Wednesday, December 7, 2011

CAMRA Vancouver Making a FUSS About Serving Sizes

CAMRA Vancouver is making good on its promise to put the Campaign back into CAMRA by launching their Fess Up to Serving Sizes (FUSS) Campaign.

Fuss is aiming to get licensees to comply with their legal obligation to make available to customers serving size lists for alcoholic drinks sold in licensed establishments and not about trying to get licensees to favour one measure over another. The campaign is not trying to tell licensed establishments what sized pours to offer, or alter their pricing, but is aimed at making transparent for the consumer what exactly is being offered for what price.

If CAMRA Van is successful in reaching their goal, consumers will no longer be in the dark as to just how much draft beer to expect to be served to them when they are ordering their favourite draft brews. No longer could bars advertise "pints" while actually selling much smaller sleeves because the measure would be defined in actual millilitres and ounces. Consumers would actually know, ahead of time, what sized sleeve they were ordering - sleeve glasses range from 341ml (12oz) to 454ml (160z) with all looking almost identical - instead of trying to figure out the beer glass's capacity after it is delivered to their table.

Although there is a law in place that dictates a licensee must have a list available to patrons outling the prices and serving sizes for all alcoholic drinks available, few establishments comply and the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch seems to have little interest in enforcing one of the few BC liquor laws that actually benefits consumers.. To make matters worse, more often than not servers and bartenders have no idea as to the measure they are serving, or are misinformed, causing them to misleading customers when asked about glassware capacities.

Although CAMRA is advocating on behalf of craft beer drinkers, the issue of misrepresented serving sizes and/or lack of disclosure by licensees as to what measure they are indeed serving affects all draft beer drinkers in BC. Whether you order a locally-brewed craft beer or a macrobrew lager from one of the national breweries, you want to know what you are paying for in advance of making the decision to order.

Get behind this if you care about your consumers`rights. How can you complain about being short-poured when you have absolutely no idea what a full-pour measure is...stand up for your rights!! First step, sign CAMRA Vancouver`s on-line petition which they will present to the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch in the future. For a more in-depth read about what FUSS is all about and what CAMRA Vancouver's action plan is, click here.

While on the subject of CAMRA, I think it is important to note CAMRA BC has just announced their combined membership (individual & corporate members) has gone over the 1,000 mark!!
The more voices speaking in concert, the louder the voice. I know there are a growing number of craft beer lovers out there in BC who are not CAMRA members. Many have stated to myself the reason they are not members is that CAMRA BC and its BC chapters are nothing more than a beer appreciation group...well, see the above post about the FUSS Campaign for proof that CAMRA chapters in BC are getting more active and doing more than organizing drink-ups.
Next stop, 5,000 members!!
Click here to join in the fun and help support the craft beer consumers of this province in their quest to be able to more readily access locally-brewed, craft beers served in the proper manner for fair prices. It is a great way to educate yourself about craft beer, home brewing and the craft beer industry in general and gives you a chance to have a voice and help shape our local craft beer community.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Craft Beer Industry Missing Out on Law Reforms

Recently my sister-in-law and her husband from Mexico visited my family and as a gift they brought us a few bottles of ice wine from the Niagara Region of Ontario, where they stopped over for a few days to see the sights.
You should have seen the look on their faces when I told them they had just violated a federal law by importing alcohol from one province to another within Canada. In one fell swoop, I was aiding and abetting criminals and was in possession of contraband alcohol.

Yes, in case you did not know, thanks to the Importing of Intoxicating Liquor Act (IILA) of 1928, it is indeed illegal to transport alcohol from one province to the next as all alcohols must be purchased through the provincial liquor boards, which have absolute power to do what they please. It is a law that has long since outgrown its purposefulness, originally enacted after prohibition to give provincial governments a monopoly on importing, exporting, distribution and sales of all alcohols in order to keep things under control and in check in the post-prohibition era.
Many of us have unwittingly broken this federal law by purchasing liquor in other provinces while on vacation in other parts of this great country of ours and bringing it back home. I once brought back a whole box of Sortilege, a delectable blend of distilled maple syrup and rye whiskey from Montreal and labelled the box "fragile, bottles of alcohol" on the box, literally announcing my criminal activity to all!

Today, the LDB continues to maintain a complete monopoly on the alcohol trade here in BC and answers to no one. Even the private retail liquor stores (LRS) must buy their alcohol through the LDB, who mark up the price, creating an uneven playing field, cost-wise, with the LDB government liquor stores having the unfair advantage. The LDB also has the ability to restrict consumer choice by simply not purchasing products they don't want to distribute, whether there is a consumer demand for those products or not.

But there is a movement afoot to change some of these restrictions in regards to the IILA and free trade between provinces, but unfortunately it seems that the laws that will be changed to allow limited amounts of wine only to be transported over provincial borders without having to go through the provincial liquor boards concerned.
Dan Albas, Conservative MP for Okanagan/Coquilhalla, recently introduced a private members bill , Bill C-311, in the House of Commons that is attempting to amend the IILA to allow for limited amounts of wine, for personal use, to be brought/shipped directly by/to the consumer across provincial borders. Bill C-311, is currently undergoing its second reading before the House of Commons and if it passes, will be sent to a committee to be examined before going before a third and final reading in the house. If passed in the third reading the bill will be enacted into law and the proposed changes will be made to the archaic IILA.

Bill C-311, if successful, will allow for,
"the importation of wine from a province by an individual, if the individual brings the wine or causes it to be brought into another province, in quantities and as permitted by the laws of the latter province, for his or her personal consumption, and not for resale or other commercial use."
My question is why does the wording of Bill C-311 include wine only and not include beer? Have the BC Craft Brewers Guild (BCCBG) missed the political boat being steered by the BC wine lobby?
According to the BC Craft Brewers Guild Chairman, Tod Melnyk, the BCCBG are aware of Bill C-311, but don't consider it pertinent to the BC craft beer industry.
"We have not lobbied to have beer included in Bill C-311 as it has not been as issue in our segment," stated Melnyk in an via email.

For me, as a consumer, this is the exact kind of political lobbying and advocacy that the BC craft beer industry is in need of and the powers that be associated with the BC Craft Brewer's Guild seem to have been asleep at the switch. How can opening up inter-provincial transportation of your products, even just a little, not be an advantage to your business and the industry as a whole?  If you go by the coverage Bill C-311 is getting on wine blogs and wine-related websites, there is quite a buzz of excitement about these proposed changes the the IILA. It is just a toe in the door, in regards to opening up free movement of alcohols between provinces, but a toe in the door is better than a door slammed shut in your face and once pried open a little, there is room to push that door open further.

If Bill C-311 passes and get enacted into law, the craft beer industry have a legitimate grounds to claim the wine industry have an unfair advantage and that beer and other alcohols should be included in the amendment to the IILA. We, as consumers should insist on these changes to be made. It might not be important to the BCCBG, but to me, as a consumer and lover of craft beer, it is important to me to have as much access to great craft beers no matter where they are brewed. Why shouldn't I be able to order a case of craft beer from Ontario, or Quebec if I am willing to pay the price? It may seem far-fetched, but trust me, there would be people interested. In the past, I have paid to fly briskets of Schwartz's Montreal smoked meat out to Vancouver for special occasions so why not fly out a few cases of Dieu du Ciel beers to accompany the meal if I so desire.

I truly hope that the BCCBG's apathy towards this law changes and that they do lobby in the future to amend further these archaic liquor laws that restrict them as an industry and restrict us as consumers.

