The long-anticipated introduction of happy hour in B.C. came with a major caveat: that no licensed establishment would dip below minimum prices set out by the government. The province says this is intended to prevent "aggressive pricing strategies that may lead to intoxication" – and, indeed, other provinces have minimum price directives for the same reason. But it appears B.C.'s are now the highest across all Canadian provinces.
Under new regulations announced Friday, restaurants, pubs and other licensed establishments can now discount their alcohol prices for a few hours midday – a sales strategy that was previously prohibited. But draft and bottled beer cannot be offered for less than 25 cents an ounce, wine and fortified wine (including sake) less than 60 cents an ounce, and liqueurs and spirits less than $2 an ounce.
Using draft beer as an example, a 20-ounce pint now cannot be less than $5, and a standard 60-ounce pitcher less than $15 in B.C. While this may work for larger chain establishments that usually offer pints for $7 and up, and pitchers close to $20, it means an increase in prices for the rural pubs, legions and other businesses that have long offered beer for less.
In comparison: The minimum price for draft beer in Alberta and Saskatchewan is 16 cents per ounce, or $3.20 for a pint. In Manitoba, the minimum price for a pint is $3.60; in Ontario, $3.33.
At Surrey's Big Ridge Brewing Company, which until last weekend offered pints for $4.69 normally and $4 on special, assistant manager Tricia Gardner said it was frustrating to tell customers that their beers now cost more.
"The [new rules] were great for the happy hour specials, but unfortunately the minimum pricing did kind of bite us in the butt," she said on Sunday. In response, the brewpub will begin offering 16-ounce sleeves, which it can discount in accordance with new minimum pricing rules.
Sam Yehia owns two popular pubs in Vancouver, Malone's Urban Drinkery and the Cambie Bar and Grill, both of which offer beer for less than the new minimum rates.
"I have no intention of putting my price up, unless the government forces my hand," he said.
Mr. Yehia also noted that while restaurants and pubs are usually alerted to policy changes in advance, it appears no one was notified about the minimum pricing rules prior to the government's media announcement on Friday.
Paddy Treavor, who served as president of the Campaign for Real Ale Society of B.C. in Vancouver before starting up the society's Powell River chapter, said he is flabbergasted by the new legislation, which he said appears ill thought out and biased toward large, downtown Vancouver establishments.
"It's not a real reflection of the economy of the entire province," said Mr. Treavor, who noted he pays $4.50, with tax included, for a 20-ounce pint of beer at his local pub in Powell River. "Five dollars by Vancouver standards is a fairly reasonable price … but this policy isn't just for Vancouver. It isn't just for the Cactus Clubs, Earls and Boston Pizzas of the world. It's for the entire province. You've got all these areas where $5 is quite a bit of money to spend on a beer."
He said he is penning an open letter to Suzanne Anton, Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, and John Yap, parliamentary secretary for liquor policy reform, to voice his opinion that the government has made a mistake.
"I think they have been misled and misguided by special interest groups, such as industry lobbying associations," Mr. Treavor said. "I think they bought into the pressure and I don't think they did enough research."
Friday's happy hour and minimum pricing announcement is among 73 recommendations from the Ministry of Justice as part of its B.C. liquor policy review. Also over the weekend, the ministry announced that beer, wine, cider and spirits can now be sampled and sold at farmers' markets.
To date, the government has implemented 17 of the 73 recommendations. It says it hopes to have 70 per cent in effect by spring, 2015.