As reported on The Bar Towel, Garrison Imperial I.P.A. has at long last hit the shelves! After a slight snag with getting it released due to a pricing discrepancy with the LCBO, things were worked out and the bottles have been shipped to the participating stores. At the link above you can find some kind words written by others about the beer plus the full list of LCBO stores that will be receiving Garrison IIPA for sale.
I reviewed this beer already, just sixteen months ago. Why mention it again? Because Cass Enright, as part of his examination of the weird system of beer in Ontario called “Free Our Beer” has imported it into the province. Yee-umm.
See, the FOB project is sort of like a business meets performance art meets beer meets the wall of silence, inertia and regulation that is the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Usually I don’t go for performance art. Too many unitards. But I like this one because it has resulted, along with Cass doing a great job pointing out the system’s senseless, in this great beer being down the road at my local store. Peppery pine hops meet thick malty sweet goodness. Heavy as marmalade.
Thanks Alan for your support of Free Our Beer and of Garrison IIPA. Hopefully this performance art can result in some positive beer-related change in Ontario at some point in our lifetimes.
For those who have been following the Free Our Beer project, you know that Garrison Imperial IPA was accepted into the LCBO’s upcoming Autumn seasonal release program at the beginning of the year. Well, it’s about to finally hit the shelves!
It’s been a long road to get here – from the initial submission, to the required paperwork, label re-designs and package analysis, but we made it. On Friday the LCBO held a media tasting for the Autumn and Halloween beer releases, and there was Garrison IIPA, alongside all the other fine beers coming to the shelves.
This release is significant as it’s representative of our goals to help bring better beer to Ontario, while at the same time being able to inform the citizens of the province about how the LCBO processes work. But all that aside, it’s a fantastic beer and one that we feel beer drinkers will really enjoy.
Not to be self-serving, but if you like the Garrison IIPA – please buy it! The LCBO takes into consideration when making their beer purchasing decisions how a beer sells – they are a business after all. And as the LCBO mentioned to me earlier – future decisions about Garrison beers will be affected by how IIPA performs at retail. Side note: the LCBO has already rejected Garrison’s Hop Yard Pale Ale, presumably (in part) due to the same rationale. So if you want to see more Garrison beers in Ontario, get yourself a handful of bottles when you see them!
Garrison IIPA will be part of the Autumn seasonal release which officially begins hitting LCBO shelves on Monday, September 13th. You can use LCBO.com to help find which stores will be carrying it. Garrison IIPA will be available in single 500mL bottles for $4.25 each.
The LCBO seasonal product call process has been documented numerous times at Free Our Beer – we have been successful with Garrison’s submission into the Autumn 2010 release but unsuccessful with the Winter Warmers release. The basic process was pretty straightforward. An agent or brewery would submit to the LCBO beers for consideration along with the appropriate supporting details (marketing plan, pricing, case/shipping information, etc.). The LCBO would then taste the beers, make their selections for the releases and a new process would start for getting product onto shelves.
At the end of June this year, this process changed slightly, and it’s a bit concerning. In a letter to the trade, the LCBO has added a first step to the process in advance of the tasting. But what’s really happened is they have split the submission of the supporting details (marketing plan, etc.) and the beer itself. The process now is that the LCBO is first asking for “a photo of the product and packaging as well as relevant product and marketing information” but no beer samples at this stage.
As the letter goes on to state, “products selected to move forward to tasting will be accepted” and “all other products declined”. Only at this point, once the submitted beer(s) have been accepted, will they actually be tasted for final decision if they are to come to stores.
What makes this strange is that the LCBO seemingly will be making a first cut of decisions without actually tasting any beer. So, it would seem that beers will be evaluated on attributes but not what the beer tastes like! I can understand how pricing, packaging appeal and intended marketing spend are important variables in the business of beer sales. But considering that the seasonal beer program generally focuses on specialty beers, is not how they taste an important and critical consideration?
As this changed process has just been implemented, I cannot determine what percentage of submitted beers will be accepted for tasting based upon the initial submission. But on the surface it seems like the LCBO has implemented it to save themselves the hassle of tasting – after all, there were over 80 products submitted for tasting in the Winter Warmers release. I for one would love to taste all those beers before deciding what comes to stores. But it would seem that in the future beers with pretty packaging, a strong marketing spend and the right retail price will get preference over what actually tastes good. We will have to wait and see if this is the case.
