Sitting on the balcony of Spinnaker’s upstairs patio overlooking Victoria Harbor, a stoic Hadfield says that artisan craft brewing is perceived as an annoyance to the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB). He maintains that present day policies favor the big industrial brewers.
“The challenge we face today,” he says, “is that the LDB is operating under a business model that tries to limit its portfolio. Their current practice is to stick to the top eighty brands. That’s where the volume is. That’s where they get the best turnover. They are absolutely disinterested in products from small BC producers,” he continues, “because we can’t typically supply enough product for them to put a pallet load in each of their stores.”
Many small brewers echo that sentiment, including Ron Dyck, owner of Cannery Brewing in the Okanogan region of BC. Recently granted a government listing for his canned IPA, he says getting shelf space for his product in government stores is a huge hurdle.
“They have a philosophy of having different packages of the same beers: Budweiser, Molson, Canadian, Labatt, Corona, take your pick,” he explains. “They have about 32 different ways of buying the exact same product: six-pack cans, eight-pack cans, 12-packs, 15-packs, 18-packs, 24-packs, 30-packs, and so on, of the identical product! That takes up a huge amount of shelf space within their stores. There’s little room for the small producers.”
But not all craft producers are singing the distribution blues. Matt Phillips, brewer and owner of Phillips Brewing Co. in Victoria, makes a high quality, accessible product that has earned him a name as one the best craft masters on the market. A former brewer at Spinnakers, Phillips enjoys multiple listings of his beers in government run stores. But Phillips Brewing appears to beone of few exceptions to the rule.
“Of ten products we produce,” says Paul Hadfield, “the LDB will give us listings for two.”
Gary Lindsay, marketing director for Driftwood Brewery in Victoria, reports that of the seven beers they have offered since opening last year, they are also relegated to just two listings in government stores. “They don’t really give us a reason,” he maintains. “They sort of arbitrarily pick. You don’t know how many listings you’re going to get because there’s not a set process.”
All beer sold through government stores, as well as beer distributed by the BCLDB to private stores, must be shipped from the brewery to one of two LDB warehouses on the mainland. That’s a circuitous journey for a Victoria product to be ferried to Vancouver on the mainland, stored at the LDB warehouse, and then shipped back to the island for sale in a store just down the road from the brewery.
Those warehouses are also not refrigerated, which is discouraging for craft brewers like Driftwood. “It’s one of the reasons we don’t warehouse with them,” explains Lindsey. “We don’t pasteurize. We don’t filter. Having it refrigerated is key to the beer tasting the way it should.”
Because BC has a two-tiered system, many brewers opt to self distribute directly to the private stores, which do refrigerate. There you will find a broader selection of domestic and also imported craft beers, including Pike, Anchor and Rogue products from the States. But be prepared to pay a heavy tax and spend about fifteen dollarsa six-pack.
Despite craft beer’s apparent underdog status in BC, Spinnaker’s Paul Hadfield expresses optimism that policies will evolve along with consumer awareness, and that the playing field will be leveled.
“When we’ve got more than one or two channels for distribution,” he projects, “we’ll see competition. With that competition will come the desire to find new product and to get that product into stores and promote it.”