Friday, February 28, 2014

Changing the Culture of Fear & Paranoia: The Recommendation That Could Change How Liquor Policy is Enforced

For as long as I can remember there has been a dark cloud of paranoia that has hung over many BC liquor manufacturers & licensees who fear that their livelihoods, namely their liquor-related businesses and the licenses associated with them, are in jeopardy if they question provincial liquor policy and the decisions made the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB), the Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) and their employees.

But all this may be about to change as a result of one of the 73 recommendations made by John Yap in his BC Liquor Policy Review Final Report. In his report, Yap is recommending the BC Liberals allow for,
 "applicants and licensees seeking a review of LCLB decisions should have access to a new and separate decision-making body outside the licensing branch. The Ministry of Justice should review current processes and determine how best to provide independent decision-making for those seeking appeal."
This recommendation, which is getting no press coverage or water cooler time, is the recommendation that could drag our liquor policies, and how they are implemented and enforced, into the 21st Century. This could also be the recommendation that allows liquor related business owners do what they want to do, namely run their businesses without undue interference and inconsistent application of BC liquor policy from alcohol related government agencies.

By creating an affordable, independent system for licensees and liquor licensee applicants to appeal LCLB & LDB rulings, inspectors & upper echelon bureaucrats will be held accountable for their decisions which may cause some of the less scrupulous and less knowledgeable types to think twice before acting. Those seemingly arbitrary and illogical rulings and decisions we all hear about will now be examined by someone who, in theory, will have a completely objective viewpoint. Licensees will no longer have to fear retribution as much as they will have an avenue for lodging complaints when they feel they have been done wrong.

It may also provide some consistency to how the policies and laws are applied and create case examples of rulings that could work similar to case law in the courts, setting precedents that can be used in the future when similar situations arise and there is conflict between licensees and the powers that be enforcing and implementing liquor policies.

By having rulings for specific issues on the record the ability to interpret and manipulate policies could be eliminated or at least decreased. And if a particular inspector or bureaucrat keeps having their actions and decisions hauled into and overturned by this appeal process, maybe, just maybe, problems will identified and actions taken to correct the problems like supplying proper support and education to those who are abusing their power or making questionable rulings. And if the problems continue to persist, maybe, just maybe, those not doing their job in an ethical and equitable manner, will be disciplined and possibly removed from those positions of power.

I know when I met with Yap, as a part of the CAMRA BC presentation during the review, he was very interested in the idea of an independent appeal process and he did acknowledge that he had heard from several sources that many licensees fear speaking out even when they believe they are 100% in the right. We had quite a long discussion about this and I got the distinct impression that Yap wanted to ensure that there were checks and balances in place in regards to enforcement of liquor policies. He also mentioned he would like to see liquor inspectors get more education about the policies they are enforcing and the mandate they are carrying out.

I get a regular flow of emails and telephone calls from liquor license holders and people trying to obtain liquor licenses, who ask me to look into questionable and at times seemingly arbitrary decisions made by our province's liquor bureaucrats and their minions, but almost all end their requests with the following stipulation, "Please don't use my name or anything I have told you because I don't want any trouble (from the LCLB or LBD)."

At the moment, licensees know they have little-to-no recourse if they find themselves on the wrong side of their local liquor inspectors or the bureaucrats who work in the LCLB & LDB head offices as currently there is no appeal process built into the system. Once a decision has been made and/or a penalty imposed, that is it, end of story, no matter how nonsensical or unjust. Licensees often feel helpless in this very unbalanced system and those enforcing and implementing policy know it.

Currently, front line LCLB liquor inspectors, if they are so inclined, have been free to make rulings as they see fit, interpreting the often poorly and vaguely worded policies and laws to their advantage, making rulings and decisions that cost licensees crippling amounts of money, with little fear of being held accountable and at times with little working knowledge of the policies and laws they are enforcing. I am not saying all liquor inspectors are like this, but it seems like licensees from all corners of the province have had negative experiences.

