New Brunswick

Craft beer producers growling about end of ANBL refillable container program

NB Liquor has put a cork in its growler program. The provincial Crown corporation put the refillable container program on hold in March because of the pandemic, but confirmed on Monday that the program will not return. 

Liquor corporation says customers losing interest in bringing growlers to fill with craft beer

New Brunswick's growler program was suspended in March because of the pandemic. It's now been permanently cancelled. (CBC)

NB Liquor has put a cork in its growler program. 

The provincial Crown corporation put the refillable container program on hold in March because of the pandemic, but confirmed on Monday that the program will not return. 

A spokesperson for NB Liquor said the decision was based on steadily declining sales. 

When the program was first created in 2014, there weren't as many taprooms around, said Sarah Bustard. 

"Since the program was launched, we have seen tremendous growth and changes in the craft beer industry within the province," she said. 

"That growth includes local craft beer being available at significantly more locations via local producers' tap rooms, an increase in selection of craft products within our ANBL corporate stores, and the introduction of beer within grocery, which also includes local craft beer.

Customers were able to refill their own glass jugs from an ever-changing selection of local offerings. (CBC)

In its last year of operation, growler sales dropped by 29 per cent over the previous year, said Bustard. And in the year before that, it dropped by 34 per cent. 

With so many small breweries now serving on site, or operating their own growler programs, Bustard said customers were often going directly to the brewer to buy their beverages. 

In 2014, NB Liquor became the first liquor board in Canada to allow customers to fill up beer in reusable bottles, called growlers, which are usually 1.89 litre brown glass jugs, although they can come in a variety of sizes and materials. 

Bustard said only one location will reopen — when conditions allow — and that's at Fredericton's York Street location in the old train station. 

Brewers not happy

Local brewers aren't happy with the decision — or the lack of consultation. 

"We're actually quite disappointed that the industry, the local craft industry, wasn't consulted on this," said Christine Comeau, the executive director of the New Brunswick Craft Alcohol Producers Association. 

She said her members could have helped come up with an alternative business model "that could have been explored to rejuvenate life into what we think is a really kind of neat idea."

Comeau said the program was environmentally friendly and provided options to smaller breweries that don't possess bottling or canning capabilities. 

It was also a way to reach a bigger market for small, rural operations. 

Refillable growlers can hold almost a six-pack of liquid. (anbl.com)

Comeau said New Brunswick has 57 craft brewers — part of a network of more than 100 craft alcohol producers — that operate in 48 communities across the province. She said the industry employs more than 500 people, and has annual sales close to $20 million — but with the potential for so much more. 

She said the industry currently has about 8.5 per cent of beer sales in liquor stores. 

"And you could compare this to B.C., where craft brewers enjoy 30 per cent market share. We think there's plenty of room to grow," said Comeau. 

"We believe there should be a stronger return on investment to taxpayers if the local industry was prioritized. There's no other industry, I think, that has had a significant economic, social and cultural impact."

Comeau said things may be even tougher for craft brewers as restaurants continue to fall victim to the economic effects of COVID-19 . Restaurants Canada predicted that 40 per cent of restaurants will close by March 2021. 

"So this further limits local producers' access to markets, and really heightens the responsibility ANBL has to prioritizing local craft alcohol producers."

Peter Cole, the owner of Big Axe Brewery in Nackawic, said the program was especially beneficial to businesses based in smaller markets.

NB Liquor says the growler service has seen shrinking interest from customers over the past two years. (CBC)

He said many small breweries came to "rely on that kind of a program where people may find it a little more inconvenient to drive out to those locations for it." 

"Especially now during this whole pandemic, there's a lot of businesses ... that are suffering to a certain extent, and anything that is available to us to help promote our products is beneficial, of course, to us," Cole said, "and not only the producers, but also the consumers."

Chris Vair, the owner of Big Tide Brewery on Princess Street in Saint John, said customers will miss out on the convenience of finding their favourite local beers at the liquor store. 

"It's another loss of revenue for breweries that rely on distribution for their income," he said. 

Not all breweries have restaurants or taprooms in which to get their product into the hands of consumers, he said.  

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