Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cascadia-gate - Is This Really a Consumer Issue?

I don't think I have ever seen a reaction as fierce and as widespread to any issue related to the local craft beer scene as I saw this past week in regards to what I like to now call Cascadia-gate.

It seemed, with some of the posts and comments I read on Facebook, reddit, etc., that some craft beer consumers took it personally that the term Cascadia had been trademarked in regards to "brewed alcoholic beverages namely ale and, malt liquor, stout, porter and lambic".

But, to tell you the truth, I don't really understand some of the venom and, quite frankly, the mob mentality that ensued after Barley Mowat posted the story. It was great to see those passionate about craft beer in BC finally band together and get vocal, and the force of their actions did prompt Steamworks to respond, even if that response was perceived by many to be inadequate and insincere, but really, how does this issue impact the consumer? Why all the anger, rage and name calling? If you read many of the comments and posts, when they were available to be read, it was obvious that some of those writing them really had no grasp on what this whole issue was about.

Yes, this story did warrant a response from those of us who are involved in the local craft beer community and/or passionate about their craft beer. And I applaud those who offered their opinions in intelligent and constructive ways, letting Eli Gershkovitch, owner of Steamworks, and his "Steam Team" know they were upset with Eli quietly telling local breweries, for reasons only he really understands, to stop using the term "Cascadian" Dark Ale (CDA). But, let's face it, he was not telling them to stop brewing that particular style of beer or impeding consumer access to CDAs. No, just last night I drank some North Shore Black IPA, brewed by North Vancouver nano-brewery Bridge Brewing Co. Black IPA is another term used to describe CDA. A few weeks back I enjoyed Parallel 49's  Black Christmas , described, a little tongue in cheek, by P49 as a Christmas Dark Ale (CDA) due to the trademark hubbub which was common knowledge among the local craft industry even before Chuck posted his original "The Grinch Who Stole Cascadia" story.

The Black Christmas and North Shore Black IPA ales may have been described in different terms, omitting the term Cascadian, but, at least in my humble opinion, they are in fact CDAs. And it shows that local breweries are already finding ways around the trademark issue. Just labeling a beer as a CDA, without spelling it out, will alert consumers that the beer is a Cascadian Dark Ale. Those looking for that style of beer will know what CDA means and those who don't probably will not know what a Cascadian Dark Ale is and would have to ask for an explanation anyway.

It is one of the reasons I, as CAMRA Vancouver President, have not come out with an official stance on the whole issue because I do not see this as a consumer advocacy issue. As president, I can say CAMRA Vancouver would like to see craft breweries working together to increase their share of the market place so that we, the consumers, have greater access to more craft beers, but whether that beer is called CDA, Black IPA, or something different, is a battle for others to fight. This is an industry-related conflict, one that, brewer's associations representing the breweries and homebrewing groups may want to tackle as they are the ones brewing and naming their beers CDAs.

No, I personally don't agree with Eli that he should be able to protect his trademark in relation to other breweries using the term Cascadian Dark Ale and I voiced that opinion to Walter Cosman, President of Steamworks Brewing Company, last summer. As pointed out by Chad on his blog Hoplog, used in that way, Cascadian is a descriptor for a style of beer. If breweries were calling their beers Cascadia Lager, or Cascadia IPA, I could see Eli's point, but when they are using Cascadia in reference to describing the CDA style, I think the trademark infringement has no traction. Cascadia Dark Ale in that sense is like using lager, stout or India Pale Ale. Many breweries are now trademarking the names of their beers to protect their branding. But protecting a brand and protecting a term that describes something, in my opinion, are two different things.

But what do I know about the law and my opinion obviously is not one Eli Gershkovitch agrees with.

And no, I personally don't buy "Team Steam's" assertion that Eli's actions were, "the best course of action so as to preserve  the integrity of the name 'Cascadia' for true craft breweries not for large multinational breweries." And no, I did not buy the spin put out in the response from Steamworks painting the picture that Eli and Steamworks are David fighting the evil Goliath, in the form of Molson Canadian, or that Eli is the benevolent but misunderstood defender of the craft beer community who, out of the goodness of his heart, would allow other craft breweries to buy the license to use his trademarked term Cascadia. 

