In Ontario, a Free house is a pub that is free of the control of any one particular brewery or pub supply group. The restaurant chains that dominate the landscape here are typically tied to one brewer under contract or belong to a buying group that limits choice but offers a better selling price based on volume.
Beyond the big ‘contract’, inducements such as tap equipment, furniture, trips and cash are common in almost every chain and most bars I’ve been in (hundreds). I have been told this by franchise operators, bar owners and brewery reps. That being said, the system is tight. You won’t find proof lying around and it seems that there are very few people checking unless a direct complaint is laid. The classic irony is that if a charge is ever laid, I’m sure it will be against a small brewer who is offered an irresistible chance to buy some high volume business but, unlike the big brewers doesn’t have the legal resources to fight a charge.
Clearly, the current set of rules & regs and particularly enforcement has not succeeded in keeping licensee taps open to all players. The big breweries control a significant portion of the sales and I don’t think it would be difficult to say that small brewers have access to less than 5% of taps province wide. There are both exclusive and exclusionary pubs in Ontario and though some chains have uniform products, some allow managers a bit of freedom (very few). The reality is that Ontario is virtually a tied-house province.
As a small brewer, I don’t care much about inducements. They are illegal today and it doesn’t seem to stop anything. If Inbev, SAB/Miller/Coors/Molson, Carlsberg or Heineken want to spraycan money around; so be it. What I would like to have is access to taps and take our chances. If you limit the number of single corporation taps in any house to 50%, what then?
The problem becomes that you need more overpaid government employees to enforce the limits and the last thing we need is more government employees.
Reality dictates that the tied-house system in Ontario is not going away soon. The freehouses we have are gems and have not disappeared despite the efforts of the evil multi-nationals to buy them off. Today’s drinker is increasingly looking for flavour. The chronic Blue, 50, Ex or Canadian drinker is fast becoming a thing of the past. The old-style advertising image of big boobs selling large quantities of alcopops and big-brand lager to large groups of young people is awkward and changing. Our typical drinker at Grand River Brewing ranges from 19 to 75 and does not stay fixed on one brand continually. They are bright and question bland uniformity. The evil empire knows this and sees it in falling sales and price wars on their so-called ‘premium’ brands.
Small brewers are small companies providing jobs across Ontario. We need the opportunity to sell within our communities and somehow we have to make that happen. The freehouse is a concept and location that deserves some serious support.
Grand River Brewing