Yesterday at the Session beer festival, for the first time at a festival in Ontario we poured Garrison, both the IIPA and Hop Yard Pale Ale. For many of the patrons there, Garrison was an unfamiliar brewery, and we described the beers to interested drinkers who seemed to quite enjoy both beers. And often we fielded the question “Are these beers available in Ontario?” to which we replied, “Well, the IIPA is coming to the LCBO in September as part of the Autumn release” and “We’re working on it” for the Hop Yard Pale Ale. But this sparked quite a bit of talk about Garrison’s presence in Ontario – so I’d like to share a story about two Garrison beers that you won’t be seeing in Ontario for the immediate future.
The Winter Warmers release called for “Products appropriate for Winter (i.e. Imperial Stouts, Barley Wines, Old Ales, Spiced, Strong Ale, Oak aged beers)”. The product call also asked for “Single serving format preferred (500mL)”, “Proven track record in other markets” and “Renowned or award winning”.
OK, Garrison has a couple of beers that fit that bill very well. So we submitted both the Grand Baltic Porter (BA / RB) and Winter Warmer (BA / RB). The Grand Baltic Porter is one of the only of its kind in Canada, a rich, strong beer inspired by English porters and Russian imperial stouts. At 9% it was certainly hearty, came in a single 500mL bottle and had been awarded Golds at the 2009 Canadian Brewing Awards, World Beer Championships and “Innovative Product of the Year” at the Taste of Nova Scotia Prestige Awards.
Slightly less renowned that the GBP, the Winter Warmer was a strong, dark amber spiced brew that took home a trio of silver medals at the 2009 Canadian Brewing Awards and the 2009 and 2010 World Beer Championships.
So we felt we had a couple of strong candidates for the release. Just so everyone knows, what was mentioned above is all the LCBO tells you they are looking for. The process that an agent must follow is to submit samples of the beer for tasting, plus a “one page marketing plan” that details the beer characteristics, awards and intended marketing support if the beer was to be released in market. We did so.
A couple of months pass, the beers are tasted by the LCBO (not sure who actually tastes them) and I receive e-mails from the LCBO saying both beers were declined. The only reason given in the form e-mail was “Other product submitted performed better against selection criteria”. This was certainly unfortunate. What was this selection criteria exactly? According to the product call, the beers fit what the LCBO was looking for. I was not satisfied with this reasoning so I requested a bit more clarification from the LCBO. After all, with the decline for this release the next time the beers would be appropriate would be the winter warmer release another year from now.
The LCBO got back to me and explained that it was a competitive product call (about 80 beers were submitted, and about a dozen or so are picked) and that the beers “showed well in the tasting”. But the LCBO also wanted to see how the IPA would perform in the Autumn release and that they wanted to offer variety from release to release, implying that they didn’t want to release two Garrison beers consecutively.
These two reasons – wanting to see the sales performance of the IIPA first and looking to ensure variety from the Autumn to Winter releases – basically made it a foregone and predetermined conclusion that Garrison would not be accepted into the release.
Now, I understand the business rationale of the LCBO. I am a vice-president in the business world and I see their logic, from a dollars and sense point of view. But what is unfortunate for beer lovers in Ontario is that these two excellent beers (Grand Baltic Porter especially) will be completely unavailable to consumers. Aside from The Beer Store, which is an unrealistic avenue, we don’t have another option to get these products into the hands of beer lovers (private ordering is possible, but consumers would have to order full cases which is costly).
In other competitive industries, if a particular store buyer chooses not to stock a product, other stores can decide to do so. In Ontario, this is not the case. I cannot go to another store to see if they would like to stock Grand Baltic Porter or Winter Warmer this winter – we just don’t have any other stores. This demonstrates the fundamental issue I have with the system in Ontario – there is no competition or alternatives to the LCBO. Until we do, these kinds of unchallengeable business decisions will keep great products out of the hands of beer lovers in Ontario.
Free Our Beer and The Bar Towel are hitting the road tomorrow evening to travel down to the Craft Brewers Conference in Chicago. The conference, organized by the US-based Brewers Association, is one of the largest of its kind, attracting over 2,600 industry professionals according to the web site. It has been sold out for some time now.
Why are we going down to the conference? For one, it looks like a crazy city-wide beer extravaganza, with multiple beer related events happening both at the conference and at local bars and breweries.
