Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Storm Back to Full Force After LCLB's Quick Action

Luckily this sign was only in place for about 48 hours as LCLB
worked quickly to do the right thing
Storm Brewing's owner, James Walton, breathed a sigh of relief this afternoon after he was given the go ahead from the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB) to carry on with business as usual after receiving his on-site retail endorsement and passing the LCLB on-site inspection.

This brings to an end a mercifully short and very unpleasant chapter in Storm's history after Walton was contacted Monday by a LCLB liquor inspector and advised his sales of kegs and growlers to the public, which make up 50% of his business, were in contravention of his license therefore he had to cease these sales immediately or he would be completely shut down (read here for background detail).

The tone of the cease and desist command and the often slow response times of the LCLB scared Walton and had him believing his business of 19 years was in jeopardy.

The root of the problem was a memo Walton received in 2008 (see end of post) notifying him  the LCLB had taken over the responsibility for direct sales and on-site retail for breweries from the Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) and that licensing requirements were changing.

"I should have read the memo (more closely) a long time ago," admits Walton who has never dodged the fact he is ultimately responsible for the mess he found himself in this week. "I just assumed that the liquor board (LCLB) would just carry on with what was in place."

"The heavy handedness (of how he was treated by liquor inspectors and LCLB initially) made me pissed off," says Walton who believes, like myself and many others, that this could have, and should have, been handled differently, without the unnecessary threats to his livelihood as it was an honest mistake and he was doing all he could to comply once he found out he was in contravention of his manufacturer's license.

This is a prime example as to why our BC liquor policies and the way the LCLB and LDB operate need to be reviewed and overhauled. It is obvious from this example, and trust me, there are many more, that the LCLB do not communicate very well with the LDB and where one says, go ahead and sell and make the province money, the other says stop selling, that is illegal.

It is also an example of how liquor inspectors have far too much power and can make decisions, acting as the enforcement, judge and jury with little accountability as licensees are terrified of being targeted. These decisions often have huge, far reaching impacts on people who have not necessarily been trying to contravene LCLB policies.

Walton had no idea he had been selling illegally, believing that because he had been selling kegs to the public since opening in 1994, without issue from the either the LDB or the LCLB, and had recently been giving a sku by the LDB allowing him to fill growlers and sell them directly from the brewery to the public, that he was doing everything by the book.

I want to take the high road and say that the liquor inspectors involved and the LCLB expedited the process and fixed things for Walton in less than 48 hours because it was the right thing to do but rarely have I seen the LCLB respond so quickly or have I had politicians respond to social media the way they did in this case, which leads the cynic in me to think they realized this was a public relations nightmare.

The social media storm, public pressure and the attention from some major media outlets that occurred after the story got out certainly got the attention some high-ranking politicians and, no doubt, the LCLB brass who do not want this type of controversy during the current province-wide liquor policy review which has current LCLB policies and methods of operation under a microscope, along with everything else associated with alcohol policy in BC.

Yesterday, John Yap, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Justice Minister Suzanne Anton, reached out to me on Twitter to tweet, "I (Yap) understand that LCLB is expediting the process & expects the manufacturer will have the proper endorsement within 3 days," in response to my blog post and the social media support for Storm. Yap, is in charge of the liquor policy review and reports directly to Anton, who is ultimately in charge of both the LDB and LCLB.

Walton, despite his feelings that his treatment was heavy-handed, believes the LCLB acted in good faith but does acknowledge the public support played a role in holding the LCLB accountable for how they handled things.

"(The liquor inspector) said he would expedite the application and he did," states Walton. "The pressure from the public on social media was likely a factor but I've always had a good relationship with LCLB in Victoria. The guy that sent my receipt for the payment was downright friendly."

Before putting this to rest, I just want to clear up a few things.

Firstly, Walton did not approach me or ask me to write the original post. I was notified by someone in Powell River, where I live, who thought I might know what was going on because I have Walton for 15 years. My experience is that Walton is one not to seek the media spotlight. He is also one who owns his mistakes openly, as he has here. But this is a story with two sides and it is important that we, the public, hold politicians, and the bureaucrats who work under them accountable for their actions.

I will also say that the only voices of decent I had were from a people in the craft beer industry. Some thought I was making a mountain out of a mole hill and told me so. I was told "same law for all" by more than one person and my response is, yes, this is true, but when the interpretation and enforcement of those laws are arbitrary and inconsistent, as they often are with the LCLB, no one is safe, no matter how hard they are trying to comply with policy and regulations.

I'll be sure not to come on too strong with my support, r my efforts to mobilize support, for those who feel I was making a big deal about nothing when the liquor inspector knocks on their door and tells them black is white and up is down, jeopardizing their businesses and means of making a living.

On that note, on to more important things like cracking this growler of Brassneck white IPA that made its way up tot he Upper Sunshine Coast last weekend.

