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Controversy brewing in New Brunswick after new beer sale policy introduced

In this Thursday, Jan. 26, 2011 photo, cans of beer are sorted at the Baxter Brewing Co., in Lewiston, Maine.

Pat Wellenbach/The Associated Press

A new policy requiring some breweries in New Brunswick to sell a minimum amount of beer in provincially-run liquor stores has ignited a backlash with one national group representing small businesses calling it excessive.

A brewery that wants to sell its product on premises to the public for off-site consumption must apply for a Brewery Agency Store licence, but in order to do that it must sell 10,000 litres of beer through NB Liquor outlets.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business says the policy, which came into effect last month, will inhibit small business growth.

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"It's extremely restrictive," said Erin McGrath-Gaudet, the group's director of intergovernmental policy.

She said NB Liquor, the province's Crown liquor agency, needs to rethink the rule and be more open to microbreweries, some of which have voiced their concerns.

"It's really about going back to the drawing board ... and looking at the business lens and saying, 'This is what we need to do to support these industries, this is what makes sense for regulation for that industry,' rather than being really prescriptive," she said.

One entrepreneur in Florenceville-Bristol, N.B., said the policy has thrown a wrench into his plans to sell craft beer from his microbrewery, which is set to open this month.

Mitch Biggar, owner of the Railcar Brewing Company, said the rule will bind startup microbreweries.

"By putting on a minimum production capacity, they are forcing us to invest more at the very beginning and go to a much bigger brewing production system," he said.

Biggar said the size of his initial production system wouldn't allow him to meet the NB Liquor quota and have any beer left to sell to bars and customers.

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He also believes the policy will take its toll on tourism.

"A lot of people plan their vacations around winery and brewery tours, so if you're not able to sell your own product for off-site consumption what's going to encourage any kind of tourist to stop in and see your facility?" he said.

Shane Steeves, who runs Hammond River Brewing out of his home in Quispamsis, N.B., said the policy confounds him.

"I don't think they understand how much this affects the small guys like myself," he said.

"It would take a lot of brew sessions over a course of a year to produce that kind of volume and (it is) virtually impossible for me personally because I do have a full-time job and this isn't my sole income."

The policy says it is intended to boost sales for NB Liquor while giving greater beer producers greater exposure.

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"The overall goal ... is to generate incremental sales for (NB Liquor) by expanding into new points of sale, to serve customers at more convenient locations, and to assist in development of the beer industry in the province," the policy says.

Brian Harriman, the president of NB Liquor, declined an interview request. But in a statement he said he will meet with brewers on Aug. 15 to discuss possible changes to the policy.

"We are meeting with a representative group of craft brewers over the coming weeks to discuss how we can improve the policy and to see where we can make the policy more user-friendly for the brewers," he said.

Biggar said he still plans to open with the sale of kegs to local bars and pubs, but is hoping NB Liquor will consider changing the policy or provide exemptions.

He said producing small batches allows brewers to experiment with different kinds of beers and flavours without having to spend a lot.

"Going to a bigger system takes some of that creativity away," he said.

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