In the meantime, I am going set about the task of getting rid of the contraband ice wine in my possession. Come to think of it, I had better "dispose" of that Sortilege as well.

Monday, October 31, 2011

US Breweries Almost Banned From GCBF

Due to a decision made by the BC Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) and Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB), less than 24 hours before the gates opened for this year’s Great Canadian Beer Festival (GCBF), participating American breweries were hours away from being excluded from the event which has GCBF organizer Gerry Hieter believing the LCLB has it in for Canada's longest-running beer festival. 

According to Hieter, he received, without any warning, an email from the LDB/LCLB on Thursday, September 8, at 4:56 PM, just 22 hours before the event opened, advising him that consular liquor privileges had been revoked for the festival, meaning US breweries would not have been able to pour their beers. Luckily for festival organizers and those attending, the decision was reversed at 1130 AM Sept 9, just 3.5 hours before the festival opened. 

Consular Privilege allows alcohol to be imported into Canada by foreign consulates, tax and duty-free, for registered charitable events. Charitable events must apply to the appropriate consulate, fill out the appropriate applications, be approved by the consulate and get approval from the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) before they can successfully import the alcohol they desire for their event. According to the US Consular General Wine Promotion Program, which is the same system used to import beers,
"Canadian regulations stipulate that promotional goods imported into Canada under Consular Privilege cannot be auctioned, sold or disposed of in any way other than by consumption during the charitable event for which they are intended. Wine not consumed during the event must revert to the custody of the United States Consulate General.  As soon as possible following the event, contact (the US Consulate) to arrange delivery of unused wine to the US Consul’s residence.  Unless otherwise agreed in advance, surplus wine will be served at future charitable functions or representational events selected and sponsored by the U.S. Government. Within one week following the event, organizers are required to submit a signed statement describing the disposition of all wines imported under the Consulate General’s auspices". 

Hieter states that the GCBF has been importing beer for the festival using Consular Privilege for 17 years without problems and "had no inkling, no warning" there was a problem this year until receiving the 11th-hour email from Karen Ayers, the General Manager of the LCLB. To date, Hieter has no explanation as to why the Consular Privilege was revoked, or why it was re-instated just hours before the festival began. It appears the GCBF had all their paperwork in order and had received approval from both the US Consulate and the DFAIT.

Representatives from 15 American breweries had already managed cleared customs with their beers and were in Victoria readying themselves for the festival before the decision. Representatives from two other breweries were actually held up at the border and were not allowed to clear customs with their beer until the decision was reversed.

"The amount of stress caused to me and the American brewers who had to sit in customs all morning after being told they couldn't bring their beer in to the province was a travesty and an abuse of power that should at the very least, result in a new General Manager," stated Hieter via email. "They (American breweries) wouldn't have been able to pour without that program in place which would have taken out 25% of our breweries. That would have spelled disaster for us."

 Not to mention the embarrassment for the festival organizers, the costs attached the the US breweries who came up to Victoria, on their own dime, to participate and the extreme disappointment of the thousands of beer-loving festival goers who bought tickets and traveled to the festival with the expectation that certain breweries would be participating.

The LCLB state that they had been looking into the validity of the GCBF's eligibility for Consular Privilege and the last minute decision to revoke it was just bad timing.

"Both the Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) and the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch had expressed concerns with respect to whether the Great Canadian Beer Festival was eligible for consular liquor privileges," stated, via email, Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General spokesperson Cindy Stephenson. 
"At issue is the timing of the letter revoking the consular liquor privileges. Because of the lateness with which the revocation letter was issued, it was decided that letter would be rescinded and consular liquor was approved for the festival for this year." 

When questioned further as to why the GCBF was the target of this decision, Stephenson stated that the LDB and the LCLB were not specifically targeting the GCBF and are, "looking at issuance of consular liquor privileges to festivals generally," which is not good news for other festivals such as the Vancouver International Wine Festival and the soon-to-be-held Hopscotch Festival. Despite asking for details, I could not get any specific answers as to what the problems or issues were with the GCBF or why suddenly the way Consular Privilege has been used for years by festivals to import foreign products for locals to enjoy at charitable events is not valid.

For their part, the LDB  and LCLB do voice regret for the stress caused by their oddly-timed decision.

"The LCLB and the LDB regret any confusion and inconvenience that may have been caused by the last minute revocation and reinstatement of consular liquor privileges for the Great Canadian Beer Festival," stated Stephenson on behalf of both agencies.
On the other side of the issue, Hieter is determined to find out why he was put through the ringer, without warning, just hours before his event was set to kick off. He still believes this latest  incident with the LDB/LCLB powers that be was, "was a malicious act against us (GCBF) personally," and vows to get answers.
"I will be following up with  our lawyer," said Hieter. "The gloves are off."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

BC Craft Beer Month Buzz is Building

And Fast Approaching

October is fast approaching which means BC Craft Beer Month (BCCBM) is just around the corner and a buzz is beginning to build in the craft beer community, at least in the Lower Mainland and Victoria areas.

For those of you who do not know, October has been officially declared, by the BC Provincial Government, to be BCCBM, a month that, according to the official proclamation, "will feature a celebration of British Columbia craft beer". It is a time for craft beer lovers and those who support the BC craft beer industry, through their businesses, to shine the spotlight on themselves and on our flourishing craft beer industry which provides jobs, enhances tourism, offers a market for homegrown goods and services and produces world-class, award-winning craft beers which are finding a market all over North America.

According to Lundy Dale, Mainland Director for BCCBM, the month is, "designated by the BC government for celebrating B.C craft beers, coordinated by people who are driven by a love and passion of good craft beer". She emphasises this is not a month-long version of Vancouver Craft Beer Week or the Great Canadian Beer Festival and is not a CAMRA initiative, but is instead a month for brewers to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labours and join in the festivities created by those who support and love BC craft beers. It is a month to highlight BC craft beers and raise awareness of the importance of the craft beer industry to our province. Many business establishments do this on a daily basis and BCCBM organizers are inviting them to highlight just how they support and celebrate our local craft beer industry by spreading the word to the masses.

"We are proud of our 25-plus provincial breweries and brewpubs," states Dale, " and that number is growing. Cheers to all of them".

Yes, cheers the craft brewers of BC indeed.

So keep an eye out at your local craft beer water hole for upcoming celebrations. Let's hope the buzz continues to grow and that this month is a huge success so it can be built upon and grow into a BC tradition in years to come.

For more information on what is happening and how to get involved email or check out

Saturday, September 17, 2011

BC Rocks the Canadian Beer Awards

BC brewers/breweries dominated the 9th Annual Canadian Brewing Awards, held in Toronto August 25-28, taking home 38 of the 117 medals awarded including the gold medal for "Beer of the Year" by Driftwood Brewery for their Fat Tug IPA.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am probably responsible for about 10% of Fat Tug's sales in the Lower Mainland. I have been telling everyone who will listen it is the best bottled beer in BC, but I guess I was wrong, as it has now been judged the best bottled beer in Canada.

This year's event, which was sanctioned by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), incorporated style guidelines used by the BJCP, the Brewers Association Style Guidelines and the Great American Beer Festival and included only bottled beers.

