When you think of craft beer in Vancouver, you don’t often think of Old Yale Brewing. I mean, they’re all the way out in Mordor (the Wack), so their beer can’t possibly be any good, right? So let’s just grab another hop bomb from <insert hip hot new local brewery here> and call it a day.
Thus, when 2014’s Canadian Beer Awards rolled around, more than a few eyebrows where raised when Old Yale’s tried and true Sasquatch Stout won the coveted “Beer of the Year” award. I’ll be honest, it took me by surprise as well. 2013’s winner was Powell Street’s delicious Old Jalopy Pale Ale. I had no problem with that. Hip new breweries beat the old guard, right? Punchy Pales > Boring Old Stouts.
Or so the thinking went before everyone woke up and remembered that Sasquatch is really quite a well brewed Stout. The win looks like it might have been somewhat of a surprise for the fine folks at Old Yale themselves, as the sudden rush of sales and publicity that follows such an award seems to have jarred them into a bit of a brand modernization.
With that rebrand comes a new brew, being right now broadly distributed via the BC LDB. With broad distribution comes media samples, and for the first time ever I received some Old Yale product to open, taste, and trash/praise. So, is Vanishing Monk Belgian Wit any good?
Yup, it is. It won’t blow your mind wide open, but it is a very well brewed example of a style that’s easy to mess up. Frankly, this beer is pretty good. There’s lots of yeast complexity going on here, but not so much it becomes the focus of the beer. There’s a subtle line between a refreshing Wit and a beer that’s all gonzo “Look at me! I’m brewed with a kooky yeast! CAN’T YOU TASTE THE ESTERS?!”
Plus, at 5.59 (before taxes) at the LDB it’s not a bad option. There’s lots of great competition in the Wit Zone, but Old Yale’s is one of the better ones.
Pours cloudy yellow with a thin, instantly dissipating head.
Faint lemon zest, good Belgian yeast esters (clove, black pepper).
creamy mouthfeel, good balance between sugar and yeast complexity. A nice light summer ale.
5.0% ABV / 20 IBU / Witbier
Yes, and then find a patio by a lake for full effect.
Driftwood White Bark, Strange Fellows Jongleur, Brassneck Staircase
If you’re like me, you woke up this morning and realized “oh shit! It’s VCBW today! I need to update my blog!” Admit it, we’ve all been there.
So, credit card clutched in a sweaty, shakey, DT-y hand, you open up the VCBW event website and take a look. Crap. There’s, like, a million events you can still get into. Which ones are fantastic ale-stravaganzas? Which are just you, stuck in a locked room with Graham With, sampling beers that “should probably be sour” for two hours with no escape? (side note to Chris B: can we make this a thing? We don’t even have to tell Graham. It’d be like a beer version of Lockdown.)
Fear not, lazy and/or incompetent beer geek, for I have hastily and last minute-ly gone through the site and offered up my opinions below. Read on, and purchase your tickets in the know that Chuck Hallett totally would have gone to these events if he wasn’t stuck in Minnesota all next week for work.
Lastly, folks, remember that most of these events are all-inclusive but the inclusiveness doesn’t usually include tips. Tip your servers, is what I’m saying.
Sunday May 31st @ 2pm @ The Cobalt
Skip. Oh how the mighty have fallen. The once legendary Hopapolooza has been rendered down to this… thing. What was Nigel Springthorpe throwing a singular focus onto providing the best beer drinking selection and experience BC has ever known has been rendered down to a tap takeover at a metal bar.
Sure, there will be some tasty beers on tap, and some fun times to be had, but that name will put an off flavour in any beer geek’s mouth. There is simply no way this event will measure up to the ghosts of beer events past.
BierCraft Belgian Showcase
Monday June 1st @ 6:30PM @ BierCraft Cambie
If you’d like a good intro to the Belgian classics, or just generally like good Belgian beer, go. If you’re an unrepentant hop head, well, then I don’t like you very much (and you should skip). There probably won’t be many beers on the menu at this event that you can’t simply waltz into BierCraft and order on any day of the week, but the pre-paid-ness of it all means you won’t experience sticker shock when looking at the bottle list. Get in there, order something you’ve never had, and then talk about it with your friends and the well trained staff.
