BC chapters will be monitoring developments to ensure that small breweries are not locked out of hospitality establishments or unfairly denied prime product placement in stores."
These changes are a great first step in over-hauling the liquor laws of British Columbia, especially on the heels of decisions to allow alcohol in movie theatres and allowing caterers to hold liquor licenses.  But there are still several laws on the books that most British Columbians would like to see lifted as well.  Like the no happy hour law - Midday discounts on alcohol are prohibited, meaning it is illegal for restaurants and pubs to drop the price of an alcoholic beverage for a few hours a day. Weekly specials, however, are permitted. Some restaurants get around the law by discounting the prices of menu items for happy hour; and there's the no drinking in public law - which means no beer at the beach or at a picnic, or when you're at your neighbourhood park playing croquet.... not to mention no beer in corner stores like in Quebec! For changes like that to happen groups like CAMRA will have to keep advocating and drinkers like you will have to keep supporting those advocacy groups - and your local craft beer community - especially if your municipality doesn't jump on board with the provincial laws.

beer picks for this week are actually ones you need to go to the alibi room to try
and i hesitate to tell you about this, because by doing so i may haven lessened my chances of getting in the door!
its the alibi room's 400th beer list celebration and Nigel Springthorpe has outdone himself again assembling rare and one of a kind beers for everyone's enjoyment
the 400th list is being held over four nights, beginning monday night, to ensure everyone gets a chance to try these beers

my picks from monday night:

  • The Cantillon kriek from Belgium;
  • 2012 vintage of Iain Hill of Yaletown‘s face puckering Oud Bruin sour brown;
  • Dave Woodward of Tofino Brewing‘s cask of spruce-tip IPA that was my, and many other people's favourite during Vancouver Craft Beer Week last year
  • Central City‘s imperial IPA hopped with simcoe and amarillo
  • Graham and Tak's cask of 100% Brett yeast IPA
three of which tapped out very early on tuesday night - apparently everyone else loved them too!
    And my most looked forward to beers that were not yet tapped on monday night:
  • James of Storm's juniper ale cask
  • Tariq's dry-hopped ipa
  • Gigantic's belgian pale ale

update:  if you went early enough monday, you got in, but there was a long wait as the evening wore on
last night, it was full, but no waiting at any time
tonight???? who knows!


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