When the dust had settled and the last sample had been judged, BC easily outdistanced their closest competitors, Ontario, who brought home 31 medals and Quebec, who snagged 22. Leading the charge for BC breweries were Howe Sound Brewing, who brought home an impressive seven awards, with four silver and three bronze and Tree Brewing who were recognized four times with one gold and four bronze medals.  Not only did Howe Sound top all BC breweries, but by my count, they brought home more medals than any other brewery in the country, narrowly beating out Quebec's Unibroue who captured six medals. In total 16 BC breweries were honoured, bring home 11 gold, 14 silver and 14 bronze medals.

Last year BC made a big impact as well with, Surrey's Central City Brewing taking home three golds plus "Beer of the Year", with Thor's Hammer and "Brewery of the Year" honours. It just goes to show the quality of the brewers we have in our province and how they are pushing each other to get better and better which benefits us, the consumers, who get to taste these brilliant brews and the industry as a whole.

Well done and congratulations to all the BC brewers and breweries who were honoured!!
What a way to start building the buzz for October's BC Craft Beer Month, a month designated to celebrate BC craft beers.

List of BC winners

Howe Sound
     Silver: Diamond Head Oatmeal Stout - Stout
     Silver: Pumpkineater Imperial Pumpkin Ale - Pumpkin Beer
     Silver: Megadestroyer Imperial Licorice Stout - Experimental Beer
     Silver: Baldwin and Cooper Best Bitter - English Style Pale Ale (Bitter)
     Bronze: Howe Sound Lager - Kellerbier
     Bronze: Garibaldi Honey Pale Ale - N American Style Blonde/Golden Ale
     Bronze: Woolly Bugger - English Style Barley Wine
Tree Brewing Co
     Gold: Serendipity #3 - Wood or Barrel Aged  Beer
     Bronze: Thirsty Beaver Amber Ale - N American Style Amber Lager
     Bronze: Captivator Doppelbock - Bock Traditional German Style
     Bronze: Hop Head Double IPA - Imperial IPA
Driftwood Brewing Co
     Beer of the Year – Fat Tug IPA
     Gold: Fat Tug IPA - N American Style IPA
     Silver: Singularity Russian Imperial Stout - Wood or Barrel Aged Strong Beer
Vancouver Island Brewery
     Gold: Hermannator Ice Bock - Bock Traditional German Style
     Gold: Sea Dog Amber Ale - N American Style Amber/Red Ale 
     Silver: Hermann’s Dark Lager - N American Style Dark Lager
Granville Island Brewing Co
     Gold: Belgian Wit - Wheat Beer-Belgian Style White/Wit
     Silver: Cypress Honey Lager - Special Honey/Maple Lager or Ale
     Bronze: Ginger Beer - Fruit Beer
Lighthouse Brewing Co
     Bronze: Overboard Imperial Pilsner -  European Style Lager/Pilsner
     Silver: Navigator Doppelbock - Bock Traditional German Style
Okanagan Spring Brewery
     Bronze: Brewmaster’s Black Lager - N American Style Dark Lager
     Silver: Porter - Strong Porter (Baltic)
Swans Buckerfields Brewery
     Silver: Scotch Ale - Scotch Ale
     Bronze: Pandora Pale Ale - English Style Pale Ale (Bitter)
R&B Brewing Co
     Silver: Hoppelganger IPA - English Style IPA
     Bronze: East Side Bitter - N American Style Pale Ale (Bitter)
Yaletown Brewing Co
     Gold: Hill’s Special Wheat - Wheat Beer-German Style Hefeweizen
     Silver: Yaletown Oud Bruin - Wood or Barrel Aged Sour Beer
Central City Brewing Co
     Gold: Thor’s Hammer - English Style Barley Wine
     Silver: Red Racer Imperial - Imperial IPA
Dead Frog Brewery
     Gold: Pepper Lime Lager - Fruit Beer
     Bronze: Citra IPA - N American Style IPA
Mt. Begbie Brewing Co
     Gold: High County Kolsch - Kolsch
Nelson Brewing Co
     Silver: Harvest Moon Organic Hemp Ale - Kolsch
Phillips Brewing Co
     Bronze: Analog 78 - Kolsch
Fernie Brewing Co
     Gold: Sap Sucker Maple Porter - Special Honey/Maple Lager or Ale

For a complete listing of all the medal winners check out the Canadian Brewing Awards.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Resurrecting the Pint is Not This Consumer's Priority

The past week I have been exploring, in my posts "Does Size Matter?" and "Size Does Matter: How Consumers Can Protect Their Rights", issues related to the misrepresentation of draft beer serving sizes (stating you are serving on measure and actually serving less), the problem of short pours and how we, as consumers, can protect our rights. During the considerable discussions that have ensued, via email and comments, the issue of resurrecting the 20 oz pint keep rearing its head so I thought I'd dedicate a post to the beloved pint and weigh in with my thoughts and opinions.

There are many of you out there who feel strongly that all bars and restaurants in Vancouver who serve craft beer should be doing so in 20 oz (568ml) servings, otherwise known as the pint. Up until recently, it has actually been illegal in BC to serve 568ml because the maximum serving size for draft beer was capped at 500ml but that has been rectified with BC LCLB upping their maximum serving size to 24oz (680ml) this past April. With the legal roadblocks cleared it is now possible for establishments to serve real pints yet few seem to be taking advantage of this, a least few that focus on and feature craft beer.

Non-standardization has led to several types of beer sleeve
being used.
These three glasses look the same yet from right to left they hold
12oz (341ml) 13oz (369ml) and 14oz (398ml)

Now I am going to be unpopular in some circles for saying this, but I do not think resurrecting the pint as the standard glass for draft beer in this province is a major priority. The pint is one of only four standardized measures that draft beer can be served in in the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and N Ireland), with the others being  the half-pint, the little used 1/3 pint and the newly introduced 2/3 pint (380ml), or schooner as it is being called. Traditionally, the pint has been the measure of choice for beer drinkers in the UK and drinking from a pint glass does add a certain something to the experience of sharing a few jars with friends. But most UK beers are low alcohol compared to here and traditionally between 3.5-4.5% ABV. It is true that there are some stronger beers in the UK that are becoming more readily available and more popular but that is one of the reason why the schooner has been introduced, so that beer drinkers would have a reasonable option of glass size if they choose to drink these stronger brews.

I am not sure if in our craft beer scene in BC if the pint glass is appropriate for many of the beers served as many of these beers are 6.5% ABV and higher. If you are a bartender who has a legal responsibility to "serve it right", which mainly focuses on not getting your patrons drunk while serving them intoxicating liquids, do you want to be pour 20oz measures of North Coast's Old Rasputin, which weighs in at 9% ABV, or of Moylan's Hopsicle, which is even stronger at 9.2% ABV? How about the ever popular Fat Tug, from Driftwood, which at 7% carries quite a wallop. Upping serving sizes of these beers from 14oz to 20oz will have some very major impacts on the sobriety of bar and restaurant patrons. It will also discourage some from having more than one or two beers, prohibiting them from sampling a wider variety of the great beers on offer because after one or two pints of higher alcohol beer, they will feel the effects. I have actually met some folks who would like to see smaller glasses introduced, in the 8-10oz range, just so they can enjoy a wider variety of beers at their local bar/restaurant without drinking too much volume or without getting tipsy too quickly.

It is true that there are many craft beers which are closer to the 5% ABV mark and more appropriate for larger serving sizes, but where do you draw the line if you are a business owner? It would become quite a pain in the ass to be constantly explaining to patrons why one person can have a pint of their favourite beer, because it has a lower alcohol percentage, while the guy next to him at the bar can't because they order a stronger beer. As well, most bars have limited room to store glassware and literally don't have room to store both pint glasses and sleeves.

