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news

Is the LCBO Smashing, Bombing Local Beer Culture?

20110329_lcbo1.jpg
The offending Smash Bomb Atomic IPA proposed packaging. Goofy? Sure. But socially irresponsible?


Late last year, the Buffalo News ran an article about how Ontarians, including a big chunk of Torontonians, were trekking down the QEW by the busload, crossing over into New York State not for NFL action or deals at factory outlets, but for the beer. “Fans of the brewing art, chafing over the relatively meager selection of beer permitted in Ontario retail shops and bars, have made Buffalo a favorite destination for Toronto’s craft beer lovers,” read the article. It raised an interesting point.
The past decade has seen a renaissance in craft brewing, especially in the United States, with mom-and-pop operations, start-ups, and small-batch brewers helping to propagate a kind of beer culture that was previously only afforded to snooty oenophiles and Scotch-drinkers seeking out the peatiest single malts. And it’s trickled down to Ontario in the past few years, with brewers in Toronto (Mill Street, Duggan’s, Black Creek) and the outlying area (Niagara’s Best, Great Lakes and Barrie’s Flying Monkeys) taking pride in providing consumers with an increasing range of specially crafted beers. And considering the monopoly that the Labatt/Molson joint-venture Beer Stores have on sales of suds in Ontario, many of these smaller breweries sell their products through LCBO stores. Given the demand for craft brews, and their “relatively meager” presence in Ontario, there can be a bit of an outrage when the LCBO refuses to stock a certain product. Like this week, when Flying Monkey announced (via their Facebook page) that the LCBO had rejected their Smash Bomb Atomic IPA, citing concerns over “social responsibility.”


“They didn’t like the name. And they had problems with the packaging as well,” says Peter Chiodo, Flying Monkey founder and brewer. At first glance the name, Smash Bomb, may seem a light-hearted jab at binge-drinking and over-consumption—”Dude, I got so totally smash-bombed at Craig’s party,” and so forth. But, as Chiodo points out, “Smash” is actually shorthand for “Single Malt and Single Hops,” and the packaging (pictured above), while no doubt a little loud and goofy, doesn’t necessarily seem to signify anything threatening. Well, the LCBO, whose mandate includes a Social Responsibility program designed to promote a certain image of beverage alcohol, disagrees.
“We recognize that some producers these days like to use provocative packaging,” says Chris Layton, an LCBO spokesperson. “But the LCBO has to display sensitivity when it comes to certain imagery. One of the areas where we have to be sensitive is where there are images of weapons, or what you might call the destructive powers of weapons, such as guns or atomic weapons.” Citing, of course, “this post-9/11 age,” Layton states that the LCBO prefers not to take chances with packaging that may potentially offend or alienate its large consumer base. He recalls being presented a few years ago with a vodka that came in a bottle shaped like an AK-47 rifle.

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Dan Aykroyd’s Crystal Skull Vodka. Chock full of skully goodness.


More recently, there was also the issue of Dan Aykroyd’s Crystal Skull Vodka (the vodka packaged in, well, a translucent skull bottle), which the LCBO chose not to put on shelves. The reason, according to Layton, was the association between alcohol and death that a skull obviously suggests, which may potentially anger consumers who have lost loved ones to drinking-and-driving accidents or alcohol-related disease. “We’re under a microscope,” he says. “We really have to be sensitive to everyone.”
But a luxury skull of liquor, or one Russian export packaged in another, is one thing. Limiting the operations of local breweries seems like a different matter altogether. For Greg Clow, a beer writer and enthusiast, the banning of certain beers (Belgium’s Delirium Tremens pale ale recently disappeared from LCBO shelves; you can imagine why) creates a schism among Ontario artisans and businesses. “There seems to be a bit of a double standard at play, with beer getting the short end of the stick,” Clow wrote to us in an email. “Wines with potentially offensive names like Fat Bastard and Son Of A Bitch are approved; alcoholic versions of energy drinks like RockStar that are popular with teenagers are approved; liqueurs and shooters that are named after and taste like chocolate bars and candy, and are therefore quite appealing to children, are approved—yet the beers are rejected? Where’s the logic? What are the rules?”
Indeed, the rules do seem a bit unclear. Although the LCBO has made great strides for the Ontario Craft Brewers, especially in recent years, and understands the demand of beer drinkers for certain products, Layton says they simply can’t take certain risks, even though Chiodo states that Flying Monkey (who have been selling the product out of their on-site retail shop in Barrie for some time) hasn’t received a single complaint about Smash Bomb Atomic’s name or packaging. But, says Layton, there’s a crucial difference between craft beer aficionados and the larger consumer base. “We recognize that with Smash Bomb Ale, Flying Monkey is targeting consumers that would recognize the imagery on the bottle as being suggestive of the beer’s powerful taste profile,” he explains. “The problem is, you get outside the Flying Monkey brewery and into the larger LCBO network and you’re reaching a larger base that might not get that imagery.”

