standard Ontario Craft Beer Benchmark Prices

Benchmarking craft beer prices in Ontario

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.

StyleOntario$mL$/LNon-Ontario$mL$/L
American PAGLB Canuck2.504735.29
IPAAmsterdam Boneshaker2.954736.24Red Racer2.504735.28
Double IPABlack Oak Ten Bitter Years6.50 65010.00Tree Hop Head6.6565010.23
Saison/FarmhouseNickel Brook Paysan8.9575011.94Dupont Vielle Provision7.5075010.00
StoutMill Street Cobblestone3.154407.16
Strong porter/RISWellington RIS2.954736.24
Rye BeerCameron's RPA4.956507.62
Brown AleNeustadt 10W302.754735.81Newcastle2.905005.80
PilsnerKing Pilsner2.804735.92Pilsner Urquell 2.505005.00
Dark Lager/DunkelweissHop City 8th Sin2.804735.92Erdinger Dunkel3.155006.30
BockRogue Dead Guy6.8065010.46
HefeweizenSide Launch Wheat2.704735.71Ayinger Brau-Weiss3.955007.90
Witbier

Notes:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

7 Comments

  1. Original Name: Red Racer IPA
    Style: IPA (see more like this)
    Brewery: Central City Brewing Company
    Country: Canada, British Columbia
    Price: $2.50 per 473 mL can

    Should be a contender for non-ontario

    1. Excellent call, Matt. Unless I hear any markedly better suggestions, I’ll add Red Racer to the next version.

      Also, I’ve heard from Chris Schryer on Facebook that the Mill St. Wit comes in an “open-six” and may have an individual sku. Anyone have experience buying one Mill Wit at a time?

  2. I think there are cheaper good foreign hefes out there. Paul Abner is $2.55. Plus I would argue that Nicklebrook Headstock is the better local IPA/DIPA standard even if it’s at the difficult strength point of 7%. But excellent job. I’ve gone on about value for years but never so usefully.

  3. David – great exercise – my wife and I were just talking about price per ml last night, particularly that the scale is pretty wild at the moment.

    RE: witbier, I have been told “no singles” about Mill St. Wit at the LCBO. Pretty sure the same applies to Hoegaarden although that would have to go in the non-Ontario column … and then I couldn’t help but think about Rickard’s White (Blue Moon) which is produced in Quebec, possibly in mass quantities, so maybe that shouldn’t count either. Aside from the fact that it’s a poor example of the style.

    RE: Weissbier, I’m curious as to why you didn’t choose Hacker-Pschorr Hefewiesse which sells for $3.25 / 500 ml (with swingtop!) or Erdinger Weissbier which is even cheaper at $3.05 / 500 ml. There’s also the ubiquitous Schneiderweisse in between at $3.15 / 500 ml. Don’t mind my pestering though – weissbier is what broke me into craft beer way back when …

    One more note: if you’re looking for a very, very cheap and reasonably good non-Ontario pilsner, look no further than Wernesgrüner. Don’t let its low price deceive you – it’s a great German pils and costs only $2.10 / 500 ml.

    What this exercise really points out, though, is that Ontario, with its 100-something breweries is still falling way, way short in terms of representing craft beer styles, at least in the form of everyday production beers that are widely available to most parts of the province.

    That means that maybe the future is still pretty exciting for beer in Ontario … well done!

  4. Peter and Alan, thanks for your kind words. Glad to hear that my efforts on this one are appreciated. I’ve mentally been using the $.01 / mL benchmark as a mental guide for cellar beers because that’s what the Chimays, Rocheforts, and St. Feuilliens tend to come in around. Putting together this table helped me further grasp just how much variation there is, even in the $.005 / mL to $.01 / mL range.

    Sounds like I’ve fumbled the non-Ontario hefe category. Ayinger happens to be my favourite and I forgot how cheap Paulaner is. That one will change in ver 1.1.

    More investigation may be necessary on breaking the witbier sixes. Some LCBO employees may have told you no singles, Peter because they are cranky about having to deal with half-empty packs.

    I foresaw an objection to lumping Bohemian and German pils together. Those categories will eventually be split, but that might have to wait for ver 2.0.

    Alan: I considered Headstock and also Black Oak Summer Saison. I went the way I did because of personal preference (strongly so on the saisons), but also because 10BY was mentioned by Jordan in the original FB status that inspired this post.

  5. Sounds good. Maybe I will do my own version based on my ecosystem in which the LCBO does not play the defining role. My market also includes NNY and western Quebec. Plus growlers need to be taken into consideration not to mention incremental costs of acquisition. My drive to Watertown NY is half the gas than to, say, Beyond the Pale in Ottawa. Have you seen the Portland six pack index? It would be good to also track inflation over time.

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