A review of B.C.’s liquor laws began at the start of August with a request for feedback from key industry groups and stakeholders.

Ridge pub owners cautious on liquor law changes

B.C. begins review, public consultation on ‘outdated’ liquor policy

As the provincial government embarks on another round of liquor policy reforms there are different reactions from local people in the liquor business.

One brew pub owner appreciates the government being less of a nanny state. Another says Victoria ever-changing approach to liquor laws has driven down the value of his investments.

Allowing patrons to have a craft beer at a farmer’s market, a glass of wine at the spa, and even an adult beverage at the beach are new freedoms that have all been proposed for this latest review.

The government is sending letters to 10,000 liquor licence holders asking for feedback. In September a website will allow for public input, then recommendations to the provincial cabinet will be made in November.

Brock Rogers owns the Billy Miner Pub in Maple Ridge. Under recent amendments to liquor laws, he is now able to sell beer that he brews at another holding, the Mission Springs Brew Pub, in his Haney pub. He sees it as a sensible change

“They’re softening these lines all the time,” he said.

It has created opportunities for brew pubs. In the past, the options for his patrons were limited.

“We have Molsons, or would you like Molsons?” is how he puts it.

Now he has 28 taps at his Mission pub, and is installing more at “The Billy.”

“Now, if you don’t have selection, you’re not in the pub business.”

He sees an increasing number of customer-driven, positive changes in liquor enforcement.

With a new caterer’s liquor licence, he will be able to take his portable wood-fire pizza ovens to local festivals and events, and also serve customers a beer.

“You hope they will keep it casual – we don’t need to build fences around people drinking beer,” he said.

In Whistler, children are allowed to accompany their parents into a pub until 8 p.m.  He sees that as a reasonable approach that could be adopted for the entire province.

Spas, farmer’s markets and even barber shops are reasonable venues to serve patrons a drink – but a limited number, he says.

Rogers has a pub in Korea. He said it is the nation with the highest per capita beer consumption, there is less regulation, but you don’t see people drunk in public.

Ultimately, he foresees a day when people attending an event like the Symphony of Fire in Vancouver will be able to have a beer or glass of wine in hand.

“I don’t know if we’re ready for it yet, but we can transition to it.”

His feedback to government will be that Victoria look at the tourism potential of brew pubs, which he says could compare with the burgeoning Okanagan wineries.

“I would tell them to take a hard look at the tourism component craft beer has in Ontario,” he said.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to tour brew pubs in the Fraser Valley by bus.”

 

Regulatory frustration

Justin Strange says loose enforcement of licenced restaurants has devalued every pub in B.C.

He owns the Witch of Endor Pub in Maple Ridge, as well as the Station House in Aldergrove and The Point in Port Moody.

Strange has been in the pub business for 20 years, and said bar owners generally paid a premium to obtain their “liquor primary” licence. He went through screening as rigorous as if he was getting a job as a border guard, he said. As a rule of thumb, a pub’s licence alone was worth $1 million, to say nothing of other business assets.

But under changing and relaxing liquor laws and enforcement, many easy-to-get “food primary” liquor licensees are allowed to operate like pubs, serving drinks rather than meals, and even hiring bar-style entertainment.

He points out that a foursome might leave a golf course and head to an upscale restaurant for a post-round beverage, where traditionally they would have been pub-bound.

Now bars compete with every pizza joint and sushi house that is licenced to serve beer and wine.

“The lines (between food primary and liquor primary) are so blurred now.”

The double whammy was that pub owners saw their customers targetted for enforcement when Victoria brought in tougher drinking and driving laws three years ago.

That drove pub customers to pub-style restaurants, where police were not doing walk-throughs, nor setting up roadside stops nearby.

The net result – pubs are worth significantly less than they were before the regulations changed and enforcement relaxed, he said.

For those who operate pubs in conjunction with liquor stores, the coup de grace from the government will be allowing beer and wine to be sold in grocery stores.

If that happens, he said the liquor store owners “would be flat broke in a second.”

“You’ve turned a liquor store into a corner store,” he said. “They (politicians) are thinking about what they’re looking like to the public. They’re not thinking about the guy who will lose his livelihood.”

He said pub owners have watched their investments lose value, and are holding their breath as Victoria once again tinkers with liquor laws.

“For anybody who has a liquor primary licence, it’s hugely scary,” said Strange.