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Dreaming of California

October 18th, 2008 · 6 Comments

It’s been a little while since my last post, so it’s good to be back.  This one is about a little place you might have heard of called California.

California is the most populous state in the U.S. and home to much glamourous American culture – Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Francisco, Napa Valley, etc.  I was able to visit for a week to L.A. in August of this year and was impressed.  I’d love to go back and hope to do so again.

California is also home to a significant wine scene, which you’ve most certainly heard of, but also a thriving beer scene, which you may not have heard of.  Two of the pioneers of craft beer have are from California – there’s the legendary Anchor brewery in San Francisco, famously saved in the 60s by Fritz Maytag, and one of the first microbreweries, Sierra Nevada in Chico.

In recent years California has seen an explosion from in the craft beer scene from across the state – AleSmith in San Diego, Lost Abbey in San Marcos, Stone in Escondido, North Coast in Fort Bragg and Russian River in Santa Rosa.  These breweries make big, bold and exciting beers, some of the finest in the U.S.

What’s a shame for Ontario beer drinkers, if you haven’t guessed by now, is that you wouldn’t know that these fantastic beers even exist when you go into your local Beer Store or LCBO.  The U.S. in general is significantly under-represented in the Ontario market, but California is especially so.

Now I know it’s a futile exercise to compare wine and beer when it comes to the LCBO.  The LCBO’s primary mandate is wine and spirits; beer is generally an afterthought.  But the LCBO offers precisely two California beers – Anchor Steam Beer (in a six-pack) and Anchor Liberty Ale (in a 650mL bottle).  They have been offered by the LCBO for a few years now, although Steam was de-listed a couple of years ago and brought back again.  The Beer Store does not support U.S. microbreweries and I don’t believe any are available there.

What is frustrating is that if one does a search for California wines on the LCBO’s web site, it returns 677 results!  One would have to assume that these results reflect the vast spectrum of California wines – different styles, regions and and quality.  This accounts for the vast majority of wine imported from the United States. The LCBO has even recently launched a “California Style” promotion that features, of course, exclusively wines.

Safe to say then that the Ontario marketplace of wine drinkers are certainly fond of California wines.  And no doubt that California’s “cool” helps push the region too.  But why no microbrewery love?  A scan of upcoming beers available through the LCBO reveals no California beers.  There is a U.S. micro-specific release in spring 2009 but no details have surfaced yet.  Even Roland + Russell, who have been doing a remarkable job of offering unique beers from around the world through private importing, do not offer any California beers.

Do the brewers of California not want to deal with Ontario, or do the drinkers of Ontario not care for Californian beers?  I would think that if given the opportunity beer lovers in Ontario would embrace the remarkable beers from California.

As we progress through fall in Ontario, and all the leaves are brown and the sky is grey, I’m still dreamin’ of California beers.

Tags: Brands · LCBO · Outside Ontario · The Beer Store

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Rick Campbell // Oct 20, 2008 at 5:41 am

    Come now. Do you really think that by getting rid of ‘The Beer Store’ and offering sales in open retail will bring micro breweries into the Ontario marketplace. What a foolish idea. Selection of existing brands will diminish, and package sizes will be few; as corner stores and even bigger retail outlets will be only in it for profit margins.
    Sure floor space is small at the LCBO but no one wants to ‘hold the bag’ on products made that don’t sell. The taxes addes to imported brews into Ontario make some selections cost prohibitive. I remember a time when some importers didn’t want deposits added to their products because it woupld price their selections out of the marketplace. Selfish to say!

  • 2 Lager Bore // Oct 20, 2008 at 9:34 am

    Make no mistake, Inbev, Molsoncoors and Sapporo run the Beer Store to make huge profit margins–with no real competition to worry about. They are not selling us beer as a charitable service! And they would have us believe that choice is not the variety of beers available but the number of “pack sizes” available, or that true innovation is keeping your beer cold for you.
    It is truly pathetic that there is only Rogue, Southern Tier and Dogfish Head available from the States, in addition to the ones mentioned. And this is on a hit or miss basis.
    What’s even worse, and it’s been commented on before, is just how difficult the LCBO makes it for small breweries to sell their product in Ontario. Ask the guys from Dieu du Ciel or Hopfenstark just how much fun it was to bring a few kegs to Volo for this weekend’s Cask Days.

  • 3 Andy // Oct 20, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Funny, Rick, but I get a better selection of micros in Buffalo (a tiny, but free, market) than I do in Toronto (a huge, but monopoly, one). That’s my evidence that opening the market will increase selection available to me…what’s yours?

  • 4 admin // Oct 20, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Sorry Rick, but your points look like just what the beer regime in Ontario wants you to believe.

    Beer is a consumer good, and in a free market it will act just like any other consumer good.

    I’ll give you a rudimentary example. Take blue jeans.

    You can walk into a Wal-Mart and buy a pair of blue jeans for $20 (or thereabouts – cheap). These jeans meet the needs of the customers that Wal-Mart markets to – they’re basic and functional. They get the job done.

    Now head downtown and walk into Holt Renfrew. You can also get a pair of blue jeans but they go upwards of $300. But these jeans are a lot different than the Wal-Mart ones and they meet the needs of Holt’s customers – they’re high end brands that certain people value.

    There are lots of people that find it ridiculous to spend $300 on a pair of jeans. But there are also lots of people who truly value the $300 jeans. That’s the advantage of a free market – consumers get the choice.

    In Ontario we do not have choice. Under a free market for beer you would certainly see Wal-Mart-like beer stores that cater to consumers who wish to have cheap cases of regular beer. But you’ll also have Holt Renfrew-type beer stores that offer premium products to consumers who seek it. Unfortunately as it stands right now we only have the former.

  • 5 Yep, California Can Be Frustrating | Free Our Beer // Dec 8, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    […] Hugh MacIntyre has an editorial today in National Post where he questions some of the liquor laws in Ontario after a recent trip to California and Oregon.  In the editorial he touches upon beer availability, retail sales and direct shipping, all things that are challenging if not illegal in Ontario.  I feel your pain Hugh, thinking about Ontario in comparison to California is terribly frustrating. […]

  • 6 Free Our Beer Heading to San Francisco // Mar 22, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    […] Twitter for real-time updates.  Check out a few of Free Our Beer’s past posts on California here and […]