Cicerone vs Sommelier
Tuesday June 2nd @ 6PM @ Legacy Liquor Store
Go. Okay, fine, hosting this in the back of a liquor store is just a wee step down from The Fairmont ARC last year, but I still find the very concept of a beer vs wine pairing competition intriguing. Some of my best
drunken orgies dinner parties revolved around similar themes, and the discussions you get into about why your favourites win are worth the price of admission alone.
Battle of the Bartenders: Beer Cocktail Competition V
Wednesday June 3rd @ 6PM @ The Blackbird
Skip. If you like cheap and boozey then this might be for you, but if those are your two favourite things then you’re probably not reading my blog. Beer cocktails can be interesting but, in the end, I’d just rather have the beer.
Rose City Rampage
Wednesday June 3rd @ 5pm @ Portland Craft
Go. I’m frankly shocked this isn’t sold out. If you can only go to one VCBW event, make it this one. By the time PC makes room for eight brewmasters and their entourages (and the no doubt additional eight BC brewmasters who will tag along), there’s gotta be room left for like 20 tickets to sell. If you’re ready to mingle with the elite of the beererati and up your beer geeking out game, this is a can’t miss.
Brothers in Hops
Thursday June 4th @ 6PM @ Butcher and Bullock
Skip. You’re still too hungover from Rose City Rampage, and really this is just a lesser shadow of that event. Four brewmasters instead of eight. Hoppy beers instead of All The Beers. Stay in bed.
Rookies and Legends
Friday June 5th @ 6PM @ 12 Kings
Skip. It’s just 24 regular taps pouring 24 regular beers. No speeches. No chances to corner Alex Ganum and press him to send us more Sole Compositions. Nothing special. As much as I like 12 Kings and its laid back, un-intimidating, “is this a strip club?” atmosphere, this event just doesn’t make the grade. Save your entry free and go play some foosball another night. Several other nights, in fact.
Saturday June 6th and Sunday June 7th @ 1PM @ PNE Centre Grounds
Skip. I don’t like beer festivals, and this one is no exception. Unless you’re just getting into craft beer in BC, this event probably isn’t worth your time. If you like geeking out about beer, talking to brewers, and comparing beard grooming tricks & hints, then skip this one. If you like drinking good beer with a few thousand of your closest friends under a blue sky, then go. Hmm, not sure I’m playing this one down as hard as I could.
It’s been a while since I’ve written something potentially libellous about the government, so here goes. Recently, a lot (CBC) has been written (Sun) about the poor, downtrodden private liquor retailers (LRS) in BC and their inability to cope with the suddenly much more competitive government liquor stores (GLS), operated by the BC Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB).
The general sentiment in the public runs pretty much exactly as you’d expect from a people who’ve long-perceived private LRSs as extortionate scam artists taking $0.30 of electrical chilling and turning it into $6.50 of markup just because We Want It Now And We Want It Cold, Damn it.
Reality has this unfortunate habit of not being quite as simple as we’d want it, and this is no exception. Much of the markup at private stores was simply due to not being able to purchase product at the same deep discount as GLSs. These unfair rules were made more acceptable to LRSs by the government store employees agreeing to stay home on Sundays, and thus allowing the private stores to have a 1/7th monopoly on the market. That, plus the GLS agreeing to avoid selling cold beer because people are a bunch of rummies who’d just straight chug it in the parking lot if we could.
Until April 1st; on that day, everything changed. The BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB) brought in a “level playing field” for wholesale prices. Everyone got to buy at the ultra cheap government prices, but the government stores now wanted in on Sundays and cold beer. To the private stores, losing Sunday was Not Great, but getting those sweet, sweet government prices would absolutely be worth it. Private stores have lower overhead than the LDB, so by the time the government stores had paid back those fat union wages to their staff, the privates would be out in the profit lead no problem.
