Thursday, April 28, 2011

No More Excuses - Time For the BC Craft Brewers Guild to Organize, Collaborate and Cooperate

Like many other Vancouverites a few Sundays ago, I set out into the sunshine with hopes of achieving a personal best, but my dreams of glory had nothing to do with sweating it out with 50,000 others, adorned in spandex, participating in the Vancouver Sun Run hour and everything to do with throwing on comfortable clothes, ambling down to Legacy Liquor Store and stocking up on craft beer. Normally when I enter liquor stores like Legacy, Firefly, etc, I literally spin in circles, losing all sense of time, while trying to decide what beers to place in my basket. I must look like an adult afflicted with ADHD, who has stopped taking my Ritalin, as I flit from one side of the craft beer section to the other, distracted by the brilliant selection of craft beers and all their shiny labels, but on this particular Sunday I was in and out of the shop with a personal-best, sub-15- minute time. I do have to admit my awesome display of efficiency that particular Sunday had more to do with my nine-month-old daughter deciding to test out the acoustics of the cavernous space that Legacy occupies than my own personal focus and commitment to time management, but it was a feat to brag about all-the-same. My wife didn't share my enthusiasm though, especially after finding the receipt for the beers which were threatening to collapse my daughter's stroller.

OCB Discovery Pack Spring 2011
a multi-brewery collaboration
promoting Ontario craft beers
 While scanning the Legacy beer shelves to see what was new and exciting, store GM, Darryl Lamb, wandered over and handed me a six-pack labelled "Discovery Pack Spring 2011", which consisted of  beers from six different Ontario craft breweries, packaged and put together by the Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB). Darryl explained that he had stumbled across the product and contacted the OCB to have some of the Discovery Packs shipped out for his store. This current version of the Discovery Pack is the 8th version, first having been released in 2007 and are curerntly being released at the beginning of every new season.

I thought this was a very clever method of marketing and a sign of the commitment of the craft brewers in Ontario, who compete in the same market for the same dollars, to work together to collectively further their cause in general. These seemed like artisans and business people who got the Big Picture.

Hoptical Illusion,from
Flying Monkey, one of the
six beers offered in the
Discovery Pack
 Having grown up on the Westcoast, having spent much of my life avoiding Ontario and having the inter-provincial roadblocks in place that make it difficult to export beers from province to province, I know little about the craft beer scene there. I did notice that the six-pack included something from Black Oak Brewery which made me take notice as last summer I had the chance to sample a a very tasty IPA from Black Oak, which had been illegally snuck into our great province by someone who dared cross our provincial borders with alcohol without going through the BC LDB (a rant for another time), so I thought I'd give the Discovery Pack a go based on my enjoyment of that bootlegged brew.

Once I got home I felt celebration was in order, seeing as I had just posted a personal best time, so I cracked open the six pack and began to see what Ontario had to offer. Although the six-pack is described on the OCB website as "a hand selected combination of great brews,"  I found the beers to be solidly crafted but not "great. This might be due to the fact that I have grown accustomed to the huge beers being produced out here on the West Coast which has resulted in me developing a taste for hops to the extreme. I would describe the Discovery Pack beers as "starter" craft beers for those just making the leap from the world of marcobrews to craft beer and not for those looking to have their taste buds assaulted by big hops and high alcohol.
Despite the relatively tame nature of the beers (in my opinion), my curiosity was peaked by the concept of competing breweries cooperating to package together and promote their products to further the cause of Ontario craft breweries. I have seen many "mixed packs" here in BC, but to my recollection they were always from one particular brewery and marketed by that brewery. I have never seen a collaboration between breweries here in BC in regards to packaging their products together for the betterment of the BC craft beer industry as a whole.  I wanted to find out more about the OCB and immediately wondered why we haven't seen similar collaborative marketing here in our province.

