Is the LCBO Smashing, Bombing Local Beer Culture?
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.
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.”
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.”