I do hope Eli finds a way to save face and back down on this whole issue and I think opposition from other craft breweries and consumers in general is essential, but I would ask that if you are voicing dissent you do it in a constructive and respectful way. Calling Eli names and making statements like "Steamworks suck" on-line is only going to anger him and make him dig in his heels. But if enough people send him well written and well-thought out, intelligent communications about why what he is doing is wrong, maybe, just maybe he will see the light and truly act in good faith as a stand-up member of the BC craft beer community

In the meantime, we as consumers can continue, unimpeded, to enjoy our CDAs even if the breweries do not use the term Cascadian Dark Ale until this whole issue gets cleared up.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

That's How it is Done - Paying Attention CAMRA Members?

If you have any interest in the BC craft beer scene and have any sort of connection to social media, you will know that there has been a bit of controversy stirred up by a recent post by Barley Mowat involving who Steamworks Brewery owner Eli Gershkovitch and the trademarking of Cascadia in regards to brewed alcoholic beverages.

The post caused a huge backlash against Eli and Steamworks from the local craft beer community who took to social media in droves to voice their displeasure regarding the whole situation. The reaction to Barley Mowat's post was swift and fierce and, even though it was not always on point, or in complete understanding of what was going on, prompted a quick response, which you can read here, from "The Steam Team", who were forced into damage-control mode as the good reputation of Steamworks was being unmercifully bashed.

Every action has a reaction. 

Action: Eli requests local brewers not use "Cascadian" when naming, labeling, marketing Cascadian Dark Ales. 
Reaction: Local craft beer breweries start renaming their Cascadian Dark Ales weird names which peaks Barley Mowat's curiosity and prompts his post.

Action: Local craft beer enthusiasts are outraged after reading the post and take to social media to voice their displeasure with Eli and Steamworks creating a whirlwind of bad PR for Steamworks.
Reaction: The Steam Team respond, explaining their position, a touch late I might add, and implement some damage control measures by offering up a resolution in an attempt to save face and pacify the angry mob.

This is how it is done folks. That is how you support a cause to effect change. 

I hope craft beer consumers, particularly CAMRA BC, CAMRA Vancouver and other CAMRA branch members took notice. If craft beer consumers want to effect change to the laws and get the same governmental considerations wine consumers do, they need to be just as vocal, angry and active, targeting the LCLB and Rich Coleman, as they were yesterday in regards to Barley Mowat's post. A focused campaign with huge support will be more likely to prompt a positive reaction from government than not.

Think about it, who is more reactionary than the government?

The is absolutely no value in CAMRA BC having over a 1,000 members if 950 of them are passive and do not support their organization's actions past paying $25 a year for a membership. If CAMRA Vancouver had received the same type of vocal and passionate social media support for their FUSS and BYOCB Campaigns, Coleman, LCLB General Manager Karen Ayers and licensees may have taken CAMRA's positions more seriously. 

Just saying.... 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Prospect of Bigger Bucks Changing BC Craft Beer Community

Yesterday, Vancouver beer blogger, Barley Mowat, exposed one of the worst kept secrets in the local craft beer community when he wrote his post "The Grinch Who Stole Cascadia" outlining how Steamworks owner, Eli Gershkovitch, has been flexing his legal muscles in regards to a trademark involving the word Cascadia. 

I am not going to write more on the subject as Barley has it more than covered. I will say that the whole situation has been bothering me since I found out about it early last summer when a sales manager for a local craft brewery mentioned they had been contacted by Eli about not using "Cascadian" Dark Ale due to the Cascadia trademark. It has also bothered most others in the know, including some associated with Steamworks, because actions like this are historically not representative of the local craft beer industry.

But I believe times, they are changing and this situation shows just how much the local craft beer scene has transformed and how the once tight "craft beer community" is slowly being attacked and splintered as the financial rewards get bigger due to the growing craft beer market and increased competition for those dollars. 

