Changing how we buy beer
The sands of time appear to be running out on one of Ontario’s signature icons.
The Beer Store’s contract with the Ontario government expires on Dec. 25, 2025, and the signals from Premier Doug Ford’s government suggest it will feel little grief in seeing it lapse.
Indeed, after almost a century as a retail behemoth, it is probably a passing whose time has come. Since at least 1985, political leaders in Ontario have been promising the sale of beer in corner stores and a loosening of the Beer Store’s controlling grip.
That change has been slow in coming.
It wasn’t until 2015 that former premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government — in the biggest shakeup since the Beer Store was founded — announced that up to 450 grocery stores (roughly equal to the number of beer stores) would be allowed to sell beer.
Wynne said at the time that “the days of monopoly are done” and it was time to increase choice and convenience.
Not everyone toasted the news.
While large grocery stores were pleased, small convenience stores complained that their omission meant the competitive balance would be further tipped against them.
There were also warnings about social safety, forgone government revenues, and negative impact on recycling. The misgivings were understandable. But making beer more freely available to purchase has not led to the collapse of civilization in Ontario.
To be sure, the uses and abuses of alcoholic beverages — and alarms about the regulation and consequences of same — are threaded through provincial history. The Beer Store’s ancestry traces, in fact, to the end of a period of prohibition in Ontario.
It was founded in 1927 as the Brewers’ Warehousing Co. Ltd., a consortium of Ontario-based brewers, then known for most of its life as Brewers Retail Inc., before eventually adopting the name by which most people called it. “The Beer Store.”
Through the 20th century there were calculated tweaks and cautious changes to how beer was retailed.
In 1933, a tax on malt and hops extracts sounded the death knell for home brewing and forced beer drinkers to the Brewers Warehouse. A year later, new liquor laws allowed for the sale of beer and liquor in hotels, clubs trains and boats in the hopes of limiting bootleggers.
Increasingly, in an era when the name of the brewing game was standardization and predictability, The Beer Store bestrode the Ontario suds market like a colossus.
Under steady consolidation and increased foreign ownership it became something other than your friendly, local beer merchant.
Labatt and Molson Coors, two of the biggest brewing conglomerates on the planet, each own just under half of The Beer Store though polls consistently show that most Ontarians assume it is owned by the provincial government. It is The Beer Store owners that get to set the fees and standards to which any brewer wishing to stock products in their outlets must adhere.
Still, if increasingly unloved, and if legendary for unwelcoming atmospheres and indifferent service, The Beer Store was as familiar to most Ontarians as a high school party or a drive to the cottage.
In more recent years, with changing consumer tastes, expansion of beer sales to the LCBO, and the rise and popularity of small independent craft brewers, The Beer Store has seen a large decline in market share, store closures and the selling off of real estate.
Over time, especially after Ford threatened to rip up the current 10-year agreement, the public has likely come to expect its eventual demise. There seems dubious merit, after all, in maintaining a government regulatory system to protect foreign multinationals providing a selection and experience that many consumers find wanting.
That said, several factors need careful consideration in the looming change. In addition to selling suds, beer outlets also serve as recycling depots. The retailer boasts that in 2022 some 1.7 billion alcohol containers were returned. And almost all refillable beer bottles sold in Ontario get reused. One goal should be to preserve this recycling track record.
As well, the expansion of beer sales to convenience stores will certainly require the training of staff by responsible retailers and vigilant oversight. But as experiments go, the easing up on the controls of previous eras has been a success.
It’s time to expand on it.
Toronto Star Newspapers Limited