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Navigating the Maze: Importing Beer in Ontario

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Written by: BeerSnob (Josh Hayter, Eric Hogg & Jenny Ma)

Ontario Craft Brewers have done an amazing job at giving us a variety of choices when
it comes to drinking beer. Whether you enjoy creamy, fruity, hoppy, sour, sweet,
caramel, or coffee flavours, they have created many different combinations to best suit
the distinct palates of their customers. That said there is literally an entire world of beer
brewed outside of Ontario’s borders. From Irish stouts to American Pale Ales, English
porters to Belgian Trappist ales, Czech pilsners to German weizen.

When it comes to importing pretty much anything into Ontario there are several hoops
the Government makes people jump through. With alcohol, we not only have to deal
with regular import regulations but also with another set of regulations, some that date
back to the twisted ideas from the 1920s Temperance Movement in Canada. We also
have to adhere to a complex set of alcohol laws, some of which date back to the end of
Canadian Prohibition. Taking all of that into consideration, we have outlined a few of the
difficulties faced by regular Ontarians and Ontario distributors who want to enjoy good
beers that are not made here.

Importing beer into Ontario for personal consumption can be done in one of two ways: it
can be brought back with you when traveling outside of Canada or individuals can place
a private order through the LCBO. When traveling abroad you are allowed to bring a
maximum of 45L of beverage alcohol back with you as long as you pay all the
applicable import and excise duties, taxes, and levies. Returning with more than 45L is
allowed but the product would have to undergo lab testing conducted by the LCBO.
This can be quite costly. The levies are fixed and can be found on the LCBO website but
the import and excise duties would depend on the alcohol content. Also, you must have
all proof of purchase documentation ready to show the officials upon returning to
Canada.

When placing a private order, an LCBO private ordering representative will contact the
beverage supplier, obtain a price quote and with your agreement arrange shipping to
Ontario for pick up. There are disadvantages to this method. First, you don’t get the
allowance of the 24 standard sized bottles of beer (8.5L) you can bring back duty free
when you travel. Second, you must use a freight shipping service. Third, you have to
pay the customs brokerage fee to UPS Supply Chain Solutions, the LCBO’s appointed
customs broker. This is, of course, in addition to all of the duties, taxes, and levies
mentioned above.

In either case, importing beer into Ontario for personal consumption can be quite costly.
To import beer for commercial use, the beer needs to undergo an extensive process to
be considered by the LCBO. Before anything can happen, you need to obtain a license
to represent a manufacturer from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. This
takes approximately 6-8 weeks. The next step is to have a signed copy of the product
review application, which is generated through the NISS (New Item Submission
System). This is also a long process as in order to use the system you must first apply
for it. The review process then consists of label examination, uploading certification
documents, confirming UPC and SCC codes, and product date coding form. Once that
is complete you need to draft a single page marketing plan, obtain FOB or ex-cellar
quotations, and provide a sample for review and possibly lab analysis. All criteria for
laboratory must be met in terms of packaging, labeling, and barcoding or the product
could be rejected by the LCBO. If the product is accepted, you have to provide a fully
completed product plan and marketing profile for review. If the LCBO agrees to
purchase the product they will issue a Commitment Letter setting out conditions that
must be met.

To have the product finally accepted is a big feat but the real challenge is to ensure the
product remains listed at the LCBO stores. If in any location the product is not selling
well, the stores will delist it.

In a lot of ways, the rules and regulations imposed on the importing of beer into Ontario
really limit our consumption to highly popular brands or beer produced by large powerful
companies who can lobby the LCBO or who already have several other products listed
in the LCBO. In general the LCBO has a decent selection because our market
demands it, but quite frankly their business model does not cater to taking risks and
listing small quantities of interesting products.

Ever hear somebody say “Wow this beer tasted way better when I was on vacation
in….”? An often overlooked consequence of importing beer into Canada is the need for
pasteurization. Often times, beer which is really not intended to be pasteurized has to
go through this process so that it can be stored at room temperature without negatively
affecting the beer. This allows for longer shipping times and longer shelf life without the
beer souring, however, the taste is altered and is no longer the original product the brew
master had intended.

Despite the difficulties outlined above, all of this has actually been quite positive for
Ontarian brewers: heavy restrictions on beer imports coupled with a changing clientele
have helped a once tiny Ontario Craft Brewing industry to thrive. Over the last two
decades the amount of innovation in Ontario Craft Brewing has been staggering. Every
year we see more and more Ontario brewers pushing the boundaries when it comes to
taste and variety of their products. They are willing to take risks and work with their
fellow craft brewers to ensure the industry not only survives but thrives in a highly
competitive market place.

Despite the difficulties, if you really want to get your hands on beer made outside of
Canada there are lots of ways to do it. If you love beer the way we do, the BeerSnobs
suggest you write to your local MPP demanding they work with the LCBO to ease
restrictions to allow greater consumer choice. After all as citizens of Ontario, we own the
LCBO. Also, drink local, Ontario has some of the best craft brewers in the world.