Except not. In classic LCLB fashion (remember “Happy Hour”?) there was a gotcha, and that gotcha was the sudden, dramatic increase in wholesale prices that the LCLB forgot to mention was part of the deal. How dramatic? Well, craft beer has gone up from 10-30%. Take Driftwood Fat Tug: before April 1st the cost was $4.20. Now it’s $4.75. Sure, that’s 55 cents to you and me, but it’s a giant freaking slice of the profit pie for liquor stores.
Okay, fine. Things are more expensive for some unexplained reason*, and it sucks to be Joe Consumer, but the private stores will still have lower operating costs and should be able to undercut the big government stores with their on-shelf pricing, right? Well, um… about that… You see, when that Fat Tug cost $4.20, the government charged $5.09 + tax on the shelf. Now that it’s $4.75 they’re charging… $5.09 + tax. In other examples, the government has actually lowered their prices on craft beer despite increasing costs.
Yup, you read that right. The LDB, whose retail stores were bordering on unprofitable before, saw their profit margin drop from 21.2% to 7% and they didn’t raise prices. They still have to pay the same rent, the same utilities and the same union wages for GLS staff. Heck, they now have to pay more money to install and run fridges, because they can sell cold product. How could they possibly turn a profit now, with massively increased costs and no increase in revenue? Shocker: they’re not. The retail arm of the LDB is now being run at a loss.
So, what’s going on here? Well, the LDB isn’t just the retail arm. They also run the wholesale side of the operation. That $4.20/$4.75 debate above is irrelevant when you consider that the wholesale side of the LDB buys it at around $2, both before and after April 1st. All the LDB has done here is to shift the lion’s share of the profit on craft beer from retail to wholesale, which is the part of the industry where they still have a complete monopoly.
Level Playing Field, my ass. This game is fixed. The strategy here is to put the squeeze on the private stores, hopefully forcing more than a few to throw in the towel and sell their licenses. With a glut of licenses hitting the market, the cost to purchase will fall precipitously. Who will benefit, then? What other change happened April 1st?
Yup, grocery stores can now buy an existing LRS license and move it in-house. Before the new policy came into effect, everyone scratched their heads and wondered aloud where the stores would get all these theoretical licenses, especially considering how hard the grocery chains had lobbied for the change. Now it all makes far too much sense.
That, combined with the LDB’s long term plan to get out of retail, adds up nicely. It was hard to justify when the GLSs were making money hand over fist, but now that all the actual profits are nicely safed away in the distribution/wholesale monopoly, it just got easier to politically sell the idea of privatization. Screw the LRSs and throw a bone to the grocery store lobbyists, all while building a case for a massive capital sell off on the retail side.
If all you care about is what your case of Bud costs, and you’ve managed to read this far, this is where I break your heart. When the government liquor store sell off starts, it will result in one of two things. One: grocery stores will pick up their licenses (April 1st ALSO provided for moving GLS licenses into grocery stores) or Two: private firms will pick them up.
When those private firms open their newly acquired books, how long do you think it’ll take before they fix that whole “no profits” angle by raising prices? With the discounted competition from the GLS no longer there, and the only realistic competition being the obscenely expensive Save-On-Foods down the street, how cheap will that case of Bud be now? Only time will tell.
* In a marvellous alignment of conspiracy models, it’s rumoured that the macro liquor brands have had unparalleled access to the LCLB and Premier’s Office during formulation of this new pricing scheme. Whether or not that’s true, what is definitely a fact is that macro beer and wine are much, much less affected by the price increases. As a result, stores are dropping craft lines and fleeing to the less loss-leading macros. Suck it, selection!
UPDATE: The “unparalleled access” is Neil Sweeney. He’s a Deputy Minister in the Premier’s Office, but was also previously the Director of Public Affairs at Labatt Breweries. Here is his LinkedIn profile. As conflicts go, this isn’t the worst it could be, but nor is it the best. Sure he isn’t (likely) being paid by Labatt anymore, but keep in mind that he very almost certainly holds a good chunk of stock from his previous job, and is still a friendly face to the remaining management team at Labatt.