Inside the six-pack box I found a few other interesting items, namely two pieces of literature, produced by the OCB, directed at promoting Ontario craft beers. The first insert I read turned out to be the OCB's "Craft Beer Style Guide" which listed all the OCB member breweries along with a list of all their 150+ beers, arranged by style and with brief tasting notes typical of that style. It was in a checklist form so that you could mark off which beers you have tried, much like the old checklists you would get in your hockey card packs back when hockey cards smelled of cheap gum and often ended up in the spokes of your bicycle and not in albums and plastic protectors. The other item inside was an advertisement for the Ontario Craft Beer Week, which takes place in June and is organized by the OCB to help promote their products and beer tourism in Ontario. This, I found interesting as well as almost all the beer festivals that take place here in the Lower Mainland, especially since the demise of DIX, may she Rest in Peace, are not organized by the brewers, but by groups like CAMRA and the Vancouver Craft Beer Week who advertise and promote the events.  

I went to the OCB website and found out it to be a wealth of information. It appears that the OCB are a highly organized and professionally-run group, doing their best to work together and promote Ontario craft beer and craft beer in general. On their website they state,
"We're the Ontario Craft Brewers, 25 brewers dedicated to making great tasting beer, right here in Ontario. The reason we got together is to promote our fresh, natural, quality beer and agree on a commitment to excellence that everyone has to live up to.
We chose "Ontario Craft Brewers" as our name, because it speaks to the tradition of care and craftsmanship that we insist upon when brewing our beer. It's taste that we're obsessed with, and taste that distinguishes us from other beers, so naturally our slogan is "Taste. The difference."
The OCB have even taken their collective commitment further, developing an OCB Brewer's Philosophy, signed by participating brewers and brewery owners, which sets out clearly the Ontario's brewers' dedication to art of brewing craft beer and supplying the consumers with craft beer of the highest quality, while supporting each other as Brothers in Arms, to further the cause of craft beer in Ontario. The OCB makes it clear on their website that they want to be apart of their communities and contribute positively towards the quality of life in those communities. They have successfully managed to lobby the Ontario goverment who have developed a $5 million, five year, Ontario MicroBrewery Strategy, that provides funding to the OCB "for marketing, training and other promotion activities" for the province's craft breweries. The Onatario government has also developed the $8 million, Ontario Craft Brewers Opportunity Fund (OCBOF) to help support and develop small to medium craft breweries in the province to compliment their Ontario Microbrewery Straregy..

The OCB have utilized this funding, along with the fees/dues they charge their members, to develop many advanced and diverse methods of promoting their beers. They have had a free iPhone app developed, that helps consumers track down craft beer in Ontario and have podcasts, entitled "Ontario Brewer". They also organize brewery tours for member breweries, run radio spots, produce videos relating to craft beer, organize the Ontario Craft Beer Week...the list goes on and on. Their website is full of educational information about Ontario craft breweries, craft beer, beer styles, cask beer, interactive tasting guides, maps to liquor stores/retail outlets, local pubs and restaurants that offer craft beer, a "Discovering Our Beer Guide" and  recipes using Ontario craft beer. They even have an on-line (printable) press kit full of background information, facts and statistics relating the the Ontario craft beer industry. I highly recommend it to any beer geek heading out to Ontario and, for that matter, anyone who is interested in craft beer in general, as there are many educational tools and links to beer resources and interactive tools on the site. I literally could have spent hours on there poking around, following the links and reading about Ontario craft beer and craft beer in general.

OCB Craft Beer Style Guide (1st 2 pages) included in the
Discovery Pack Spring 2011

If the information and the energy put forward by the OCB, via their website and their Discovery Pack packaging is any indication, it appears the craft beer scene in Ontario is alive, vibrant and very well supported by the brewers/brewery owners themselves who are spearheading their pubic persona, as one, through the OCB and who have sucessfully garnered the support of their provincial governement. They have taken the proverbial bull by the horns and, as stated in the OCB press kit, "banded together under the Ontario Craft Brewers banner to provide collective marketing muscle, promote regional tourism and expose Ontario's beer drinkers to a world of more than 150 handcrafted premium beers brewed in their own home province."

What a concept! Banding together to create one collective voice (sound familiar CAMRA YVR members??). Competing forces pulling together for the betterment of all involved.

