Alberta brewers push for open beer borders between provinces

The wine war between Alberta and British Columbia may be over, but Alberta craft beer makers are now ready to tackle a long-standing trade issue in Canada: exporting to other provinces.

'They managed to keep us on a string, so to speak, for about a year,' Alley Kat Brewing owner says

Alberta's rules on registering new products are more straightforward than other provinces, the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission says. (marathonmouth)

The wine war between Alberta and British Columbia may be over, but Alberta craft beer makers are now ready to tackle a long-standing trade issue in Canada: exporting to other provinces.

With 75 brewers, craft beer now makes up 15 per cent of the market in Alberta.

Terry Rock, executive director of the Alberta Small Brewers Association, said brewers feel they're being blocked by other provinces and the reasons and motivations aren't clear.

"It's quite opaque," Rock said. "This is part of our challenge. We just know the results that we're getting and we feel the need to get to the bottom of it." 
Terry Rock, executive director of the Alberta Small Brewers Association, is talking to lawyers and liquor agents to come up with a strategy to open provincial borders. (Terry Rock)

The obstacles are familiar to Neil Herbst, co-owner of Edmonton's popular Alley Kat Brewing company. Herbst said he applied to get listed in B.C. several years ago.

"They managed to keep us on a string, so to speak, for about a year before we even got anywhere," Herbst told CBC News. "By that time, we were sort of exhausted."

In 23 years of brewing, Herbst has only sold across the Alberta border to a special-interest buyer in neighbouring Saskatchewan.

Compared to other provinces, Alberta has a completely open listing system. The province doesn't get involved in deciding what products stores can sell. Over 5,000 beer products are on Alberta shelves.

"Alberta has a more simple registration process compared to other jurisdictions," the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission said in an email.

Most other provinces require manufacturers to meet certain criteria before they are listed, a process not clearly explained to out-of-province applicants, the AGLC said.

Rock said the disparity is frustrating. 
Alley Kat Brewing opened in Edmonton in 1995, making it one of the province's oldest craft breweries. (Alley Kat)

"When you're in a province that is completely open and anyone can come in and compete as hard as they want, it's hard to take when another province doesn't reciprocate."

"If we have 20, 30, 40, 50 B.C. beers here, then B.C. should create space for that many Alberta beers."

Rock said Alberta companies have the potential to compete with the big commercial giants, but exporting is key.

"We'll never build companies with national reach out of a place like Alberta because our home market is too small to really get the initial volume you need to get the momentum to go across the country."

The small brewers association is now talking to lawyers and agents who work across Canada. Their plan is to formulate a concrete strategy when they meet at the Alberta Craft Brewing Convention in Calgary in mid-March. 

Herbst is hopeful people are becoming more aware of the barriers and will demand change around the country.

"How ridiculous it is that there isn't really free trade in Canada while we're trying to argue to have free trade with other countries," he said. "It doesn't make any sense."

Alberta's treasury and finance ministry said it is participating in the Alcoholic Beverages Working Group and is keeping an eye on what happens with inter-provincial alcohol sales.

@natashariebe

About the Author

Natasha Riebe

Journalist

Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.

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