I hadn’t thought of an attack on Ontario’s beer retailing weirdness from the Federal level but that may be just what is lining up for 2014:
A spokesperson for the Competition Bureau confirmed Friday that it’s “currently examining the differences between the beer industries in Ontario and Quebec and exploring the effect that these differences have on competition in each province….” “The bureau chose to focus on the beer industry as there have been a number of conflicting reports as to why the price of beer varies between Ontario and Quebec,” Phil Norris, a spokesperson for the Competiton Bureau, said via email. Sources told Global News Beer Store officials and others have been interviewed by the bureau. Regulators were “collecting information from industry participants,” Norris said.
Collecting information? I suppose if the mandate is limited to assessing a nutty regulatory system’s effect on pricing one must make a study of the obvious. As Jordan has detailed, the pricing arguments may not be all they appear but for me that is not the point. I have no interest in limiting my choice when it comes to my shopping whether for beer, cheese, shoes or books or anything. I buy at least half my beer ever the course of the year in Quebec or the USA. I’ve gotten the occasional wee lectures from overly eager border guards telling me I should not buy in the States but, really, when you allow yourself to take consumer product advice with folk with sidearms where are we?
I am happy to pay full freight. I am happy to declare purchases at the border, support local and support actual well crafted just about anything. But, when it is all boiled down, what I am most happy with is the idea of reducing the intermediaries. I prefer two parties to a transaction, the maker and me. Add a third as retailer and I am not upset but getting into wholesaler, bonding firms, distributors, importers and clearance certificate issuing laboratories and you start seeing not only why a simple product like beer is over priced but over wrought. As in what hath this system wrought?
At the moment – as it has since 1927 in Ontario – it hath wrought market constriction to the point one cannot be sure of value or even preference. We get what we are given and are expected to line up and praise the short shelves of selected goods. No thanks. I’ll continue to take much of my money elsewhere until that changes. If that takes a prosecution of the provincially regulated monopoly by Federal officials, so be it.
Happy we are that the stove top and basement fireplace both run on natural gas. We still have electricity but if and when we don’t it’ll be days and days of grilled cheese then porridge, grilled cheese then porridge. We can hold out on that for a week. Week two? Beans on rice? The back step will be our freezer, the cold room under the front step our fridge. For suburbanites, we have it good – or at least the house was built in ’64 with an awareness of nature. Wine is expected to still operate in an extended blackout. As with banjos. Very Christmassy so far… sitting here early on a Saturday evening, four days before the day. Best image of the first day of the ice storm? Street skating.
This in interesting… well, to me at least. It is from the 1998 debate in the Ontario legislature on the imposition of regulation on the Brew On Premises trade. BOPs do not exist everywhere. In Ontario, they are sort of a hybrid between home brewing and macro brewing where you can go to a business and order a batch of beer from a menu, participate to a certain degree with the person running the place but get to use proper brewing set ups. In 1998, they fell under government regulation. But that’s not the interesting thing. This bit of the statement by MPP Mike Colle from 2 November 1998 is:
The appreciation of fine beer and fine Ontario wine has really exploded in Ontario in the last couple of decades. At one time, it was rare that you would go into a restaurant and see a bottle of wine on a table; you would see people having everything but wine. Now you can see Ontarians of all stripes enjoying good Ontario wine, and also they’re enjoying good beer. At one time it was just your basic beer that Ontarians were drinking. You remember the ones drinking old IPA? I call them the old IPA drinkers. Well, we’ve gone beyond the old IPA and we see people now appreciating fine-brewed micro-brews or speciality beers by the major manufacturers and brewers. It’s part of Ontario’s socioeconomic fibre that drinking beer and wine as part of your meal, in moderate, controlled fashion, is quite acceptable, It’s an industry that employs a lot of good, taxpaying Ontarians.
Apart from the weird idea that beer and wine are for mealtime, notice that reference to IPA. Likely what’s being referenced is a beer like Labatt IPA and that IPA from a point in our collective memory at its final days of popularity – before the lighter beers we all bear a certain responsibility apparently to dislike now, beers like Labatt Blue and 50. So, like now recalling the reputation of disco dancing in the age of New Wave, we are a few times removed from the beer in hand, the beer in the slur. In 1998, Colle is 53 so may be recalling the IPAs of the late 40s and early 50s. This could, in fact, be him visiting the brewery’s cask room in the 1940s. A beer with Victorian roots. The ales of his uncles perhaps.
Even just fifteen years on, it much be hard to fully appreciate the slur. What did IPA represent that was so different from “fine-brewed micro-brews”? Like Ten Penny to a Maritime kid, was it musty? Too grainy? It must have meant something to him as he referenced it three times in quick succession.
Click on that image to the right to revel in its full glory. That is an ad for the new brewery opened in my town in 1825 by Thomas Molson seeking to break out of the decades old family business down the river in Montreal. A neat if short lived enterprise. But I speak not so much of Tom or his ambitions today as the evidence in that ad of the marketplace of ideas into which he was speaking. It ran in the Kingston Chronically for for many months so it was speaking to somebody.