Then comes the cost involved in serving pints. Are you willing to sell out $10 or more plus tax for your pint? If your local switches to pints from sleeves they are going to be attaching a cost to this convenience as the serving size is increasing by close to 30%. Many craft beers already cost in the range of $7 when served in sleeves. I think the price would get quite prohibitive for some or people if pints are introduced as the norm in some of the craft beer establishments in the city.
I am not against pint glasses, don't get me wrong, I just think that there are more important issues that consumers should be addressing other than whether their beer comes in a sleeve or a pint. I think getting some sort of standardized measure for a sleeve is far more important, so we actually know what measure to expect when we order a sleeve. It is the law that establishments have a list of their serving sizes and the prices for those measures, but standard measures do not need to be used. Because of this lack of regulation, sleeves range in size from 12 oz to 16oz (454ml) and all of these different sized glasses look very similar. Because very few establishments actually lived up to their legal obligation to supply a complete list of serving sizes and prices, we are never quite sure what we are supposed to be paying for. By forcing establishments serving draft beer to actually use an official measure, like a 20oz pint (no other size pint exists in Canada) or a 14oz sleeve, if that measure was standardized and notify us of what serving size they are selling, we would know right away what we are supposed to be served. We, the consumers of BC, have allowed misrepresentation of serving size to become the norm, have allowed establishments to serve "pints" that fall far short of 20oz and allowed different sized sleeves to exist. We allow our beers to be short-poured and do not insist we get the full measure we are paying for. We allow establishmwents to serve us mystery portions by not insisting on serving size lists.

To me, these are far more important issues than whether my beer comes in a 20oz glass or not.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Does Size Matter: How Consumers Can Protect Their Rights

I have had a lot of feedback and reaction to my recent post "Does Size Matter" which related to the desire of some to bring back the 20 oz pint to BC and my response that I believe that honest representations of serving sizes and delivery of full pours were issues that I thought to be more important, so I thought I'd delve into the subject a little more in-depth.

It appears in Vancouver, at least from the direct feedback I am getting, many of us are fed up with the practice of misrepresenting serving sizes of draft beer, of not advising consumers of those serving sizes and of short-pouring beers, yet like the good Canadians were are, we accept it without causing a fuss so as not to offend or disturb the bartenders of our great city.

These are three very different issues I have identified but they are very closely related and we, as consumers, have some tools available to us to fight back to protect our legal rights as consumers.

In relation to serving size and the prices of drinks in British Columbia, the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (BC LCLB) regulations state, "you (licensees) must follow strict limits on maximum drink size, and have a liquor price list available, showing the size of each drink you sell and its price". The regulation does not goes as far as to demand licensees post these lists, although they do recommend having this posted over the bar or available at each table, but does states this list must be made available to customers "on demand". By not complying, the licensee is in direct contravention of the BC LCLB regulations and can be disciplined by the LCLB for this violation, yet very few bars, pubs, clubs or restaurants comply, that I have seen.

Will the real sleeve please stand up.
From right to left 12oz (341ml) 13oz (369ml) and 14oz (398ml)

By consumers exercising their rights to know how much they are being served and for what price, the they can quickly have the information in front of them that lets them know if the establishment is misrepresenting their serving size, i.e. calling a sleeve a pint and know if they are getting fair value for the amount being served. As well, this lets us know, in the case of sleeves, which come in many sizes that look similar and are hard to judge by just looking at them, exactly what size glass of draft beer we are getting. It can make a big difference as some sleeves have a 12oz (340ml) capacity, some 14oz (398ml) capacity and some 16oz (454ml) capacity, all when filled to the brim.

The second tool in our arsenal is our voices. How many times have you been served a beer that has been short-poured leaving a few centimetres, or more, at the top of the glass empty, yet you have said nothing to the bartender or server. This missing cm of beer may not seem like much, but in a 14oz  sleeve, that cm represents 2oz (57ml) of beer, or 14% of that sleeve's capacity. Now if the establishment is advertising a 12oz pour and using 14oz glasses, this is fair - you may argue that a 14oz glass is just not right, but they licensee is doing nothing wrong in that they are living up to their word - but if they are advertising a 14oz pour and giving you 12oz, that is just plain dishonest and illegal.
If you 14oz sleeve is short-poured just by this amount, you are
missing about 15% of your beer!!

I have had sleeves served to me with 3 to 4 cm of head on top and when I pointed this out to the bartender, I was told, "that's how you pour a beer," or something equally as ridiculous. If you plan on ripping me off, that is how you pour a beer! Unless you are using over-sized glasses with serving marks on them (pour to this line), that lets me know the proper volume of beer is in my glass and the beer has been poured to that line, not pouring a beer to capacity is dishonest. I have never seen these marked glasses, which are common in the UK to help combat the short pour issue, used here in BC. These pint glasses in the UK are over-sized, more than 20oz, with the "fill to here" line sitting at the 20oz mark on the glass. This leaves room for head on the beer and enables someone to carry the glass without spilling due to the glass being poured to the brim. Here in Vancouver, most places that do bother to advertise the serving size of their beers advertise to glasses capacity filled to the brim and we all know that rarely is a glass delivered to you filled to the brim, therefore you are not getting the measure the licensee is advtertising and what you are paying for.

When we get short-poured and we would know this for sure by having the serving sizes posted so we can compare the promised serving size to what we actually get served, we need to demand a top-up and let the bartender know it is not okay to short pour our drinks. If we ordered an 8oz steak and we receive 85% of a steak on our plate, with a portion of the whole cut away, we wouldn't accept this, so why should we accept short-poured glasses? We cannot decide to pay for only 85-90% of the bill and walk away, so why we we accept 85-90% of what we ordered.
Which glass holds more?
Optical illusion as the shorter glass on the left holds 25%
more than the sleeve on the right (15z versus 12oz)

If the establishment is not willing to top up your beer, then you have the right not frequent that establishment again and to let others know of your experience. In this day of social media, tools like Facebook and Twitter can be very powerful, as are on-line websites that let you log-in and review establishments for others to see. Managers and owners of bars and restaurants do monitor what is said about their establishments and need to hear these types of complaints, if they are legitimate, so they can right the wrongs. It is the reputation of their establishment that is on the line and a bad rep can mean a decrease in business. If enough voices speak out in unison, they will be heard and the more voices that speak out, the louder and more powerful the voice. So if you are among those who are fed up with the status quo, speak up, stand up for your consumer rights and be heard.

But having said that, consumers need to be careful when accusing establishments of dishonesty and breaking the law and should use this powerful voice responsibly. Businesses are successful due, in large part, to their reputation that many work hard at building and to unjustly tarnish this reputation to serve some personal purpose is just as wrong as short-pouring beers in my opinion. And I believe strongly that if a place is doing it right, that should be broadcast as well. By highlighting and giving those establishments who are serving it right the positive publicity and feedback they deserve, others may follow suit.

I can tell you that I am one consumer that is going to start exercising my rights to ensure I am getting what I pay for. Those establishments out there serving it right have nothing to fear, but those who are trying to pull the wool over our collective eyes should be held accountable. I know I am not alone in feeling this way so lets get organized and stand up for ourselves and our rights as consumers.

Next up on the list of things to explore, standardization of glassware, pros and cons.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Does Size Matter?

