What does it take to get your favourite international ales through customs and onto LCBO shelves? As one T.O.-based beer-importing duo proves, it’s hard work, but schmoozing helps.
Mike Laba stood barefoot on a grassy patch of New Holland Brewing Company’s Michigan grounds. He put down his bottle of Full Circle, and gently tossed a beanbag through a narrow slot in a nearby rectangular cornhole board.
His business partner, Chris Goddard, was jubilant. Laba’s final throw had secured the tipsy team’s victory against New Holland president Brett VanderKamp. Their prize? The rights to distribute the brewery’s products, not just in Ontario—which they negotiated over cigars earlier that afternoon—but across Canada as well.
The life of a beer-and-spirits importer can be pretty damn sweet. But most days, the co-founders of Ontario’s newest craft-drinks import agency, Craft Brand Company, are buried in paperwork and stuck on the phone, attempting to get their brands into the LCBO, The Beer Store, and on tap at your local watering hole.
Goddard, 36, and Laba, 34, met over a decade ago when they were handling marketing for Steam Whistle and Brick Brewing, respectively. “We always said we’d do our own thing one day,” says Laba, “but we kept getting promoted.”
The duo finally took the plunge last year, incorporating Craft Brand Company, and quitting their gigs to woo their favourite international brewers to Ontario.
The LCBO is one of the world’s biggest alcohol buyers, but it’s not an easy sell to foreign producers because of its stringent demands: Cans and bottles must include bilingual labelling, display minimum font sizes, and meet various shipping-related requirements.
“Then there’s the time lag,” adds Goddard. “If you pitch a beer as a seasonal release, and it gets accepted, you’ll wait six months to a year before it rolls in. We’re paid on commission, so [there’s] a lot of work before we see any dough.”
In any case, the pair’s turn-key service and industry connections are clearly paying off: They’ve already signed Alberta’s Big Rock, along with a slew of other breweries including Sweden’s Omnipollo and Toronto’s own Sweetgrass Brewing Co.
The downside for beer importers is that once their clients get a foothold in Ontario, the company often dumps them and sets up its own infrastructure instead. Laba and Goddard are hoping to break that pattern by building their beer-business relationships on trust. And, okay, maybe some brews and stogies, too.