Premier Kathleen Wynne is leaving the door open to allowing new brewer-owned craft beer specialty shops – a major challenge to The Beer Store's current monopoly on most beer sales in the province.
The idea, first proposed by the Ontario Craft Brewers industry association, was met with a warm reaction from the Premier when she was asked about it Tuesday.
"I want to move towards a more rational and fair system, and one that improves convenience.… craft breweries [need] to have more access to the market," the Premier told reporters at an unrelated news conference. "I'm not closing the door on any of those things."
(What's the story behind The Beer Store and its lucrative monopoly in Ontario? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
Under OCB's proposal, each Ontario craft brewer would get the right to open at least one off-site store. In addition to retailing their own beers, they would also be allowed to sell beers from other craft brewers, both domestic and international.
As the system now stands, The Beer Store controls 80 per cent of the province's beer sales. Craft brewers must pay The Beer Store's owners – Molson Coors, AB InBev and Sapporo – a fee to sell their beer with them. The craft brewers' only other retail options are the government-owned LCBO or selling directly at the site of their brewery.
Canada's National Brewers, the lobby group that represents The Beer Store's owners, would not comment on the craft brewers' proposal Tuesday.
Ms. Wynne, with the help of an advisory council led by former banker Ed Clark, is crafting several possible reform options. One plan, sources have told The Globe and Mail, is to allow some larger grocery stores to sell beer and wine.
Ms. Wynne has already publicly ruled out other ideas, such as allowing corner stores to get into the alcohol market.
Mr. Clark has accused The Beer Store of making craft brews difficult to find in its outlets, encouraging customers to purchase big-name brands made by The Beer Store's owners.
The craft brewers say their market share in Ontario is only 4 per cent, less than half of what it is in British Columbia, which has a more open beer retail market.
"What craft breweries need most right now is a retail channel that is a true extension of the craft brewing movement and its spirit of co-operative entrepreneurialism," Ontario Craft Brewers president John Hay said in a statement Tuesday. "This is difficult to do well in retail channels that are grounded in big corporate culture."
Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod said the government should look at every possible way to open up the beer market.
She said it was unfair of the Premier to rule out convenience stores while potentially allowing large grocery stores to get into the market.
"She trusts Galen Weston over the guy that owns the Kwik-E-Mart. I think that's a problem," Ms. MacLeod said.
"All options should be on the table."