According to the latest Liquor Distribution Branch Quarterly Market Review, BC's domestic beer sales, from Sept/11 to Sept/12, were in excess of $900 million dollars, making each percentage point in the market worth $9 million dollars. Breweries, especially those with a business plan to grow, will fight hard for those dollars and some, not all, will fight dirty if they get the chance and think they can get away with it.

With these types of dollars at stake and with the increasing market share being claimed by smaller craft breweries, this American-style of legal action is going to become more of the norm than the exception as the competition gets more heated with more breweries, both local and outside BC entering the local craft beer market. 

In recent weeks I have come across information about a few other local craft breweries that have been threatened with legal action for reasons that can be viewed as suspect, at best. In one case, an Ontario-based brewery, who are currently expanding into the BC market, hit a local craft brewery with a Cease and Desist order. For various reasons, I cannot comment more, but I see this as a sign of the fierce battles being waged over limited shelf and tap space for craft beer. I have also heard that one of the major craft breweries in BC is under attack from the major national breweries regarding possible trademark "infringements". I reached out to the local brewery representative to try to verify if this was true and was told that he "couldn't really comment on that stuff right now," which tells me that there is probably truth to these rumours.

These are not American breweries protecting their turf south of the 49th as was the case with the ridiculous Red Racer-Racer 5-Red Rocket legal battle which somehow Central City Brewery lost. These are Canadian breweries attacking each other over what I see as trivial matters that are motivated by trying to impede the competition, to gain an upper hand in the market and not by actual issues that are damaging those taking action or by wrong-doing by those being hit by these legal actions. I can see, but don't agree with, the motivation for the bigger breweries to try to squash the once-insignificant-now-annoying bug that is the craft beer industry, but I find it very disturbing to see small Canadian breweries attacking one another and even more disturbing see one local craft brewery go after several other local craft breweries for questionable reasons.

When I started working in the local craft beer industry 12 years ago, there were very few breweries in BC producing craft beer and we, for the most part,helped each other out as much as possible. I can remember one incident where I went to an establishment to hook up a tap for Storm Brewing but stopped because the licensee wanted me to disconnect a Russell Brother's tap. I actually refused to do it until we contacted Mark Russell, then owner of the brewery and informed him. As it turned out, he had been asked to cut a Storm tap somewhere else, so we "traded" taps, so to speak and had a good laugh over a pint of beer about the whole situation. But this was the norm, not the exception. Back in "the olden days" we helped each other find accounts, spread the wealth and let the beers fight it out in the market place with the consumer deciding which beer was tastier.

Today, the industry is completely different animal. Craft breweries are now, except for a few hold-outs who only keg their beers, concentrating on bottled and packaged products. Flashy packaging and marketing are often just as important for some breweries than the product. Brewers are not always the owners and not always making the decisions as to what to brew and as to whether the product is ready to go to market or not. Craft breweries now have sales representatives, marketing personnel and PR folks where as in the past, many craft breweries were basically one-man shows with the owners acting as brewers, delivery drivers, and general brewery gophers. On more than one occasion, brewery owners were known to live in their breweries to save money and they were the face of their breweries as far as marketing went. The craft brewing industry was a lifestyle as much as a business. The idea of taking legal action against another craft brewery was unthinkable.

To survive, the industry has evolved and as the industry has grown and the fight for the lucrative consumer dollars in a tough market has intensified, accountants and lawyers have become just as important as the brewers in some cases. I, for one, am not surprised by stories like the one Barley Mowat posted. I think it is only going to get nastier as trade practice and tied house laws get relaxed and the larger breweries move in with wads of cash and attempt to buy up smaller, successful craft breweries and point-of-sale distribution. 

Long gone are the days I remember when one craft brewery refused to cut the line of another and being involved in industry was based on pure passion for great beer, not bottom-line profits at the end of the year. Let's hope as consumers, the focus remains on producing the best craft beer possible and not just on the bottom line.

LCLB Protecting You From Gang Violence While Your Are Being Robbed by Licensees

Next time you are sitting in a bar or restaurant quietly enjoying your 12-ounce "pint", be sure to say a quiet thank you to the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch for allowing you to sip your short-poured brew without fear of being caught in the cross-fire of some violent gang shoot-up.

