The proposition is that restaurants and bars should be able to sell beer. Can you imagine the chaos? The drunken anarchy that would surely be unleashed on Ontarians if these purveyors of hospitality, scattered as they are on streets in virtually every neighbourhood throughout our fair city, were allowed to taint their operations by accepting money for intoxicating drinks? Can you even begin to fathom the implications?
Wait, that can’t be right. Hold on.
It seems we already license bars and restaurants, tens of thousands of them, to sell booze. And not just beer, but wine and hard liquor, too. There are all kinds of them, on every main street, even ones that will bring you a cocktail right to your table, while your own children and the good Lord sit there and watch you drink it.
If that’s the case, then what’s the controversy?
Oh, right. The proposition, put forward by the trade association Restaurants Canada, is that restaurants and bars be allowed to sell beer to go. They seem to think that just because we trust them to sell it by the glass or bottle or pitcher to people who sit at the bar and watch our losing sports teams and make strained conversation with strangers as they try to forget the stress of the office and avoid thinking about the commute home, they ought to be able to pack it up and sell it to those same people to drink in their own homes, watching the game on their own TVs, boring their own friends and families with their small talk.
Which, come to think of it, seems like it shouldn’t be all that controversial. I mean, bars are already staffed with people trained in the laws of alcohol sales, used to asking for identification and refusing services to drunks and all that. They already have distribution from wholesalers in place. They’re already subject to licensing and inspection from the provincial authorities.
As the province debates ways to modernize booze sales in Ontario, letting pubs become retailers seems like the most natural thing in the world, actually. The concept, called “off sales” since the beverages are consumed off the premises where they’re sold, is already commonplace in England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, Texas and other states, and six Canadian provinces, including Quebec.
In fact, if you know where to look, it’s already popular here in Toronto. Within walking distance of my house in the Junction, there are two places where you can buy a beer in a glass to drink, and then get up and buy some more to take home.
Now, the Junction is a place with a strange history related to alcohol. After a tavern patron was murdered after a night out at one of the raucous local taverns near the turn of the last century, booze sales were banned here in 1903. That prohibition lasted until after the turn of this century, when the first drink was poured on Dundas St. in 2001 at a place called Shox.
Maybe it’s because the fortunes of the neighbourhood turned around once the taps started running, turning from a blighted skid row into a happening restaurant strip, that suddenly ours is a neighbourhood where you can see the proposed future of beer retailing in action.
But there it is, for example, on Dundas St. West near Keele, at the Indie Ale House, where a sign in the window reads “Craft Beer To Go.” Inside, there are tables and a bar where you can buy beers brewed on the premises (including ones with names such as “Broken Hipster” and “Glory and Consequences”) and maybe order a sandwich to go with them. And there’s a counter near the front (accessible by law through a separate entrance, too) where you can buy the same beers in bottles to take home.
Like the Junction Craft Brewery around the corner, and a handful of other places around Toronto (Granite, Mill Street, Bellwoods, to name a few), the Indie Ale House falls under an exemption in the law for genuine brew pubs and breweries, which are allowed to run their own retail operations and pubs or tasting rooms at the site where they make beer.
Talking to owner Jason Fisher in the dining room next to the retail counter, with the smell of hops in the air and the staff gearing up for the after-work crowd, he says it makes some sense to extend the same retailing rights to other restaurants, though he says if the aim is to break up the monopoly that the big brewers have with The Beer Store, “it’s a half-step at best.”
Fisher expects that unless the laws are written in a very specific way, the big breweries such as Molson and Labatt will quickly dominate the offerings of off-sales business, just as they do current beer retail. “The devil’s going to be in the details, as it is with all things, especially Ontario government liquor regulations.”
He thinks just deregulating beer sales altogether — so that anyone who wants to can open a beer store if they play by the licensing rules — makes more sense.
But when asked about the more practical concerns for community regulators about how it would work, and whether it makes sense, he almost seems to shrug. “There’s really no problems for the community. I guess if you’ve got a problem bar, it will probably be worse, not better.” But it’s a generally uncontroversial part of his business.
The biggest problem he’s encountered, if you want to call it that, is brewing enough beer to sell. Right now, retail sales account for about 20 per cent of his total volume, but he says it’s an “artificial” number because he sells out of beer faster than he can make it, a situation being rectified by expanding brewing capacity.
This is a common problem for craft breweries running their own retail operations. “Bellwoods brewery had a situation last weekend; they had people lined up down the street, but they sold out of beer two hours after they opened.”
So that, it seems, is the way the community responds to a local bar selling beer to go. They don’t complain. They buy it.
If you’re trying to imagine, this is what follows allowing off-sales in restaurants. Not chaos. Not anarchy. Convenience. That alone is reason to be skeptical Ontario will ever implement it widely.