In September the LCBO unveiled their new plan for craft beer in the wake of Queen’s Park’s new reforms of the beer retailing system in Ontario. The plan? A “zone,” just for craft beer.

Finance Minster Charles Sousa wisely chose the Summerhill LCBO for the press unveiling, which I attended. Here, the zone is located in a new addition to the store (they took over a Timothy’s space) and that new square footage gave them lots of room for a huge Growler Bar and banks of fridges lining the walls all housing cold craft beer.

This fall, 25 LCBO stores will have CBZ’s. 

So what, exactly, are they?

Basically, they’re a giant re-merchandising exercise. Rather than stock beer on shelves willy nilly, (or as the LCBO explained “in the most efficient manner”), these new zones will be designed with the consumer in mind first, drawing them to a special space just for craft, with plenty of signage based on either the brewery or the style (the LCBO is experimenting with the best way to categorize the brews).

For a few LCBO stores, the zones will create more room for beer overall, but in the majority of existing stores, where no new square footage can be gotten, the existing beer section will simply be better organized and signed. And most importantly, the beer will be put into cold-rooms or large fridges!

(Yes folks, beer tastes better fresher, and you should always keep yours in the fridge, drinking most styles within six weeks of purchase date to taste them at their prime—so what are you waiting for? Crack one now!).

The most exciting part of the Summerhill zone is the growler station, it only serves brews that aren’t available in the LCBO and has six taps, rotating kegs frequently. Tastings are $0.50 and give drinkers a chance to bring home new and unique brews.

“If you had told me five years ago that the LCBO would have a growler station with rotating kegs pouring one-off or specialty beers, I would have laughed in your face,” one delighted craft brewer told me at the launch.

But only a handful of LCBO’s will end up with growler stations. Right now the Summerhill station is the only one in existence, and one LCBO employee told me he can’t see more than 10 or 12 stores ever housing a Growler Station. That’s simply because of space: only huge stores, like Toronto’s Queen Quay’s or brand new builds will have the space to include one of these hulking stations.

Sadly, smaller, older stores outside of big cities don’t have a hope in hell of seeing a growler station in their future.

What about the beer? Well, the LCBO isn’t committing to putting anymore SKU’s of beer on the shelves, rather the zones are designed to “enhance customer exposure to craft beer and put it front and centre,” according to Chris Robertson, the LCBO’s Director of Spirits & Beer.

To craft beer nerds, CBZ’s are not revolutionary and they will likely inspire no more than a long diatribe of negativity.

But let’s not forget where we’re starting out from—a long prohibition hangover where Government decided to control (and limit) liquor sales. We’ve come a long way since then. And what about the non-beer nerds—or the vast majority of beer buyers in Ontario. Most casual beer drinkers will benefit greatly from better signage, better-educated staff, and colder, fresher craft beer. Plus, Robertson pointed out that currently craft beer accounts for 10% of the LCBO’s market share, yet in some stores, Ontario craft beer gets up to 20 or even 30% of shelf space. (Personally I’d rather see more shelf space given to the world’s best specialty and craft beers, which there is a dearth of on LCBO shelves).

For a retailer with “Control” as its middle name, and who has only ever had to compete against The Beer Store, the zones are a good first step in upping their game to compete against grocers, and to do this, they’re investing in preserving the products’ quality and educating and better informing consumers.

But if these new zones are all that LCBO shoppers will get from the Wynne government’s promised reform of the Ontario beer retail system, they’re not enough. Consumers want true access to lots of varieties of beer and they’ve made their voices heard… Craft Beer Zones, beer in “up to 150 grocery stores by 2017,” and the continuation of the Beer Store monopoly isn’t what they meant.

It’s time Ontario Craft Brewers demand real change rather than glad-handing government officials over the scraps thrown to them from the dinner table.

Check out my pics of Summerhill’s Craft Beer Zone here: