Alberta craft brewers renew call for open beer borders in wake of trade ruling

Some local craft brewery owners are renewing their call for open provincial borders after the Alberta government was ordered to scrap a grant program aimed at levelling the playing field.

'Level the playing field. May the best beer win,' says Alberta microbrewer Charlie Bredo

Charlie Bredo of Troubled Monk Brewery urged the Alberta government to level the playing field for Alberta producers. (Charlie Bredo)

Some local craft brewery owners are renewing their call for open beer borders across Canada after the Alberta government was ordered to scrap a grant program that was aimed at levelling the playing field.

"Level the playing field, may the best beer win," said Charlie Bredo, co-founder of Troubled Monk Brewery in Red Deer.

On Monday, a panel found the province non-compliant under the Agreement of Internal Trade and gave the government six months to repeal or amend the Alberta Small Brewers Development Program (ASBD) which provided a rebate to small brewers.

On Tuesday, Bredo said the loss of the grant highlights why there needs to be a "truly open market" across the country.

"Everyone should be on a level playing field here," he said, "and if Ontario beer can come into Alberta, we've got to make it equal."

Monday's ruling was the result of a complaint lodged two years ago by Calgary beer importer Artisan Ales Consulting Ltd., which said the grant program put their company at a disadvantage and reduced sales.

Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta's official Opposition United Conservative Party, said he would favour ending the Alberta subsidies, calling for "free beer trade all across Canada."

But local producers say while Alberta's borders are open, that's not the case for other provinces.

It's still not a level playing field across the board.- Aric Johnson, Folding Mountain Brewing

"It's still not a level playing field across the board," said Aric Johnson, co-owner of Folding Mountain Brewing located near Jasper National Park.

He notes that a B.C. company can sell beer in Alberta without issue, but the reverse is not true.

"Alberta's a very open market. So we'd love to see it be consistent across all provinces so that we can go into a place like B.C.," he said.

"We're trusting that the government gets that and they're looking for the best interests of Albertans here, and they're going to make this about levelling the playing field for Alberta jobs and Albertans."

Currently, Alberta brewers pay a markup of $1.25 a litre for all beer. The ASBD program offers a progressive rebate for Alberta craft brewers, based on levels of production.

Program helped 46 new breweries set up

When Folding Mountain opened last July, Johnson says the grant program was not part of their business plan.

"It is nice, certainly, to get that money every month but we knew going into this, we wouldn't be able to count on it staying," Johnson said.
Aric Johnson (right) of Folding Mountain Brewery called for open provincial borders for beer producers. (Aric Johnson)

Still, the grant program has contributed significantly to the growth of Alberta's craft beer industry. According to Finance Minister Joe Ceci, it has helped 46 new craft breweries set up across the province since June 2016.

The program was introduced in August 2016.

Alberta at a disadvantage: Notley

On Tuesday, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley criticized a trade system that leaves Alberta microbrewers at a disadvantage.

"You can't have free trade with only one person at the dance," said Notley.  "It's a little bit like showing up at a country dance and trying to two-step by yourself.

Notley said almost every other province has come up with a series of creative protectionist measures which have resulted in Alberta product being blocked from getting into get into other markets.

"Other producers build their companies to a certain point in their protected markets and then flood ours," she said.

Notley noted the province has several months to decide how to respond to the trade ruling striking down Alberta's rebates for craft brewers, in a way that acknowledges the rules but continues to support local producers "because I'm very proud of the progress that they've made."

It's a little bit like showing up at a country dance and trying to two step by yourself- Premier Rachel Notley

Bredo said this week's ruling could put Alberta at a "significant disadvantage" if the province reverts to previous models, such as the markup of 10 cents a litre for all small producers both in and outside the province.

"Yes, it will be tougher because there will be more competition, but I think Albertans will choose Alberta," he said. 

Bent Stick Brewing co-owner Patrick Gaudette said he's confident the government will continue to support small brewers. (Patrick Gaudette)

Patrick Gaudette, co-owner of Bent Stick Brewing, said the grant program was an important factor in helping Edmonton's smallest brewery "be a little more competitive with our pricing."

But he said the government has made reasonable decisions in the past to support the industry and he expressed optimism going forward.

"We have good confidence ... that certainly some sort of support will be available for small brewers," said Gaudette, adding the interest in local beer "will allow us to continue to find success."