Beer importers play an important role in the Canadian beer market because, without them, acquiring interesting beers from other provinces, territories and other countries would be impossible.
The importing of beer is a uniquely Canadian business. Although importers exist elsewhere in the world, Canada has made them a necessary part of the distribution system. The reason, according to Guy McClelland, president of McClelland Premium Imports, is the unique alcohol distribution and retailing control in the Great White North.
“Growing up here, you don’t realize how unique it is, but what I’vee learned going elsewhere and dealing with European suppliers, is the liquor board in Canada is very unqiue in the world and very strange for companies used to doing business in a more normal business way,” said McClelland, whose company specializes in importing beers from Europe, including the recently reviewed Mort Subite Xtreme Kriek.
Alcohol is a controlled substance, much like tobacco, and there are rules. One of those rules is that alcohol coming from outside an individual province has to be brought in by an importer. Federal regulations govern the provincial liquor boards, but the individual liquor boards (all 13 of them) are left to their own devices to interpret the federal regulations in how they control and enforce liquor laws, McClelland explained.
Every province has its own liquor laws, and each product must be imported into each individual province. Although that presents challenges for an importer, particularly one that wants to deal in multiple provinces, it also created a uniquely Canadian business, McClelland said. He compared each province to its own little country in terms of liquor laws and importing.
McClelland, a former Labatt/Interbrew employee, started his importing business in his home eight years ago. When he still worked for Interview, he helped to import and launch Stella Artois, Keith’s India Pale Ale and Boddington’s. Today, his focus is on the European market.
“I make connections between suppliers in Europe, in my case, and the liquor boards, which is the first key to entry in every province,” he said.
But what exactly does an importer do? Vern Raincock, president of DeLancey Direct, said an importer is a consultant to breweries. They make sure provinces are aware of availability and that labels conform to standards. Distribution in each province is essentially a monopoly run by the provincial liquor boards, and a good importer knows how to handle the logistics and red tape of working with each liquor board.
“An importer’ss job is to identify the gap that exists in the Canadian provinces, both legally and market-wise, when it comes to presenting a new product in the new province. Each province is managed separately and has different regulations,” Raincock said.
Much of an importer’s role comes down to relationships, Raincock explained. In a lot of cases, breweries work with the same importer for years. That importer is responsible for initial sales to the liquor board, marketing campaigns, creating brand awareness and sometimes even product placement in stores. Importers frequently have a hand in store tastings, as well.
A lot of the liquor rules in the provinces and territories are quirky and archaic, but many have also been put in place by Canadian brewers to protect their market from American breweries, McClelland said. Many of those barriers have come, as is obvious with the increasing number of American craft beer on store shelves across the country.
“They need me to navigate the red tape, and also from my experience in the industry and selling other brands and import brands, launching Stella Artois in Canada, they’re also getting my sales and marketing experience,” McClelland said.