B.C.’s Slowly Changing Liquor Laws

Beer garden | BCBusiness
Under the old regime, alcohol consumed at most festivals and concerts was limited to caged-in beer gardens.

Changes are coming to the province’s liquor laws, and the first among them could be alcohol at farmers markets. But this new era of booze in B.C. is at the mercy of the government’s slowly grinding gears

If the beer or wine you’re enjoying at a wedding this summer tastes suspiciously subpar, you can raise your glass to the province of B.C. for finally amending its antiquated liquor laws. Allowing hosts of “special occasion licensed” events to serve homemade beer and wine is one of seven recommendations that was scheduled to be implemented this spring and summer as part of a phased-in approach to updating the Liquor Control and Licensing Act, which will be completely rewritten in spring 2015. Other public-facing changes for this year include alcohol sales at farmers markets, purchase of liquor showcased at festivals, removal of beer-garden fencing at events and time-limited drinks specials (a.k.a. happy hour).

Throughout September and October 2013, parliamentary secretary and Minister of Justice for Liquor Reform John Yap and his review team held stakeholder meetings and scrutinized public feedback, which led to a final report with 73 recommendations, all of which the province supported in an announcement in January this year. What’s left is for the B.C. government, cities and municipalities to amend the legislation and bylaws, enabling these recommendations to take shape and allowing the public to enjoy a new era of beer, wine and liquor in the province.

Although the announcements have aroused much public interest, we’re now entering a waiting period. In mid-April, the owners at This Is Blueprint Management Ltd.—the Vancouver-based hospitality management company that produces events and owns several clubs, bars and liquor stores—said they were still awaiting guidelines from the government about implementing happy-hour drink specials. According to the provincial government, the policy work for this recommendation is underway and an implementation date has not been determined. The province has also stated that once it is implemented, happy-hour drink specials will be subject to a set minimum price, as prescribed by health advocates.

Also included in the spring/summer implementation plan as a policy change to special occasion licensing is removing beer-garden fencing at festivals, allowing alcohol-consuming attendees to move freely throughout the grounds. However, policy changes may not come in time for this summer’s popular music events such as the Vancouver International Jazz Festival and the Squamish Valley Music Festival to amend their practices. “We’re still discerning what the details are going to be and because of that we’re just going to continue our traditional presentation, which will be the same as in past years,” says John Orysik, Vancouver International Jazz Festival media director. “We would wait I think until 2015.” Paul Runnals, executive director of the Squamish Valley Music Festival, says event organizers are in discussions with officials, but he’s unsure whether the 2014 festival will see any changes.

B.C.’s Liquor Policy Review

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The first change the public will be able to enjoy could be the highly anticipated sale of alcohol at farmers markets. In preparation for the coming amendments, the Whistler Farmers Market created its own policies and framework to allow the sampling and sale of craft beer, wine and liquor, and it will allow two on-site vendors. Market manager Christopher Quinlan says he has been working with the municipality on amending zoning bylaws so that the market could offer liquor sales as early as its June 15 opening, but more likely for Canada Day. “I started communications with these guys before the New Year,” he says. “As soon as that bylaw is passed, we’ll be able to go ahead. We’ve been very proactive with this.”

Scheduling market times for these new producers will be much the same as the process for the market’s regular vendors. The Whistler market has a “made, baked or grown” philosophy, and will be targeting vendors within the Lower Mainland and north through Lytton and Lillooet. “We’ve already had quite a bit of interest from producers in the Okanagan,” Quinlan says. The market permitted only two liquor vendors on-site in order to respect the surrounding businesses, such as the nearby liquor store.

Not every B.C. market will see action that early, though. Vancouver Farmers Markets—also known as Your Local Farmers Market Society, the non-profit behind Vancouver’s markets—estimates that they won’t be able to amend their practices until winter, at the earliest. “Even though at the provincial level they say it will be ready, many municipalities have said they won’t be,” says Elizabeth Quinn, executive director of the B.C. Association of Farmers Markets. The association is putting together draft policies and guidelines for markets that won’t have the time to develop their own framework as the eager Whistler market team has done, and Quinn says that some markets have yet to decide whether they will allow liquor sales.

Vancouver Farmers Markets operations manager Roberta LaQuaglia says the board and society are keen to offer alcohol sales, but adds that they are at the mercy of the city. “Internally we are ready to go, whenever the city has made the appropriate changes to the bylaws that allow for it,” she says. “We would have to put in place our own guidelines for how we’re going to choose those vendors and what criteria we look for, but we’re also hoping for some guidance on that from the B.C. Association of Farmers Markets.” The best-case scenario would see liquor sales at winter markets, but if not, LaQuaglia predicts to see liquor sales by summer 2015 at the latest. “It can be a bit of a wet blanket when everyone is excited about the changes,” she says, adding that she hopes other markets might set a good example that Vancouver can follow.

The association is looking forward to seeing new clientele filtering through the province’s markets. “So many of these craft breweries and wineries have followings,” says Quinn. “It will be more of a cultural mix, I would expect.” Quinlan echoes the association’s sentiment, adding that liquor sales will offer a financial boost to markets that operate on grants and donations. “That’s a nice, steady revenue source for them, and that’s a big part of ensuring the viability of the farmers markets,” he says. The public and industries expecting change are ready and willing, and all that is left is the green light from the government.