Craft distilleries multiply

AHEAD OF THE HEARD -- A visit to a farmer's market in Invermere, B.C. brought to light how far we have come with the sale of alcohol.

AHEAD OF THE HEARD — A visit to a farmer’s market in Invermere, B.C. brought to light how far we have come with the sale of alcohol. That market had two vendors selling B.C. distilled vodka and gin directly to consumers.

It was somewhat jarring to your ancient columnist to see such open sale of alcohol. Your writer is of the vintage that recalls entering a liquor store where one had to write down one’s request and give it to a clerk, who then went behind a curtain to retrieve the sinful alcoholic product.

At one time buyers even had to acquire a purchasing license and were restricted to buying a maximum quantity per day. The government’s intent back then seemed to be to discourage the buying of booze as much as possible. I am not sure that approach worked but it instilled a deep “prohibition” attitude into generations of busybody bureaucrats, who seemed to take delight in inventing absurd regulations. Back in the ’70s, the B.C. Liquor Commission disallowed the serving of booze on rooftop patios for fear that passing helicopter pilots might see the public consumption of liquor and would lose control of their aircraft. Ah yes, the good old days!

It has taken decades but governments in Alberta and B.C. have come to the realization that the sale of alcohol is an economic opportunity that needs marketing support, not nuisance regulations. That approach has led to amendments to allow the establishment of small-scale breweries and distilleries and the sale of alcoholic products outside of liquor stores and restaurants. The loosening of those regulations was a long, convoluted process – entrenched bureaucrats do not easily allow their arbitrary powers to be lessened. One also suspects that the major breweries and distilleries furiously lobbied those same regulators to derail and delay any changes to liquor marketing.

Despite the resistance to change, the result has been that both provinces have dozens of craft-style breweries and distilleries. Contrary to popular belief, setting up a craft alcohol business is not quite a license to print money – only provincial liquor boards can do that – nevertheless the industry has attracted a swarm of hopeful entrepreneurs.

The brewing and distillation process is pretty straightforward and getting into the actual production of beer or alcohol is relatively easy – just buy the equipment, acquire the expertise, and bingo, you are in business. The real hurdle is selling your products to the public. Both Alberta and B.C. have allowed the sale of craft alcohol products from the producer’s premises and at farmer’s markets but to successfully do that a nascent brewer or distiller needs to create a unique product that will attract the consumers’ notice – not an easy task considering the multitude of new entrants all promoting their products as better, more tasty and more authentic than that of their competitors.

B.C. requires that all craft distillers must use 100 per cent BC agricultural products, that’s seen a plethora of different vodkas, gins, and whiskies made from a collection of ingredients including rhubarb, lemon grass, barley, cucumber, wheat, raspberry, honey, hops, and huckleberries. Water is described as being from glacial, spring, and pristine sources. Locale is critical, so every region claims it is by far the best place to distill any product. Uniqueness is also critical; an Alberta vodka infused with hemp oil was a runaway success.

Local and on-site marketing may be okay but the real volume comes in selling booze to restaurants and liquor stores – and that’s where the fun and aggravation starts. It’s a lot easier in Alberta because we have private liquor stores and fairly easy regulations. It’s tougher in B.C. because their stores are government-owned. The problem in both provinces is that liquor commissions in both provinces want their pound of flesh and they want a big chunk – with at least a 150 per cent markup through various fees, margins, taxes and handling charges. In some instances they don’t even touch the product. Both provinces try to give craft producers some financial breaks to encourage local production but hidebound bureaucrats can’t resist monkeying with the rules.

In B.C., booze sold at local markets and on-site was exempt from liquor commission handling fees – but no more – producers now pay the same fees as everyone else. In Alberta tax breaks for craft producers were also recently reduced. I guess the small distillers and brewers were making too much money, or maybe they were starting to affect the sales of the giant distillers and brewers and their lobby has been applying pressure on the bureaucrats.

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