Earlier this week Katy Watts, Ottawa’s longtime champion of all things brewed and sometimes freelance food writer, invited me to attend the somewhat exclusive screening of Straight Up: The Issue of Alcohol in Ontario, an independently-produced documentary about the archaic and oftentimes punitive laws that regulate the distribution and sale of alcohol in Ontario.
Ours would be the second screening of the documentary worldwide. Sponsored by Ottawa’s growing microbrewery Beyond the Pale, the screening was very well attended at the newly relocated Orange Gallery. The room easily sat fifty people. When seating ran out, a number of attendees stood at the back of the room.
Now located in a converted house on the parking lot of the City Centre, the gallery known to display an eclectic but compelling mixture of the city’s best is nearby what will become Beyond the Pale’s new digs. Requiring more capacity, the brewery is completing renovations on warehouse space at the City Centre to house a larger operation. Like the Orange Gallery, Beyond the Pale will move away from its Hintonburg location.
The crowd that gathered at $25/person and partook of beer supplied by Beyond the Pale’s founder Rob McIsaac cheered and applauded the work. During the post screening Question and Answer session, the documentary’s originators, photographer and videographer Peter Lenardon and sound engineer A.J. Wykes, admitted they had no straightforward solutions to addressing the issues they found. Needless to say, the confusing mess that is alcohol retail becomes rather complex with so many stakeholders involved, including increasingly irate consumers who represent the provincial electorate; elected politicians who have to balance calls for deregulation and income from the state-run retail shops; and producers like local small scale craft brewers, passionate vintners, and courageous upstart distillers.
The Kitchener, Ontario natives accordingly embarked on producing the film out of their shared reverence for craft beer and boredom from being laid off by former telecom giant Research in Motion (now Blackberry), one of the major employers in the Waterloo region. Partnering to pool their abilities, they funded making their film through a Kickstarter campaign that raised almost $12,000, $2000 more than they targeted.
Straight Up features rather candid interviews with academic researchers, historians, president of the Wine Council of Ontario, Ontario vintners, Ontario craft brewers (including Steve Beauschesne who founded wildly successful Beau’s in Vankleek Hill), and a representative from the Ontario Convenience Stores Association.
The following are some of my more interesting takeaways:
- Ontario liquor laws are very confusing, hailing from 1926 after the Ontario Temperence Act of 1916 was repealed
- 90%, by volume, of wine, beer, and spirits are sold by the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) and Beer Store (Brewers Retail Store)
- Originally, the first Liquor Control Act required Ontarians to have an individual liquor permit to purchase liquor; liquor purchases were actively tracked; there was an interdiction list for people who “indulged” too much
- Brewers Warehousing Company was originally formed as a co-operative between Ontario breweries that survived prohibition (largely by making ginger beer and soda)
- Brewers Warehousing was originally licensed to store and distribute beer to private retailers.
- Eventually, through a series of corporate machinations, the licensed breweries merged together, consolidating with one another and opening what would become the Beer Store.
- Today, the beer store is operated by three multinational beer concerns with very little Canadian representation: Molson-Coors; AB InBev (under the Labatt name); and Sapporo (under the Sleeman name)
- The LCBO treats local and international brewers, vintners, and distillers the same (subject to the same pricing structure and purchasing and stocking practices), a bit of “neutrality,” but this means there is very limited space for Ontario producers.
- Both the LCBO and Beer Store charge arbitrary markups on top of fees and levies, which are all taxed.
- The Beer Store charges non-licensed brewers “listing” and “shelf space” fees. Start-up brewers simply can’t afford to work with the Beer Store.
- Licensee retailers like restaurants and pubs don’t pay a wholesale price for liquor from the Beer Store or LCBO. They pay a retail price. Moreover, the consumer’s retail price for beer from the Beer Store is often lower than the licensee retail’s price.
Consider Straight Up something akin to Food Inc. The documentary is a good watch. Expect copies for sale by the end of the year and a web release. While Lenardon and Wykes always intended their work to be available freely to the public, they have entered it in a number of festivals that require exclusive screenings.
If you have the opportunity to attend a screening, I highly suggest you do!