Two New Brunswick craft breweries say NB Liquor’s growler program has restricted their access to the special beer taps across the province.
Looking to cash in on the rise in popularity of craft beer, NB Liquor became the first liquor board in Canada to allow customers to fill up beer in reusable bottles, called growlers, in September.
The craft beer experiment has poured more than 22,000 litres of specialty brew since it started, but Edmundston’s Les Brasseurs du Petit-Sault and Fredericton’s Red Rover Brewing both say they have had trouble or have been blocked entirely from getting their products into the growler program.
The Edmundston brewery opened in July and began selling beer out of its northwestern store.
Mychèle Poitras, the brewery’s communications director, said Petit-Sault has been given one tap in the Dieppe liquor store on one weekend since September to sell its beer.
“Our problem is that NB Liquor seems a bit shy in our offering our product down south. This was the initial proposal. They were starting this program to promote New Brunswick beers,” Poitras said.
“In about 18 or 20 weeks since this project started, we’ve had one chance to be in one growler station in Dieppe ...It makes no sense.”
NB Liquor started with three growler stations located in the Kennebecasis Valley, Dieppe and Fredericton. It has since expanded to Sackville.
Poitras said the brewery has had a tough time even getting in contact with NB Liquor. She said the Crown corporation has not returned their calls or emails.
“We are the third largest brewery in New Brunswick,” she said.
“It is strange that they are not asking us more than that. People all over the province are asking us, why we are not there and we have no explanation. We make good beer, people are asking for it.”
Poitras said NB Liquor recently called them and offered one more weekend at the Dieppe growler station in January.
Meanwhile, Derek Leslie, the owner of Charlo's Shiretown Brewing, said he'd like to see NB Liquor set up a northern growler station.
He said he asked NB Liquor within the last two weeks about the possibility of a northern expansion of the growler initiative and he was told that was unlikely.
"They said no, there is no plan any time soon for any growler program up north," he said on Wednesday.
Jennifer Taylor, the director of marketing at NB Liquor, issued a statement on Wednesday evening saying the growler program has been a success. The growler pilot project is forecasted to generate more than $1 million in revenue, according to the Crown corporation.
She said NB Liquor can't keep up with the demand of brewers trying to participate in the program.
"With only 12 taps in the province not all breweries have had the opportunity to be on tap. We have had over 200 beer brands that have applied to participate and our main focus is to provide variety and respond to consumer demand as much as possible," she said in a statement.
"We acknowledge that not all NB Brewers have had the opportunity to participate yet but they will absolutely have the chance to do so as we go forward."
Cider producer blocked
Petit-Sault may be frustrated by the limited access to the Crown corporation’s growler taps, but Fredericton’s Red Rover Brewing has been completely shut out.
Adam Clawson, the brewery’s owner, produces craft cider with apples grown entirely in New Brunswick.
Red Rover opened earlier this year and Clawson said he tried to participate in the growler initiative, but NB Liquor flatly refused him.
“We were told as a cider producer, which is technically in their terms a wine opposed to a beer, we would not be allowed — full stop — in the first phase of [the program program],” he said.
Clawson said NB Liquor said he might be able to participate in "phase two" of the initiative. But the brewer said NB Liquor didn't say when the second phase would start.
NB Liquor's Taylor said the Crown corporation would work with Red Rover Brewing in the future.
"Also please note that this is a microbrewery test at this point and we have not decided if we will offer to other categories, re: cider, etc. If we do we will consider Mr. Clawson’s offer," Taylor said in a statement.
"We currently are supporting the launch of Mr. Clawson’s cidery through other initiatives that we hope will make his business a success."
The two New Brunswick craft brewers also question why they have been sidelined in favour of larger, international beer makers.
In Fredericton, for instance, beer giant InBev has a guaranteed tap, Fredericton-based Picaroons has a guaranteed tap and there was room for one more so-called “wildcard” beer.
Poitras said it would be nice if New Brunswick companies could benefit from the Crown corporation’s access and not just global beer companies.
“They seem to be spending a lot of time with InBev, but we create great beer and local jobs,” she said.
Growler purchase questioned
The growler experiment will be re-evaluated in March to see if NB Liquor will continue it.
The agency confirmed it spent $124,210 to purchase 40,000 growlers before the program started. Initially, the Crown corporation was going to require beer drinkers to purchase NB Liquor’s corporate growler if they wanted to fill up at one of their taps.
NB Liquor backed off that plan within a week and allowed customers to bring in their own 1.89-litre growlers. That decision meant sales for the government growlers fell flat.
As of last week, only 2,718 NB Liquor growlers had been sold. Marcelle Saulnier, a NB Liquor spokesperson, said the corporation is coming up with strategies to unload more of the growlers at special events.
Red Rover’s Clawson said NB Liquor could have saved a lot of money if it had simply spoke to craft alcohol producers more before the project was launched.
“If it had been a bit more of a consultation then we could have provided the adoption rates of our own bottles,” Clawson said.
“I think they would have realized that as a new concept to their specific organization, it should have been something more down in the 5,000 to 10,000 range and then a much larger follow-up order.
Shiretown's Leslie said craft breweries in southern New Brunswick have created a culture of growler use among beer drinkers. So he said it makes sense that the growler sales have been slow in the south.
But Leslie said the same is not true in northern New Brunswick. He said if NB Liquor opened up a growler station at one of the five corporate stores between Bathurst and Campbellton, it would help move some of the unused bottles and it would help the northern industry.
"That would help us. That moves would allow this industry to grow, especially small little businesses grow," he said.
“It’s a symbol of a bigger issue,” Lacey said.
“If they can’t manage this, then what else can’t they manage?”
The watchdog said selling beer is a business the private sector has managed to do very well, so he questions why NB Liquor decided to get into the growler game in the first place.
“It tells you that in an industry that has proven to be successful all over Canada, the government has screwed up something that the private sector has been able to make money on everywhere else,” he said.
Lacey said NB Liquor should take a step back from the growler program and give control over selling growlers to the brewing companies.