But the main reason is to gather knowledge about the craft beer industry in the United States to continue to help the Free Our Beer project provide consumers in Ontario with how our system does not serve the best interests of beer lovers here.
Looking at some of the special events, a number of bars are bringing in special beers that they will tap throughout the week to commemorate the occasion. For example, the Hopleaf will have different draughts from craft breweries in California, New York, Maine, Michigan and Colorado, with possibly others. The Local Option will have about five different draught brands from Cantillion, six from Dieu du Ciel and sixteen from Mikkeller along with some US brands. Many other pubs, restaurants and beer stores are holding various tastings, tappings and meet-and-greets with breweries and beers.
This is fantastic to look forward to, but as Free Our Beer we must note that this kind of thing could never realistically happen here. The number of international beers and out-of-state beers that are coming into Illinois to be a part of the conference is staggering. With our system in Ontario, this kind of flow of beers into the province for an event would never occur. There’s just too many hurdles and roadblocks.
Here’s another big one. Stone Brewing recently announced a distribution deal to enter the Illinois market, and to celebrate they organized a week of events, including multiple draughts and bottles available at different spots around the region. Talk about entering the market in a big way. In comparison, Garrison is also entering the Ontario market with a single beer coming as a one-time release at the LCBO in September. Hopefully there will be more brands to come, but that will not be until 2011.
Keep an eye on Free Our Beer for more from the Craft Brewers Conference in the coming days. You can also follow Bar Towel on Twitter to stay connected to what’s happening at the conference.
The latest private order for Garrison Brewing, many months in the works and not without a few hiccups, finally made it to Ontario at the end of March. This order was different from the last one as it also featured a couple of licensees getting in on the action, with Bar Volo in Toronto and Chancey Smith’s in London taking some to serve at their fine establishments. Bar Volo launched a new beer menu at the end of March featuring both the Garrison Imperial IPA and Hopyard Pale Ale.
Private ordering continues to be both a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, it is the a valuable method by which beers regularly unavailable in Ontario can be brought in for beer lovers in the province to enjoy. However, the steps involved, paperwork and consumption of time makes the process very arduous. It took over 7 months from the time the order was announced to the beer arriving. There was certainly a lot that happened over that period, and looking back efficiencies can be found, but it is a very time consuming process. But the beer made it to the hands of beer lovers in Ontario, so let’s raise a glass and enjoy.
Last year we set up a 2nd private order of Garrison beers to follow on the heels of the successful first one. We would offer basically everything that Garrison had to offer, and it took a while to get all the orders in. We had about 2 pallets of beer ordered by customers – the excitement of the first order had waned a bit but we still had lots of interested beer lovers who wanted to get in on it.
The basic process for a private order is as follows: I collect orders on behalf of customers who complete a private order form for the LCBO. I assemble all the forms and submit to the LCBO. The LCBO then charges a deposit to the customers and a private order request goes to a brewery. The brewery ships the beer to Ontario and is then distributed to customers as they pay the remaining price of the beer.
That’s a simple outline, but it takes a lot of time to get everything together. As this was a larger order, we had more customers that had to complete their order forms. Around the end of the year, I was able to track down everyone to sign and fax in their order forms to me so I could submit to the LCBO.
There was an important change that the LCBO implemented in between the first order we did in the spring of 2009 and this second order. With the first order, the LCBO private order form had an area for customers to write in their credit card information. This made it easy for the LCBO to charge the customer deposit. When I submitted the forms the first time around, all the credit cards were there. (Here’s a post about the security procedures I undertook to protect this data). But I was later informed that the LCBO would no longer have credit cards on the forms – presumably to avoid storing numbers when they kept the private orders on file. So with the second order, I expected the LCBO would contact the customers directly to arrange their deposit payment. I was wrong.
After I submitted the order to the LCBO, I was informed that is was still my responsibility to collect credit cards for them to charge deposits. This was unfortunate as it meant I needed to go back to all the customers and get their credit card information – after I had just asked them to sign and fax back their forms. And asking for credit cards is not as easy as a quick e-mail when personal data security is always important.
So, I quickly created a secure web form that would allow customers to submit their credit cards to me. After another round of going back to the customers, I was able to collect them all and submit to the LCBO for the deposits. And once they charged the deposits, the LCBO destroyed the numbers so as to not keep them on file.
