The American brewing industry has changed dramatically since 1978, when U.S. president Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing. This spawned a generation of hobbyists turned artisans that have revolutionized the beer market. The number of breweries in the United States has grown from under 100 to well over 3,000.
The majority of Americans live within 15 kilometres of a local brewery. Craft beer now accounts for nearly 15 per cent of beer consumed in the United States, with much higher percentages in trendy cities like Portland, where there are 56 breweries in city limits and craft beer has a 36.6 per cent market share. Craft beer is gradually filling the cultural role in American life played by wine in France.
The Canadian craft brewing industry has burgeoned in a few cities, though it has a lot of catching up to do. Vancouver and Montreal have strong craft beer scenes, and Toronto brewers are multiplying despite the government sanctioned beer monopoly their competitors enjoy. Winnipeg remains stubbornly behind in large part due to archaic regulations.
Manitoba's provincial government has tepidly reformed liquor laws to bring them more in line with the rest of the world. But there is much work to be done. While off-sale vendors exist, specialty beer stores aren't allowed to operate in the province (though specialty wine stores are permitted). Beer aficionados are left to choose from either the small selection at Liquor Mart stores, or buying their beer in North Dakota (which has many times the selection despite the small population).
The government monopoly liquor distribution model has not only made it challenging for breweries to open, but also for specialty craft beer bars to open up. Indeed, Winnipeg's first specialty craft beer bar only opened last year. Few bars have the resources to jump through the hoops of getting special orders through the liquor commission.
The province's most recent liquor reform proposal would legalize growler sales. Growlers are re-sealable jugs for beer that have become popular stateside. Since bottling and canning isn't always practical for breweries, growlers have materialized as an efficient way to distribute beer. That is market-driven innovation at its finest.
The province's proposal would allow people to fill up growlers at certain Liquor Mart outlets, as well as at craft breweries. While this is a sensible measure, change will be gradual since there are so few breweries currently in operation or planned for Manitoba. That is largely since the province has historically had exceptionally prohibitive liquor policies (brew pubs were illegal until recently, and none have opened to date). Legalizing growlers is a welcome step, but further reforms are necessary to ensure most people have a place to fill them. Growlers are most popular in neighbourhoods like Nordeast in Minneapolis, where people can use growlers to collect novel brews from several breweries within walking distance.
While some might worry about the prospect of having several breweries in such close proximity, craft breweries tend to be good neighbours. They typically attract people looking to quietly sample novel beers. Their presence can also help revitalize neighbourhoods, as has been the case in Nordeast.
Since the province isn't about to give up its monopoly on liquor sales, a reasonable half-step would be allowing specialty beer stores to set up shop and allowing Manitoba breweries to open their own off-site retail locations. Since not everyone can conveniently get to Half Pints, allowing them and other breweries to open satellite locations would make craft beer much more accessible.
Allowing Manitoba brewers and specialty stores to sell products from other craft breweries could transform Manitoba into a leader in the Canadian craft beer market, particularly since Ontario and Saskatchewan breweries often have difficulty getting shelf space in their provinces. International brewing conglomerates such as Molson-Coors and Anheuser-Busch-InBev (which owns Labatt) would cry foul, but current regulations are tilted heavily in their favour; they could use some local competition.
Craft brewers have turned cities as small and remote as Duluth, Minn., into tourism destinations. Manitoba too could become a craft beer destination, under the right conditions. Hopefully one day in the near future Manitobans will be able look back on our current regulations and have a chuckle, while sampling many fine new Manitoba ales.
Steve Lafleur is a public policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.