In a rare show of common sense and with an unprecedented sensitivity to consumer wants and desires, the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch sent out a memo, dated April 27, 2011, announcing that they had increased the single serving size for draft beer in BC to up to 24 oz (680ml), eliminating the ridiculous conflict that existed between the old serving maximum of 500ml and the Federal Weights and Measures Act which dictated that if a pint of beer was served in Canada, it must measure 20 oz, or 568ml, in direct violation of the old BC serving size standard.

"Concerns have been expressed that the previous serving size rules did not allow for serving a pint of draft beer," the memo noted, so the LCLB, in what must have been a momentary lapse of reason, actually changed one of their arbitrary, nonsensical, antiquated laws and did a solid for the beer consumers of British Columbia. 

The 20 oz pint is now legal in BC
but still hard to find at least where craft
beer is sold
Hallelujah, rejoice, the pints of my youth could now be brought back from near extinction.

Now I know this is not exactly breaking news, but I have decided to chip in my $0.25 about the desire of some to bring the pint back to its proper place of prominence in BC so I figured I should give the BC LCLB props for actually paving the way for the return of the 20 ounce beer. Anyone who knows me knows I waste no time pointing out the LCLB's faults so it is only fair they get their due when it is warranted.

For whatever reasons (read profits for bar & restaurant owners), the "sleeve", which is basically the bottom half of a martini shaker in glass form, has become the glassware of choice for beers in this province over the past 15 years or so. These glasses can hold between 12 and 16 oz, depending on the flare of the glass, thickness to the glass and thickness of the false bottom and if filled to the brim, which they often are not. If memory serves me right and it often doesn't these days,  the sleeve became popular in Victoria about 15 years ago and the plague spread from there. At least that's what we say here in Vancouver. I am fairly certain that whoever the first person was to come up with the idea of serving a beer in a sleeve, if identified, would have been the most hated man in BC, in some circles, until Gordon Campbell came along with the HST.

Now I may have been asleep at the switch, but I cannot remember for the life of me any crusade by the BC LCLB, or anyone else for that matter, save my ex-wife, to eradicate the pint here in BC and shrink beer serving sizes. I worked in several bars and drank in even more and never heard of an establishment serving beers in pint glasses getting on the wrong side of the LCLB. The move to sleeves seemed to me, at the time, to be a cash grab by business owners who shrank their serving sizes by 20% and more, while charging roughly the same price and advertising falsely that they were still serving the full measure. It wasn't until a public uproar about sleeves being passed off as pints that sleeves began to be called sleeves, although you can still find places that try to pass them off as pints. Now it has become the norm and, for the most part, a sleeve is a sleeve, or is it due to the lack of standardization of size for this made up measure.

Since becoming president of CAMRA Vancouver this past May, probably what I have heard most from folks after, "can you change CAMRA into something more than a beer appreciation club," is the request to try to bring back to 20 oz pint here in BC.

It seems there is a segment of the local beer drinking population who dearly miss their friend the 20 oz pint and want the choice of being able to order one when they desire.

A noble cause, to say the least, but one that no one seems to want to lead. Sure, many, like those who come up to me to ask why CAMRA is not dealing with this issue, complain about the problem, but what are they doing to make their voices heard by those who have control to make the changes they so desire - the owners and managers of bars, lounges, clubs, pubs, restaurants.

For me, it is not the size of the beer that matters most. I personally do miss drinking from pint glasses but wonder, in today's craft beer world, if many beers offered are probably better off not served in full 20 oz glasses due to their high alcohol content. Most of the world I have visited and I have covered a fair bit of this planet, do not serve beer in pints. This tradition comes from the UK and Ireland mostly, where traditionally beers have been lower in alcohol, between 3.5-5 % ABV. Here in BC when pint glasses ruled, beer was a standard 5%, with a very few nosing up slightly higher. Now, in craft beer bars and restaurants, many of the beers are 7% and above, with more than a few weighing in at 9% and higher.

Tulip style glass popular with
many Belgian beers both
bottled and draft
As well, like with wines, many beer styles are now being served in specially designed glasses that enhance the tastes and aromas of those particular styles. This is just catching on here in North America, but in places like Belgium it is an essential part of the beer tasting experience.

What I feel is more of an issue than whether I sip my IPA from a 20 oz or a 12 oz glass is that the glass of beer I am paying for is not short poured or falsely represented. If I am paying for a sleeve of X beer, I want a sleeve of X beer, not 90-95% of a sleeve of X beer, especially with the prices we pay for good beer in this city. And I want to know ahead of time how much that sleeve holds. If it is a 12 oz sleeve, I want to know so I can make my decision as to whether the beer is over-priced or not. If an establishment offers "pints" of beer, I expect a full, 20 oz pint of beer, not a 90% full 20 oz pint, or a 17.5 oz pint, which, although it does not exist (no pint measures 17.5 oz in Canada), you see advertised at some establishments or a sleeve.

Now to me, that is something worth fighting for.

In 2008, CAMRA UK launched their Full Pint Campaign, where CAMRA representatives presented a petition, signed by 23,361, addressed to the British Prime Minister, to his residence at 10 Downing Street. The petition, which collected signatures over an 18-month period at CAMRA beer festivals and through an on-line site, urged the Prime Minister, "to take notice of the 23,361 people who have signed this petition calling for an end to short beer measures." It went on to point out that, "(i)t is unlawful for consumers to be short measured when buying petrol and it should be unlawful for consumers to be short measured when buying a pint of beer." 

Yes, it should be illegal. So should false advertising like stating you are selling a pint and serving a sleeve, or taking a mainstream, macro-lager and calling it an IPA.

To me, clear advertising as to what you are ordering is essential. And then it is just as essential for businesses to deliver on their promise and serve the measure they promised to serve. If a bar wants to sell a 12 oz sleeve, then state that and fill those sleeves to the 12 oz mark. At least consumers know ahead of time what they are ordering.

But if size really does matter to enough consumers who feel passionate about the right to have their favourite beer served in a full, 20 oz pint glass then they need to make their voices heard. They need to convince business owners that it is in their best interests to offer 20 oz pints. CAMRA BC, or more locally, CAMRA Vancouver could be the vehicle to help carry this cause forward, but they cannot do it on their own. Campaigns need organizers. Campaigns need supporters. Campaigns need action plans. What campaigns don't need are people criticizing others for not taking action while they sit back and wait for changes to happen.

There needs to be an organized plan of attack on how to convince those who serve the beers to do so in the vessels we wish to drink from, or at least give us that option. Maybe a petition, like the one in the UK, presented to bar and restaurant owners might persuade them to offer up the pint option at their establishment. There is always the option of frequenting only places that serve the 20 oz pints, but I don't see too many craft beer lovers boycotting The Alibi Room, St Augustine's, or the like, to prove a point. I know I won't.

So, if this is an important issue for you out there and you have any ideas of what to do, drop me an email at  with your suggestions and let them know how you'd like to help out. Although, for me personally, the size of the glass isn't the major issue, I can certainly understand the desire to see the 20 oz pint glass  make a come back and as president of CAMRA Vancouver, I would be willing to get a campaign going to try to make that happen.

And maybe while we are at it, we can make sure those 20 oz glasses get filled with the full 20 oz of beer promised.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Small Breweries Continue to Increase Sales

With BC Craft Beer Month fast approaching, it appears that BC's smaller breweries have much to celebrate.