Yes, apparently LCLB General Manager, Karen Ayers and her crack-force of inspectors are, "focusing on keeping gangs, gang related activities and violence out of licensed establishments" as one of their priorities and therefore they have no time to stop you from being robbed blind by some licensees who see fit to serve you about 60% of what they are promising you as a serving size, this according to an email she sent me October 10, 2012.

Whew, that is relief! Here I thought only fully trained and appropriately armed police officers were protecting us from the bad guys. Now I can again safely venture out and have a beer of unknown quantity knowing liquor inspectors, armed with business cards and a LCLB Licensing Policy Manual, are keeping me safe in this province's local watering holes.

I had emailed Ayers, on behalf of CAMRA Vancouver, asking her, yet again, to direct LCLB liquor inspectors to enforce the law requiring licensees to provide serving size lists for alcoholic beverages in order to protect BC beer consumers who are routinely mislead and often lied to about the volume of beer they are being served. CAMRA Vancouver has been pressing this serving size issue since launching their "Fess Up to Serving Sizes" (FUSS) Campaign a year ago but have been consistently told by Ayers and Rich Coleman, the Liberal Minister responsible for the liquor portfolio, that protecting consumers from being cheated deceived and over-charged is not something they feel they need to address.

Ayers and Coleman have consistently stated that the LCLB has had four key public safety priorities: over-serving, serving to minors, over-crowding and the sale of illegal alcohol. Now you can add keeping gangs, gang activity and violence out of licensed establishments to that list. As a result of focusing on these priorities they have advised me, because of limited resources, they cannot address less important issues, such as protecting alcohol consumers' rights even though to do so is apart of their licensing policies. But somehow, in between sending 18-year-old kids who look 25 into bars, restaurants and liquor stores in order to trap licensees into serving minors and focusing on keeping gangs out of licensed establishments, the LCLB has had time to ensure public safety is maintained by tackling such important issues such as prohibiting a restaurant from allowing patrons to enjoy a burger and a beer while playing video games.

The LCLB are so arbitrary in what laws they enforce and liquor inspectors so prone to interpreting the laws to suit their needs, that it is laughable at times. I sat down with one liquor inspector last Spring to talk about holding a cask festival and it was quite obvious that the inspector had no idea about the laws he was supposed to be enforcing. The directives he was giving, to comply with the law, had absolutely nothing to do with the LCLB licensing policies that applied to the situation and myself and others at the meeting had to correct the liquor inspector several times. This same inspector has been known to tell restaurant employees that when their establishment is showing a televised Canuck's game, they are not to cheer when the Canucks score a goal as this may incite patrons to over-consume alcohol in their excitement.

And this is the type of person who is out there preventing gang related activities and violence in licensed establishments? He has time time throw a wet blanket on bartender-server hockey enthusiasts but no time to make sure you are getting what you ordered and paid for.

I understand the LCLB's focus on important issues like over-serving, but even here Ayers confused me with her explanation that, "(i)t is the duty of all licensees and their staff to provide safe and responsible liquor service. They are responsible for ensuring patrons are not over-served during a visit to their establishment, regardless of serving sizes."

Okay, the LCLB cannot deal with such trivial issues such as blatant robbery and deception because they have to concentrate on ensuring licensees are not over-serving, yet licensees are responsible for policing themselves in regards to liquor service and ensuring patrons are not over-served.

Things that make you go hmmmmm....

Ayers did say in her email that, "if someone is upset with serving sizes at their local restaurant or bar they can make a formal complaint to this (LCLB) branch and the area inspector will follow up with that establishment."

With the added responsibility of curbing gang violence, it sounds to me like the liquor inspectors will be too busy to deal with our complaints...maybe this is a job for the Pint Police.

If you want change, get vocal, get involved. If the LCLB gets continuous complaints about licensees who are misrepresenting their serving sizes, or not telling you how much they are serving, the LCLB will be forced to do what they should be doing as a regular part of their duties, that being protecting the alcohol consumers of BC.