Now let's compare that to the BC craft beer scene and how the BC Craft Brewers Guild (BCCBG), formerly known as the Craft Brewers Association of BC, is helping promote the cause of  the craft beer industry here in Beautiful BC.

It is true that here in BC we have an alive and vibrant craft beer scene as well. BC brewers are not only producing good craft beers, but world class craft beers that are pushing boundaries and causing the rest of North America to take notice. And it is not just one brewer, but several that are creating these amazing beers. There are several brewers at the moment that are challenging each other to keep up and push the envelope with their brews. I dare say that soon, if it isn't already happening, local brewers will be creating new craft beer trends and styles that others, from across Canada and N America and around the world, will be trying emulate in order to keep on the cutting edge of craft brewing. And those of us who drink these beers are enjoying the fruits of these creative labours.

But While the craft beer scene has bneen exploding here in BC, it seems this explosion has taken place with little-to-no help from the Craft Brewers Guild who, at least at first glance, seem invisible to the general public. I am not a brewer, but have been involved in the craft beer industry in Vancouver for over 10 years, yet I know little about the BCCBG and what they do.

On first blush, it seems to be that the BCCBG is, in fact dormant, disorganized and in turmoil. The general scuttlebutt around the cask is that the BCCBG are doing nothing to advance the craft brewing industry in this province and are too busy fighting amongst themselves to get anything accomplished. The BCCBG website is basically devoid of content, listing 16 member breweries, with some of the names missing on the members list conspicuous by their absence, and giving one contact name and phone number, that being Tod Melnyk, of Tree Brewing, who is listed as chairman. Comparing the BC website to the OCB website is like comparing a kindergartner's crayon scribble to a Master's thesis. The only bit of info, other than what listed above did give at least some idea of what the Guild was about, stating,
"Welcome to the home of some of the world's best beers. While in BC, enjoy your stay here and feel free to sample the artisinal offerings of our members.  In 1997, a group of BC Craft Brewers got together for the purpose of establishing a non-profit, cooperative trade organization committed to the promotion of the Craft Brewing Industry through legislation, education, public awareness, and the responsible use of our products."

I decided to make a few phone calls to try and find out what is happening with the BCCBG and to see if all the rumours I have heard swirling about have any substance. Depending on who you talk to, you get a very different picture of what the BCCBG is about and how the BC brewers are working together - or not.  Tod Melynk was more than willing to speak to me about the BCCBG and put a very positive spin on things with the guild.
According to Melnyk, the group is currently reorganizing, refocusing and figuring out priorities and "getting everyone on the same page". When asked about the lack of public presence, including the website, Melnyk, who is co-chair of the group, along with Matt Phillips (Phillips Brewery) and Jim Dodds (Vancouver Island Brewery), stated members have been occupied running their respective breweries and unable to contribute significant time or financial resources to the BCCBG. He did state that they have been "working in the background and tackling issues when they arise" such as putting forth a position paper in regards to the proposed changes to the tied house/trade practice laws. I could not really get what the BCCBG's position was in regards to tied houses and trade practices other than Melynk telling me member breweries did get together, via conference calls, to voice their opinions and come to a consensus on a  position.

When queried about the BCCBG's membership and obvious names missing, Melnyk stated he has fielded "several calls recently" from representatives of breweries and brewpubs inquiring about joining the guild and said that there is significant interest amongst the craft brewers in BC to get organized and work together. As an example, Melnyk pointed to the recent collaboration by 28 craft brewers who got together at R&B Brewery to create a Cascadian Dark Ale that will be available during the Vancouver Craft Beer Week. Melnyk did point out that this collaborative brewing session was organized by the VCBW and not the BCCBG, but saw the getting together of all the brewers as a positive sign.
I also queried Melnyk about the rumours about the in-fighting and conflicts that many feel are the main reason why the BCCBG appear to be stagnant and ineffective and Melynk stated that there has been conflict amongst members, "a few years ago," and that at times "small issues pertinent to one brewery have taken over the (BCCBG) agenda" but that those problems are a thing of the past. Melnyk stated that the BCCBG does have plans to put out collaborative products, such as the OCB's Discovery pack, update their website and begin an organized lobby to help "craft brewers get on a better playing field" in regards to competing in the market place and hopes to get the craft brewing industry the same government support the BC wine industry enjoys. Melynk also stated he has a personal vision of creating a special designation for craft beer similar to the wine industry's VQA designation for BC wines that meet certain criteria. 