But this step wasn’t without its controversy. On the very day that I received the last credit card number and was ready to drop them off at the LCBO, the private ordering department directly contacted all the customers asking for their credit cards! This was certainly a bit frustrating as I had spent a few weeks getting all this together after the LCBO told me it was my responsibility.
Further, when the LCBO contacted all the customers they CC’d everyone, exposing all the e-mail addresses of the orderers, much to the frustration of some of the individuals who participated. And from my standpoint, this revealed all of my private order consumers which was certainly not ideal. However, I do believe this was a case of unintended error and crossed lines of communication rather than malicious intent. But, damage was done.
After all this, the LCBO was able to successfully process the deposits and the order is moving forward. Time could have been saved with a clearer indication that it was still my responsibility to collect the credit card information from customers up front. This is personal learning for future orders – customers will have to submit this at the beginning, so this added step can be saved. However, private ordering is proving to be an incredibly time-consuming process – we will see what other unexpected surprises are around the corner.
With the great news from the LCBO that IIPA was accepted into the fall release, came the great unknown. What was next? I assumed paperwork, and I was correct.
Shortly after I received acceptance from the LCBO, I was informed of the paperwork that needed to be completed. There were three primary forms: the “Request for Label Examination”, the “Request for Shipping Container Examination” and the “Product Profile and Marketing Plan”. All of these forms are available as templates on the LCBO’s Trade web site.
The Label Examination and Shipping Container forms were reasonably straightforward. The label form was as it sounds – a request with label attachments for a review of the beer label. Beer labels in Ontario have to conform to strict requirements (although not necessarily easy to find them) and the LCBO was going to review the label in advance. The shipping form was to outline the specifications of Garrison’s shipping containers – as of course they need to conform to the LCBO’s standards. It became pretty clear that this was a one-way street – we would need to conform to the LCBO’s requirements, make changes or risk not having the beer purchased.
Here is one of my biggest issues with our system. Simply put, the LCBO is entering into an arrangement with Garrison to purchase their beer for resale in Ontario. The LCBO is the buyer, Garrison is the seller. However, the purchase is strictly on the LCBO’s terms. If Garrison does not meet the LCBO’s standards, the purchase risks being called off by the buyer. So it is up to myself and Garrison to do what the LCBO asks to continue ahead with the purchase. I can see now why many breweries around the world do not want to deal with the LCBO. As a microbrewery in California, for example, where they might sell comfortably around the U.S. and possibly the world, entering into such a one-sided business relationship is not necessarily worth it. Sure, the LCBO does make a purchase which results in revenue for the brewery, and there might be some cachet and satisfaction (and possibly future sales upside) with being in Ontario, but the effort to make this happen is significant. And of course, since there are not other speciality stores in Ontario, it’s the LCBO’s way or no way at all. There aren’t any other buyers a seller could work with.
Next up was the big form, the Product Profile and Marketing Plan. This is a master form that covers everything about the brewery and provides a full breakdown of the brand to be purchased. On the form we needed to provide all of Garrison’s business information – years in business, sales, insurance, that sort of thing. But when it came to the brand information, it got heavy. We needed to provide information about the IIPA’s product uniqueness, packaging appeal, target/demographic information, pricing strategy, market research conducted, tasting notes and marketing plan.
The marketing plan is important as, there’s one other catch with selling to the LCBO. The brewery is the one ultimately responsible for the sales to end consumers, not the LCBO itself. The brewery and agent are responsible for creating awareness of the product so consumers know about it and go to the store to purchase. And if the product doesn’t sell, the LCBO requires the brewery to rebate 25% of the purchase price back to the LCBO. Having a brand being responsible for marketing is common in retail – for example, it is not up to Loblaws to advertise on behalf of non-Loblaws brands that they stock. But I’m not familiar enough with the inner workings of retail sales to know if the 25% rebate is common in other industries or not. However, it is up to us to make sure that Garrison sells, or we’re on the hook for a portion of the rest. So we put a lot of thought into what to do and hopefully when the Imperial IPA hits the shelves in the fall, beer connoisseurs in Ontario will know about it and head to the stores to pick up some.
These three forms, plus some other confirmations and label samples, were submitted as the next step in the process. Then came the responses back from the LCBO. More on that to come.
