Beer mail: Ontario craft breweries are doing an end-run around our jammed-up beer retail system

By Jordan Duff

In 2019, ordering beer online direct from the brewery and having it delivered to your doorstep seems commonplace. It wasn’t always that way. The future is now, but we’ll have to cast back eight years to understand how far we’ve come.

As with so many beer-tales in Ontario, it begins with Beau’s All Natural Brewing. Though often associated with Ottawa, Beau’s is actually a good 100 kilometres east of Canada’s capital, in picturesque Vankleek Hill. More direct access to the Ottawa market seemed like an important opportunity. So, in 2011, Beau’s teamed up with a local charity, Operation Come Home (OCH), to create a beer home-delivery service: Buy Your Beau’s Online (BYBO).

The beer would be delivered directly, for a fee, to your home and delivery staff are members of OCH’s youth employment initiative. The $8 delivery charge goes to Operation Come Home to fund their full range of programmes.

“BYBO serves a vital connection to the brewery for many of our fans who can’t make it all the way to Vankleek Hill,” says Beau’s CEO Steve Beauchesne, “It’s a real triple win: Our customers get our beer more conveniently, our brewery gets additional sales and homeless youth get a chance to earn a paycheque, build their resume and hopefully find a way off the streets.”

As Beauchesne notes, on paper it was a win-win-win. However, issues with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) meant that the operation was almost stopped before it began. While beer delivery services were allowed to buy beer from the LCBO or The Beer Store, they couldn’t from breweries. As so rarely happens, legislation was quickly changed, breweries were included as licensees and BYBO has been running successfully ever since.

Here in Ottawa, Brew Donkey launched in 2013 when they spotted a business opportunity. The company would serve as a delivery service for all local breweries and would even collect empty growlers. At their height, they had over 200 beers, from 25 local breweries, listed on their web site.

At that time, many local breweries were not available at the LCBO or The Beer Store, and so Brew Donkey was the most convenient way to sample and support local beer.

Brew Donkey owner Brad Campeau notes another advantage to his model: “In 2013, the laws around shipping alcohol were such that Canada Post did not allow it and only private couriers were willing to do it.”

Canada Post starts delivering beer

But as the rules changed, his home delivery model was no longer sustainable. “In mid-2016 the LCBO began their online ordering and shipping,” explains Campeau. “This was made possible through changing the rules around Canada Post. This also resulted in craft breweries being able to ship direct to homes affordably and legally.”

Due to these changes, Campeau shuttered the delivery service. And since then his company has very successfully shifted focus to brewery tours in the Ottawa area.

Since deliveries can come by mail, consumers have much greater access to Ontario craft beer. Conversely, breweries now have access to consumers in markets they couldn’t reach before.

Dominion City Brewing, nestled in Ottawa’s Beacon Hill neighbourhood, is a prime example of a brewery taking advantage of home delivery. At press time their eight online offerings ranged from the popular Sunsplit NEIPA to the new Avian Principality American brown ale.

“We launched our online beer shop in September 2017,” says co-founder Josh McJannett, “This was something we wanted to do because extending our taproom offering to beer lovers across Ontario supports our vision to sell the freshest, most exciting and delicious beer we can make as directly as possible. We sell only a tiny portion of our beer through off-site retail channels and have no ambition to be listed at the LCBO.”

In the “Amazon age” it’s not surprising that people are having craft beer delivered to their front stoop. “We’ve seen weekly orders grow from a handful to consistently being in the dozens,” says McJannett, “Last month we announced $10 flat rate shipping for orders over $40 and we’ve seen a big jump as the cost of having our beer delivered to your door has become even more affordable for people.”

Moose Factory, on the southern tip of James Bay, is the furthest a Dominion City order has gone.

Specialized craft breweries thrive on home-delivery option

From Beacon Hill to Kanata, west of Ottawa, Small Pony Barrel Works is another brewery taking advantage of mail-direct sales. They are Ontario’s only all barrel-aged sour beer brewery. Even within craft beer, these niche beers have a limited market, so direct access to the consumer has been essential for brewer-owner Sean McVeigh.

“While we may only see a fraction of the customers a conventional brewery sees in a week, we also aren’t sharing the overall craft beer drinking crowd as broadly with other breweries. That is to say that if someone likes sour beer, there may only be a small number of breweries to choose from, and they may not be nearby,” says McVeigh. “So, for us, beer mail is a way to still be accessible to that niche group of sour lovers, since there isn’t a sour beer brewery in every suburb in Ontario.”

Interestingly, McVeigh has gone beyond using the online tool simply for sales and also uses it to interact with fellow sour fans. “My online store has also become an invaluable way for me to interact with my beer club, who can reserve bottles for pickup later in the year, or consolidate orders in the future and ship them out,” says McVeigh “So we’re not just using it as a mail-order portal.”

McVeigh credits Half Hours on Earth Brewery for blazing the “sour beer in the mail trail” that he’s now following. The small batch brewery is located roughly 200 kilometres west of Toronto in Seaforth and produces farmhouse and lambic-style beers. Focusing on top-notch niche styles meant thinking outside the box and the progressive brewery looked to shipping immediately.

Kyle Teichert, co-owner, explains: “We started working on our business plan in 2013, and home delivery was actually the main part of the plan. There weren’t many sour/farmhouse beers available at the time in Ontario, and given our location, we initially thought shipping would be the only way to get our beer out there. It had crossed our mind to not have a retail store at all, only days available to pick up an order.”

Taking their lead from wineries, who have been mailing directly to consumers for years, they were pioneers in bringing beer into the online-ordering age and took full advantage of Canada Post’s changes. “Shipping beer across the province certainly helped spread the word of our brewery,” says Teichert. “It also led to quite a few emails, almost weekly, from other breweries with questions about going online.”

And beyond getting beer out of Seaforth, the owners of HHoE can also now order beer from the many breweries that have joined them in the future: “Over two years later, it’s great that there are now so many breweries online in Ontario. Definitely makes it easier for us to get a variety of beer to Seaforth!”

Shipping craft beer from outside of Ontario

We reached Canada Post and they said: “Canada Post delivers alcohol in many Canadian provinces. As you are aware, Canada Post is not the regulator. There are strict guidelines that we must follow when it comes to the delivery of controlled products, such as alcohol. Shippers are responsible to ensure these items are properly prepared and meet applicable requirements for mailing.”

Exciting times! Beer mailed directly to your home. But there are still restrictions, for instance, beer cannot be shipped across provincial borders.

So while it’s hard to find excitement in Canada Post’s statement, beer nerds across Ontario have been getting excited about Bellwoods Brewery’s newly launched online store.

Bellwoods’ Joey Seaman explains that the online shop has been a longtime goal for the business, “It can be a challenging sales environment in Ontario for most breweries, so having the option of an online bottle shop is a great way to finally get beer to those who can’t make it to our brewery on a regular basis,” says Seaman. “We also love the fact that we’re able to continue dealing directly with people who want our beer. This has been a big part of

Bellwoods from the beginning and we really don’t want that to change.”

The beer world has a long history of unchanging rules and regulations, by those low standards, these changes have actually moved relatively quickly. From Beau’s launching BYBO to more than a dozen Ontario breweries with online stores, we’ve come a long way in a few years.

So, crack open a parcel and raise a pint to the joy of online shopping for beer.

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