Memo from 2008

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Storm of Bureaucratic Red Tape Threatens Iconic East Van Brewery

If you are headed done to Storm Brewing this week to fill your growler or to order a keg for your next party, you may want to call ahead.

Storm's owner-brewer, James Walton, was told Monday by a Liquor Control and Licensing Branch liquor inspector that he is to cease selling his beer to anyone but licensees, meaning pubs and restaurants, until he applies for and is approved by the LCLB for an in-store retail license.

That's right, no growlers to take away from the brewery for home consumption, no kegs for events or parties unless those buying are licensees in the eyes of the LCLB.

That's right, no Storm growlers or kegs for you says LCLB liquor inspectors, unless you are a licensee
Walton has been selling kegs for private parties and to event organizers for 19 years without issue. The Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) has been well aware of Storm's sales to non-licensees and has been quite happy to give him sales skus for his products and take their cut from those sales, which make up about 50% of Storm's business.

The only thing that has changed in the past 19 years is that recently Storm jumped on the growler train and started doing fills at the brewery. Walton has been quite pleased with the results, having filled about 120 growlers last week. He thought he had done things properly by getting a cash register to record growler sales and applying for and getting a sku with the LDB for his growlers before commencing sales.

Enter the other bureaucratic arm of the BC liquor industry, the LCLB who appear to not be so enthralled  as the LDB are with Storm contributing to government coffers by harmlessly selling kegs and growlers from his iconic brewery.

This is a classic case of one bureaucratic branch of the government not talking to the other even though they both deal with alcohol sales in BC. One approves the sales by granting skus, processing the paperwork and collecting the government's cut while the other says that the sales are illegal and must stop until the proper approval is given.

Apparently, in 2008, control of brewery store fronts, tasting rooms and retail stores, were shifted from the LDB to the LCLB and this is where the confusion lies in regards to what Storm can and can't sell.  

"The LDB has known and never had a problem with Storm selling to individuals," stated Walton. "Bulk or counter sales are half of my business. I just assumed that the liquor board (LCLB) would just carry on with what was in place."

But last Wednesday, Oct 2nd, two liquor inspectors showed up, without warning, at the brewery and they right away noticed empty growlers. 

This caught the liquor inspectors' attention.

Walton, believing all his ducks were in a row and that he was in compliance with the law, proceeded to show the inspectors his cash register, LDB list of skus for his products and his LCLB license. Monday, Oct 7, Walton received a call from one of the inspectors who had popped into the brewery and was told that Storm was in contravention of their LCLB license and Walton was threatened with a total suspension of his license to sell beer if he did not cease selling to non-licensees immediately.

Walton has already sent in the paperwork to apply for the proper retail license he believed he already had, but is worried about the processing time. "The wait time for some of these things is six months," states Walton who believes his business, that has taken 19 years to build is, "facing extinction" if things don't get cleared up soon.

Walton pleaded to be allowed to carry doing as he has done since opening his doors in 1994, while things are being processed, but to no avail. He is not disputing the ruling made by the liquor inspector, or the fact that he may have made a mistake in not reading the fine print of a memo sent in 2008, and is trying to cooperate, but is worried that 50% of his business is now not accessible to him for an undetermined amount of time due to some bureaucratic red tape and an honest mistake.

"I just don't like that they won't let me continue even though I was very polite and agreed to do everything they wanted," says Walton. 

This is a prime example of how the LCLB  and their inspectors seemingly make what is legal one day illegal the next. It is also a prime example of how the LCLB are punitive when they don't have to be and why licensees fear them as their livelihoods are in the hands of liquor inspectors who have way too much power. Walton was doing what he has always been allowed to do, but suddenly his business is threatened and his livelihood threatened because of an oversight. And it is just as much an oversight on the side of the government bureaucracies as it is Walton. 

Why have they let him operate as he has for the past 19 years only to now be told it is wrong? Why have the LDB given him the go ahead to sell kegs and growlers, taking their cut, without telling Walton he has the wrong license to do so?

This is the exact kind of bureaucratic nightmare that John Yap and his liquor policy review need to eliminate. 

How is potentially crippling Walton's business due to a technicality suddenly in the interest of public safety?  

Shame on the LCLB and LDB for allowing someone to build up a business by operating a certain way for 19 years only to suddenly pull the rug out from under their feet?

Let's hope the LCLB inspector does the right thing and either expedites the application process so that Walton can get back to running his business,  paying his bills and selling beer, or allows Storm to carry on selling kegs to non-licensees, while his application for the proper license is being processed.

Get this sorted before you lose a one of the iconic businesses in the city, one that has helped spark a vibrant and thriving craft beer community in Vancouver!