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Delirium Tremens’ label, featuring a pink elephant that looks a little tipsy.


Layton attests that the LCBO is conflicted on decisions like this, caught between their responsibility to brewers and beer drinkers and their duty to consumers at large. “With respect to Flying Monkey Brewery,” he says, “we’ve had a good working relationship, and their products have done well in our stores.” And Chiodo agrees. He praises the LCBO for advancing the craft brewing movement in Ontario. But for now, Flying Monkey is left with little recourse but to pay the hefty stocking fees required to get the Beer Store (essentially the competition of any microbrewery) to carry the product. (You can also, Layton notes, special-order alcohols at the LCBO that have been banned from shelves; though the one-case minimum makes getting your hands on a bottle of something like Crystal Skull kind of unfeasible.)
As for Torontonians plotting beer tours to Buffalo, until the LCBO (and its consumers) loosen up, the United States will still be a destination for beer drinkers. “I think the problem is the velocity of change isn’t there,” says Chiodo of the slow, but steady, developments in craft brewing, regulation, and distribution in Ontario. “The LCBO’s the biggest purchaser of beverage alcohol in North America. I think it’s a lot tougher for them to have the same change in velocity as privatized places in the States. Places in Buffalo or Detroit, where I go to get beer, they seem to have a better selection at this point.”

Comments

  • drybrain

    The LCBO is an obsolete relic that should be swiftly dismantled in favour of privatized liquor stores. The government makes the vast bulk of booze-related money from taxes anyway, and still would were the retail side of things privately-run. I'm usually not an advocate for privatization, but the LCBO is an anachronism.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    The monopoly on alcohol here is really ridiculous. I don't want to see it in every store, but something needs to change.

  • http://twitter.com/keepinga A Keeping

    If you're ever in Calgary, there's a liquor store in Inglewood next to the old Molson brewery that is a model of what we should have access to here in Ontario. Its selection covers virtually all of what the LCBO & Beer Store carry, along with and many more brands you either can't get in Ontario or can only get in kegs.

  • http://twitter.com/brianyyz Brian B

    Things won't change until the modern day Women's Temperance Union (MADD) is not in bed with the Government.

  • http://www.realjohnson.com The Real Johnson

    Something is seriously wrong when Canadians need to drive to Buffalo to get beer. However, if I ever saw Flying Monkeys Smash Bomb Atomic IPA in a store, I would not by it. The package is offensive not because of the name but because of how tacky it is. I would assume beer that came in a case that desperate for attention must taste like piss.

  • drybrain

    That store IS amazing.

  • canuck1975

    The province profits by about $1 billion excluding taxes. Since the taxes received by the government would remain revenue neutral, privatizing the LCBO would create that level of deficit for the province which would then have to be recouped elsewhere. Ultimately, the only way I can think that the government could recoup that funding would be to increase taxes even more on liquor giving everyone another reason to bitch about liquor distribution in Ontario.

    That's not to say that privatization isn't something to be considered but that there would have to be something in place to reduce the financial impact on the province.

    If you want to validate that the $1 billion is over-and-above tax revenues, read the annual report here: http://lcbo.com/aboutlcbo/annu

  • http://www.markosaar.net/ Mark

    Actually the LCBO makes $1.4 billion PROFIT on top of $874 million in taxes.

