Craft beer lovers rejoice as BC brews liquor reform

Coming soon to a grocery store near you? Photo from Bigstock.com

Craft beer lovers rejoiced this past weekend as many pored over liberal MLA (Richmond-Steveston) John Yap’s final list of recommendations on provincial liquor reform presented to the Attorney General, Suzanne Anton.

Released to the public mid-day Friday, the report, long awaited by many liquor reform advocates and industry stakeholders, compiles the findings of Yap’s public consultation conducted late last year - the first provincial liquor policy review in nearly 15 years.

After nearly 15,000 comments, tweets, and emails, the public weigh-in was boiled down to 73 recommendations by the Richmond-Steveston MLA, the most controversial of which was whether or not British Columbia should restructure its liquor licensing to allow the sale of beer in grocery stores.

A large contingent of the pro-grocery sales voice were those who compared the current BC model to Alberta’s, whose liquor licensing is entirely privatized.

Most of those who spoke in favour of this system highlighted lower prices and greater access to products. However, consumers insisted that increased access to alcohol would not inhibit their ability to conduct themselves in a responsible manner.

“Almost 75 per cent of people commenting on grocery were generally in favour of changing the regulations to allow for access to liquor products in grocery stores. … People are very much aware that when we compare our liquor policies with others parts of North America and around the world, ours is much more control-oriented, more restrictive,” Yap’s report reads.

It was also recommended that no new private retail licenses should be issued and the ten-year moratorium on further private retail licenses should remain in place (until 2022).

The report notes that a hybrid system incorporating the sale of alcohol in both grocery stores and existing private retailers should be phased in to safeguard the annual $2 billion in economic benefits the province brings in from selling booze. 

As a consolation to ambiguity of how grocery stores sales will be structured, BC will be the final province to allow its pubs and bars to offer a cheap drink after work – a social wonder known as “Happy Hour” to the rest of the country.

While this will see increased traffic at pubs and bars, of great concern to hop heads is the consideration of tying minimum prices to alcohol content.

A 7% pint would no longer have the same minimum price as a 4% pint; we should tread these waters cautiously as it may render high ABV beers no longer tap-worthy while giving a perception that 5% generic lagers are a relative steal.

However, for many pub-goers, that simply means no longer watching the neighbouring table foolishly pummel through pitchers of Fat Tug as if it were Coors Light.

It could also see the murmurs of session beer advocates realized as the great hop race slows and brewers are beginning to test the market for old-world styles such as kolsch, bitters, and even milds.

A quality assurance program for spirits, similar to VQA, is among the recommendations made in the BC Liquor Policy Final Report. 

Craft brewers and distillers will also be given additional marketing powers as policy makers consider how to structure a provincial quality assurance program for both beer and spirits, similar to VQA.

Event licensing is set to become easier as multi-day, multi-venue festivals will only require a single Special Occasion Licenses (SOL) application. SOL applications will now be made available online, further streamlining the process.

For the sports fan in all of us, arenas and stadiums will be full service and make wine, cider, and coolers available in addition to beer. Better yet, the much-detested ‘beer cages’ will now be removed from beer gardens at events and 18 year olds can watch their favourite Folk Fest performers alongside their 19 year old friends, giving themselves yet another reason to resent being born in December.

Home brewers can also rejoice as they will now be able to sample and sell their creations to the public at home brewing events and festivals. And what better way to take away your new favourite home brew than in a growler?

Yap’s report states that both private and public retail stores should be able to sell and fill growlers if they choose. As many who flew the Alberta flag during the publication consultation should know, filling up growlers at retail outlets is becoming increasingly popular east of the Rockies.

Aside from convincing your dinner guests to visit a couple tasting rooms beforehand, growlers are the ideal way to sample the local offerings. If you don’t have one yet, better pick up a couple from your local brewery. It sounds like this is going to be the summer of growlers.

While tabled proposals like allowing beer in public spaces such as beaches and parks were largely ignored, it looks like we’re one sensible step closer to trusting our relationship with alcohol. Yap’s report to the attorney general is, of course, comprised of loosely worded recommendations and what the silver lining reveals is yet to be seen. For now, I raise my glass.

More from Robert Catherall

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