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When Will Local Back Local?

Few places on the Prairies will offer this kind of tap selection

The other day I needed to take my car into the shop for servicing. I had an hour or so to kill, so I wandered into a nearby pub for a pint to bide my time. I won’t name the establishment, but I will say it is independently owned, prides itself on its local connections and it books and promotes a variety of local musicians to play there.

It seemed like the kind of place I might want to be. It was quiet when I walked in. I slipped up to the bar and inquired as to what they have on tap. I looked over at the tap lines and found 4 Big Rock product, 2 Sleemans, Blanche de Chambly (owned by Sapporo/Sleeman) and Guinness (distributed by Labatt). This is a fairly common sight in Edmonton, so I wasn’t all that surprised.

I decided to ask the server (who, I discover later, is one of the owners) why they don’t carry any local beer. At first they say they carry a couple in the bottle, but when I push they admit to having none in stock at the moment. I keep at it. I mention that there are a number of great local beer that their customers would enjoy, and that it would fit into the atmosphere of their pub. Their response? “I need to make money. I carry what sells.” I respond by saying that if they carried the local beer, they would sell as that is what happens at other pubs in town. They retort that maybe in the future they might pick one local beer up but they need to keep what they have because they “make me money”.

I had a quick glass of Blanche de Chambly (a beer I quite enjoy) and left before my car was ready. And as I walked back to the mechanic’s shop, I got to thinking about our exchange. And the more I thought about it, the more miffed I got.

Here was a bar marketing itself as a local, independent option to the big pub chains and it refused to carry any local beer. Yes, it had Big Rock, which is a couple of steps above most places. But couldn’t it find space for even one local beer? It was very discouraging. And mostly because this place was not the exception, but the norm. Most pubs in Edmonton refuse to even glancingly consider a local option. They are far too conservative.

I don’t expect anything from the Boston Pizzas or even The Pints of the world, because they are controlled by large chains and most decisions are made centrally. But if you run an independently-owned, local pub, I expect more. You can go your own way and if your clientele back you, there is no downside. But far too many independent places play the same game as the big boys.

And that game is “inducements”. This is the promise from the brewery of some kind of reward for carrying their beer. It might be a free keg for every 5 or 10 kegs sold. It might be an allotment of swag like t-shirts, glasses, coasters and so on. Or it might be paying for a tap line installation, or covering the costs of a band or a promotion. It might even be the costs of a contest prize. The range of quiet encouragements is endless.

Of course, few owners “own up” to these kind of arrangements. I have asked many pub owners about their beer arrangements and I have learned there is a code. “I need to carry what sells”. “My tap lines are committed”. “No one asks for X beer”. “My customers want X”. There is an evasiveness when asked about contracts, inducements and encouragements.

I have no hard proof, although I have heard the story too many times from different beer people to believe it doesn’t exist. But no one will talk. The reason might be that such gifts are illegal in Alberta (see sections 81 and 82 of the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Regulation). Not that anyone enforces the law, but they do remain officially verboten. There is a mutual interest in keeping the whole practice under the rug. This is neither new nor unique to Alberta. It is basically standard operating procedure across North America. And, while it frustrates me, I am resigned to it. Except when the recipient is a locally owned pub proclaiming to be proud of their local roots.

You would think they could rise above such crass inducements. Their clientele usually have integrity and so would appreciate an option. Most of the local places that have offered local or good craft beer find it outsells the corporate doppelganger previously offered (case in point, see Sugar Bowl). So, frankly, there is no excuse. The reluctance is purely a consequence of buying into the system – which is something a local pub should avoid.

I left that pub unhappy, and will likely never return for the simple fact they refuse to support local beer. The local Edmonton breweries work hard to be a part of the community and do their best to support other local businesses.

When will local pub owners reciprocate? It is about time.

11 comments to When Will Local Back Local?

  • Isotopic

    Can you clarify your comment on the legality of inducements? It’s not clear whether you have identified an actual law that might have been violated or are speculating as to whether one exists.

    I’m sympathetic to the pub owners – I’m sure that most of their sales run through those familiar big-names breweries, and moving away from that might be percieved as risky. It’s not clear to me that sales of a local beer _would_, in general, pick up at your average bar. Places that I know that can be relied on to carry locals tend to be closely associated with particular demographics (for me that’s Sugarbowl and the UofA Faculty Club; naturally I don’t know where the pub under consideration is located). I know a lot of people that blanch when they see an unusual looking tap, and I strongly suspect that they represent the rule rather than the exception.

    Of course, I’m with you and would really like to see a larger variety at the average bar. I suppose that one way out of this is to simply start asking for local beer and creating a perception of demand. …and possibly not in a way that implies that we know better about how to run their business? 😉

    • Isotopic,

      I thought I was fairly clear – inducements are illegal. Reference sections 81 and 82 of the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Regulation. I have edited the post to include a hyperlink.

