Opinion

It's Time to Take Our Booze Back

Ontario remains stuck with liquor control regulations that were written in the 1920s. It's time to break up the regulated beer monopoly and let entrepreneurs innovate and compete fairly.

By Lorenzo Somma
Published July 20, 2011

Since the August 2010 closure of Lakeport Brewery and administrative relocation to London, Ontario was completed, Hamilton - a city of half a million - has no brewery to date. After Lakeport closed, many breweries have made offers to buy the existing facility to continue manufacturing beer. Labatt, the breweries current owner, has declined all bids for property for the use of brewing beer.

The Teamsters Union Local 938 called for a boycott of Labatt products due to this, but the problems with our beer and all the industries connected to it requires actions larger than a boycott. It's time we end this prohibition-era economic and cultural stagnation. It's time to take our booze back!... please drink responsibly.

The first part of this equation looks at Canada's three largest beer companies: Labatt, Molson and Sleeman Brewery. And I use the term 'Canadian' loosely, as all three of these companies are controlled by foreign investors. Labatt is controlled by InBev of Belgium; Molson is now a division of MolsonCoors, (which has entered a joint venture with SABMiller to form MillerCoors), and Sleeman is controlled by Sapporo of Japan.

Together, these three companies represent nearly 90% of beer sold in Canada.This in itself is fair enough, as we live in a free market society and this freedom allows for the sale of companies to those who can pay it.

The real problem lies in the second part of the equation, which we face here in Ontario, and that is a company called Brewers Retail Inc (BRI), which sells to the public as The Beer Store. The Beer Store is a privately owned company that supplies Ontario businesses and residence with 90% of its total beer consumption.

Short History of Alcohol in Ontario

Here is a short history lesson about the formation of the alcohol retail business in Ontario:

The Ontario Temperance Act was a law passed in Ontario in 1916 to prohibit the sale of alcohol, a period known as Prohibition. A two-question 1924 referendum on the Temperance Act showed a majority in favour of maintaining the Temperance Act (the first question), but also showed a majority for allowing the government to sell and control alcohol (the second question).

In 1926, the Conservative Party used the results of the 1924 Temperance referendum as their re-election platform. The people voted the Conservatives into power for a second term (1923 to 1926 and 1926 to 1930).

Following Prohibition's end in 1927, the provincial government decided to temper the angry mob of Ontario citizens who had been denied their booze by founding a network of liquor distributors and forming the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) for the controlled distribution of wines, beers and spirits.

The concept was that one can control the consumption of alcohol in a population if one controlled the retail means to buy that alcohol.   In LCBO stores, this control went as far as to require permits in order for a retail store to retrieve one's order from a warehouse. Permits were back-checked regularly to stop alcohol abuse and there were even laws that prevented women from drinking alcohol in the presence of unmarried men without an escort.

LCBO order retrieval form
LCBO order retrieval form

Brewers Retail

To placate the various breweries that were harmed by prohibition, the government also set up an organization called Brewers Warehousing Ltd. This company was owned by the brewers of Ontario and was charged with the creation of a distribution network from which the beer they made could be sold - and, more importantly, controlled. Brewers Warehouse Ltd was the governing body and the brewers (as well as being businessmen) were the legislature.

Over the years, many of these breweries either merged or were bought out. Soon, what was once several brewery companies were reduced to only a few: Labatt, Molson and Sleemans. These companies, one by one, either merged with a larger foreign company or were bought outright. What started as the Brewers Warehousing Company Ltd, slowly evolved into Brewers Retail Inc (BRI), whose job remained the same - the distribution of all beer in Ontario.

Since the root method by which beer was to be distributed remained the same as its founding in1927, these three companies now run not only their own business, but also the body that regulates the sales of what their business produces i.e. beer.

BRI's ownership breaks down as follows: 49% owned by Inbev (Labatt), 49% owned by MillerCoors (Molson) and 2% owned by Sapporo (Sleeman). Labatt, Molson and Sleeman are the primary manufacturers of all beer sold in Ontario. These brewers sell their beer to the wholesalers BRI, who in turn sells and distributes beer to all retailer stores and other venues (bars and restaurants).

Thus, 90% of all beer in Ontario is made by Labatts, Molson and Sleeman, which is then sold to the wholesaler (BRI) which is in turn sold in the Beer Store (owned by BRI) or to bars and restaurants (by BRI).