Rick Dellow, the R of R&B Brewing, who belong to the BCCBG, also stated in an email, that there are plans amongst the guild members to, "put together shared raw material buying and shared marketing," but that due to the guild members need to attend to their own businesses, these plans may not "see the light of day". Dellow also pointed to past BCCBG activities which have been successful, such as when the guild,"worked with a group of small brewers from all over Canada to lobby the government to reduce the level of Federal Excise tax," a lobby that was successful and resulted changes to the tax structure.

Melynk stated that the main reason the BCCBG has not been able to organize and get to the level of their Ontario cousins is simply a result of money and time and has little to do with in-fighting and the BC brewers inability to work collectively. He pointed to the "substantial amount of money" the OCB got from the Ontario Provincial government and the fact that the OCB has a full-time "Executive Director" to help guide the group.
These facts are true, the OCB has a President, John Hay and an administrative assistant and, according to PR contact, Christine Mulkins, who I contacted by email, "employs a variety of consultants on contract to provide support on finance, marketing, PR, branding, website, advertising/media, etc." Mulkins also stated that OCB members "play an active role in the association by participating on a variety of committees such as - technical, marketing, etc," and that they pay dues to be members to help fund the cause.
My question is, if funding and resources are an issue, why can the BCCBG not follow Ontario's lead and go after the same funding from government and the guild members themselves? I know each provincial governement if diffeent and market places unique, but the BCCBG has a great blueprint to follow and could they not try to adapt the path the OCB has taken to suit their needs?

I spoke to a few other brewers, some members of the BCCBG and some not, as well as others who are insiders in the craft beer industry and had a completely different picture of how the guild operates painted. A few brewers were not willing "to go on the record" but were more than willing to talk to me over a few beers to share their thoughts about the BCCBG and how it operates. I heard descriptors such as "disorganized", "dysfunctional", "useless", "not focused" and "splintered" used to describe the BCCBG.

One brewer, Crannog Ales' Brian MacIsaac, who used to belong to the BCCBG but who opted out about four years ago, was more than willing to go on the record and state why he is no longer a member. I personally know MacIsaac and consider him to be a straight shooter, one who does not mince words and one whose business practices are honest and above board. Crannog has been very vocal about the lack of ethics in the craft beer industry and the lack of a "code of conduct" in regards to how craft breweries in this province conduct business. He believes it is paramount that the craft breweries hold themselves up to a higher standard than the macrobreweries do, not only with the beers they produce but with how they conduct themselves. He believes that although they compete in the same marketplace, for the same consumers' craft beer dollars, the craft breweries should be able to work together to advance the industry in BC while letting their beers speak for themselves.

The beer industry is rife with what are illegal practices, such as kickbacks of free beer to pubs/restaurants, to breweries paying cash for the right to sell their beer in a certain establishment or breweries paying for beer lines to be installed for the privilege of selling their beer, but Crannog has refused to be apart of this, even if it meant losing potential business. Crannog's famous t-shirt depicting a hand flipping the bird with, "here is your 1-in-10," referring to the practice of giving one free keg for every 10 bought, sums up his thoughts on the issue. 

MacIsaac says the main reason he is not apart of the BCCBG any more is the "predatory" business practices of some of the member breweries and his distrust of them having access to "sensitive" information about his business. He states some guild members are "not cooperating" with the other members and that the guild is "not functioning as a group of colleagues". He went on to say certain breweries were not interested in making a stand against the kickbacks and the purchasers' demands for free beer or cash and were currently offering the kickbacks and inducements in the same manner as the bigger breweries with the deeper pockets. He states when he tried to get the members to formulate and implement a "code of ethics" or "code of conduct" he was not supported by the some of the guild members who are known to be quite aggressive in the marketplace and willing to go after the tap space held by other guild members in order to increase their own business. 
He also gave, as an example of the group's unwillingness to support each other, that when one member brewery came to the guild for support due to the fact an establishment demanded a payment of $1000 a tap, per year, to do business, that member brewery received no backing or support. In fact they were told by one of the guild members "it was the price of doing business," even though that "price" is currently illegal and something many small craft breweries, with limited resources, having been fighting against. MacIsaac told me he believes that some of the members of the guild are their for their own betterment and are not interested in helping develop the craft beer industry as a whole or work collaboratively in the guild. It comes down to greed and dollars and not the art of making craft beer and developing an ethical and sustainable industry.