      I am not asking pubs to eliminate all the big boy entries. Just put a couple of taps of local in, honestly try to push them, and see the results. Plus I am quite sensitive to hypocrisy. If you try to draw customers using local, don’t trash local brewers who are trying to do the same thing. That is why I distinguish between the chains and the independents. I believe the latter have to live to a higher standard.

      Interestingly, local restaurants are doing a better job of this than pubs. Many independent local restaurants carry local beer, either on tap or in the bottle. It is one of the reasons I frequent those places.

  • Supporting local is easier said than done. We learned that well in our early days of Wunderbar. We initially offered one non-local option and it sold dramatically better than the local beer. Not that it was better, but people tend to prefer something familiar. We are small enough to be able to get rid of big sellers and instead support local and give our money to breweries we believe in, but it’s not easy. Most bars that have a local tap do it for the sake of supporting local, but most of these bars rarely push that beer.

    Luckily, there are a handful of bars out there willing to do what we do, to varying degrees and it seems to be catching on more and more.

    That said, I’m sure there are tons of bars that don’t do this that are far more financially stable than ours.

    • Craig,

      I defer to your direct experience at Wunderbar. I respect it may not be as easy as I make it sound. But, really, is the bar in question going to really lose out by having one or two taps of Alley Kat, Amber’s, Yellowhead or Roughneck?

      You guys are the gold standard on this front. I like to joke that your tap import is from Calmar (Roughneck). You deserve huge love from the local beer afficionados.

      I think part of my agenda here is to push the other independent owners to aim higher. Putting on a pint of Full Moon or whatever is not going to bankrupt you – but it will enhance your local cred.

  • Isotopic

    Thanks for the clarification, it was the “might” that confused me, and I thought it was useful to know for sure.

    As far as the “local” moniker is concerned, I suppose the perception of what is “local” plays a factor. If one believes that -say- _Keiths_ is a local-feeling beer (as a consequence of advertising and packaging), that customer might feel perfectly comfortable with a pub that has claims to local-cred. This, of course, gets back to your argument about “crafty” mis-representation of brewing practices.

    Of course, I agree with you here and would like to see local really mean local. I’ll make a point of asking for an Alley-Kat the next time I have the unfortunate opportunity to be at the pub across the street.

  • old coyote

    More consmers just need to be aware of local options, I often stop at breweries and ask where to find their beer on tap. Those are the establishments I frequent, and I put my money where my mouth is – if I ask for local beer and encounter opposition, I tell the highest ranking employee available that I will not come back until they carry true micro beer. I also leave my phone number if they want it. In my city that means I drink at one bar only and take others there often. That is my over zealous approach, not for everybody, but it has worked in places like Victoria.

  • Isotopic

    @OldCoyote. I think that’s exactly right. If there is a perception of demand, there will be a change of taps.

    …and I have to agree on how nice Victoria is. You can’t swing a dead cat downtown without hitting a local tap.

  • Ernie

    I think that’s because Victoria has a bylaw that says you can’t swing dead cats downtown. :p

  • Deacon

    Great post! When I visited Nola on 118th avenue for the first time last week, I was thrilled to discover they had two Yellowheads and an Amber’s on tap. Maybe we’ll see more like this if more patrons request it, like you did?

  • Wow, great article and great responses.

    I would like to clarify a couple of points in the article and in the comments. Firstly, the Pint does carry a local option. They carry our Pepper Berry and various seasonals. In Deacon’s Post he mentions that NOLA carries one Amber’s and Two Yellowhead. It is in fact our Zombie Apocalypse and our French Quarter as well as Yellowhead’s Lager.

    I also want to say thanks to everyone for keeping it all so civil.

  • Calliway

    I have to say that I agree with this article. I had the complete surprise one day to end up outside of the Yellowhead Brewery downtown Edmonton, looking in. The Brewer’s assistant waived me in and to my delight gave me a full tour of the brewery. He was extremely passionate about the brewery, their beer and what they are trying to achieve. He took me upstairs to the area they rent out for private engagements and the manager came out. We sat and chatted for a while about distribution, the process and what they want to achieve. The owner then brought some bottles and poured a round for the three of us and asked me to tell him about the beer. I yammered away about different aspects of their beer. What a wonderful afternoon a walk downtown produced.

    It is shameful that Yellowhead lager is hard to find and not in the majority of Edmonton Pubs. They are very proud of their lager and should be. They were willing to take time out of their day so that one person, me, could experience their beer. That says something about the integrity and pride of those who run Yellowhead.

    The growth of their business is dependant on the pubs putting it in. I would like to see more local brews in local pubs. I mean heck, put your Budweiser, Canadian and Keats taps in but save room for at least a local brew or two. Then educate your staff and promote it from within. People listen and trust the staff.

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