These companies own Ontario beer and the 10% of sales they don't control belong to the remaining Ontarian or Canadian breweries that pay a hefty toll to have their beer sold in Beer Stores.

This is unfortunate, as there are lots of great beers out there that you won't find at a beer store, or if it is on their big list of beers (like McAuslan Apricot, a personal favourite of mine), they never seem to have it in stock.

The sales of wine in Ontario was also given to a private organization, the Winery Retail stores (now owned by two wineries), but wine is largely sold in the LCBO. Despite various problems, the three organizations have muddled through into the businesses that stand before you today.

Monopoly

When one organization controls an entire market, we get that magic word: monopoly. I may be a business idealist, but I truly believe that monopolies are bad for the economy. Monopolies create commercial inequities, snuff competitiveness, stagnate innovation and lock up economic value.

In order for any brewer to enter the market, it must go through the BRI. Thus you must seek the approval of your largest competitor in order to gain access to the greater market. Your beer will have levies placed against it (even if it is placed on the shelf) and you will have no marketing representation among the distribution network besides your beer being placed on the 'Wall' at the beer store.

Mean while, your competition, (Labatt, Molson and Sleeman) will receive front and centre marketing and a convenient 'Big Sign' that lists all the top 10 beers in Ontario ("oh sorry you didn't make the cut, maybe your beer just isn't that good").

An organization called Ontario Craft Brewers is trying to represent the smaller breweries out there and in many ways is the organization the BRI should have become. Ontario Craft Brewers is comprised of 28 microbrewery members. This group has long lobbied for change in the way Ontario's beer market works and has argued that it should either be allowed to buy shares in BRI to give representation outside the monopoly three, or to be allowed to open competing stores.

Both the government and BRI have flat-out denied the request. The BRI went on further to suggest that should the Ontario Brewers Craft ever be allowed to open stores,the BRI and its other Canadian counterpart, Canada National Brewers (also owned by the Big Three breweries), would boycott OBC products and not sell or distribute them in any store. A very open-handed and fair position from two obviously unbiased groups.  

What Can be Done?

The Ontario government asked this question in 2005. A panel was formed featuring various experts to research and determine if the 78-year-old piece of legislature that formed the modern Ontario beverage alcohol system needed revision. All of our beverage alcohol distributors' fates are linked to the LCBO. What happens to the LCBO can mean the confinement or freedom of beverage alcohol in Ontario. In the end, the buck stops with the LCBO.

This panel was specifically tasked to find the following:

As well, the government established five principles to guide the review. These were:

This is a brief summary of their findings. The report outlines the various methods used to conduct the research needed to draw a valuable conclusion: researching the history of the various influences on the current alcohol situation in Ontario, interviewing key experts and stakeholders in the industry, conducting various round table discussions and surveying the general populace.

After months of research, the panel came to the unanimous conclusion that the beverage alcohol system in Ontario is in a great need of a complete overhaul. The panel put forth an entire new system that would ensure the following:

  1. The consumer would get greater convenience and choice and would benefit from a competitive retail environment;
  2. The government would remove itself from investment risk while increasing its annual revenues;
  3. Ontario would continue to benefit from sound social responsibility practices; and
  4. The existing commercial inequities would have been materially addressed.

Much of the research was on social responsibility and the role of government in regulating alcohol. After looking at many systems in 19 regions around the world, the conclusion was made that government can very effectively ensure all possible steps are met to keep alcohol from becoming a problem without the need of direct distribution.

When the LCBO was originally created, retail ownership was a means to the end of alcohol control. Now retailing has almost become an end in itself. The government is deeply involved in a complex, fast-changing business. While the LCBO has evolved positively in recent years, our work has convinced us that the LCBO will find it financially challenging to keep pace with broader consumer and retail trends over the long term while maintaining or increasing its dividend to the province. This is not a line of work that government should be in...

Our fundamental conclusion is this: To create an open and competitive system, maximize government revenue and protect social responsibility and other public interests, we unanimously recommend that the government withdraw from retail and wholesale operations and implement a licensing system for the retailing and wholesaling of beverage alcohol in Ontario.

How It Would Work

Essentially, the panel suggested that instead of having three monopolies (LCBO, BRI and the Wine Retail) running all of our beverage alcohol, all LCBO in a geographical region should be given a licence that would be bid on at an open auction.

The highest bidder would receive a 10 year licence and acquire a full LCBO store with all the assets that entails.

In order to bid, a business would have to meet strict requirement and have a record for social accountability. Once bought, a store could be moved within that geographical location within curtain guidelines. The auction fee would be paid over the term of the licence.

At the licence's expiration, it would be auctioned again, and the former holder would be allowed to bid again for it.

BRI and wineries with off-site stores could include some or all of their retail outlets in the auction. If they did so, they would receive an appropriate portion of the auction proceeds. Any licence would allow for the full range of alcohol to be sold, although a retailer may choose to specialize.

Specialization would allow us niche market stores that tailor to a specific market of alcohol consumptions, thus we could have 'Bert's Cider Shop' or 'Erny's House of Malt Liquor' instead of generalist stores.

A similar setup would be implemented for wholesales. For efficiency, the government would impose levies at the wholesale area of sales. On top of the $1.5 billion the government makes on alcohol sales, it is projected, after a short 18-24 month transition period; the government would earn a minimum additional $200 million in annual sales.

To ensure competition and fairness, certain restrictions would be placed on who and how many stores a business could own, along with restrictions as to how a store could be designed. Where BRI or wineries choose not to include their retail outlets in the initial auction process, the government could offer additional licences at auction to ensure an appropriate number of full-product-range licences in each zone.

The strategy also includes incentives for small alcohol distributors to have fair opportunities to compete against larger firms, mostly in the form of a deduction in the amount of money the government charges.

Wholesalers would participate in a province-wide marketplace, competing for the business of retailers and licensed establishments on the basis of service, product selection and price.

As opposed to dictating the business to retailers and licensed establishments. These licences have various stipulations to ensure social responsibility, healthy competition, superior customer satisfaction and a positive revenue impact. The panel's final recommendation was summed up as follows:   Recommendations To provide the benefits of a more open, flexible and competitive market to the people of Ontario, including increased revenue, we recommend that the government of Ontario do the following.

Included in the report were other recommendations about recycling other bottles like wine and spirits (the only part of the report the government seemed to heed) and 4 other systems that could result in change to the current one. Those other systems were:

Once competition appeared, the revenues of the LCBO would fall, and because it lacks the flexibility to lower its high cost structure, returns to the government would decline. An orderly transition that clearly allocates risks and returns at the start is the only way to achieve full value from an open marketplace.

Government Rejects Findings

In the end, the panel found the four other alternatives to go against the best interest of the people and economy of Ontario. The main solution was rejected by the minister of finance.

 

The real problem is not with Labatt or any of the businesses behind the making of the beer we drink. They are all legitimate businesses operating in a free market and should be able to make the beers you enjoy.

What we should not tolerate is the system our past government set up and that private enterprises have perpetuated, a system that has not been actively revised in over eight decades.

The history of Ontario and alcohol is one of conflict, prohibition and control. We are not the Ontarians of the 1920s nor any other previous decades. Our laws and regulations should reflect our morals and our judgements.

We need laws that reflect the Ontario of the 21st century. We need to decide if we want a new way of looking at alcohol. We need to decide what is considered socially responsible or socially outdated. We need to decide if prohibition era laws should still affect our lives. We need to let our politicians know we want change.

This issue needs to be revisited and these monopolies need to come to an end. I suggest we really look at the current state of Ontario's beverage alcohol system and decide for ourselves if the system is in our best interests or the system's best interests.

Look into these matters yourself and say what you think. Support Ontario Brewers Craft, visit their website, look at the great beers that have aligned with them. Drink those beers, demand them! Demand change.

I personally am all for changing up our system. I say, let the government regulate and protect the citizenry and let entrepreneurs innovate and stimulate the economy.

I want to visit 'Bert's Cider Shop', I want to see the floodgates open up and bring some new opportunities into our province. Opportunity Knocks. Bottoms Up!

Links

Lorenzo is a former COO and co-founder of Pownz Games Center Inc, a youth oriented business formally located in downtown Hamilton, Ontario. He is passionate about inspiring leadership and resilience in others and using purpose driven strategic planning to achieve goals. Lorenzo advocates that the entrepreneur will be the labour force of the new economy, with creativity being the new bottom line. Lorenzo has served individuals and organizations as an intrapreneur and business coach over the last several years.

Be awesome.

18 Comments

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By theninjasquad (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2011 at 09:49:01

here here! I love Ontario Craft Beers and it's great to see that more and more bars around the city are serving them up.

My partner and I stopped in at Railway City Brewery recently out in St. Thomas. Once the brewmaster heard we were from Hamilton he was thrilled. He said Hamilton is the best market for beer sales and they sell tons of beer here. He knew the bars we went to and the people there, it was quite awesome actually. The craft brewers really have a lot of passion in what they do. After drinking their beers now for the past while, I don't think I can go back to the traditional domestics.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2011 at 10:56:52

This is why I brew my own beer.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2011 at 11:04:51

The BRI went on further to suggest that should the Ontario Brewers Craft ever be allowed to open stores,the BRI and its other Canadian counterpart, Canada National Brewers (also owned by the Big Three breweries), would boycott OBC products and not sell or distribute them in any store. A very open-handed and fair position from two obviously unbiased groups.

This is where the competition bureau should've stepped in and slapped them into oblivion. Of course, anybody who follows Canadian business is already well aware that the Competition Bureau is asleep at the wheel and the government doesn't give a crap about anti-competitive behavior.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2011 at 11:05:51

Wow, excellent article Lorenzo! I am a stay-at-home dad too, although the kids have all grown up and so I guess that makes me just an ordinary housewife? I dunno, I do try to arrange all those pillows on the bed in an orderly fashion.

I don't drink a lot of alcohol but when I do indulge, I like top-shelf. I prefer a pint of Guinness but at around $7.50 each at the average pub, I can barely afford to catch a small buzz. The price drops to about $3.50 each if I were to buy a four-pack at The Beer Store or LCBO but then I drink alone and that ain't much fun you know.

There is a very simple solution to this problem, home-brewing and home wine-making. I haven't yet tried brewing my own beer but I am getting better at wine-making. Since I have 5 mulberry trees on or near my property, I have been collecting the berries every June-July for making my own red wine from an old black currant recipe. This year I have another 24 bottles fermenting in a 20-litre demi-john and next year plan to triple that amount since so many berries have gone uncollected. That's way more booze than I'll ever consume in one year but these are great gifts to share.

You can fight the antiquated system and probably not get anywhere with the corporate fascists of crony capitalism, but I chose to use that time and effort fermenting my own brand of artificial joy. And at a total cost of less than $2 a bottle, I am a very happy boy.

Cheers

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2011 at 12:39:30 in reply to Comment 66576

I'm the opposite - my beer successes have been stellar, but my wine attempts less so. Definitely planning to salvage a few of the last mulberries around to try my hand at brewing them - do you use straight mulberries, or mix in other juices for more body?

Beer brewing is really easy. It's incredibly cheap (from malt syrup or grains, we were doing about 20L for $7-9, or "kits" for about $15), and you get to experiment with all sorts of interesting flavours. I know people who brew with coffee, hemp, maple syrup, fruit and a whole host of hops-alternatives. Also, it's worth noting that hops grow like weeds on North-End fences.

There's an important cultural aspect here that's being forgotten. Brewing is a part of local culinary traditions, and that's something to foster, not forget.

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By Basement booze (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 13:22:51 in reply to Comment 66586

Mulberries by themselves are pretty lame. For every 6 lbs of berries add 3/4 teaspoon of acid blend, 3/4 teaspoon pectic enzyme, and 1 pound of minced raisins, or 1 11-oz. can of Welch's frozen grape (Concord) juice concentrate. Sugar as required to get the starting specific gravity you desire as with any other batch. For fruit based wines I find a Bordeaux strain yeast gives good results, or a Champagne strain if you are going to run the alcohol % high.

Best quality will be seen after 9 months to 1 year in bottle.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2011 at 11:06:54

Also, for the record, Craft beers don't have to be overpriced beer-snob drinks. I'm a big fan of Brick Brewing's products, and they're owned and operated out of Waterloo and make a lot of good cheap stuff.

edit: I just realized that this article was posted by Lorenzo Somma. Apparently half of the political activism in this city is fueled by my old highschool drinking-buddies.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2011-07-20 11:08:48

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By theninjasquad (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2011 at 13:36:09

I really wish there was a local craft brewery in the city. If there was I would be a frequent customer. I think the city has enough people to support one, it would likely do well.

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By Peter Vander Klippe (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 23:02:56 in reply to Comment 66593

I'd love to start a craft brewery in Hamilton. My friend and I have been able to make a couple impressive brews ourselves and I've been obsessed with this idea for quite a while now. From what I've seen you need $1 to $2 million to get off the ground (depending upon location) and in about two years we could be sipping an awesome brewed in Hamilton beer.

Anyone interested?

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By zozo (registered) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 14:27:06

No doubt brewing at home is an option, though as mentioned, can take a while. U-brews are a good choice too, since it's almost like brewing at home, only they provide all the space and equipment. Here are a few I know:

http://www.mainwestubrewwines.com/ http://www.brewtime.ca/ http://grapesandhops.ca/ http://www.winetodine.ca/

The bigger picture is that there are far greater economic opportunities to be had with the proper proliferation of the alcohol beverage business in Ontario. Jobs, innovation, culture, local and provincial economies, tax coffers and the drinking public in general; all have much to gain. Brewing at home is great, but there is so much more that could be happening right now.

Canada seems to have a thing for monopolies, maybe after having them as long as we have, we have just gotten used to them. As a consumer and entrepreneur, I think we can do much better.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 14:31:04

Having a high school buddy who's mum is now the president of MADD ontario ( so you know what happened to him) , the one thing id like to see change is the closing of all Drive thrus at ontario beer stores it sends completely the wrong message. ( cars and beer DO NOT mix)

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By trevorlikesbikes (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2011 at 14:47:28 in reply to Comment 66616

better yet, install a mandatory breathalizer at the order window.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 17:30:39

As a frequenter of beeradvocate.com I will certainly agree with points of this article and disagree with others.

I disagree with opening up the sale of alcohol and deregulating it. The LCBO makes a LOT of money that goes directly into government coffers, and does so in a responsible fashion that I would not expect of the private sector. I also disagree with the auctioning process, as there would be little to stop the big three of simply buying out all of the licenses.

What I am for is abolishing the Beer Store monopoly. It is ludicrous that a small brewer has to subsidize his competitors just to sell his product. Smaller brewers must be given a right to purchase into the organization. Frankly, any brewer who brews a certain amount of beer in this province should be allowed to buy into it and import beer should face levies to list, with a cap on share ownership based on how much beer you are producing in province.

What I would also love to see is the OCB get around this legislation by opening up a brewery in every city (as you can still sell beer direct from your brewery) and keep opening up smaller breweries that sell just OCB products.

Comment edited by -Hammer- on 2011-07-20 17:32:29

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 17:34:28

A few years ago I was at a conference with a representative of the OSCB. This guy seemed to think, while not perfect, the current system isn't bad for the small brewers. The logistics, distribution and marketing (of the distribution/ retail aspect) are handled/ controlled, which eliminates a major hurdle in a more free-market style. Pressure from watch-dogs helps them get products listed - albeit, as you state, perhaps less than what's ideal. And, versus a completely open variety-store-style sale of liquor, this ensures private retailers don't just 'hedge their bets' by only buying the top 4 brands.

It seems almost counter intuitive, but his feeling was the more open the market, the better the chance that the big boys squeeze the craft guys out of the mix.

Hence, the lack of protest at an allegedly illegal foreign owned monopoly.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 20, 2011 at 20:49:39 in reply to Comment 66650

I'd normally agree with you on this one, but the problem here is you have to pay your direct competitor money to just list and carrying your booze on a store to store basis, nevermind market the beer (which they clearly show favoritism towards their own brands, hence the big 10 and the fact 24s of the big three are always right on the floor as you walk in) which really hurts your ability to become anything more then a small craft brewer, not that there's anything wrong with that.

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By hoser (anonymous) | Posted August 11, 2011 at 22:59:53

This article is a very nicely laid out dream of a utopian society where politics and large cash rich monopolies didn't exist. It burns me up but the truth is there is 0% chance that the current retail structure for alchohol sales in Ontario will EVER change. It can't and won't. Just too much money at stake with the government and MolsonCoors / Inbev.

Hate to be the one putting reality into this chain but guess all Ontarians just need to suck it up. It will NEVER change. Don't waste your time. Not worth the effort. You cannot win.

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By dontpay tax (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2013 at 19:57:42 in reply to Comment 67897

The only way for this monopoly to be crushed (LCBO and/or BEER STORE) is for society to get off their asses and make their own beer and wine. Even for 1 year. This would stop the cash cow. I blame society for patronizing our Government dictatorships (even though the Beer store is private...they are still collecting the taxes). Cananadians will just say "Oh well!" Any problem can ultimately be tracked back to our own people. This is why I have coined the term "Sheeple"! Baaaaaaaa!

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted August 14, 2011 at 23:17:59

A bit late to the discussion, but another plug for Railway City - a great tour, and beer.

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