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First Tidbit from the Liquor Policy Review

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The first recommendation from the BC Liquor Review is here, and it kinda sucks. Sure, booze in grocery stores will be swell and all, but the nagging bit is that whole “maintain the current cap on the total number of retail outlets”–a cap which has been frozen for some years now. Go read the whole thing here. Retaining the cap is a dreadful mistake.

What this means is that your local grocery store need not apply for a license to sell liquor. No new licenses will be created. Instead, they will be forced to try and buy an existing LRS, close it, and transfer the license. For those not in the know, LRS licenses tend to be obscenely profitable, because you’re selling liquor in a market that restricts possible competition (see above re: license cap).

That, in turn, means only the biggest chains will have the cash piles to undertake this process, and that means the in-store retail experience will be focused on recouping the massive outlay required to set the damn thing up in the first place… which means selling loads of product… which means macro beer. Yaaaaay.

Pictured: “Selection”

Compounding this focus on mass market appeal and high sales volumes will be a disparity between the major stores and smaller food outlets. While the majors will be able to afford to close down a small LRS to pillage the license, the smaller shops won’t. You’ll start seeing situations where a big chain store will have an awesome “Alcoholz of the Werlds!1! W00t!” section on one side of the street while the smaller retail shop on the other side will just have plain old, stupid, boring food with those lousy “nutrients” the hippies won’t shut up about.

So, we just set up an massive system to reward the big, mainstream shops for being so big and mainstream. Yay us. Sure, in the end, I still think this is a small step forward, but I’m not so sure that the heel past the toe here.

Written by chuck

November 28th, 2013 at 11:47 am

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Where the Money Goes

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Alright, so you’re starting a brewery. Congrats on being awesome. You’ve even managed to jump that next hurdle: financing. You’ve done all the normal steps: harassed friends, begged from the Bank of Mom and Dad, and kidnapped the children of a major financial firm’s loan officer. The deed is done, the money and credit are all lined up, and all it cost was little Jimmy’s toe.

Signing a lease, buying some brewing equipment, and hiring a brewer are really all that’s left between you and profitable, beery awesome-sauce (ProTip: You can avoid hiring a brewer by cloning an existing one).

Cue Graham With suddenly realizing why I’ve been asking him to spit in a petri dish recently.

After all that, though, things are clear sailing right? You can ring in your first growler sale, put that smiling John A MacDonald in the till, and finally start paying your staff, right? Wrong. Most brewery startups miss out on one little detail that seems frankly fairly idiotic: that money in the till? It’s the government’s; you’re just holding on to it for them for a bit.

What the what? Surely you must realize that beer sold in BC is subject to all sorts of mark-ups and taxes, right? What you probably don’t realize is exactly how those mark-ups and taxes are collected. Any sane, normal business, would sit down at the end of the day, do some math, and set aside the cash they owe to the rest of us to pay for things like roads, schools, and dubious senate expenses. It’s only fair.

Breweries, though, get a tough shake here. They aren’t trusted to do math, presumably because they’re corrupt, drunk, or both. Instead of simply remitting the ~$4 of that $10 growler owed to the government, they have to instead deposit the whole $10 into an account that the LCLB can withdraw from, which the LCLB then proceeds to do.

It get’s better. Instead of having the LCLB just take the ~$4 that is owed them, they instead straight up take the whole thing, process the taxes, and send out a cheque to the brewery for what’s left over. This process can take months, as in more than one. No, they don’t give you the interest on your money, what a silly question!

Pictured: Artist’s impression of LCLB tax/mark-up collection.

So, your struggling brewery that was depending on squeaky new income to, you know, pay salaries, buy malt and cover such trivial expenses as rent and hydro, now has to wait up to several additional months before seeing the first cent. This isn’t hypothetical. Some BC breweries in recent years spent years building their business only to almost go under immediately after opening because their revenue stream was delayed.

So, John Yap, while we’re talking about booze in grocery stores and beer at farmer’s markets, how about we also take a look at how the backend business of collecting tax on liquor is done, to allow these small brewery startups faster access to direly needed income?

In the meantime, brewery startups should add three or more months to their startup financing to account for this craziness. I’d hate to see you go under before Russian Imperial Stout season.

Written by chuck

November 22nd, 2013 at 11:30 am

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Beer in the Valley

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I popped up to Harrison Hot Springs a couple of weekends ago to check out the second annual Harrison Beer Fest. Normally, I try to avoid crossing bridges because of my intense fear of trolls, so what would drag me up river over so many bridges that I actually lost count? Free shit, that’s what. Tourism Harrison wants to get their beer fest on the map, and they somehow arrived at the conclusion that I could help with this, so they offered to pay my way.

In addition to free stuff, I have to admit to being genuinely curious about how craft beer is viewed outside of Fortress Vancouver. Is good beer anything but a weird curiosity in the hinterlands? Would a “beer fest” in the country be nothing but a massive piss-up featuring both kinds of beer, Molson and Bud?

Or maybe Molson and Other Molson! Why do these towers have multiple taps, anyways?

First things first: the location. Harrison is a long ways away; I cannot stress this point enough. You know how far away Fraser Street is? It’s like, way, WAY, farther than that. Seriously, when I finally got out of my truck at the end of what had become an epic trek, I was shocked that the locals still spoke English.

Second, it’s quite nice up there. The landscape is all mountainy and misty and lakey with odd bits of town through in here and there for good effect. What more do you want from me here? I’m not a travel writer. Google “Harrison Hot Springs” for some pictures if you’re really curious.

