Beer Festivals Banned Contract Ontario

AGCO cracks down on contract brewers at beer festivals

The list of breweries participating in Toronto beer festivals this season might be considerably shorter than you'd expect. That's because today, as reported by Toronto's own Left Field Brewery, the AGCO has ruled that the products of contract brewers--those small companies that opt to "rent" space from larger brewers to make their beer--won't be allowed at events that are licensed with a Special Occasion Permit (SOP).

Detailing the events in a release on their blog, Left Field Brewery owners Mark and Mandie Murphy explain, "We've learned that the AGCO deems the activity of us selling directly to SOP permit holders, including beer festival organizers, as illegal."

Indeed, a quick look at the details for obtaining an SOP confirm that:

"Once an SOP is issued, all alcohol for the event must be purchased under the permit from an authorized government retail store (such as an LCBO, an LCBO Agency Store, The Beer Store or any Winery, Brewery or Distillery Store)."

What this means is that most contract brewers like Left Field will be unable to offer their products to any of the events and festivals who choose to temporarily license a space with an SOP.

So far, only Left Field Brewery has heard from the AGCO about this issue and no one I've spoken to yet seems sure why the AGCO seemingly decided to start enforcing a rule that's always been in place, but speculation seems to be that someone with a grudge might have complained--or, as the Murphys delicately put it in their release, "some attention has been drawn to the issue just recently and we seem to be the initial target."

Regardless of the intent, the potential consequences are rather broad and pretty devastating for fledgling contract breweries. The decision, if upheld across the board, means that contract brewers who don't sell their products in the LCBO or The Beer Store--i.e. the folks who largely rely on the word of mouth, brand recognition, and even the income they are able to drum up at beer events and festivals--will no longer be allowed to participate at any events licensed with SOPs.

This is an event list that includes Toronto's Festival of Beer and the Beaches BBQ and Brews Festival, among others, and even private and catered events that opt for that licensing option.

The Murphys' post includes a call to action asking craft beer fans to write their MPPs and the Ontario Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Employment, and it caused an outpouring of public support when Left Field Brewery tweeted about the events. Beer bloggers (ahem) also subsequently took up the cause and, in my opinion, it now seems fairly likely that sanity will prevail in this case and contract brewers will be welcomed back--if only because enforcing the rule at every single SOP-licensed event seems impossible.

And also because thousands of festival going Ontarians who suddenly find their beer selections limited this summer might make for one angry and vocal demographic entering an election...

Ben Johnson also writes about beer over on Ben's Beer Blog. If you like outrage mixed with humour and soaked in beer, follow him on twitter @Ben_T_Johnson.

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