Notice all the sorts of beer. As this is 30 years after the earliest reference to porter being downed in Upper Canada, I am not surprised to see it on offer. On my reading of the ad, however, I see the brewery knocking out eight sorts of beer. There are five price ranges. There are wholesale and retail sales. At the bottom you can see they are buying barley which means they are, as would be expected for the times, malting their own malt. So it is likely the amber beer is made of amber malt and the brown stout is a whopping big beer made of brown malt. Now, that’s a beer to recreate.
Notice also that he will take produce or cash. Somewhere I came across an article from a few years earlier about another Kingston brewer agitating for the buying of local beer over the New York stuff. I need to dig that out. Albany made beer showed up not long after the War of 1812 ended. But by 1825, Upper Canada is well into its anti-American most conservative phase under the grip of what was known as the Family Compact. The first wave of leadership from the American Loyalist refugee group that showed up in the 1780’s after the American Revolution was lost is dying off and is passing control to British born Tories who came of age in the glory of the defeat of Napoleon. They are seeking to make Upper Canada a model colonial example to the Georgian Empire under, of course, their guiding hand.
What is really most interesting to me, that all being said, is that there were other brewers in town. With their own brands of beer. Could it be that the beer fan of 188 years ago had his or her choice of over twenty beers? Did they buy based on preferences within a wide selection? That for me would be quite, as they say, a something.
Home alone on a sick day, what else better to do but catch up with my old pal Pehr Kalm on his travels 264 years ago. Working on the Ontario beer history book in recent days, I am looking for references to brewing in New France to seek if I can established what might have been going on around here before it was even Upper Canada. See, what is now Ontario has been many things in the past, bits and pieces of many empires. Beer and other drinks hitch a ride with most of them. And until 1791, southern Ontario was part of the British colonial Province of Quebec and, before 1758-60, part of New France.
And we have some really swell tidbits of information. On 15 August 1749, Swedish botanist and diarist Pehr Kalm was at a reception for the newly arrived Governor General of New France, the Marquis de la Jonquiere, where he reports the “entertainment lasted very long and was as elegant as the occasion required.” All the greatest and the good of the colony were there but you get the sense that it was a wee bit laddish as this is the main topic he records of the conversation:
Many of the gentlemen, present at the entertainment, asserted that the following expedient had been successfully employed to keep wine, beer, and water, cool during the summer. The wine, or other liquor, is bottled; the bottles are well corked, hung up in the air, and wrapped in wet clouts. This cools the wine in the bottles, notwithstanding it was quite warm before. After a little while the clouts are again made wet, with the coldest water that is to be had, and this is always continued. The wine, or other liquor, in the bottles is then always colder than the water with which the clouts are made wet. And though the bottles should be hung up in the sunshine, the above way of proceeding will always have the same effect.
I need to try that one. We have to remember that Kalm was not an idle wanderer. As the Borgstates, he “was commissioned by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to travel to the North American colonies and to bring back seeds and plants that might be useful to agriculture.” So, he is a scientist on the lookout for things… stuff… doings and goings-on.
He describes a pretty rich diet amongst the elite. Brandy, coffee and chocolate for breakfast. Red claret and spruce beer are in much use at the noontime dinner and again at supper at seven in the evening. He notes that people store their beer in their ice cellars beneath their houses to keep it cool in the summer and notes that it is customary to put ice in drinks to keep them cool. It is likely that the beer is spruce beer as “they make a kind of spruce beer of the top of the white fir” which is seldom taken by people of quality. He also notes that it is “not yet customary here to brew beer of malt” and also “nor do they sow much barley, except for the use of cattle.”
This last bit is interesting as one hundred years before the Jesuit records clearly show efforts to create local brewing capacity as part of the earlier economy of the colony. Kalm, however, describes a wealthier and less self-sufficient colony in the late 1740s at least among the elite. There is no longer a press so all books are imported from France. Large sums are spent on boat loads of wine. Cider and beer are so 1630s it would appear.
What does that mean for Ontario? Well, likely the forts by the end of the French empire were supplied with casks of wine rather than malt made beer. Yet, in the last quarter of the 1600s, that was not necessarily the case. When the likes of Lasalle and Frontenac ruled the spot where the Great Lakes meets the St. Lawrence River… who knows?
I was never much good at math. I liked patterns and making the calculator make words if you loaded in a certain formula. “Esso Oil” could appear on the small LCD screen if you knew the right numbers. So I never became an accountant or an engineer. I was reminded of this when I came across this 1674 entry in the minute books of the Hudson’s Bay Company in London, part of that year’s provisioning of that year’s expedition to Canada’s Arctic coast. I understand that 17 men x 28 days x 3 months x 3 quarts = 5 tunns. Or 4284 quarts. But is it true that 4284 quarts equals 5 tunns? What is a tunn? Is there 4284 quarts ÷ 4 quarts in a gallon ÷ 5 tunns mean there are 214.2 gallons to a tunn? This would be a measure way off the pottle chart of the 1840s. Unless I have the math wrong.
Which is exactly the point at which I try to make words appear on my Texas Instrument solar powered pocket calculator in early 1981 or look out the classroom window daydreaming of Friday nights, past or future.