Thursday, February 23, 2012

LDB Privatization: Gift Horse or Trojan Horse?

Many BC drinkers will have read the extraordinary news that parts of our province's antiquated Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) are likely to be privatized by 2014. As someone who is already involved in a campaign to change the LDB, you might expect me to cheer. If this turns out well, it will save me a lot of time organizing and circulating E-petitions. But this is a very dangerous time! Be vigilant.

First of all it is important to understand what's being proposed. The LDB consists of liquor stores, warehouses, and administration. The 197 retail stores are not being touched at this time, but under the new system will presumably pay the same wholesale price as private liquor stores (BC LDB currently buys direct and marks up wholesale for private stores).

It is the warehouses that are to be sold. They currently serve 1400 retailers and 8000 bars and restaurants. BC Liberals are selling these assets off to balance the books, but also because the current system is a "dog's breakfast", in the words of BC Energy Minister Rich Coleman who is currently tasked with overseeing the LDB.

Whoever controls the warehouses controls the beer supply: what gets bought from brewers, what gets sold, where, and for how much.

What makes the LDB such a hound's brunch is that it is set up to penalize producers by depriving them of operating costs (currently, the LDB takes breweries' beer, sells it, and THEN pays them, after weeks if not months of wandering around with brewers' cash in their pockets). BC Liquor Stores are also run in a horrendous manner, with 12–foot sections of floorspace devoted to 6 packs, 12 packs, 18 packs, 24 packs etc of shitty US big-brand import beers, while local craft beer producers have to grovel to all-powerful portfolio managers just to get a single shelf spot for an entire line of products.

Beer Store: 247 Flavours of Not Good

So any reform is good, right? Well, not necessarily. Have you ever heard of Ontario's The Beer Store? It is a privately-owned retail/distribution operation that works alongside the LCBO and is afforded bizarre rights to control much of the beer sales in the whole province. What's worse is that The Beer Store's owners are — you guessed it — Anheuser-Busch InBev, Molson and (with a tiny share) Sleeman (Sapporo). So you have big corporate beer deciding how much craft beer gets sold. Unsurprisingly, a visit to one of the hellish Beer Stores reveals a dismal dearth of decent drink. Ask any Ontario craft beer drinker or producer and they will tell you that their system is brutal and certainly oppressive.

But that doesn't mean that BC's warehouses will end up in similar hands, does it? Maybe not, and what's being proposed currently is nothing like as significant as the Beer Store reforms — at least not yet… In the interests of some worst-case-scenario conjecture, let's do some quick sleuthing eh?
Can you see where I'm going with this?

Anyone who cares about beer, wine, music, love, or life itself, should pay careful attention to LDB privatization developments, and get ready to support a consumer-based campaign to make sure that any reforms are truly in the best interests of BC drinkers and producers.