    Source: http://fullcomment.nationalpos

  • drybrain

    Hmm. Well, that's an issue to be addressed. But the MCBO does need to be ended, and the revenue made up somehow. It's embarassing… the limited selection, limited hours, nanny-state nitpicking (see above story) and few-and-far-between locations.

  • http://twitter.com/RockStarSR Sangeeta R.

    I recently visited friends in TO; I live in the Washington, DC area (technically Virginia). My friends requested me to bring a bottle of vodka & scotch that's not sold in Canada. We went to the LCBO, and I was flabbergasted at the price of booze in Canada. I saw a crappy wine that's sold for $6 in the US and sold for $12 in Canada. Yes, I know part of it is tax, but I noticed the modest selection. Virginia's alcohol commission regulates the sale of hard liquor, but there is a vast selection and low prices. Other states work the same way. I buy my wine/beer at the grocery store while getting my weekly groceries, or I can pick up a six-pack of beer at the convenient store as well.

    On top of that, the LCBO employee was extremely rude to me during check out when I casually mentioned that I was surprised at the cost of wine. He was being rude and made some nasty comment, “at least we have free health care”. I'm glad I don't have to deal with that LCBO shit, and that really sucks for you guys. Move to the US…I promise it's cheaper!

  • nbenko

    Smash Bomb is an extremely good beer.
    Flying Monkey's marketing is pretty out there, for sure, but their beers are actually great.
    Why would you ever not buy a beer based on the packaging anyways? Has packaging alone ever actually caused you to purchase beer?
    Guess you'll just have to stick to the Heineken…

  • http://www.realjohnson.com The Real Johnson

    I bought a case of “Paddy's Irish Red” once because the package had a picture of a dog on it. It was the worst decision I ever made.

  • http://profiles.google.com/tjwiebe76 Todd J. Wiebe

    I (Ontario native) have been living and working in the States for a few years now and can attest that the craft beer/microbrew selection is off the hook. The cliché about American beer being so sh*tty applies only to Bud, Coors, Miller, and the other mass-produced swill. There are some great Canadian micros too (Mill St. is awesome!), but it is truly is insane down here how experimental, innovative, and accessible the craft breweries are. In my local grocery store I can get cold six packs of at least 25 different microbrews for approx. $8-10, many of them local.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    I would assume it's some sort of beer for kids.

  • mboadway

    The LCBO inflates their profit, by not charging taxes that other retailers charge. They are quite open about it:
    http://www.rev.gov.on.ca/en/ta

    Plus, so what if they make a profit? With the full legislative arm of the Ontario government behind it, they should. It would be a real shocker it they couldn't make a profit. Using the same logic, the province could nationalize the distribution and sales of potato chips and chocolate bars. They'd make a killing there too. I've never understood why they should be in the liquor business. Legislate regulations and tax it, sure, but sell it as well? It's a big conflict of interest.

  • torontothegreat

    I think he actually had a good point. You pay 6 bucks extra and the tax goes to things like “free health care”. Have your “cheap” booze, seriously.

  • http://www.markosaar.net/ Mark

    You'd be missing out. All their packaging is tacky, but Hoptical Illusion is excellent as are their others.

    Indie beer companies put tonnes of effort into packaging to get noticed above the Molson and Labatt products. That's also why they opposed the move to put all Beer Store product out of customers' sight and reach. They lost any prominence and competitive edge once they were just labels on a wall like everything else.

  • http://twitter.com/brianyyz Brian B

    The Beer issue is easy enough to fix:

    1. Get Rid of Brewers Retail: Open beer sales to the corner Dep.. I mean Milk Store.
    2. Put a skewer in the heart of the LLBO.

    I doubt 2 will ever happen, but I think 1 is doable. It would make the LCBO irrelevant for beer sales.