Those higher up the bureaucratic food chain are free to direct these liquor inspectors as they see fit. In the cases of those in positions of power, they, in certain instances, have the ability to write liquor policy on the fly, basically unchecked as the politicians who are supposed to be responsible have little-to-no interest or knowledge of what is going on and only pay attention when the shit hits the fan. Politicians rely heavily on the advice of the top bureaucrats and the top bureaucrats have a vested interest in making things as easy on themselves as they can, pushing their own private agendas knowing they have little chance of having to answer for their decisions unless something goes wrong and the media get onto a story that reflects negatively on the government's policies.

Laws are often enforced arbitrarily and inconsistently. Both the LCLB & LDB hide behind the often outdated and nonsensical liquor policies when it suits them to enforce them and ignore those same policies and laws when doing so suits their needs.

I know some of you out there think I am just being dramatic and trying to cause trouble here but trust me, I have sat down with liquor inspectors who have no idea what they are talking about, who make bizarre decisions based on their interpretation of the liquor policies or have an unwillingness to try to address problems without being unnecessarily heavy-handed. I have also seen cases where the LCLB & LDB have seemed to rule or act for no other reason than to put people who complain or question policy in their place. If you want some specific examples check out here, here, here and here.

Having said that, I know that there are many who work in the alcohol bureaucrat arms of government who are very honest, helpful and try to do what they can to be fair and equitable to licensees and liquor-related businesses but they are overshadowed by those others I have been talking about.

I hope the government looks hard at creating a system or appeal that will help create a far and equitable process for everyone involved in the BC liquor industry. Liquor inspectors, the LCLB & those who issue liquor licenses  and enforce the laws have a job to do, which is enforce liquor policy, but this enforcement needs to be consistent, predictable and both those abusing the policies and breaking the law and those enforcing the policies and laws need to be held equally accountable.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Help Feed Vancouver's Hungry by Drinking Craft Beer

If you are looking for a reason to justify a mid-week craft beer session, look no further than Liberty Wine Merchant's 2nd Annual East Side Beer Fest to be held Wednesday, March 5th at the WISE Hall, located at the corner of Victoria Drive and Adanac Street.

The event, organized by Liberty's Commercial Drive location, is donating all proceeds from the event to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank and is asking all who attend to also bring a non-perishable food item to the event which will also be passed on to the food bank.

Last year's inaugural event was a sell out which helped Liberty donate $4,287 to the Food Bank along with the food items donated at the door by thirsty craft beer lovers. This year's event has a great line up of breweries and beer importing agents lined up (see list below).

"For the 2nd Annual we have decided to go with a mix of new vendors and old, half from B.C. and half agents importing world class beers," stated Liberty Commercial store manager William Ford. "Some notable new additions are recent start-ups Four Winds and Bomber Brewing and new agents UnTapped, Modern Malt and new-to-us Bravo."

As an added bonus, Liberty have confirmed that their own nano-distillery, The Liberty Distillery, will be pouring samples of their vodka and white whiskey.

Food will also be available from various Commercial Drive businesses to help soak up all the great craft beers and artisan spirits on offer. Don't wait until the last minute as last year's event had no tickets available at the door due to being sold out ahead of time.

The event runs from 7-9 PM with tickets running $24.99 each or 4 for $80. For more information on the event and where to get tickets check out Liberty's event page here.

