Just like every other system, the LCBO and Beer Store duopoly has its pluses and minuses. It’s worth noting that getting Ontarians a comparatively good price on certain craft beers – especially classic, but high production Belgians like Rochefort 8 and Chimay Blue – is one of the appreciated up-sides. It’s also clear from sales data, conversations I’ve had with employees, and rough observation that the LCBO has devoted a big chunk of its selection of the past couple years to new Ontario beers. If “supporting local” is a priority for you, then this should make you smile, at least begrudgingly.
As a writer with a bare minimum of 400 words a week to spend on beer, I try to dig into stories that I think will interest readers and it’s clear from feedback that there is at least a slight local preference. I’m fine admitting that sometimes I don’t as rigorously apply the value question – is the beer under consideration worth its premium above average or above the best beer in its category? – to new releases. We roll the dice as beer writers and wager that someone will be interested in the story of a spiced saison because it was created for a special event, even if the beer itself isn’t as delicious as Dupont and is 1/3 more expensive. So, we cover it.
Availability is the first reason I do this. I know that if the LCBO picks up an Ontario beer it’s likely to be in more stores, for longer then say one of the more coveted bottles from the seasonal brewery feature. I’ve also had the feedback from a few regular readers that they like reading about breweries that they can visit on a whim and an hour’s ride in the car.
I try to guard against this, but it’s also plausible that nearby breweries have an outsized influence on me. It’s easier for them to return phone calls, drop off samples, and have their brewmasters host in-person events.
Hopefully, writing this post helps me keep an eye on that influence. The complementary bias is in favour of writing about the new and different beers over established standbys. Again, please take this post as me adding a few masses to the other side of the scale.
All of that is the context. The background setup. More recently, a discussion on Jordan St. John’s Facebook wall got me to thinking about the idea of setting a price benchmark for new entries into the LCBO’s system. I won’t name the specific beers – Jordan’s post was only visible to his friends, and they might have been off-the-cuff examples – but the idea is: there are many examples of just okay beers selling for twice the price of the very good, consistent leaders in their category or style. Brasserie Dupont’s Vielle Provision is probably the most often mentioned example of a prototypical and excellent beer that sells at a 40% discount to local examples.
There is plenty of murmuring and grumbling about this disparity among beer writers and assorted aficionados, but I wonder if all of those who we have encouraged to take up craft beer realise just how much that C-word can cost. For my future reference (and yours) I’ve thrown together this chart. I think it’s a good reference, but recognize that it’s not exhaustive. I included the first 12 styles that I could think of; I tried for popular ones, but my preference took over to some extent. And then I picked one or two benchmarks for each style.
To be a benchmark a beer must be:
- Regularly listed at the LCBO.
- Cheapest among the three or four top entries in the style.
- Defensibly excellent in a vaguely objective way – awards like OBAs and CBAs were a factor. Personal preference and brewery diversity broke ties.
|American PA||GLB Canuck||2.50||473||5.29|
|IPA||Amsterdam Boneshaker||2.95||473||6.24||Red Racer||2.50||473||5.28|
|Double IPA||Black Oak Ten Bitter Years||6.50||650||10.00||Tree Hop Head||6.65||650||10.23|
|Saison/Farmhouse||Nickel Brook Paysan||8.95||750||11.94||Dupont Vielle Provision||7.50||750||10.00|
|Stout||Mill Street Cobblestone||3.15||440||7.16|
|Strong porter/RIS||Wellington RIS||2.95||473||6.24|
|Rye Beer||Cameron's RPA||4.95||650||7.62|
|Brown Ale||Neustadt 10W30||2.75||473||5.81||Newcastle||2.90||500||5.80|
|Pilsner||King Pilsner||2.80||473||5.92||Pilsner Urquell||2.50||500||5.00|
|Dark Lager/Dunkelweiss||Hop City 8th Sin||2.80||473||5.92||Erdinger Dunkel||3.15||500||6.30|
|Bock||Rogue Dead Guy||6.80||650||10.46|
|Hefeweizen||Side Launch Wheat||2.70||473||5.71||Ayinger Brau-Weiss||3.95||500||7.90|
- I’m not a great fan of six-packs, especially if we’re worried about value. That goes doubly for styles like double IPAs. Potential benchmarks were disqualified if they are only listed in six-packs.
- To be honest, the 8th Sin Dark Lager is only holding that place until Side Launch Dunkel makes it into the LCBO. Also, I realise that the connection between dark lager and dunkelweiss is tenuous.
- Not sure what I should do about the Witbier category. Allow Mill Street Wit even though it only comes in sixes? What about a non-Ontario benchmark?
- Prices, availability, and package size will all change. I make no guarantees that this information is up-to-date when you are reading it, but it was the last time I checked on: 1 October 2014.
The bottom line is that this is very much version 1.0 of this endeavour. If you think I need to add a category or I’m dead-wrong with one of my picks then pipe up in the comments section. I’ll definitely use this guide to craft beer prices, but I want you to also and I know that means getting as much feedback as possible.
The last thing I want from this list is for readers to think these are my “Top 12 Ontario Beers” or to stop trying new things. But, for instance, the next time a brewery comes out with a blackberry smoked porter and charges $15 a litre for it, you’ll be able to quickly make a comparison and decide whether it’s worth that much of a premium over the benchmark.