"When is it enough?" asked MacIsaac. "It (craft beer industry) should not just be about getting bigger and bigger."

So which version of the BCCBG is the accurate one?

I have had suspicions for years that some of the BC craft breweries who want to grow and play with the big boys in the market place have been predatory and ruthless in taking business away from their craft beer brethren in the name of growth. In fact, I won't buy beers from certain local breweries based on my knowledge of their business practices and have voiced my opinions to most who will listen. This type of behaviour is certainly going to splinter and fracture the craft brewers. The craft brewers are the first to complain about the Molson's of the world flashing their money about, buying taps and giving kickbacks yet some of them are just as bad and some of those protesting loudest are the worst offenders.

Although there are many of the BC craft brewing heavyweights on the member's list, there are many that are not. I don't buy the excuse that there is a lack of resources available to the BCCBG which prohibits them from doing something as simple as put content on their website or update the name on it to reflect their name change. It appears to me there is just not the will amongst the BC craft brewers to band together to work towards common goals. I am quite sure the member breweries could buck up a few thousand dollars a year to hire professionals to help run their guild, such has been done in Ontario. First on the agenda should be to update and professionize their website, go on a massive recruiting drive and develop a collective voice with the focus of getting the governement's attention so that maybe they can secure funding and make themselves known as a group that can contribute positively to the cultural and finacial welfare of BC.

Maybe the BC craft brewers believe it is not necessary to organize and market together as their growth rates are decent and their support from consumers and groups like CAMRA and the Vancouver Craft Beer Week is strong and spreading the word for them. I know that some who have been supplying this support are getting fed up with the lack of action by the BCCBG to help promote the craft beer scene in BC. CAMRA YVR President, Martin Williams, for one, believes it is time for the BC craft brewers to get busy and help themselves.
"BC's brewers need to work together better than they have," says Williams. "There is a vibrant brewing industry in BC. It is small and its growth is well hampered. I doubt the government in Victoria recognizes brewing as a growing industry. This recognition will only come when the BC Craft Brewing Association develops its own personality, its own voice and markets itself as a real and viable industry in BC with an important role to play." 

The BCCBG may point to the substantial OCB funding from the Ontario Provincial Government but I do think there is a direct link to the OCB's commitment to contributing to their local communities by supplying jobs, promoting-developing local small businesses, adding to the local economies and promoting Ontario tourism by highlighting the province as a destination to find great beer. I don't know for sure, but I suspect the OCB lobbied the Ontario government hard to get the support they now enjoy. If their website and the image the OCB is projecting is accurate, the OCB sees the craft beer industry as more than sales for its individual members and sees themselves as playing an important part in their local communities. Yes, it is about selling beers and individual businesses being successful, but there is a bigger picture beyond producing the best IPA and the OCB seems to get that.

I would love to see the BCCBG here commit to cooperating with each other and take steps towards getting to where the OCB are. I would definitely love to see them band together to try to combat inducements and illegal trade practices, although that may be a mute point if the government in this province deregulates and allows inducements to exist in the light of day. Think of the positive economic spin-offs of promoting and increasing beer tourism here in BC. Think of the possibilities, as a consumer, of the breweries and brewpubs banding together to help new breweries start up in this province. The more widespread, organized and vibrant the craft beer industry is, the better it is for all involved. At least this is how I see it.

I would also like to walk down to my local liquor store and buy a mixed pack of BC craft beer...imagine a box containing limited releases from Central City, Driftwood, Phillips, R&B or any of your other favourite local craft breweries.

Now that is something I don't mind promoting.


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