For those that don’t know, the LCBO makes their decisions for what beers come out in stores quite a long time in advance. It is released publicly what they are looking for – the LCBO calls them “Product Needs” (PDF) and issues to the trade what beers they would like to release basically a year in advance. It is then up to the agents and breweries to decide what they would like to submit for LCBO consideration. If the LCBO deems the beers a match to what they are looking for, it comes out in stores. This is the basic way the LCBO seasonal beer releases are decided, along with other products (not just beers).
This past October was the deadline for the Autumn Ales seasonal release, which will hit the store shelves in September 2010. The release called for “Products appropriate for Autumn (i.e. Belgian & English styles, Stouts, Porters, Oak aged beers)”. It also asked for “Single serving format preferred (500 mL)”, a “Proven track record in other markets” and even “award winning”.
Well, I thought to myself, Garrison Imperial I.P.A. (which it is now known) would make a good fit for this! So in conjunction with Brian at Garrison, we completed the LCBO’s requirements for submission – marketing plan, product samples and some pricing and packaging information – and brought everything over to the LCBO for them to mull over.
Fast forward to Christmas Eve, and I received an e-mail from the LCBO stating that Garrison Imperial IPA has been “selected to proceed”. Evidently on November 25th it was tasted by the LCBO, and on December 24th it was accepted! Great news indeed, as this means that more beer lovers in Ontario will be able to try this wonderful beer. Now we enter the great unknown – dealing with the LCBO on a level that isn’t simply a private order. There are even more detailed forms to complete. Labelling reviews. Product tests. Not sure what else. But we will certainly find out and you can count on more content on Free Our Beer in the coming months outlining how the process goes. However, let’s raise a glass to a fine decision made by the LCBO and tasty Garrison Imperial IPA to come (albeit quite a ways off at this point!)
OK, it’s been a few months since my last post about the Garrison private order, when I explained the letterhead issue and how that needed to be resolved to keep the process going. But what happened after that? As you’ve seen from the recent posts the beer did in fact make it to Ontario and into the hands of our consumers.
The truth is, I didn’t want to jeopardize anything by highlighting too much while the order was taking place. I kept my customers in mind – they were the ones who made this order possible and I didn’t want to have any extra delays with the order. But it’s here now so let’s talk about what happened after we got the letterhead issue sorted out.
First, here’s a funny story about what happened after I submitted the paperwork, letterhead issue aside. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the order documentation I needed to submit was 104 pages. This was a massive PDF that was about 15 megabytes. In order to process the order, I obviously needed to get the PDF to the LCBO.
Due to the sensitive nature of the document (it contained customers’ credit card information for a deposit), I wanted to be as secure as possible with the document itself. I password-protected the PDF and e-mailed it to the LCBO’s order request e-mail address. Shouldn’t be a problem, I thought, except the e-mail bounced – the address could not accept an attachment that large.
OK, on to another method. I’m generally a tech-savvy person and didn’t want to resort to printing for mailing or faxing. Not only would that be wasteful of all the paper but time-consuming as well. So I put the document onto a web site address where the LCBO could directly download the file from a link. And to be extra secure, I put another password to access the link. Again, I was doing this for the security of my customers’ personal data. One password to access the file and another one to open the document I believed was reasonable, or so I thought.
It wasn’t. After I submitted the file to the LCBO, I received a curious e-mail from the private ordering department asking me to in the future, submit orders via mail, fax or e-mail. I responded by saying that I did in fact submit it via e-mail. I received another e-mail back telling me that the way in which I submitted the order (web download) was “encumbersome[sic]and very time consuming process” and that “for efficiencies” orders should be submitted via mail, fax or e-mail.
I was quite upset about this. Here I was trying to protect the personal data of my customers and the LCBO gives me grief? Now this is clearly a case of a regular process being the way that the LCBO is used to and even the slightest variance raises a red flag. But what does this say about the mentality of the LCBO when having to take an extra step to ensure the protection of customer credit card information is seen as an inconvenience?
I responded back to the LCBO explaining that I did originally attempt to e-mail the document but the mail servers wouldn’t accept the attachment and they might want to look into that. I continued to explain that the password layers were intended for customer protection and that should be something they could understand. I didn’t hear back from them about the issue.
I did receive an e-mail later on from the LCBO telling all agents that they would no longer be requiring credit card information on the private order documentation. I guess I won’t need as many passwords for the next order.
Beer Importing is an ongoing series documenting the process of importing beer through the LCBO. This particular series documents a private order of Garrison beers from Halifax, Nova Scotia.