Buck a beer was born in Hamilton, but local brewers want none of it this time around

On the grave site of Ontario’s last foray into beer that only cost a buck, a new craft beer industry is thriving — and the people behind it are dead against premier Doug Ford’s new legislation to lower the minimum price of a beer to $1 from $1.25.

Today's brewers say you can't make anything but swill for a loonie

Matt Johnston, left, founded Collective Arts Brewing alongside Bob Russell. Collective Arts is based out of the old Lakeport Brewery site, which helped institute buck a beer back in the 2000s. (John Rieti/CBC)

On the grave site of Ontario's last foray into beer that only cost a buck, a new craft beer industry is thriving — and the people behind it are dead against premier Doug Ford's new legislation to lower the minimum price of a beer to $1 from $1.25.

Hamilton was once home to Lakeport Brewery, which trumpeted buck a beer harder than just about anyone else. Its much-vaunted "24 for $24" slogan helped catapult the faltering company's beers into some of the best selling in the province, until Lakeport was bought out by Labatt in 2007 and subsequently shuttered.

Now, the former Lakeport site is home to Collective Arts, which was one of the first craft breweries to open in a city that currently houses several. Matt Johnston, co-founder of Collective Arts, told CBC News that the province's return to buck a beer is far from welcome news.

"We will not be adjusting our prices — because we can't afford to. It's as simple as that. It's very expensive to do what we do," Johnston said. "We like to pay all of our staff really well, and we want to continue to invest in this city and this province.

"I don't see any benefit in us trying to compete on price. We think that will not only undermine our drinkers, but it will undermine our communities as well."

It's about more than just yellow, fizzy water.- Tej Sandhu, co-founder of Merit Brewing

Collective Arts is operating out of a space that was unlikely to house a brewery ever again. Labatt did everything in its power make the former Lakeport site useless to potential competitors after it took over, including filling the building's drains with cement, and selling all the equipment for scrap so it couldn't be reused.

Former Lakeport CEO Teresa Cascioli hasn't been in the beer business since selling Lakeport, but she told CBC News that at the time, the company was able to accommodate its rock bottom costs. 

"Obviously, the business fundamentals have to be there," Cascioli said. "Whether it's toothpaste or beer, supply and demand have to go hand in hand, and there has to be profitability for the manufacturer."

Program is not mandatory, province says

At a news conference Tuesday morning, the premier announced that participation in its program is not mandatory.

"Nobody is being forced to lower their prices and there will be no subsidies or tax handouts," Ford told reporters at Barley Days Brewery in Picton, Ont., around 200 kilometres east of Toronto.

The PC's plan divided beer drinkers who gathered outside Barley Days Brewery to protest buck a beer. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Finance Minister Vic Fideli noted the legislation will "reduce the floor" on beer sales and give brewers permission to sell their cans and bottles for $1 — pricing that has been illegal for a decade. The Liberals, led by then-premier Dalton McGuinty, raised the minimum price of a 24 pack of beer to $25.60 in 2008.

​Ford said that amounted to the government "putting its hand in your pocket" each time you went to buy a six-pack of beer.

Fideli added the PCs are offering "non-financial incentives" in the form of "buck-a-beer challenge" to encourage Ontario's 260 brewers to drop prices.

'This reduces the value of what we do'

That challenge will give brewers promotions and advertising advantages at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, such as limited time discounts and in-store displays, that Ford called "priceless." 

 "Those who get there first will be recognized throughout the year," he said. 

But Official Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath said it's "absolutely" not true that the buck a beer incentives won't cost the government any money, noting product placements and advertising in the LCBO's magazine do have monetary value.

Tej Sandhu is the co-founder of Merit Brewing. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Tej Sandhu, co-founder of Merit Brewing, said the only thing this move does is create a possible "race to the bottom" for brewers.

"Can you make decent beer for a buck? No," he said.

At $1 a beer, manufacturers are forced to use additives like sugar and high fructose corn syrup to mask the taste of lower-quality ingredients, Sandhu said.

"This reduces the value of what we do," he said.

"It's about more than just yellow, fizzy water."



Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

With files from Amara McLaughlin


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