Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Great Canadian Beer Festival Feeling the Heat of the BC LCLB

If the rumours circulating around some circles of the BC craft beer scene are true, something wicked this way comes, in the form of the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (BC LCLB), and they come with the intentions of making it more difficult for BC beer festival organizers to operate.  Although the sources of this information do not want to go on the record, for fear of repercussions from liquor inspectors and the BC LCLB in the future, there is a story going around that a BC LCLB liquor inspector was voicing at a recently held beer festival that the BC LCLB is going to target beer festivals by strictly enforcing the laws that govern special occasions where liquor is sold and served.

What is true is that the BC LCLB, which operates under the umbrella of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, announced in February, 2011 that those holding temporary liquor licenses will be subject to the same fines as those holding permanent liquor licenses. Beer festivals come under the jurisdiction of the BC LCLB and are allowed to operate using a Special Occasions License (SOL), the same temporary liquor license used for weddings and small fundraising events. No matter if it is a wedding reception in the local community centre, a four-hour cask beer event in a restaurant/bar or a multi-day beer festival, event organizers require the same license and are governed by the same laws. In this case, size really does not matter and all "special occasion" liquor licenses are the same in regards to the laws and restrictions put in place to govern special events. And now they are subject to the same fines that hotels, nightclubs and bars pay when in violation of the BC liquor laws.

The fines that the BC LCLB can levy are substantial to the tune of thousands of dollars. Take for example the act of, "selling or giving liquor to an intoxicated person or a person apparently under the influence of liquor" which can get license holders a $5,000-$7,000 fine per infraction. If the BC LCLB inspectors decided to clamp down harshly on beer festival organizers, they could be financially cripple with a few strokes of a pen. At a festival celebrating craft beer, it is difficult to imagine that a majority of the people attending aren't "apparently under the influence of alcohol" or "intoxicated". There is no specific measuring tool in place to determine who fits these criteria so, on the surface, it appears all quite subjective and at the whim of the inspector and how he/she interprets the laws on any given day.

When contacted, via email, the BC LCLB categorically denied they were planning to step up enforcement at beer festivals. According BC LCLB spokesperson, Cindy Stephenson, the rumours are just that, rumours and that the BC LCLB, "are not targeting beer festivals." Stephenson went as far as to state the, "(BC) Government is supportive of our made-in-BC craft beer industry," and that these festivals, "are a great way to give consumers an opportunity to sample world-class offerings of our small breweries."

This should be reassuring to beer festival organizers here in BC, but where there is smoke, there is usually fire and there is at least one festival organizer out there feeling the heat and is worried that their event is under the BC LCLB microscope. Great Canadian Beer Festival (GCBF) Chairman, Gerry Hieter, believes his festival is being scrutinized and treated unfairly by the BC LCLB and their liquor inspectors and was willing to go on the record to voice his worry and frustrations.

"Somehow after 18 years they (BC LCLB) have now decided we are a bad event and they have told us and our lawyer as much," states Hieter. According to Hieter, neither festival organizers, nor their lawyer, have received anything in writing, but feels he has been personally "verbally taunted while in meetings" and that the BC LCLB personnel’s attitude “has been gleeful” when informing Hieter and the GCBF lawyer of the beefed up fines and what could possibly happen at this year's event, to be held Sept 9-10 at Victoria's Royal Athletic Park.

Although the GCBF has been operating for 19 years, making it the longest running beer festival in Canada, they have never been fined or even written up by the BC LCLB, according to Hieter. He states GCBF organizers go to great lengths to organize and coordinate  security and have a 37-page action plan that lays out every detail of responsibility, specifying who deals with what problems and how. They utilize Victoria Police Department officers inside and outside the festival and have a private security company on-site to deal the event's security issues. As well, they have their own security liaison, who has been with the GCBF since its inception, who oversees the event’s security plan while coordinating and liaising between the different groups working at the festival. Despite this great track record, Hieter states he is worried that this year the GCBF is in the BC LCLB's cross hairs.

"Our take is that everyone will be inebriated to a point and some will over indulge. It is not this fact that should be troublesome to the (BC LCLB), but how we deal with it as an organization that truly matters," said Hieter. "At this time, we don't feel that we will ever get fair impartial treatment from the (BC LCLB) and we may be looking at financial ruin if they decide to fine us $7000 for every person over-served."
When directly queried if they had any specific issues with the GCBF, the BC LCLB, through Stephenson, did not voice any concerns that would explain the unwanted treatment Hieter claims festival organizers are getting. Stephenson did state that the BC LCLB did, "recognize there are challenges faced by organizers of large events like this (GCBF), so liquor inspectors generally meet with event organizers in advance to suggest ways that potential issues can be avoided so their event can be a successful one." 
It seems there has been some sort of communication breakdown at these planning meetings between the BC LCLB and the organizers of the GCBF as Hieter and his team definitely are not voicing that they are feeling the support of the BC LCLB or that the BC LCLB are trying to make the event a successful one.

If the BC LCLB are not supportive of the GCBF organizers, the City of Victoria is behind the event, which the City’s Parks, Recreation and Culture Department Director, Karen Friars called a "premiere event." According to Friars, the City of Victoria has worked together with festival organizers since the festival's inception and "the festival organizers have worked cooperatively with the City and the (Victoria) Police (Department) to address concerns which may be raised by the neighbourhood or participants."

Hieter believes the GCBF does more than most, if not all other festivals out there to comply with BC liquor laws, even if it means more expense and cost. At a time when in Ontario, the government is financially supporting large festivals, through grants to the Ontario Craft Brewers and are loosening liquor laws including those governing SOL's, it would seem counterproductive for the BC government to put yet more restrictions in place in regards to the sale of alcohol, specifically events such as the GCBF which has such a positive impact on the craft beer industry and the economy of their local community. Time will tell whether the BC LCLB's assurances are true or whether Hieter’s concerns are justified. 
Until then, it is just rumour, but remember, where there's smoke, there's usually fire.

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