Les Leyne: Beer festival plagued by changing rules

When NDP leader Adrian Dix says he's got a mild, modest little agenda, he isn't kidding around.

He staged a news conference Wednesday in Vancouver devoted entirely to B.C.'s microscopic artisanal-spirits industry. There are about seven small-scale distillers in the province and they say they're getting jammed by Liquor Distribution Branch rules.

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Dix and agriculture critic Lana Popham are advocating allowing the outfits to sell directly to restaurants and licencees and open on-site lounges. Dix also called for the LDB markup to be knocked back to 129 per cent - the same as wine - from the current 170 per cent.

The stance was complicated slightly by the fact Popham rents part of her West Saanich property to a small distillery. But she discounted any conflict concerns: "Would I benefit if they benefit? Absolutely not."

The party consulted with the conflict-of-interest commissioner and he reportedly agrees.

The idea is to boost the little niche market, similar to how the B.C. wine industry was recreated after the 1988 free-trade agreement yanked tariff protection and forced it to stand on its own.

All well and good. If Dix is looking to lock up the artisanal eau de voieliqueur-absinthe vote, this is a good start.

But there's another issue in the world of liquor policy that's ripening quickly, and it affects a vastly bigger segment of consumers. If the NDP wants to turn its attention to booze, it might want to consult with the Great Canadian Beer Festival.

It celebrated its 20th anniversary with a typically huge gathering of more than 8,000 people at Royal Athletic Park last weekend. Patrons sampled from dozens of craft breweries across Canada and by all accounts the party went smoothly. (Twenty patrons were escorted out of the park by security - ten of them for smoking pot.)

But behind the scenes, organizers are seething at the treatment they're getting from the liquor-control branch. The festival has never fit into the licensing scheme for special events, but over the years the organizers and the branch have managed to make it work.

Over the last few years there's been a hardening of the branch's positions on various details.

Two days before last year's festival, the branch tried to block the traditional arrival of some U.S. beers, which were usually shipped to the U.S. consulate, then donated to the festival, more or less by way of diplomatic pouch.

That sparked a last-minute panic, for no good reason, say organizers.

There's also been skirmishing over contradictory policies that clash at the festival. There's a maximum price set for beer at special events. The festival - which runs on a token system - used to exceed that in some cases, by charging two tokens for higher-alcohol brews.

The commendable idea was to curb drunkenness. But it led to problems with the branch.

There's also a relatively new security requirement that looks excessive to organizers and will add thousands to the cost of the event.

The biggest problem is the festival's obvious success. It has built up a six-figure bank account that is used as a float to fund the event from year to year.

The liquor branch has lately become uneasy about how much money is in the bank, because it looks suspiciously like a profit. Events like the festival are not allowed to turn a profit, and there are conflicting interpretations of what the bank account represents.

The speculation is that the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver - fuelled by drunken louts - has forced the branch to toughen up its attitude.

It leaves the beer festival feeling trapped in a twilight zone of changing rules, applied by people who are overly suspicious of what's become an institution. They're not alone - others in the culinary tourism field have the same complaints.

The "think small" NDP has rushed to the defence of B.C.'s tiny craft distilleries.

But it looks like beer drinkers and other cuisine festival fans need some advocacy, too.

Just So You Know: Disclosure: I was a guest of the organizers at the beer festival on Saturday and made a donation elsewhere later to cover off the cost of the freebie.


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