List of confirmed breweries and agents
Breweries: Driftwood, Central City, Phillips, Howe Sound, Parallel 49, Four Winds, Mill St., Bomber

Agents: McClelland Premium Imports (Erdinger, Delirium, Rodenbach), Bravo (ie. Saison Dupont, Gulden Draak, Caracole), TruCraft (ie. Lagunitas, Super Bock, Brooklyn, Hopworks), Untapped (ie. Trou du Diable, Dieu du Ciel, Rev. Nat's), Modern Malt (ie. Occidental, Base Camp, No-Li), The Liberty Distillery (Vodka & White Whiskey), Peacock & Martin (ie. Westmalle, Tempelier, Fraoch)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Beer is out of the Garden Part II: Recommendation Misses for the BC Craft Beer Industry

Recently, citizens of BC were privileged to see the great reveal in regards to what direction the province is considering alcohol-wise as the Liberals released the BC Liquor Policy Review Final Report  outlining all 73 of John Yap's recommendations for modernizing BC liquor laws and policies.

While many of the recommendations look promising in regards to hauling our liquor policies into the 21st Century, it is important to remember that at this point they are nothing more than recommendations and the real test as to how modernizing these policy changes will be comes when the actual policies are drawn up and implemented by the bureaucrats working on behalf of our elected officials.

And have no illusions, it is not the politicians who are drafting these policies, as few of them have any idea what the issues really are and most depend heavily on the advice and direction given by their top dogs at the LDB and LCLB who the politicos trust. It is also the bureaucrats and their staff that implement, regulate and enforce the policies so without them on board, it is possible little could change.

Yap is probably the most learned politician in BC regarding to issues related to our current liquor laws and policies, after sitting down with the 66 stakeholder groups for their direct input and feedback, and the countless social media and on-line submissions from citizens of our province. Hell, why the BC Liberals do not give him the alcohol portfolio at this point is beyond me.

There is a chance that many policy changes will be very positive for our exploding craft beer industry (read here) but there are a few recommendations hidden away in the 59-page report that could have a negative impact and a few misses, recommendations that were not made, that, by their absence, failed to hit the mark in supporting BC craft beer.

The first one to come to mind is going to be very unpopular with both manufacturing and consumer sides of the craft beer community. Recommendation #18, in Yap's report, states:
"LDB should consider tying minimum prices to the amount of alcohol (e.g., a beer with seven per cent alcohol would have a higher minimum price than a beer with four per cent alcohol)" 
This is not surprising for many reasons and you can bet that the various health authorities, addictions-based stakeholders, all of whom are looking solely from the public safety and health perspective, and the big, national breweries, who churn out endless volumes of 5% swill, pushed Yap & Co. hard on this one.

The negative impacts are obvious I would think. Whether breweries are taxed at a higher rate for higher alcohol beers, or the minimum price is just increased once the beer is in the hands of the LDB, consumers will be paying more for these beers which could see a decrease in sales. It may also limit beers what brewers will be allowed to brew as brewery managers/owners may shy away from the higher alcohol beers if price increases start impacting sales numbers and the brewery's' bottom lines.

But let's be honest, the alcohol content listed on labels are, at times, closer to suggestions than actual fact as it is so this may have little impact. The enforcement of verifying the actual strength for all beers for every batch being sold is next to impossible and the LDB will have to depend on the good will of the breweries to tell them the truth.

One positive from this for fans of less boozy brews is that breweries might start looking at making more session beers than the high octane craft brews we see dominating the market at times.

I have always felt that the breweries were living on borrowed time, with the "mark-up" or tax being the same on beers up to 11.99%. I was just waiting for the government to realize that they could make a tax grab from breweries under the guise of promoting public health and safety. That time may have come and considering all the potential great changes for breweries and consumers, this may not be too hard to swallow, again depending on the actual breakdown and policy.

Another recommendation I believe many breweries will find annoying, especially those who have splashed out lots of money to create hip & happening tasting rooms, is the recommendation that would, "allow private and public retail liquor stores to sell growlers (refillable bottles) and operate refilling stations."

This could be construed as a negative because, for starters, giving liquors stores the ability to sell and refill growlers, be them private or government run, could potentially draw customers away from the above mentioned tasting rooms which could cut down on consumers, specifically beer tourists, buying other merchandise and products offered in the tasting room.