  • sursole

    Congratulations, you managed to pick out with no doubt the worst Ontario-made canned beer. On the complete other end of the spectrum, Smashbomb is arguably one of the best beers produced in Ontario.
    Maybe you better off if you look beyond your narrow opinions on packaging.
    http://beeradvocate.com/beer/p
    http://beeradvocate.com/beer/p

  • http://piorkowski.ca qviri

    Promoting your country by promising cheap alcohol is the NKI.

  • Skippy_the_Magical_Racegoat

    According to the province's own studies — which were themselves commissioned at a great expense to taxpayers — Ontario would stand to make far more in revenue year after year by privatizing liquor sales. Google “Beverage Alcohol System Review” and you'll find plenty of info, although the discussion has died down significantly since it came out 2005.

    This seems counterintuitive, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Basically, the tax dollars the province stand to make by allowing private businesses to sell liquor (though presumably in a less “socially responsible” way than the nanny state) would be much higher than the province could make on its own.

    Most of the LCBO's profits come from taxes anyway, so if you ditch expenses like: the freakish devotion to making every store antiseptic family-friendly commerce zones; the glossy magazine they produce for some strange reason; the unionized workforce; the insistence on shipping the same product lines to every tiny hamlet where they'll collect dust forever; the draconian labelling and testing restrictions that make it impossible to import high-demand items; the fact that they own the best real estate in the city but refuse to build upon their single-storey stores; the fact that they diligently shutter their doors so early on Sundays and close on holidays, i.e., the potentially busiest days of the year; the fact that they don't actually build stores when and where there's demand; the fact that they don't sell things like mixer, pop, snacks, ice and cigarettes because that's not their mandate and the government isn't actually in the business of maximizing profits, because that's not what governments do!

    But hey. As long as Big Brother's providing our non-skull-shaped vodka rations at a reasonable cost, we should all be happy, right? Maybe the government should also take over every bar, nightclub and restaurant in Ontario too? Think of the profits!

    No. The real reason the LC won't privatize is because the public employees' union is too strong. It's something we've inherited and politicians are scared to touch it. But let there be no mistake: every day the LCBO continues to the control the liquor trade, the fewer tax dollars are going to things like healthcare.

    Now, that's not my pet rationalization for privatizing — it's a populist argument, and I finally created a Disqus account just to make it. Me, I just want my damn Flying Monkeys. Which, incidentally, is a very good brewery.

  • Skippy_the_Magical_Racegoat

    Couldn't agree more. See my long-winded post for an explanation of why they'd have no trouble making up that revenue.

  • Skippy_the_Magical_Racegoat

    Yeah, you can't judge a beer by its packaging. I'll admit, it's extremely tacky, but the product itself is great: http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/f

    A rating in the 98th percentile of IPAs, an extremely competitive category, is impressive.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=576500567 Scott Dobson

    Studies show that getting rid of the LCBO would reduce selection and increase prices. The reality is corner stores are not going to stock specialty beers, it will be Bud and Coors. I am not saying they have everything but they sure have a lot—look in stores in other countries and you will miss the LCBO.

    20 years ago it was all about how Ontario was leading the world in micro brewing and we have a lot of specialty brewers. The problem is that at the end of the day that market is only so big and it has reached that point today. Even the biggies tried to copy the micros with things like “Signature Series” but they found that there was almost zero demand for craft beer.

    Lastly, there is a big line between craft beer and gimmick beer with crazy names and cool bottles. Sadly there are a lot beers that are better marketing ideas than beers and I have sampled all over the world and maybe 1 out 100 micro beers is actually unique and worth driving somewhere for. As the Festival of Beer shows, there are far far more average beers with cool names than anything else.

    My tip for beer drinking is that the LCBO has he best deals on canned imported beer and you get airmiles and before you drive 250 miles for beer in a cool bottle look it up on any of the many beer sites and see if its worth the drive.

  • http://twitter.com/jakebabad Jake Babad

    Not carrying Dan Akroyd's vodka? That just unpatriotic!

    As for the SmashBomb, while it's not my favourite Flying Monkey brew, it's a delightful beer that can be found at Smokeless Joe on John St…

    A bar that just happens to be a setting in my self-published novel, Hanlan's Point, that goes on sale tomorrow at jakebabad.com!