Third, the hotel. Sharon and I stayed at the Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa. As usual, prior to venturing out we checked out online reviews of the place, which charitably described it as “somewhat run down.” With that in mind, I was expecting a hotel that was analogous to a high school prom queen from 1985, whose once-lauded beauty was now only discernible via close examination, hidden beneath decades of three packs-a-day and five kids to three different men.

This turned out to not be the case at all. The resort is well maintained, comfortable, and built around a central series of hot pools, in which–thankfully–the “no alcohol” policy appears to only be known to the guy who made the sign at the entrance. But enough about that. We’re here to talk beer.

So how was the beer fest? Well, it was very different from any such similar happening I’ve attended in Vancouver. The first and most obvious difference is the lack of crowds. The three events saw one or two hundred revellers housed in a building that no doubt would have played host to ten times that number in Vancouver.

Sure, it has a certain church basement vibe about it, but look at all that space!

All that extra space had a few very desirable implications:

  1. Tables. With linen clothes. And seats that were unoccupied. Seriously, at any time you wanted, you could sit down at an actual table. What the what?
  2. Maximum line at each station of 2-3 people, but usually none. This means you could talk to the brewer/server about the beer being served in detail without the guy behind you getting all stabby. This is always my favourite part of events, and sadly I rarely get to do it any more.
  3. No constantly walking sideways to cut through crowds.
  4. Not having to text your friends to find them, despite their being just twenty feet away.
  5. Similarly, want a beer from X brewery? You don’t need to ask random people near you if they know where the booth is. Look around, see the sign and walk that way.
  6. There was a guy playing a piano. Imagine that at a CAMRA Vancouver event.
  7. Food! They had mother fucking food! And no, I don’t mean “someone parked a food cart inside and (maybe) ran an exhaust pipe outside.” I mean food, in chaffing dishes, served by dudes in white smocks, on plates with utensils.

There’s food in those dishes, people!

Now, it wasn’t all positives. Harrison is a young beer fest (year two) and, as such, they have some growing up to do if they want to play with the big boys. One drawback is that very same lack of a crowd I was just heaping approval on. Fewer people means less breweries participating, and even fewer custom casks, which are the life blood of any good beer event. Want hard numbers? The beer fest featured just 18 breweries, and the cask fest only 6, yet for some reason these two events were held separately.

Aside: Granted, the cask fest did feature a very amusing entry of “Barley Wine” from Pacific Western Brewing’s Scandal shadow brand. My suspicions were piqued then the comely young lady serving the beer couldn’t tell me if it was more of an American or English style, but perhaps that might have just been because it was neither; instead they opted for the “unbelievably awful” category.

Ultimately, though, I had a good time at two of the three events despite myself. At the Friday Cask Fest, the five non-poison casks varied from decent-but-boring (Parallel 49 Old Boy unaltered) all the way up to intensely interesting (Mission Springs Cherry Bomb on Hungarian Oak Chips).

At Saturday’s main event Beer Fest, I took advantage of the opportunity to try beers from many of the upper valley breweries, most of which I hadn’t sampled in years (Old Yale, Dead Frog, Mission Springs). Old Yale is much as I recall, but both Mission Springs and Dead Frog have definitely improved matters since their ales last passed my lips.

And, at Saturday night’s Oktoberfest Dance I… uh… had a couple drinks, some food, and left. Sorry, I’m not much of a dancer, but that’s more my shortcoming than anyone else’s. There were some awesome costumes, though (mad props to Becks for the awesome costume that appears 1/2 way down her page; I could barely be bothered to put on pants).

What could Tourism Harrison do better next year? A few items do stand out:

  1. Have someone who knows about beer craft edit your festival guide. Listing “Some well known Pilsner styles” when you meant Lager really hurts your case, as does confusing a “cask” with a “keg,” or completely omitting mention of the actual Beer Fest itself from the guide.
  2. Change how “Best in Show” is awarded at cask night. Draining a cask first doesn’t mean the beer inside is the best or most interesting entry. Although, granted, it does let us point out that Scandal’s Barley Wine was in a 20L cask compared to everyone else’s 35L… and they still had some the next day. On a related note, P49’s boring cask’s victory was an insult to the breweries that actually tried.
  3. Encourage local businesses to get on the program. Outside of the festival itself, craft beer is very hard to find in Harrison Hot Springs. When I asked, via Twitter, for some local craft beer spots, Tourism Harrison recommended the Old Settler Pub, a location whose best BC beer on tap is OK Spring 1516.

Lastly, the ultimate review: would I consider forking over ther ~$200+ per night and $60 per person of my owned damned money to go back next year? Sure, I’d consider it; I’m not normally one to go to beer festivals, but the combination of dunking myself in a hot spring every few hours and nigh-unlimited craft beer proved a good one. As awesome as Portland is for a craft beer destination, there is something relaxing about weekend in which you stay put (in a hot tub) and never have to venture more than 100 metres to your next craft beer event.

I’m not sure I’d attend either attraction by itself, though. The beer fest just isn’t good enough, and between hot soaks in a spring Harrison reveals itself to be what it really is: a small town in BC with a pricey resort in one corner (if you’re into just the beer fest, though, accommodations can be had for much less cash than the resort… and much less hot tubby PDA from less-inhibited Europeans).

However, if you were already eyeing up a relaxing get away and were on the fence regarding Harrison, maybe the beer fest could tilt you in their favour. Too bad the next one is a year away.

Written by chuck

November 4th, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Posted in Beer and You

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