For the umpteenth time in a row, BC breweries producing less than 150,000 hectolitres of beer annually, normally, but not always, the size of brewery that produces craft beer in this province, have increased their sales both in dollars and litres sold, despite an overall drop in domestic beer sales in BC,  according to the BC Liquor Distribution Branch's latest Quarterly Market Report, published June 2011.

With domestic beer sales down 3.45% in dollars sold and 6.8% in litres sold for the 12-month period ending June 2011, compared to the 12-month period ending June 2010, the breweries producing less than 150,000 HL  have managed to increase sales a whopping 28.45% in dollars sold and 24.28% in litres sold. For the same time period, the larger breweries, those producing over 150,000 HL, have seen sale shrink 10.62% in litres sold and 7.08% in dollars sold. It seems that the craft beer movement is catching on here in BC and is reaching out beyond the beer nerds into the general population.

Now before you go reaching for a craft beer to ward off the sudden onset of a migraine resulting from all the above-posted statistics (keep that beer close at hand as there are scads more stats to come) and to celebrate the impending death of our province's macrobreweries, remember that the smaller breweries still hold only 13.4% of the BC market share in dollars and 14.4% in litres sold in BC. More than 85% of BC's domestic beer drinkers still drink beers from larger breweries, no matter how you measure it and for the most part, this means they are drinking bland, mainstream beers brewed with little artistry or imagination.  But if you compare today's numbers for smaller BC breweries to just four years ago, they have more than doubled their market share growing today's numbers from 6.6% in dollars sold and 7.45% in litres sold in 2007 and that means big dollars if consider that each percentage of the market share computes to approximately $8, 850,000 in sales.

Before the local craft beer scene start patting themselves on the back they should take a quick look over their shoulder. Sales for US imports have grown immensely over the past year increasing increasing 177.8% for draft beer and 49.3% for packaged (bottles and tins) for litres sold and 169.13% for draft and 39.43% for packaged products in dollars sold over the last year. They hold about a 6% share of the total market in BC, about where our domestic craft beers sales were four years ago. US imports are not eating into the total market share as much as the local craft beers, but they have clawed out an extra 2% in the past four years. These totals include all US import beers, not just craft beers, but if you take a look around Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, US craft beers are becoming more and more available in bars, restaurants and Retail Liquor Stores which feature craft beers, they are great beers and are becoming very popular.

And remember, each percentage of the market represents about $8, 850,000 in sales.

I'm not sure if there are more people drinking craft beer in BC or if those who have always drank it are just progressing as alcoholics. The cynical side of me says the latter, but common sense dictates that there are more and more people being exposed to, enjoying and therefore drinking these great local brews at least in and around the major urban centres. I'll be curious to see just how the next quarter's numbers look, due out at year-end, as yours truly has, for various reasons, cut back drastically on the amount of beer I am consuming, which may skew the numbers to some degree and slow down craft beer sales in general.

But with the way things are trending here in BC, I won't be too surprised to see craft beer sales increase even more and it won't be long before we see an obvious reaction from the larger breweries moving to protect their market share. It has already started with Molson's launching their Six Pints Specialty Beer Co which is meant to target the craft/specialty beer market and will, at least initially, feature Creemore and Granville Island beers, with both breweries falling under the Molson's ownership umbrella. I don't think it will be long before the other larger breweries start to fight back to protect their territory and it could get ugly if the BC government goes forward with its plan to open up and deregulate the tied house and industry inducement laws.

As consumers, we have to hope this trend continues as we are the beneficiary of this rapid growth in the BC craft beer industry. I know I am not alone in rejoicing over this shift in the market and hope it encourages others to open more craft breweries in BC, increasing consumer choices even more.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reports & Ramblings From a Beer-Addled Mind #5

Craft Beer Month Just Around the Corner

Although its announcement came without much fanfare and without the knowledge of a great deal of people involved in the BC craft beer industry, hospitality industry and consuming craft beer, October has been officially declared B.C. Craft Beer Month by the Province of British Columbia in a proclamation signed by Attorney General, Barry Penner.

What this means to lovers of craft beer here in BC is not quite known at this time, but, if Craft Beer Month lives up to its billing on the proclamation, "the month of October will feature a celebration of craft beer by British Columbia's craft breweries with beer tastings, beer maker dinners, craft beer festivals, brewery tours, beer and cheese pairings taking place throughout the province," and will raise the awareness of the importance of the craft beer industry in BC and the advantages of supporting that industry which benefits both the consumer, by producing a unique, quality products and to the economy of the province as a whole by providing jobs in all sectors and boosting the economy.

This is a time for BC craft breweries & brew pubs to strut their stuff and shine the spotlight on themselves and could prove to be a lot of fun for those of us out there who love craft beer. It is also the time for those pubs, taphouses, restaurants and cafes that feature BC craft beers to celebrate supporting our local craft beer industry by creating events in their establishments to add to the celebrations. 

Let's hope the word spreads and those who have a vested interest in the craft beer industry in BC participate in BC Craft Beer Month and make this the celebration it can be. Although CAMRA has a few tricks up its sleeve, the Craft Beer Month celebrations will depend heavily on whether the breweries and licensees can get organized and creative to promote craft beer and raise awareness amongst the public above and beyond the usual craft beer community. I know of a few establishments that have some plans to highlight BC craft beers and I hope more get on board and join in the fun.

Stay tuned in the next few months to find out when and where BC Craft Beer Month celebrations will be taking place.

Too Hop To Handle - A Little Info on What is in Store

This Saturday local Hopheads who managed to snag a ticket to CAMRA Vancouver's  Too Hop To Handle festival will be doing their happy dance as they make their way to St. Augustine's Craft Brew House and Kitchen.

The event, which is sold out earlier this week, will feature hoppy offerings, many of the one-of-a-kind variety, from 14 breweries - 13 from BC and one from Seattle, Washington - which will challenge even the most hardcore and adventurous IPA drinkers. Three of the brews being offered clock in at over 90 IBU's, with one measuring 92 IBU's and 8% ABV, another upping the ante at 100 IBU's and 9% ABV and another pushing the limits completly, hitting an unbelievable 151 IBU's at 9% ABV!

If those numbers having your taste buds running for cover, don't fret as many of the offerings are not pushing the limits as the ones listed above and run in the range from 5.5%-7.7% ABV and 50-70 IBU's. With the number of beers available being lower than many festivals, having at least one 5 oz taster of each, over the course of the day, should be manageable. St Augustine's chef, Dion Ouellet. will also be creating some fare to pair with the hop bomb of choice and help absorb the alcohol for those trying to do the complete circuit.

Breweries participating are Red Racer/Central City, Howe Sound, Big River Brew Pub, Lighthouse Brewing Company, Big Ridge Brewing, Phillips, Russell, Storm, Dead Frog, R&B, Crannog, High Mountain Brewing (Whistler BrewHouse), Elysian and Spinnakers, who are making a rare trip over from the Island!

CAMRA Vancouver will also be there, setting up a booth to sign up new members and sell CAMRA swag. If you aren't already a member, bring along an extra $25 and sign up, get involved and help shape the landscape of the Vancouver craft beer community!!
See you there...but if you want to guarantee any sort of reasonable conversation, catch me early as I don't think I'll be able to resist hitting the big-hop, high-octane beers for long...

Beerlesque Fundraiser

For those of you hedonistic types who like a little titillation with your craft beer mark August 19th on your calendar and get ready to have some fun.

The Roundhouse is teaming up with CAMRA Vancouver and Vancouver Craft Beer Week to present Beerlesque, "a celebration of burlesque and BC craft beer" which hopes to raise dollars for the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre.