    I make all my books by hands – follow the whole story of production from start to finish at my blog

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    “Studies show that getting rid of the LCBO would reduce selection and increase prices.”

    Which studies?

    If selection is reduced, doesn't it reflect demand? If nobody (or not enough) want to drink Señor Tango's Mango Brew Fandango, which retails at $16 a bottle, should anyone – government or private enterprise – be obliged to carry it anyway?

  • drybrain

    Yeah, which studies? I question them. Ontarians too often figure that ditching the LCBO means relying on corner stores, like Quebec's depanneurs, for beer. A more apt comparison is Alberta (or the US) where selection is far better, and prices are the same or slightly cheaper.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501963938 Johnny Briggs

    “Even the biggies tried to copy the micros with things like “Signature Series” but they found that there was almost zero demand for craft beer.”

    It wasn't that there was zero demand for craft beer, there was zero demand for THEIR craft beer. Most craft beer drinkers are hesitant or unwilling to support the biggies, especially when they release crappy product wrapped up in pretty marketing only trying to capitalize on the craft beer image. Close to all “craft beer” made by the big breweries is just terrible, and if anything they are detrimental to the craft movement for the shear fact that they scoop of brand loyal customers who are actually curious and willing enough try out craft beer. These customers try these products over true craft beer because they are more comfortable with this familiar branding, they realize the beer is no different from what they were drinking before, and revert to paying for their regular beer completely uninformed what actual taste good beer has to offer. It's a shame because it's these curious and interested customers whom with better guidance would likely find they love craft beer. It may not be for everyone, and I have no problem with people drinking whatever they want to drink, it's just a shame when the big three try to exploit a niche market, and in doing so end up turning more people away from it.
    What does this rant have to do with Flying Monkey's? Call their packaging what you will, but its not familiar branding for a lot of people and maybe that's the point. Something that stands out isn't necessarily a gimmick, what they want to do is bring in those sorts of people who are curious and interested in trying something new, someone curious enough to reach for the package is likely someone open-minded enough to appreciate what's inside the bottle.

  • Brittanic

    “The reality is corner stores are not going to stock specialty beers, it will be Bud and Coors. I am not saying they have everything but they sure have a lot—look in stores in other countries and you will miss the LCBO.”

    Sure, maybe gas stations or convenience stores will stock the big guys, but not having a monopoly on the market ensures that anyone is free to open their own “beer store” and sell what they want. In Quebec, a province with a strong craft beer presence, you can find many specialty beer stores that sell Unibroue, Dieu de Ciel, St. Ambroise, and other smaller Quebec brews. You can also find a wider selection of European imports if you go to a store that really knows good beer.

    Speaking of other countries, I have found the same thing in the States. Corner stores selling mega breweries, and craft stores selling such a wide variety of craft beer that I have never seen at the LCBO. One that I went to even had a draught-tap section where you could fill up a growler of your choice!

  • Brittanic

    “The reality is corner stores are not going to stock specialty beers, it will be Bud and Coors. I am not saying they have everything but they sure have a lot—look in stores in other countries and you will miss the LCBO.”

    Sure, maybe gas stations or convenience stores will stock the big guys, but not having a monopoly on the market ensures that anyone is free to open their own “beer store” and sell what they want. In Quebec, a province with a strong craft beer presence, you can find many specialty beer stores that sell Unibroue, Dieu de Ciel, St. Ambroise, and other smaller Quebec brews. You can also find a wider selection of European imports if you go to a store that really knows good beer.

    Speaking of other countries, I have found the same thing in the States. Corner stores selling mega breweries, and craft stores selling such a wide variety of craft beer that I have never seen at the LCBO. One that I went to even had a draught-tap section where you could fill up a growler of your choice!

    Also, curious to know what you mean by “Ontario was leading the world in micro brewing” 20 yrs ago? Could you name me some of those breweries? I'd like to try them

  • the_lemur

    NKI?