Secondly, growler fills are a unique way of connecting the consumer directly to the manufacturer and those who work directly for the breweries. By allowing liquor stores to sell and fill growlers, the beers being poured may not receive the same respect from the retail outlets and the staff pouring or selling the beers may or may not be knowledgeable about the products on the same level that brewery employees will be expected to be. Control of the product will be relinquished to a third party whose only interest in the beer could be to sell it to make a profit.

On the other side of the coin is the fact that by allowing liquor stores to sell and refill growlers, breweries will have more outlets to market and sell their products, but, if the listing process for government stores remains the same, the added opportunity will most likely be at the expense of another product which will have to be de-listed to make room for the growler sku on government liquor store shelves.

I also think that Yap missed a few opportunities to help support local breweries. The first one that comes to mind is recommending that the government appoint a special beer envoy, like the did for the wine industry last February, with the "with a mandate to work to complement existing efforts to open up domestic markets" for B.C. beers (see announcement here). I am not sure if this would benefit all craft breweries, as many are small scale and have trouble keeping up with local demand, but it would help those who are growing and looking to expand their markets and customer base outside the province.

Along those same lines, I do not know why the government is recommending to "work with other Canadian wine-producing jurisdictions to jointly develop thematic wine promotions in each jurisdiction’s liquor stores to promote Canadian wine," and not apply the same recommendation to craft beer to jointly promote Canadian craft beer as well especially considering that other craft beer jurisdictions across the country are starting to come into their own and flourish like ours has in BC.
I am sure there are a few more negatives among the 73 recommendations as far as the manufacturing side of things goes, but for me, those are the highlights, or maybe more appropriately, the low lights of the report. If there are more that are obvious that I have missed out on, I would love to hear from brewers, brewery owners, managers, etc to get their perspective.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Beer is Out of the Garden! Yap's Report Revealed & Some Good News for Craft Breweries

Friday the BC Liberals finally quit teasing us and released John Yap's BC Liquor Policy Review in full for all to see what came out of the massive consultation process that took place between Yap and BC liquor stakeholders, including the general public, last August through October.

Yap's final report was released in full as a part of a third announcement from the Liberals which highlighted proposed recommended liquor policy changes in regards to beer gardens at festivals, special occasions licenses (SOL) and U-brew/homebrew, among other things. The announcement also stated that all 73 of Yap's recommendations have "the full support" of the BC Liberal Government and that "significant policy work and implementation planning," will be done over the coming months to change these recommendations into official policy and law.

These recommendations, at this point in the process, look like they could prompt the government to take some significant steps towards modernizing our antiquated liquor policies and move towards treating adults who consume alcohol like, well, adults. When all is said and done, we may have more European-style liquor policies than 1920's Prohibition controls and consumers will have more freedoms and opportunities to enjoy a drink on a broader stage than is now allowed in our Nanny State.

Much depends on the actual policy that is drafted and if the Liberals hedge their bets and play it safe, like they seem to be doing with the idea of selling alcohol in grocery stores, these recommendations may not have much impact at all. But lets see the pint glass as half full at this point and move forward with the expectation that the government are really committed to making meaningful changes in regards to modernizing BC liquor policy.

Some of the more controversial recommendations, like booze in grocery stores, the return of happy hours, no more fenced beer gardens at festivals and allowing kids in pubs during the day, are grabbing all the media attention but I think these sexier policy changes will have little impact on craft beer sales and may, in the case of grocery store sales and happy hours, have a slight negative effect (more on that in my next post).

As an alcohol consumer who lives in BC, I am grateful that these headline-grabbing proposals have been "supported", but as a supporter of the local craft beer scene, I see many of the "lesser" or more boring recommendations, if they are followed through on, as being more beneficial to our BC craft breweries which will have the trickle down effect of being beneficial to craft beer consumers in this province. It looks like the BC Liberals are beginning to address the fact that they have basically ignored craft beer industry while putting the wine industry up on a pedestal, giving it and the BC wine consumers preferred treatment.

