New Brunswick is rolling out its government-brand suds across the province on Thursday in a strategy to keep people from heading across the border in pursuit of discount beer.
The new brand is designed to staunch the bleeding of beer sales in border communities, but it is infuriating local brewers and at least one Quebec business owner.
The beers, Selection Lager and Light, are being brewed exclusively for the New Brunswick Liquor Corp., a Crown corporation, by Saint John-based Moosehead Breweries.
Dana Clendenning, the liquor corporation's president and chief executive officer, told a legislative committee in January that NB Liquor was losing about $12 million in sales annually, primarily to Quebec. Now he is boasting about the beer's New Brunswick roots as the first cases are being stacked on NB Liquor shelves across the province.
'We are proud to launch these premium-quality, low-cost brands, which are brewed for New Brunswickers by New Brunswickers.' — Dana Clendenning, president NB Liquor
"We are proud to launch these premium-quality, low-cost brands, which are brewed for New Brunswickers by New Brunswickers," Clendenning said in a press release on Thursday.
He described the beers as "using quality ingredients … slightly drier than the typical lager and light beers, with a crisp, dry taste. They are light-to medium-bodied in colour, with a clean, fresh finish."
Clendenning defended the enterprise on Thursday as the first cases were put on sale.
"As far as I'm concerned, nothing ventured nothing gained. We haven't invested in a plant or equipment, we don't have a sales team out there," he said.
"It's a minimal investment to launch these two brands."
New Brunswick's policy of socially responsible pricing means that the lowest allowable price for 12 cans is $18.67. That policy is designed to set a floor price for beer in the belief that any lower prices would lead people to buy too much and develop drinking problems.
But in Quebec, the lowest allowable price is much lower. Beer drinkers across the border can get 24 cans of beer for as little as $25.
The new Selection brands will be sold throughout the year for $18.67 for 12 cans. Other beer companies have to apply to sell at the minimum price for a limited time and can only do that a certain number of times each year.
While the beer may be cheap, Craig Pinhey, a New Brunswick wine and beer expert, said the product may be worth the price for some people.
"If you like mass-produced Canadian lager, this tastes just as good as the other ones. So why would you not save money?" he said.
The new beer wasn't winning immediate converts among some Saint John beer drinkers despite the lower cost.
"Well as far as I'm concered, Alpine was the provincial beer anyway," said Harold Defazio, a customer.
"I'll try it, but I can't see me switching my beer."
Cross-border beer controversy
One obvious city that NB Liquor will be selecting to target with the Selection brand will be Campbellton, which rests on the province's north shore.
After a quick drive over the J.C. Van Horne Bridge, residents are in Pointe-a-la-Croix, Que. Within a few seconds they can be at the Restigouche Drive-Thru, a convenience store on the Listuguj First Nation.
At times 80 per cent of the cars in the parking lot have New Brunswick plates.
Frederic Daigle, the store's manager, is already giving NB Liquor some advice it probably doesn't want to hear.
"The only thing that could really help the province of New Brunswick, if they're really serious about [saving sales to Quebec], is to open up the sale of beer into mom and pop convenience stores," Daigle said.
"Cigarettes aren't selling like they used to, and so the only thing left, really is the beer. If they could get that back into their stores, the spinoff provincewide would be unbelievable."
Business advice aside, there is also concern that NB Liquor's new beer is brewing a nasty neighbourly divide.
Alison Mettalic, the owner of the Restigouche Driv-Thru and the chief of the Listuguj First Nation, said people on both sides of the border are neighbours and not competitors.
"We do our schooling on the other side. We do our shopping on the other side. We buy our cars, buy our groceries, hospitalization. We're like a big family and I don't see what the big deal is, because we're really helping each other, you know if you take a look at it," Mettalic said
Adding to the frustration felt by Mettalic is the idea that a large Crown corporation is taking aim at small convenience stories.
"This giant monopoly is trying to fight the little guys, and we're having a hard time to survive around here, and we're all chipping in and helping each other," Mettalic said.
"They may be losing millions, I mean a few million, but that doesn't compare for the annual income that the NB Liquor commission takes in, in the run of a year."
NB Liquor had almost $380 million in sales during the last fiscal year.
Microbrewery worries about future
While the Crown corporation enjoys hundreds of millions in annual sales, a New Brunswick microbrewery is worried about its future.
Shaun Fraser, the president of Moncton's Pumphouse Brewery, has been outspoken in his opposition to the government's plan to tap into his sales.
"For the government to put one of their Crown corporations in direct competition or in business with their own citizens and their own entrepreneurs, you know, I mean whose money are they playing with when they do this?" he said.
"Come on down and pay my bills and you can play with my brewery all you want.