Tickets are $50, inclusive of all beer and entertainment and are available on-line at the above link. There is a full evening of entertainment on the slate and those attending are being encouraged to dress up as a prize will be awarded for the best costume. Beers to provided by Driftwood, Phillips, Russell, Red Truck and Vancouver Island Brewing. Food carts from ReUp BBQ and Ursu Korean BBQ will be on site.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cambie Malone Group Gets Crafty

Last week, as a part of my dogged, never-ending research in the field of craft beer, I came across an opportunity at one of Vancouver's craft-beer focused establishments, to taste BrewDog's Tokyo Imperial Stout, an 18.2 ABV bomb of a beer, not for the faint of heart.
It takes a lot to surprise this jaded, grizzled, old dog these days, but I was gob-smacked by this experience and the shock was more associated with where I found this beer than with the beer itself.

If you are paying any sort of attention, you will already have figured out by the title of this post I was not at the Alibi Room, or St Augustine's or any of the other handful of "traditional" craft-beer focused establishments you'd expect to find such a delicacy. No, I was in Malone's Bar & Grill, located at the corner of Seymour and W Pender, a place that will soon be one of "the" go-to stops for local and visiting craft beer lovers in this city.

When pigs fly indeed!!

I had been hearing rumours that Malone's, recently renamed Malone's Urban Drinkery, had undergone some changes but I was not prepared for the extent of those changes when I walked in the door to meet the Cambie Malone Group's new Director of Operations & Services, Rachaal Steele. I was skeptical heading into my meeting, but I have to tell you, I was more than pleasantly surprised by what I found at Malone's and very impressed with Steele and her staff who can be described as very craft-beercentric and enthusiastic about the changes Malone`s is undergoing.

Steele, who landed her current position after answering an ad for the position on Craig's List, is an American who brings a wealth of experience and knowledge with her to Malone's having worked in the craft beer industry for various breweries, pubs and restaurants in California and the US Pacific Northwest. Steele arrived in Vancouver March 20, this year and began changing the face of Malone's the following day.

Malone's currently has 24 taps on offer, 20 of those of the craft variety from both BC and the US. Those four remaining taps of mainstream, macrobrews will soon be replaced by more craft taps in the next few weeks. Steele stated she gave the big breweries Malone's had traditionally done business with a bit of a reprieve, keeping them on for a few extra months in a limited capacity.

"It's the least I could do since we were breaking up with them," joked Steele.

For those who don't know Malone's, it was known more of a sports-oriented, establishment which served mainstream, marcobeers to a burger & chicken-wings-eating, twentyandthirtysomething crowd. It was a place no self-respecting beer aficionado would ever be caught dead, but this has quickly changed in the past few months. As I sat and chatted with Steele over a few jars, I noticed a few familiar faces from the local craft beer community seated around Malone's enjoying the great beers on offer.

Steele was expecting a backlash when Malone's made the changes but says the transition has been smooth and most of the regulars have embraced the craft beer. She states that beer sales, in dollars, are up 13%, some of which can be explained by the fact that craft beers are slightly more expensive, but Steele says she has noticed more people coming in and more beer being sold.

As an added bonus to the craft beer selection in Malone's, they have a lounge next door, which can be accessed off Seymour St, under the Syemour Cambie Hostel sign, or from inside Malone's by mounting a few stairs at the south end of the establishment and crossing a hallway. Called the Second Door, this small intimate room, which has a few tables and a few couches to lounge in, features 12 taps and over 100 bottles of craft beer. Steele says this is where you will find the "real beer nerd beers" such as the BrewDog Tokyo Imperial Stout I shared with Steele and a few others. There are plans to install a beer engine in the Second Door lounge so that cask beer will be on tap permanently.

Probably even more improbable than Malone's joining the ranks of craft beer only establishments is the fact that Steele and the Cambie Malone Group are also converting the infamous Cambie Hotel to a craft beer venue. You won't find Brew Dog or any fancy Belgian lambics there but if Steele has her way, the long-established hangout for the Gen X, grunge-loving lager drinkers and world travellers staying in the attached hostel, looking for a cheap pint of whatever, will be craft-beer focused with a more local-BC flavour. The conversion has already began, with all the Granville Island taps being replaced with Russell Brewing Co beers. The existing tap lines have undergone an ``aggressive tap cleaning`` and new lines are being put into place with the hopes of having local BC favourites like Red Racer, Howe Sound and Phillips on tap, although Steele does admit nothing has been confirmed.

I see this as the beginning of the next big wave of changes to our beer-drinking landscape here in Vancouver. It has already started with groups like the Donnelly Group featuring craft beer in some of their establishments where craft beer has not been traditionally offered. Now with places like Malone`s and The Cambie getting all crafty, if the moves works out for them, it won`t be long until other establishments start to see the dollar signs and follow suit. I`m not suggesting that every bar and restaurant in the city will be serving craft beer, but I think, in the next few years, you will see craft brews on offer at many more pubs and restaurants.

I personally don`t care how the craft beer gets into more places or what motivates owners and managers to serve it as long as it is available and served properly. With knowledgeable people like Steele in charge, proper handling of the beer is not going to be an issue, but for others who are not up to speed in regards to craft beer styles, proper handling, etc, there may need to be some education supplied to those pouring and serving our beers. There is no use in ordering a great IPA if it is served over-carbonated in an ice-cold, frosted glass! This is where groups like CAMRA can become valuable, supplying this education and helping bars and restaurants handle and serve their beer properly and with some knowledge as to what exactly they are serving.

As consumers, this expansion of the craft beer market is great news. As more places feature craft beer, our choices of where to go to enjoy a pint obviously grows. And as craft beer is offered in places that traditionally have served mainstream beers, more people will be exposed to craft beer and will drink it on a regular basis. If you pour it, they will come! This is turn helps the local breweries grow and prosper and hopefully more craft breweries will open as the market grows and is able to support them. We still have along way to go, but with places like Malone`s and The Cambie serving up craft beers, the Vancouver craft beer scene is definitely heading in the right direction.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why Are Craft Beers Found in Restaurants More Often Than Pubs?

This post was first published at as a part of their BeerFile series last week. Check out the other great articles and posts on OpenFile Vancouver by clicking on the link above.

Traditionally, “going out for a pint or two” means meeting at a local pub with friends, but that is not necessarily so for Vancouver’s craft beer aficionados. There is a small but vibrant craft beer culture in the city, and a surprising majority of Vancouver’s discerning beer drinkers gravitate, more often than not, to one of the many craft beer-focused restaurants when going out for a night on the town.
Arguably, the two major “go-to” craft beer establishments in Vancouver are the not-to-be-missed Alibi Room, located on the eastern edge of Gastown, and Commercial Drive’s St. Augustine’s Craft Brew House and Kitchen. Both establishments have world-class craft beer selections and are operating with a food-primary license, more commonly known as a restaurant license, which indicates the licensee’s primary focus is food.
Although these two eateries (both of which have great menus that complement their beer lists brilliantly) are the dominant two craft beer spots in town, they are relative newcomers to the scene. The Alibi Room began to focus on craft beer in 2006, followed by St. Augustine’s, who opened their doors in 2008 but who did not begin to expand their tap list beyond a few until July 2009. Both have taken the concept of craft beer in restaurants to the extreme, and judging by their near-capacity crowds most nights, it is a concept that has caught on.

