Ontario’s “buck-a-beer” controversy

A vintage promotional bottle opener from Brewer’s Retail–“The Beer Store” from the 1970s. Photo: Dennis Gadd.

Ford’s announcement

The price of beer has caused a bit of a brew-ha-ha in Ontario lately.  Premier Doug Ford’s government is lowering the minimum price a brewery or retailer can charge of a regular-sized bottle or can of beer to $1.00 from $1.25. So-called “buck-a-beer” was allowed in Ontario from 2005 to 2008 when the former Liberal government raised it to the current minimum rate. Restoring “buck-a-beer” was one of Ford’s campaign promises before last spring’s election and the government wants to have the lower price in place by Labor Day weekend. “The days of the government putting its hand in your pocket each time you buy a two-four or six-pack is over,” said Ford when he made the announcement on August 6 at Barley Days, a craft brewery in Prince Edward County. The pricing incentive announced by Ford does not mean that all beer in Ontario will suddenly be only a dollar per can or bottle. It means brewer’s will be allowed to sell it for that price if they want.

Brewer’s reaction

The “buck-a-beer” varieties previously produced were generally low-cost brands made by larger brewing companies like Labatt, Molson, and Lakeport. Barley Days plans to make a low-cost beer, but other eastern Ontario craft breweries aren’t interested in making them. Steve Beauchesne of Beau’s All-Natural Brewing in Vankleek Hill made a direct statement on the brewery’s Facebook page in response to the Premier’s announcement.“For the record, no.  We will not be participating in the buck-a-beer challenge.  It’s a nonsensical proposition. Can we take the politics out of beer and get back to drinking it?” was Beauchesne’s statement. Beau’s was contacted for this story and a staff member said Beauchesne did not want to comment beyond his Facebook announcement.

Part of the challenge the Premier has made to breweries to produce beer at $1.00 per 341 milliliter can/bottle (most of us, even in the metric era, still say “pint”) is an incentive to get extra advertising, discounts and sales shelf space for microbrewers at Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores. Smaller craft breweries often have difficulty getting their product sold at “The Beer Store” because of its near-monopoly on the market. Brewer’s Retail, the corporate name for The Beer Store, is also owned by the three largest brewers in the province; Labatt, Molson, and Sleeman.

In 1972, beer in Ontario cost a lot less than $1.00 a bottle or can. From the 1972 Brewer’s Retail Ontario Road Map and Store Directory.

Benjamin Mercier is one of the partners in Cassel Brewery in Casselman, east of Ottawa. “It’s absolutely impossible for us to produce a quality beer at that price!” said Mercier, confirming Cassel’s non-participation. He said the smaller breweries will likely face extra competition from the big breweries who will probably offer brands at discount prices now. Mercier said the priority of most craft brewers is to use high-quality, all-natural ingredients and involve the local community. “At $1.00, you can’t even put air in a can at that price, we’re more focused on serving a high-quality, good product,” he added.

One eastern Ontario craft brewery has responded to Premier Ford’s “buck-a-beer” plan in a more activist way. Ottawa’s Dominion City Brewing Company is launching a “Buck-a-beer Ale” where one dollar of the proceeds from each can will be donated to support refugee settlement in the city.

The good old days

Beer for a dollar per pint in Ontario is still a long way from what the prices once were. In 1972, The Beer Store published a road map showing all its locations across the province and LCBO stores where beer was sold (clearly, drinking and driving was not as much of a concern then!). A case of 24 small “pint” bottles was only $5.50 and a dozen “quarts” was $3.25! That works out to 23 cents per small bottle or 27 cents a quart!

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