So. You’ve dropped into your favourite local brewery on a gorgeous day in the lovely province of Ontario, and you are hit with the sudden urge to sit down and have a pint. What could be better, right? A fresh pint, straight from the brewery, where the beer was probably brewed mere days ago. Great idea!!
Except it’s not, because unfortunately, a lot of the breweries across Ontario aren’t actually allowed to give you the beer they so artfully create by the glass. By this point, us Ontario Beer Drinkers should just be used to the red tape that we have to get through just to enjoy some home grown wobbly pop (don’t even get me started on growler regulations). Alas, this still catches many people by surprise. *sigh*
Basically, there are four different types of licenses that breweries can get. There are tons of conditions and variations to these licenses, but for the purposes of this article I’m hoping to keep it simple. Buckle up, I’m about to take you on a colourful (and hopefully not boring) regulatory ride through the different liquor licenses so that you can get a better idea what a brewery has to go through just to serve you a fresh pint.
This is the most common, and it is a license obtained through the AGCO in order to sell products that a brewery produces in the LCBO. This type of license is technically secondary to a federal license under the Excise Act (2001) and has to be acquired prior to the making and packaging of any beer. From what my research tells me, this has to be renewed every year. This is your basic Government of Ontario Starter Package License in order to make yummy beer, and one of its main purposes is to collect tax. Cute!
This type of license works best for breweries that want to have a bottle shop on site. It is under the manufacturer’s license, and it allows manufacturers to sell and showcase their own products. Under this license, manufacturers do not have to follow rules of having a variety of different brands for the consumer to choose from, like the LCBO has to. There are more specific regulations that go along with this license in regards to manufacturer’s that also have special events in their spaces.
Here’s where it gets complicated. This is the license needed to be able to sell pints at a brewery, and a manufacturer’s license is needed first. Beer can only be sold from 11am-9pm on any given day, and servings cannot exceed 12oz. What is important to understand is that some breweries will need to have all three of these licenses, just to please the occasional person who wants to have a pint straight from the brewery. For example, if a brewery has a Tied House License, this does not mean a customer can buy a bottle from the retail fridge and drink it on the premises and be able to get around needing a By The Glass License. Are you good and confused yet??
Mandie Murphy, co-founder of Left Field Brewing, told me about the issues she finds with having a “By the Glass” License. She explained to me:
“The purpose of the license as defined by the AGCO is that it’s aimed at promoting the manufacturer’s product and either providing an enhanced tourist experience or fulfilling an educational purpose. There are many events that we would like to host with the intent of fulfilling either of those goals after 9pm but the license restricts us from doing so.” However, she does see the benefit of having a Tied House License, because “sampling before purchasing is one of the key reasons people choose to buy beers directly from a brewery instead of from the LCBO or Beer store.” She is optimistic in hoping that someday soon, Ontario will take notes from B.C. and create legislation that allows breweries to pour other manufacturer’s beers or wines in their Tap Room, as a way to enhance the tourist experience and fulfill an educational purpose, as is stated directly in the verbiage of Ontario liquor licenses. So basically, even when you find a license that works for you, it isn’t always a perfect solution.
In certain occasions, a brewery with a liquor sales license may obtain a Brewpub endorsement under section 57 (1) of the Liquor License Act. This seems like a great idea, right? However there are catches to this license as well; not every brewery has aspirations of becoming a brewpub. Also, there are regulations under this license stating how much interest of the business the license holder must have (51% to be completely silly and specific) and also, the brewpub cannot serve any brews that are above 6.5% ABV. So yeah, that 14% barrel-aged porter you had your eyes on? Not happening today, my friend.
On top of these licenses, Jason Fisher, the owner and self-titled Occasional Brewer at Indie Alehouse informed me that a Federal permit is also necessary, along with many permits from the City. “You need the city stuff to get the AGCO to give final approval, and that process was, and may still be, chaotic to say the least.” Jason went further to explain that the listed Provincial licenses were, unfortunately, the most expensive and complicated. Michael Clark, Brewer and Owner of Bellwoods Brewery, echoed Jason’s sentiments, and highlighted that municipal zoning is “the worst part about opening a brewery in Toronto.” Jason did take time to note that he, as well as many other Ontario brewers, has had great experiences with the staff at the AGCO, and everyone in the Ontario brewing community helps each other out during this process. He tells me “If it were ever automated and put on line it would be so much easier. There was talk about ‘modernizing’ the AGCO a few years back – not much has come of that.” Jason is very optimistic for the changes that City Councillor Mike Layton will (hopefully) be making to make life easier for future brewers.
Now, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “why does she care so much about any of this?” Well, the purpose of explaining these licenses to you, my incredibly good-looking reader, is that I want you to understand the complicated process that a brewery must go through to sell you a pint, when I’m sure it seems like such a simple thing to do. It is an incredibly difficult process, and one that includes a lot of risks, as our friends at Left Field Brewing can tell you. My advice to beer drinkers: if you really appreciate the beer that a brewery creates, trust that they have the license that fits them and their values the best, and go to a bar that sells their beer if you’re truly dying for a pint. I bet the people at said brewery would love to give you a list of a few bars in the neighbourhood that pour their brews. Or, visit the bottle shop, and go home and drink a few bottles of your favourite brew with your pants undone while watching Netflix – whatever wets your whistle. But please, avoid hassling the good people at the breweries across Ontario that are doing their best with the licenses they’ve got to provide folks with some good, locally made craft beer.
Special thanks to Mandie from Left Field Brewing, Jason from Indie Alehouse, as well as Carmen and Michael from Bellwoods Brewery for letting me quote them, and also to Tom Paterson, president of Junction Craft Brewing Inc. for helping me out with my research!
About the Author
Thrown headlong into the Toronto craft scene by her
adoration for the sustainable and local business,
Victoria holds a Bachelor of Environmental Studies.
She works in the bottle shop of one of Ontario’s
best craft breweries, and adores the children she
teaches dance, a good book, and investigating new beer.