Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Beer Store- Demystified

I have to admit that the beer distribution systems of other countries usually don't interest me, but I have made an exception to Canada for two reasons:

1. I've visited Canada more than any other country.
2. The cult classic Strange Brew.

In this pivotal scene the McKinsie brothers, who are on a quest to replace their father's beer, visit a Beer Store in search of free beer. Here I saw my first glimpse of a magical store that sells nothing but beer. The scene shows that the Beer Store is a place with it's own ritual, language and quirks.

According to the movie, beer is not out for display rather you relay your order (a case of 24 beers can be called a two-four) to a clerk who calls out the order into a microphone. Moments later a case of beer flies through a hole in the wall down a belt of rollers to the clerk.

With such a strange system I was certain that such a place was merely a concoction of Hollywood fancy. This was so ingrained in my mind as the Myth of The Beer Store that I almost didn't believe my eyes on my first trip to Canada when I saw a truck bearing the iconic store's name.

I ended up not following up that first truck siting with a visit as I wasn't a beer drinker at the time. As my loyal readers know, this status has recently changed so when I walked by a The Beer Store not too long ago I popped in. Much like that scene in Strange Brew, I saw empty beer bottles adorning the wall and a magical hole in the wall through which the beer traveled once it was ordered.

Days later I realized that there were others like myself who knew next to nothing about The Beer Store and I should have learned what I could and reported it here. After I realized my folly, I promised myself that I'd make up for the mistake on my next visit to Canada.

Prior to my trip, I contacted The Beer Store and they not only agreed to let me take pictures, but they offered to take me on a tour of one of their newer stores in Waterloo, Ontario. On my visit, I learned much more about The Beer Store than I ever expected.

The store that I visited wasn't of the older style with the hole in the wall, but rather of a newer style which actually allows you to see the beer before you commit to buying it. Since I've only ever purchased beer that I could see and touch, this appealed to me greatly even though part of the magic of The Beer Store seemed to be lost with the absence of this hole.

The main portion of the store was dedicated to showcasing and storing a huge variety of Canadian beers along with some prerequisite imports. While you will find the large American brands such as Budweiser, the floor is dominated by major Canadian brands such as Molson, Labatt and Sleeman who happen to own The Beer Store. The American brands are rightly delegated to the sidelines here.

Unfortunately you won't find any craft beer from the States at The Beer Store. However, there are some Canadian craft beers available though they can be easy to miss if you aren't looking for them as the major brands get more shelf space with their mighty stacks of two-fours. The single beer selection, which I prefer to bring home with me, are almost entirely in cans and there are no ciders to speak of though I did spot a few meads. Still, if you are looking for some every day beer brewed right in Canada, there really isn't a better choice.

The Beer Store's main rival is the government, that is, the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario). While The Beer Store has locally brewed beers covered, the LCBO imports quite a few specially brews, mostly from Europe. Here's where you'll find more ciders than you can shake a stick at as well as more microbrews from Canada. What you won't find is a lot of the mass produced Canadian beer as The Beer Store has that market cornered.

Since I had visited both the LCBO and The Beer Store before none of this was completely unexpected, but what came next was. The Beer Store is a leader when it comes to recycling. For all of Ontario, The Beer Store handles the customer level returns of all alcohol containers, and I do mean all. Bottles and cans for beer are a given, but they also handle liquor bottles, wine bottles and even the bags that come in box wine.

It has always bugged me that the United States doesn't have deposits on wine and liquor bottles, but it looks like Ontario has this figured out. With all of these containers only redeemable at one place, it forces anyone wanting their deposit back to visit The Beer Store wether they got their beer at the LCBO or even at a local brewery. This is a brilliant marketing plan.

In Massachusetts you must return your empties to a store that sells that particular brand. Believe me when I tell you that this is beyond annoying. Heaven help you if someone gives you a 6 pack of something that you've never seen before.

Another thing that grinds my gears about our recycling program stateside is that we automatically crush and reprocess bottles when it's much more energy efficient to give glass a good wash and reuse them again. In many countries, including Canada, they return glass bottles to the breweries who wash and reuse them. The rings around the bottles are a testament to how many times they've been reused. Ultimately they do get melted down, but not before they've seen between 12 and 15 trips through a brewery.

I went to The Beer Store wanting to find out more about that mysterious hole in the wall, but I walked away jealous of a provinces recycling program. It's funny how these things turn out. The mystery isn't all gone though. They tell me that after a while The Beer Stores gain a smell that is all their own thanks to all of the bottle returns. I guess I'll have something forward to on my next visit to Canada.

Special thanks go out to Catherine, Dave and Craig of The Beer Store for taking time out of their schedules to talk to me, give me a tour and answer all of my endless questions- no, there is not an Elsinore brewery and yes, you have to go to the brewery if you want free beer.

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