This is an established business whose very existence is being threatened because it is conducting business as it has been allowed to do for almost 20 years by the same government bureaucracies that are now threatening to close them down.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

BC Craft Brewers Guild Mobilizing: Great News for Consumers

Since I started posting on this blog about three years ago, a major source of frustration for me has been the inert and inept nature of the BC
Craft Brewer's Guild (BCCBG).

 Here in BC we have one of the quickest growing and most vibrant craft brewing communities in North America, possibly the world, despite the fact that the BC industry association itself has been fragmented, unorganized and one who, well quite frankly, couldn't organize a piss up in a brewery.

My frustrations have been well documented, and if you are so inclined you can read my rantings here and here, but this post is not about me pulling on my double-soled, steel-toed Dayton's to once again put the boots to the Guild.

No, this is a post is one of positivism and hope.

In August, with little fanfare, the BCCBG may have made a move that will change the face of the industry here in BC. Realizing that they were too busy and too disinterested to even change their website to reflect the fact they had changed their name from the BC Craft Brewer Association several years ago, the representatives from the few member breweries still involved with the BCCBG decided it was time to regroup, reorganize and hire someone to try to breath some life into the BC's craft brewery organization.

Enter Ken Beattie, the new Executive Director of the BC Craft Brewers Guild.

I have met face-to-face with Beattie and spoken to him over the phone and his enthusiasm and charisma are evident. But he is more than just a magnetic, people-person, having started in the BC beer industry in 1987 and having worked selling Molson Canadian, Okanagan Springs and Shaftbury brand beers. Beattie understands how to sell beer in this province, knows the system and knows how the big boys work. He has watched the craft side of the industry grow from infancy in BC, chipping away at the market share of those breweries he was working for.

He is no longer working for a particular brewery, having started, in 2012, his beer education company, Eureka Beer Guide, which represents the Prud'homme beer certification program in Western Canada. This means he has no vested in promoting one brewery over another, which, quite frankly, has been a major problem with the guild in recent years, at least in my opinion.

"My primary goal is to harness the entrepreneurial spirit, craftsmanship and innovation that the BC craft brewers exhibit in their individual success and to manage that success into one collective voice," wrote Beattie in a communication with VEBB.

"One voice will grow the BC craft beer industry into a sustainable business environment supporting each other. The power of the guild moving forward needs to showcase that the brewers all work together to educate and promote 'Made in BC' beer in the government stores, private retail stores and the on premise channels."

Music to my freaking ears!!!

Let us hope it is to those who represent the 55+ craft breweries that are now operating in BC, and the 15 or so who are slated to open their doors in the next 15 months, feel the same way.

In a few short months Beattie has not only managed to give focus to the BCCBG but has began galvanizing the industry members. He has reached out, on behalf of the guild, to all the BC craft breweries he could find contact info for. He has the website being reconstructed (with the proper name I might add). He held a meeting during the Great Canadian Beer Festival where 26 breweries were represented and has a goal of signing up 80% of BC craft breweries with the guild in the next year. He also helped put together a very slick and well thought out presentation (read here) which was submitted to the current BC liquor policy review  by the BCCBG.

Why is this important to me and other craft beer consumers you ask?

Well often, but not always, what is good for the industry is good for the consumer. If the guild can organize the industry and establish an all-for-one attitude, it could become a powerful voice, one the government cannot ignore, lobbying for changes to our liquor policies and laws. We may see many changes that benefit us, the consumers. Just look at their presentation to Yap and Company where the BCCBG pushed for more access to "Made in BC" craft beer in BC Liquor Stores (something CAMRA BC pushed as well),  removing mark-ups from products bought directly by consumers from brewery store fronts, supporting and encouraging tasting rooms and developing an education program for LDB employees to learn about BC craft beer to better serve consumers in BC Liquor Stores.

Who doesn't want more access to great BC brewed beers in local liquor stores, lower prices, more tasting opportunities and more knowledgeable sales people in retail outlets?

And there are times that a powerful industry voice can help support groups like CAMRA BC when it is in the best interest of both groups.

I am very excited about this prospect, but wish it had happened a few years ago so that both the industry and consumers could have been working together more leading up the the current liquor policy review.

Better late than never, I guess. For the sake of the BC craft beer industry, for the sake of BC craft beer consumers, I wish Mr Beattie well.

See below for his immediate plans for the BC Craft Brewers Guild

  • Firstly we (BCCBG) need to increase membership, it is currently below 40 % and we need it to be over 80 % .We need the members to work together on committees focusing on achieving our goals. 
  • We need to increase our visibility and relationship as a Guild with local and provincial government to work together as the review of the liquor policies in BC gets underway to encourage entry into the market and restrict red tape.
  • We need to target and develop a Tourism based strategy that supports and promotes the BC Craft Beer industry in the marketplace.
  • Design and implement a new social media program that will allow our messaging to gain greater access to the BC craft beer drinker.