The anachronistic Brewers Retail
As InBev launches a US$46 billion hostile bid for Anheuser-Busch, the iconic Bud may no longer be sporting an American flag. That’s something we long became comfortable with here in Canada, as Labatt, Molson and Sleeman have all been acquired by foreign-based brewers.
Change is the constant in this business. John Sleeman may still be the perfect voice for the brand’s radio spots, but businessmen in Japan call many of the shots. Even tasty and quaint Rolling Rock, of Latrobe, Pennsylvania since 1939, no longer can boast that it uses local water in the fermenting process. The brewery is still there, but the production has moved elsewhere.
But unlike the U.S., these foreign acquisitions have had a particular impact in Ontario. The former Brewers Retail (now The Beer Store), you see, is owned by the very foreign firms that also own the former Labatt, Molson and Sleeman franchises. What this means is quite straightforward: the owners of The Beer Store do what’s best for their brands, and the rest of the world is at the back of the bus.
To whit, when it was discovered that “walk in cooler” beer stores (Yonge and Summerhill, for example) were increasing sales of small brands such as Brick, Mill Street and Moosehead, among others, the owners switched gears. Enough with that floormap. Most new stores are now “handy pickup” type outlets (Yonge and Lawrence, for example). Most of what you see now is a sea of beer produced by the same people that own the store.
Conventiently inside the front door of the handy pickup outlets are the cases of the big three (Canadian, Coors Light, Blue, Bud and Sleeman). If you want to pick something else, feel free to ask a rep. But the delightful packaging of independent brewers is largely hidden from view, just like 20 years ago when the forbidden fruit rolled out from behind a wall on metal rollers.
With this change in store setup, guess what happened to the sales of independent brewers? Right back down again. The oligarchy preserved their marketshare grip, all in the name of customer convenience. At least the convenience of the customers who buy the owner’s particular brand of beer.
I don’t want to find fault with the longstanding MADD arguments about corner store access to beer and teenage drunk driving (we can trust conveience store clerks to not sell life threatening cigarettes to minors, but not beer?), but I can’t help but notice that Ontario wineries are able to sell their products at Loblaws and Whole Foods. I know for a fact that wine can get you just as drunk as beer.
Which begs the question, why won’t the Ontario government give local brewers the same opportunity to succeed as local vintners? The fact that our beer distribution system is owned by foreigners is not entirely different than the fact that Cognos or Dofasco have gone the same route.
What is different about this situation, however, is the impact the oligarchy has on the ability for the two dozen Ontario microbrewers to flourish. Lakeport, Creemore, Upper Canada and Sleeman all had varying degrees of success, and all started out extremely small. There is a chance that Mill Street or Wellington Brewery, for example, could replicate that success.
Let’s give the next generation of Brew Masters a chance, and allow them to sell their beer at grocery stores. At least for a start.
On Highway 10, just south of Sauble Beach, the local grocery store is also the local beer store. A few feet from the pop and chips is the forbidden fruit. There isn’t even a wall. Society’s mores won’t collapse if we do the same thing in urban Ontario.