  • http://twitter.com/Maylenor May

    The short answer is YES. Small production breweries in Ontario get very little to no representation in LCBO stores. While some of them are not that great, I think the scene could improve tenfold if their sales were not limited by the rules and practices of a crown corporation. I was very shocked at the system in Ontario when I relocated from the US (Pacific Northwest). The prices of beer are exorbitant and selection is sadly limited. As a craft beer enthusiast, I am among the many that will gladly travel to Buffalo for good beer.

    As an aside, very little craft beer is being brought in from Quebec, which is arguably Canada's strongest brewery scene. Every time I look at ratings for beers from Canada, Quebec breweries consistently rank at the top. Having been able to sample some on a trip to Montreal last year I definitely agree with that.

  • http://twitter.com/RockStarSR Sangeeta R.

    Whatever. I think it's all comparable. Canadian taxes are high and Americans pay for health care. At the end of the day, I wouldn't be surprised that Canadians and Americans spend on average the same. At least I can see my doctor the day that I'm sick and not have to wait 2-3 weeks for an appointment.

  • cuprunner

    This has MADD written all over it. Don't these parents know their kids smoke more drugs today than they drink and it's illegal. So lets make Madd happy and illegalize alcohol as well and the government will lose their billons and we can all go back to destilling our own, and everybody can party illegally.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jahaig John Haig

    I just stopped in a small private beer store (in a former gas station) near Ithaca , NY. The selection of craft/micro beers was astonishing, as was the expertise and enthusiasm of the jovial guy at the sales counter. The town was analogous in size to several of the small towns near my home east of Kingston, ON. But the selection shamed combined available beers of the largest LCBO and Beer Store outlets in Kingston.
    We need the LCBO gone, now. And the Axis of Evil that is the Beer Store/Government of Ontario syndicate can go with it.

  • torontothegreat

    Beer Store and LCBO aren't mutually exclusive. I would say, keep the LCBO (arguing selection vs contribution is insane) but scrap the beer store and allow private stores to sell beer. Like most of the other provinces in this fine country of ours.

  • torontothegreat

    Ummm I can see my doctor the day I'm sick too. I can go to a hospital, a walk-in clinic or call my family physician. I don't worry about who has HMO or who doesn't. Stop spreading misinformation. You can't always believe what you read in the Harper Platform or what your fellow American's do to minimize and justify their own shitty healthcare positions.

    Also, don't talk out of your ass:

    For individuals whose adjusted gross incomes range between $8,375 and $34,000, there is no tax difference between taxes in the United States and Canada. Both countries charge 15 percent.

    Read more: Canadian Taxes Vs. US Taxes | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/facts_6806

    For individuals whose adjusted gross incomes range between $34,000 and $81,940, taxes are higher in the United States. Depending on where in that range your income falls, your taxes could be 3 to 10 percent higher in the U.S. Taxes in the U.S. are 2 percent higher than in Canada for individuals whose adjusted gross income falls between $82,400 and $127,021. Taxes are 4 percent higher in the U.S. for individuals whose adjusted gross incomes range between $171,850 and $373,650. Taxes are 6 percent higher in the U.S. for individuals whose adjusted gross incomes are above $373,650

    Read more: Canadian Taxes Vs. US Taxes | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/facts_6806

    Taxes are 5 percent higher in Canada than in the U.S. for individuals whose adjusted gross incomes are below $8,375. Taxes are 1 percent higher in Canada than in the U.S. for individuals whose adjusted gross incomes are between $81,940 and $82,400. Taxes are 1 percent higher in Canada than in the U.S. for individuals whose adjusted gross incomes are between $127,021 and $171,850

    Read more: Canadian Taxes Vs. US Taxes | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/facts_6806

    So you see my dear, taxes are pretty even (and that's being nice). And yet I STILL don't pay for health care. Enjoy your HMO!

    Also, thanks for being the typical stereotype of an American!!!!!

  • http://blog.yasmary.com yaz

    Flying Monkeys has awesome beers. Plus their bottles & marketing campaigns are hilarious.

  • http://blog.yasmary.com yaz

    Flying Monkeys has awesome beers. Plus their bottles & marketing campaigns are hilarious.