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Buying beer is pretty easy right? Well the answer depends on which of my homes you are from. I recently moved back to Ontario, Canada after living in California for sixteen years. In California, I had my pick of a variety of beers from around the world. On any given day of the year, I could pick up a citrusy, piney India Pale Ale made by a brewery in the same county I lived in, or I could get a funky, sour Flanders Oud Bruin produced in, you guessed, the Flemish region of Belgium. Easy peasy. But now that I am back in Ontario, purchasing beer is a little more complicated. A little history lesson will help explain why.

Ontario has been a pretty stuffy, conservative place for most of its history. I mean it was founded by the English after all. The temperance movement started to make a lot of noise toward the end of the nineteenth century, and in 1916, prohibition of alcohol was instituted in Ontario. It was never a good idea, so in 1927 it was repealed and replaced with another bad idea, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The LCBO would distribute and sell wine and liquor, but they did not want to deal with beer, so they allowed the many small breweries of Ontario to form a cooperative, Brewers Retail Inc, more commonly known as The Beer Store. For decades alcohol was kept in the dark, literally. Originally, windows of the Beer Store had to be painted , and now the beer is kept out of sight in the back of the store. The brands available, along with the price and format, are listed on the wall. You tell the cashier what you want, and the beer comes shooting out of the back on a conveyor roller. Until recent decades, the LCBO was similar. You would walk in, write what you wanted on a piece of paper, and hand it to the clerk who would go in the back room to get it for you. They would bring your order wrapped in a bag, so you wouldn't contribute to the moral decay of children by openly carrying liquor. It was all pretty silly.

Now to the more recent events. The Beer Store ownership has been continually consolidated through mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies, until eventually, the three largest beer producers in Canada became the owners. Molson and Labatt each own 49% and Sleeman owns the other 2%. With Molson merging with Coors, Labatt being bought by AB InBev, and Sleeman going to Sapporo, the Beer Store is now a foreign owned corporation. To add insult to injury, the Ontario government declared that beer could not be sold for less than a buck a beer, so the good beer drinkers of Ontario are now getting the shaft, and these foreign owned corporations are reaping the huge profits. When I was in college in California, we could purchase the most vile swill labeled as beer, at a price of $13.99 for 30 cans. If we were feeling classy, we could buy Coors Light for $19.99. In Ontario, 30 cans of Coors Light will set you back $46.95. Yup, more than twice the price. If that isn't obscene enough for you, the legal monopoly that is The Beer Store tells the public that beer prices would go up if beer were sold in grocery and convenience stores. Oh right, I forgot to tell you about the distribution fees. The beer brands that make up the ownership, which is most of the major beer produced in the world, do not have to pay listing fees or purchase a SKU. Non-member breweries, like all of the microbreweries in the province, must pay $2600 per SKU listing for each brand of beer they wish to sell, along with a $280 fee for every store they wish to stock each product in. This creates a huge burden for small businesses to get their products to the market, not to mention the fact that they are giving money directly to their competition. But there is always the LCBO.

The LCBO has modernized in the past two decades by revamping their store design to provide a much more inviting and warm consumer experience. They have also started to increase their beer selection. Whereas they primarily sold import brands before, they have started to focus much more on Ontario craft beers. The sales of craft beer in the LCBO have grown exponentially over the past five years, and microbreweries in Ontario are glad not to be giving money to their competition. But the LCBO is not without its downside. Since it is a government entity, there is a large amount of red tape required just to get a product on the shelves. The beer has to be tasted by their buyers, and their packaging needs to be approved by the Social Responsibility Division. This was the reason that Dan Aykroyd had his Crystal Skull vodka banned from sale in his home province of Ontario. A microbrewery, Flying Monkeys, had one of their beers denied for social responsibility reasons as well. It is called Smashbomb Atomic IPA, and the LCBO said given what is going on in the world today, they didn't feel it was appropriate to sell the beer in their stores. Because a clever title about intense flavours is obviously going to lead to WWIII. They revamped the packaging a little, and now it is available, but it was quite the headache for the brewery.

So now back to my problem of purchasing beer in Ontario. On principle alone, I will not buy beer from The Beer Store. I don't want to support a monopoly, or the multinational brewing giants that own it. I am therefore left with only the LCBO to provide me with the beer sustenance I require. They have plenty of locations to choose from, but they all carry different products, so to find what I'm looking for, I have to go to one store to find a delicious IPA and drive to a further one to get my hands on a roasty Russian Imperial Stout. If I really want a particular style of beer that is currently unavailable at the LCBO, I am left with the option of going directly to a brewery or driving across the border to Buffalo.

Another frustration is the rotating nature of the selection. The LCBO will stock a certain number of brands year round, but most of the full flavoured beers I enjoy are special releases or seasonals. Currently, I can get an Imperial IPA and an Imperial Stout from the LCBO with relative ease, but for most of the year that's impossible. In the summer, I'll have had a Gueuze and a Kriek Lambic to satisfy my sour beer cravings, but now I must make do without them. For now, I will just have to enjoy this glass of dark, delicious stout and hope that the next seasonal selection of beers at the LCBO is enough to keep me satisfied.

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