Update, Thursday: A rousing 17% of Ontarians want beer in grocery stores. Because we can't handle what Quebeckers, New Yorkers and those of Michigan can. We must suck.
That's a video posted in the Toronto Star the other day summarizing where this Province sits in its own internal debate about the retailing of beer in Ontario.Its attached to a story titled "Time to take ownership of the Beer Store: Cohn" The Star is taking a lead in the discourse and doing an excellent job but as the video displays there are some weird aspects to this issue that might seem odd to those from beyond the borders. When we were writing Ontario Beer the tasks got chopped up and I was assigned primary attention to the years 1900 to 1980 which, as you might guess, were not expected to be the most exciting for the development of good beer in the culture. What I found, however, through the review of law and brewer's public appearance as much as the family trees of families who owned the brewery was that the community, culture and marketplace in Ontario has a number of abiding characteristics which continue to pop up through the decades and centuries of its relationship with beer:
-> Ontario is very comfortable with state ownership. You will notice in the story as retold an unhappiness that The Beer Store, the sole retailer of about 90% of all sales, is not government owned. Many assume it is. Many would say it should be. Many want more beer variety in the existing government LCBO which sells primarily macro six-packs as well as single bottles of craft brews and imports.
-> Ontario is very comfortable with a controlled market. Amongst those who reject the model of the Beer Store a prominent response being heard is that the small brewers of Ontario ought to be able to replicate the model to create boutique craft beer shops. It appears the idea would be sell Ontario made craft beer to Ontario through shops run by Ontario craft brewers. This appears to be adding a small oligopoly to a tiny oligopoly to defeat the evil forces of oligopoly.
-> Ontario is very comfortable with fairly dull macro beer. Nowhere in this discourse is there a great public outrage at the quality of most of the beer consumed in Ontario. The vast bulk of beer consumed in Ontario is frankly bulk beer. Most people I know who buy beer buy slabs of 24 bottles of lighter fairly flavourless stuff that gives them a mild buzz and cuts the crap out of your mouth when you've been physically active. It reminds me a lot of ship's beer in fact, one of the functional classes of everyday beer that fell out of flavour somewhere between the Georgian and Victorian colonial eras. For many, talking about more interesting beer is like talking about more interesting ketchup.
-> Ontario is very comfortable with fairly not inexpensive beer. For a while there was a trend of "buck a beer" discount products but that's been gone for the best part of a decade now. No one moved forward to fill the market and Ontario's beer buyers have found themselves buying beers for $1.50 to over $2.00 a bottle at the shops without much quibbling. No one is looking for a better retail experience and no one really is looking for a price cut. Bulk beer in Ontario is comparable or even a bit higher than craft in nearby northern NY.
These are just themes I see. I didn't want initially to drill into news articles, blog posts or the details of history to create a mess of links mainly for one reason. Even having studied 400 years of beer culture, law and politics in the place it still surprises me and sometimes leaves me shaking my head. But there are reasons it is like this. Ontario was set up as something of a conservative utopia that reaches back to the 1780s with the resettlement of the Loyalists running from the newly created USA. This lasted until the reforms of the 1840s when we were then introduced to the new trend in temperance. After the flop of Ontario's version of prohibition ended in 1927, we have had the control system of alcohol retail that we have today. Three forms of restraint. Three eras of doing what one is told. Three eras of being concurrently happy and prosperous, too. It might, given all that, be more reasonable to ask why wouldn't things be as they are in today's discussions about retailing beer here. Me? I just want beer in grocery stores and gas stations like people in all the nearby provinces and states enjoy. Not likely going to happen.
I may layer more into this but for now this is the best I have to explain the culture I live in to myself. It's a bit weird, isn't it. But in a weird way it also works for most people.