B.C. Beer Blog

The who, what, where, when, why, and how of B.C. craft beer

Why Grapes are Being Freed While Hops Remain Shackled

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by WanderingPaddy

Over the past month, BC wine consumers and the BC wine industry have had several reasons to pop champagne corks in celebration of changes to both federal and provincial laws which have benefited both groups. First Bill C-311, a Private Member’s Bill introduced into the House of Commons by Okanagan-Coquihalla MP, Dan Albas, prompted an amendment to the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act (IILA) of 1928. Federal law now allows wine, and wine only, to transported or shipped across provincial borders by consumers. Spirits and beer are still illegal to ship or transport across provincial boundaries, as they have been since the introduction of the IILA.

Next, the provincial Liberals got in on the act by allowing consumers to buy direct from Canadian wineries. As an added bonus, they do not have to pay the BC Liquor Distribution Branch’s (LDB) 123% mark-up! Even though the feds now allow cross-border wine shipments, it is the provincial governments that ultimately have control over what alcohol gets imported into their jurisdictions. So this move was critical to give Bill C-311 some meaning. Again, these allowances were made for wine only, leaving laws unchanged in regards to spirits and beer.

If that weren’t enough,  Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for all things liquor in BC, next announced that BC wine lovers could now take their favourite bottle of wine to participating restaurants, pay a corkage fee, and enjoy it with their meal. The allowance for Bring Your Own Wine (BYOW) was immediate and restaurants have been taking advantage of the freedom since the announcement was made in mid-July.

All of these great freedoms and allowances for wine lovers have craft beer drinkers crying into their sleeves. The moves definitely give the appearance that BC wine consumers and the wine industry get favourable treatment from the BC Liberals, the LDB, and the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB). In many cases this is true, but in these cases I would argue that these wine-centric changes have been well-earned by wine consumers in this province. They have organized, lobbied, and gained industry support to back their fight to change laws.

Groups like #freemygrapes – who Albas thanks on his website for their essential support – and Modernize Wine have been working hard to bring wine consumers together on issues. They form loud, strong voices that the government and the wine industry have not been able to ignore. They have a small core of very dedicated people who are adept at creating a buzz, educating other consumers about the importance of supporting their movements, and catching the attention of politicians. They are good at defining ahead of time, exactly what it is that they want, creating an action plan, and then going out and getting the results they want.

Contrary to popular belief, these movements are not heavily funded by deep-pocketed vineyard owners, at least not in the beginning. #Freemygrapes and Modernize Wine are consumer-driven, grassroots movements. They maximize social media to create a buzz and focus attention on themselves. They often organize online chats to discuss the issues at hand and keep people focused. They have e-mail write-in and Twitter campaigns that target politicians and bureaucrats in positions to influence the changes they seek, and that put pressure on the various private sector groups to support them. More important than organizing these awareness-raising events, they get participation in large numbers, which is essential. They are determined and have been organizing for years. This is one of the major reasons why they are now meeting with success.

Having these movements driven by consumers makes sense. Many, if not all, manufacturers, vendors, and importers of alcohol in BC are afraid to stick their heads up and speak out about problems, much less demand changes. This comes from an atmosphere of fear due to the widely-held belief that voicing complaints and concerns will result in reprisals from the LCLB and LDB. I don’t know how many times I have heard from licensees that both government agencies are vindictive when challenged, either privately or publicly. For an example, you only have to look at the RIO Theatre saga. The RIO ownership challenged the Liberal government and the LCLB in the media to allow liquor to be served in theatres, and paid the price with the process dragging on much longer that it needed to. It almost cost them their business, before Mr. Coleman finally did what he should have done straight off, which was to change decades-old liquor policy that had no place being enforced in the 21st century. It is a widely-held belief that the the RIO’s licensing was purposely delayed to make the ownership pay for their direct public challenges. These are, of course, just rumours.

So it is up to us consumers to lead the charge. We have less to lose from the LCLB and/or LDB than private business. They cannot suspend our liquor license or hit us with some arbitrary fine for “contravening” liquor laws. They cannot lose our liquor order or our paperwork, delaying payment for products sold weeks before. They can ignore us. But in the end, if consumers make enough noise with enough people, politicians – who ultimately call the shots for the LCLB and LDB – will listen because consumers are voters. And in the end, politicians are all about getting votes to stay in power.

The craft beer consumer is not without options. They have CAMRA BC and their branches in Vancouver, Victoria, and the Fraser Valley to rally around. CAMRA BC does have some weight, with close to 1,100 individual members and over 80 corporate supporters. But those numbers mean nothing if the majority are silent and/or unwilling to get involved. I made recent calls to the membership to write e-mails to LCLB General Manager, Karen Ayers, and Rich Coleman in support of CAMRA Vancouver’s Bring Your Own Craft Beer Campaign. Of Vancouver’s 700+ members, around 250 signed our petition and about 20 wrote e-mails (my thanks to those who did).

Movements and campaigns are only as effective as those supporting it. Until craft beer consumers learn to get as organized, vocal, and supportive as wine consumers, they are going to be like poor kids standing outside the candy shop, their noses pressed up against the window, jealously watching the rich kids inside the store sampling and buying their sweets.

So craft beer lovers, if you want to #freemyhops, Bring Your Own Craft Beer, or are against the LDB privatization, get active, get involved. Support your consumer groups. CAMRA BC and CAMRA Vancouver are trying to make a difference. Write letters to the editor, get involved in Twitter and e-mail campaigns, sign petitions, get friends and family interested in supporting the cause. If you are waiting for the person next to you to fight your battle, don’t; because I have news for you. They are probably waiting for you to fight theirs.

~ originally published on the VanEast Beer Blog on July 31, 2012.

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