AHU: Beer without borders?

Originally published in The McGill Daily on January 10, 2008.

It was from the Wikipedia entry for the malt liquor Olde English 800 that I first learned the horrible truth.

I’ve always known that inter-provincial trade barriers were the arch-villain of Canadian craft-brewing culture, but didn’t know the extent to which they thwarted a national appreciation for beer. As Chris Johnston, Director of Packaging and Information for Steam Whistle Brewing in Toronto, explains, “Previous to the early nineties, you needed to have a brewery in the province in order to sell beer there.” Once that restriction was lifted, brewers were free to ship their products over provincial borders, but now with a heavy tax: the local alcohol boards treat the incoming Canadian beer as a foreign import. Suddenly, a small-scale beer from Manitoba is taxed as much as Olde English.

The one exception is Alberta, where the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission allows any Canadian beer to enter without the same heavy tariffs levied by other provinces. As a result, many breweries, including Steam Whistle and locals like MacAuslan and Boréale, can sell in Alberta freely, their beer taxed only as much as an Albertan beer. For out-of-province breweries, Alberta acts as a new market – especially as it is the province with “Canada’s highest percentage of premium beer drinkers,” according to Steam Whistle Marketing Manager Chris Goddard.

With few provincial barriers into Alberta, craft breweries are given an alternative to the Beer Stores of Ontario. Formed initially by brewers working with the Ontario government, the Beer Store is now owned equally by macrobreweries Labatt and Molson, and a two per cent share is granted to Sleeman. Nothing kills the craft-brewing industry like a monopoly of foreign-owned beer corporations.

Neither are Albertan Brewers amused about the surplus of beer available in their home province. Neil Herbst, owner of Alley Kat Brewing in Edmonton, just sees the influx as added competition. “To sell across Canada would be relatively simple” were it not for the regulations, says Herbst. He looks forward to the time when Canadians can enjoy beer from around the country, saying, “There are cultural similarities across the country, and they do not exclude beer.” Until then, Alley Kat will only be available in its two areas of distribution: Alberta and Korea.

What does this all mean for you, the beer drinker in Montreal? The depanneurs of our city are filled with only the beer that can afford to pay the taxes required for sale in Quebec. Rickard’s and Alexander Keith’s are widely available domestic beers, but the real gold lies in the beer that can’t leave the province. If you’re in Mile End, go to Marche Rahman (151 Laurier O.), or a fabulous dep in the Plateau at the corner of Berri and Duluth. Both stores have an abundance of Québécois beers and knowledgeable employees. On the bar scene, joints like Vices et Versa (6631 St. Laurent) and Saint Bock (1749 St. Denis) will heighten your appreciation of beer from Quebec – and it’s all just for you.

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