How new beer retailers can get craft beer right

Personally, I’ve long thought it would be a good idea to allow for a freer system of beer retailing in Ontario. There are a few upsides to the current system — especially if you’re a curious consumer in places like Hawkesbury, Rainy River or Brooklin — but it’s still the weakest link for Ontario’s otherwise thriving craft beer industry.

Rather than just applauding the move that will open beer sales to corner stores and big-box retailers, I also want to lay out my guide for how those new to selling beer can do it the right way.

Beer hates light: You’ll want, I’m sure, to tell the world about your new product line by doing what a few grocery stores have done and place the beer right in the front window. Especially for bottles: Don’t do that. Light is what causes beer to go skunky. Beer craves protection from light.

Keep it cold: There are some exceptions to this rule, especially the big-box stores in places like Vermont, but it generally seems like it’s too expensive for independent retailers to give beer the cold temperatures it needs. Chilling beer is more than a drink-it-this-afternoon convenience. Temperature is imperative to beer’s freshness. If a convenience store does a really good job of stocking interesting beer and some of it is warm-stored for a few days, I’m probably not going to travel past it to shop at an LCBO with cold room. But this will be a factor that helps me decide between private options.

Fresh is king: Even perfectly packaged beer is perishable. (At least 95% of it is.) New retailers will be tempted to bring in everything they can to demonstrate variety, but this can only lead to 12-week-old IPAs languishing on your shelves. See Montreal as the perfect example of how certain depanneurs have been marked with the negative reputation for not caring about freshness.

Be more informative: A few years back, the LCBO came up with their mostly indecipherable system of styles. (E.g., Great Lakes Canuck is “Medium & Hoppy” while Beau’s Lugtread is “Medium & Malty” and Oast House Saison is “Medium & Fruity”.) That goes a small way to help a very small slice of the market but asks way too much of the customer. Specialized beer-tailers will have the opportunity to do much better. We probably don’t need the original gravity and all eight hop varieties, so let’s have easy-to-read visual guides to alcohol, colour, hoppiness and maltiness. And maybe a QR code to the beer’s Untappd profile for those who want to read more.

Show some personality: For better or worse, the LCBO has to create a level playing field with no favour or preference. That’s fine for a government monolith, but I look forward to finding the Vincents of corner-store beer and following their picks. Hopefully, that shows up in recommended beer-and-food pairings. I.e., let’s be done once and for all with the “burgers and grilled meats” suggestion.

All of these are critical because new beer retailers almost definitely won’t be able to compete on price, at least outside the discount end of the market. (Despite what the finance minister seems to think.)

Lead photo by Jessica Furtney on Unsplash.

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