In fact, it caught on long before these two restaurants arrived on the local craft beer scene. Even then, with the exception of brew pubs who brew and sell their own beers, restaurants had been the main supporters of the local craft beer industry. Craft beers from both local microbreweries and beyond can be found in exclusive, fine-dining establishments and local caf├ęs alike. And where you find craft beer, you will no doubt find those knowledgeable and loyal craft-beer lovers who make up the colourful Vancouver craft beer community.

In the 1980s, the early days of Vancouver's commercial craft beer scene, nearly all the beers brewed were only available as draft. This limited their sales to either pubs or restaurants. Brew pubs did not enter the Vancouver craft beer market until the mid-1990s and as mentioned before, existed mainly to promote and serve their own products.
Before then, BC beer drinkers had been limited to the bland, mass-produced, lager-style brews produced by the three major breweries in Canada. These three companies -- Molson Canadian, Labatt and Carling-O’Keefe -- had a stranglehold on the Canadian beer market.

Selling restaurants and pubs on the idea of serving beers that were unique, full of flavour, made with quality ingredients and brewed in small batches seemed next to impossible in the beginning. Other than the brewers and a few astute and forward-thinking restaurant owners, no one believed that Vancouver beer drinkers were ready for IPAs, porters, lambics and the like.
James Walton, owner and head brewer of East Vancouver’s Storm Brewing remembers how hard it was in the beginning to get his beer on tap.

“There was a lot of rejection at first,” says Walton, whose brewery’s licensee sales have consistently been over 90% to restaurants. “I was told by a lot of people at first that I could not sell my beers."
Established in 1994, Storm was part of the second wave of microbreweries to hit the market in Vancouver. They followed in the footsteps of Granville Island Brewery and Shaftesbury Brewery, who led the local charge against the big three.
“I found that the [restaurant] owners and chefs were more open to my beers and in tune with the tastes. They had a taste for variety,” says Walton.

He believes that many restaurant owners were "kindred spirits" in relation to the owners of microbreweries, since they both owned small businesses with focused concepts.
“Usually [a restaurant's concept] is one person with a vision, so they can relate to small brewery owners. They get it. They care more about what they were putting in their [customers’] glasses and realize people will come back if you give them quality,” Walton says.

Nigel Springthorpe, co-owner of the Alibi Room and Anthony Frustagli, co-owner of St. Augustine’s, both support Walton's views. Their establishments feature a staggering array of craft beers and only craft beers – the Alibi has 44 taps and three permanent beer engines to pour cask-conditioned beers, and St. Augustine’s has 40 taps.

Despite running very different restaurants, Springthorpe and Frustagli share a commitment -- to a vision and to quality -- that has been unwavering from the start, even when they met with criticism and resistance. And like Walton, they stuck to their guns, stayed the course and are now successful. This similarity in attitude between many small brewery owners and independent restaurant owners may have indeed played a big part in coupling craft beer with local eateries.

“Consistency, sticktoitiveness and no compromise,” Springthorpe says, listing the key elements that made his restaurant so successful. “I think if you try to please everybody, all of the time, you end up with a watered down concept," he says.
“At the Alibi it was a big step for us to get rid of the (great-selling) mega-beer brands. At first people were outraged if they couldn't get the ubiquitous brands they were used to seeing everywhere without even having to engage a beer list. But, we stuck to it. Through staff education we were able to guide people in other directions to product we thought they might like.”

St. Augustine’s also met resistance when they dared to offer craft beer in a sports-oriented environment.

“I can't tell you how many reviews of our place I've read online, by people who claim to be enlightened craft beer drinkers, that say something along the lines of ‘they can't decide if they want to sell good beer to the craft beer drinkers or Molson Canadian to the sports crowd’,” says Frustagli.
In spite of the critical reviews and pressure to turn off the sports on their televisions, St. Augustine’s stuck to the idea that some craft beer drinkers also were sports fans. Now the restaurant is packed almost every night, whether it's game night or not.

Apart from similarities as small business owners, Walton, Springthorpe and Frustagli also agree that cost considerations play a role in the link between eateries and craft beer. Although there has been a local craft beer explosion over the past five years or so, craft beer drinkers are still the minority and are considered a fringe or niche market. According to the latest statistics from the BC Liquor Distribution Branch Quarterly Market Review (BCLDB QMR), sales for domestic craft breweries have more than doubled since 2007, but these breweries still hold only a 15 per cent market share. That leaves 85 per cent of domestic beer sales going to the bigger, national and multi-national macrobreweries who still produce mostly alike-tasting lagers.

“Because pubs cost a million dollars or more they are often owned by corporations or other large interests, and those types of businesses generally don't play on the fringe,” says Frustagli. “They have investors that need to be paid back, profits that need to be made...they play it safe and offer what they know 90 per cent of the population will drink.”

Springthorpe echoes those thoughts about why pubs are more likely to stick with the bigger breweries.
“I think a lot of pub owners don’t just own one place, but have a lot of liquor primary licensed pubs under the same corporate entity,” he explains.
“There may be some economies of scale to be had by representing some bigger brands in not one, but several of your places. This would also put you in a position to be quite demanding with suppliers. A lot of the smaller breweries and agents can't afford and/or are not ethically willing to bend over backwards for big accounts who make all kinds of demands in order for them to carry a particular brand,” says Springthorpe.

At Storm Brewing, Walton is now leery of doing business with pubs. He has been successful many times in getting his beers on tap only to see them replaced by beers from the bigger breweries. These breweries usually offer a better deal for pubs, often breaching the law by giving pub owners free products or financial enticements to carry their brands.

“I don’t even bother anymore,” says Walton about trying to interest bars in his product. “My beer has been dropped too many times in bars because of kickbacks. It’s not worth the effort.”
Despite statistics that show total domestic beer sales to be down 9.2 per cent over the last year, sales are up for smaller breweries producing fewer than 150,000 HL (their draft sales increased by 7 per cent, while bottle and can sales are up a whopping 30.42 per cent). This has the bars sitting up and taking notice. Some bar owners are seeing the success of places like the Alibi Room and St. Augustine’s and are trying to jump on the craft beer bandwagon to lure in new customers.

“Only when craft beer proves itself as a money maker and a differentiator will the corporations jump on board, which is what we're beginning to see,” explains Frugstagli.
“As craft beer begins to take a bigger chunk of the market and further proves its profitability we'll see more and more corporations jump on board, and that will lead to more people drinking craft beer which will further prove its profitability, etc. It's a self-fuelling fire,” he says.

“I think we're already seeing changes,” agrees Springthorpe. “[It's] mostly because some pub owners or multiple location restaurant owners are seeing dollar signs when it comes to the question of selling craft beer. The big boys are seeing craft beer as a gateway to another market. I don’t think the majority will ever switch to all craft product. Right now it’s a way to get more dollars rolling in.”
Whether this new trend will continue is yet to be seen. For now, restaurants are still the prime places to enjoy local and imported craft beer. But one thing is certain: if the current trend of increased sales for craft beer continues, it's a win-win situation for local breweries and consumers.

Increased sales means increased opportunities for craft beer lovers to drink their favourite brews, and more potential for new customers to be exposed to those beers. This in turn could result in increased sales for local breweries, encouraging others to open small breweries.
And for those who had the foresight and vision to support craft beer from the start, like Springthorpe and Frustagli, it will mean continued success and sense of satisfaction that their visions and “sticktoitiveness” has paid off.

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.