I think the following recommendations, if the government does follow through and create meaningful and effective policy changes, coupled with a change of attitude and commitment to support our craft beer industry in the same way they have supported the wine folks, will help strengthen our local craft beer community which is essential if all these new and soon-to-be-opened breweries are going to survive.

These are some of the most important recommendations I think will have a positive influence on the BC craft beer scene:
  • LDB should improve its marketing of B.C. liquor products in stores, developing new opportunities for product placement and innovative promotional and educational materials. 
  • Government should work with industry and tourism associations to develop promotional materials such as maps, apps and brochures on B.C. wineries, breweries and distilleries.
  • Government should discuss establishing a quality assurance program for B.C. craft beer and artisan-distilled spirits (similar to the VQA wine program). 
  • Manufacturers should be able to establish low-risk tasting venues such as a picnic area as part of their existing licence without the need to apply for a specific endorsement. Government should work with industry, local government and First Nations to increase flexibility for tasting options for manufacturers while being sensitive to potential negative impacts, such as noise, on the community.
  • Government should consult with industry and review the minimum requirements to obtain a brewery, winery or distillery licence. Government should also consider how these requirements are regulated by LCLB and LDB to ensure transparency and an effective regulatory system.
  • Government should permit B.C. liquor manufacturers to offer products for sample and sale at temporary off-site retail locations (e.g., farmers’ markets), with appropriate conditions. The decision about whether to allow vintners, brewers and distillers to showcase their products at a particular location will be left to the location management (e.g., farmers’ market association). 
  • Allow patrons to buy bottles of liquor to take home that are showcased at festivals or competitions. Consider amending SOLs issued to festivals and competitions, or allow BC Liquor or private retail stores to operate a temporary store on site as the means to provide for these sales.
  • Allow manufacturers to have off-site locations where they can sample and sell their products to the public (e.g., permanent tasting rooms in a downtown store).
  • LDB warehousing and distribution systems should be modernized and streamlined. The wholesale ordering processes should be improved with the goal of better and more efficient service to clients.
Our breweries can make the best beer in the world, but if they do not have the opportunity to operate and creatively market/distribute their products, free of bureaucratic red tape and stifling liquor policies, and get those beers to consumers at a competitive price, they will struggle to survive.  These recommendations help highlight quality BC craft products, create more avenues for craft breweries to get their beers directly to their consumers and hopefully will help improve distribution via the Liquor Distribution Branch.

I am particularly excited by the governments commitment to "develop new opportunities for product placement and innovative promotional and educational materials," for BC made liquor products. It is one of the items I personally presented to Yap & Co. during our CAMRA presentation. I have been appalled in the past when government bureaucrats have been heading to the US to lure American craft breweries up here to compete with our local craft breweries when our BC craft breweries are struggling to get listed and sold via our BC Liquor Store outlets (read here).

I also love the fact that the recommendations are looking for more creative ways of breweries getting their products to their consumers, via farmer's markets, off-site tasting room locations and "low-risk tasting venues such as picnic area".

Many of the recommendations are vague and the word "should" appears far too often, so we need to hold off on the celebrations and congratulating the government until we see just what comes down the policy pipeline. The real proof will come when the policies are actually drafted and will depend a lot on whether or not the government bureaucrats, who will be advising the politicians on how to write the policy and proceed, are on board and in agreement that changes need to be made. The LCLB and LDB will also need to change the culture of how they operate and make the shift from being Big Brother, Hell bent on imposing their will unchallenged and in an arbitrary manner, to industry supporters who do what they can to help our home-grown booze industry flourish while maintaining public safety and promoting health awareness.

Posts soon on: some of the recommendations that could be seen as negative for the BC craft beer industry; the one recommendation that may change the culture of paranoia and fear in this province among licensees and the official recognition that homebrewing is legitimate.