Construction underway at the first Beer Boutique. Photo by Brendan Ross/Torontoist.
The Beer Store, Ontario’s largest beer retailer, is expanding into the self-serve market with a new store format to be debuted in Toronto this summer—a move smaller Ontario brewers say might boost interest in local beer, although the store’s products will remain the same.
Named “The Beer Boutique,” the new store is set to open mid to late June at 120 Lynn-Williams St. in Liberty Village. The store will be smaller than most Beer Stores and will primarily sell single bottles and cans, as well as smaller case sizes such as six and 12-packs, to cater to people that walk or bike to stores instead of driving. However, because of the store’s small size, it will not accept empty bottle returns.
Apart from being a visual departure from the homely interiors Ontario beer drinkers have grown accustomed to, Beer Store brand manager Dave Paterson says The Beer Boutique will also offer in-house samplings and programs that cater to beer enthusiasts, focusing on beer knowledge, and beer and food pairings.
But what has local brewers most excited is the store’s exclusively self-serve format, which ditches The Beer Store’s infamous brand wall. Smaller brewers have criticized that format in the past for favouring brands with larger advertising budgets such as Molson, Labatt, and Sleeman—who just happen to co-own The Beer Store.
Unlike the few existing self-serve Beer Stores, which are essentially walk-in fridges, The Beer Boutique will feature both refrigerated and non-refrigerated products in a layout similar to the LCBO, to encourage customer browsing.
Rendering of The Beer Boutique’s planned interior. Image courtesy of The Beer Store
Smaller brewers “typically do very well at places where people are actually able to shop, rather than hole-in-the-wall Beer Stores,” says Cameron’s Brewing Co. president and co-owner Bill Coleman, who first learned about the Beer Boutique after joining the company in late 2010. Coleman says Cameron’s plans to sell its existing brands, as well as a new canned version of Cameron’s Lager, at The Beer Boutique.
The browse-friendly format also works well for Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery, known for its eclectic and sometimes controversial labels. “Our packing is our only real form of ‘marketing,'” Flying Monkeys’ creative director Andrea Woods Chiodo told us by email. “And it’s always such a satisfying part of the beer-browsing experience if you can get your hands on the packages… [a]nd if you have the TIME to do this without some guy behind you breathing down your neck to hurry up so’s he can buy his 2-4 of Brava.” Although Flying Monkeys, which sells several beers at The Beer Store, has not yet received an invitation to sell at The Beer Boutique, Chiodo says the company is interested in the new format, and she hopes to see more self-serve locations in the future.
But what won’t change at The Beer Boutique is the selection of beers available. Beer Store president Ted Moroz says the process by which brewers sell beer through The Beer Boutique will remain the same as at existing locations, meaning selection at the new store will be about on par with The Beer Store’s larger current locations.
The Beer Store is required by law to allow for sale any beer approved by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. However, the listing fees The Beer Store charges brewers have been criticized as prohibitively expensive for smaller companies, leading to small selections of craft and imported beers. We got in touch with Railway City Brewing Company co-founder Paul Corriveau, who told us that because his company is still young and small, it has not yet been able to sell through The Beer Store. However, he says he is pleased The Beer Store’s expansion into the new format, and would not rule out the possibility of selling beer at The Beer Boutique in the future.
Moroz rejects the criticisms that the listing fees limit choice. “We actually have import and craft brews in all of our stores,” he says. “I think one of the things that gets missed is that because our stores don’t have that self-serve shopping experience, a lot of people don’t realize that those products are actually there, they’re in the store.” He says The Beer Boutique will fix this problem by better featuring The Beer Store’s selection of craft and imported beers.
Brand manager Paterson says if the Liberty Village Beer Boutique succeeds, The Beer Store will look at opening similar stores in urban areas around Ontario, including the Distillery District in Toronto, downtown Oakville, and Ottawa’s ByWard Market.