It’s a beautifully hot day in Toronto, the beach is full and the barbie is out. You’ve just got time to head down to the supermarket and stack up on burgers, bangers and beer.
But wait – this is Ontario, fool, and booze in the supermarket isn’t allowed. Nor the local corner shop. Nor any shop that is convenient. And so your day at the beach turns into an exhausting round of searching for a couple of tinnies while the barbie coals grow cold.
Buying alcohol anywhere outwith certain sanctioned shops is banned in Ontario, along with much of Canada (the freedom-hunting Quebecois, of course, go their own way). The idea is similar to their views on selling tobacco – out of sight, out of mind. (Ciggies are hidden in a cupboard so young children – sorry, young, vulnerable children – don’t see them and suddenly fall under tobacco’s evil spell at the seductive sight of a packet of Marlboro Light with a grisly image of mouth cancer on its cover. Actually, this has now turned buying cigarettes into a fun version of the yes/no game. “Do you have Camel?” “No.” “Do you have Silk Cut?” “No.” “Is there any box in there with a red stripe on it?” “Getting warm…”)
Except this is beer we’re talking about and a Geordie and a Scot don’t give up that easily. Neither do the Canadians, to be honest. There are two major off-licences in Toronto: the Beer Store, which sells – surprise surprise – beer, and the state-run LCBO, which sells everything else. But rarely Bacardi Breezer, it appears, as two young children – sorry, young, vulnerable children – informed me: “They don’t often have Bacardi Breezer in this store,” said ten-year-old. “It’s mom’s favourite,” added his eight-year-old brother. Oooh, that out-of-sight policy is working really well.
The Beer Store is a warehouse and all the beers are kept out of sight in a large store room. Sadly, there is no opportunity for a parlour game here as they’ve conveniently put the labels of everything they stock on the wall with prices for one (where available), six, 12 or 24 units. Hence you’re left looking at an array of logos of drinks you know nothing about beyond the usual Becks, Heineken or Newcastle Brown Ale, which is a tipple for the trendy who seem to think it’s hip, as the adverts show (left). As in many of the bars, the more you buy, the cheaper it becomes, which seems an amazingly responsible pricing attitude. Seriously, a half will cost, for example, $5.45, a 20oz pint will be $6.95 but you can supersize to a 24oz drink for a mere $0.99. If you’re sharing, a two and a half-pint pitcher is always better value than two pints.
Back in the Beer Store, once you’ve dip-doo-maga-zooed your choice, you ask an assistant and he disappears into the store room to get it for you. In the meantime, other customers are returning their empties, clanking bottles and cans around you for which they get around 10c each one, usually to put towards their next drink.
Our first outing was to the Beer Store next to the guest house we originally stayed in (left), which wasn’t, I admit, in the most salubrious neighbourhood and so the clientele were more interested in alcohol volume per dollar as opposed to brewing techniques or hoppiness. However, it has since become clear (ie. yeah, we’ve visited a few) that this is the norm. Because they are one of the few places you can buy beer, they’ve become a social club for people with drink problems and a small group can often be found gathered outside. Also, inside the shop you’re suffocated by the smell of stale beer from the empties. The assistants should sue for uniform gas masks.
The LCBO, meanwhile, is cold and sterile with staff who don’t know why you want angostura bitters. Plus there’s the lack of Bacardi Breezers, apparently.
The whole experience is grubby and nasty and makes you feel dirty. But it doesn’t stop people drinking. The pubs are as busy as the pubs in the UK – only no-one drinks halves – while most people leave the Beer Store with at least six bottles. In Québec, by the way, you can buy alcohol with your groceries or in the corner store without any problem and in single units.
One of the most unforgettable sights I’ve seen in Toronto was a woman in Kensington Market, wobbling down the centre of the road, almost-empty litre bottle of Smirnoff Ice in one hand, practically full litre bottle of Amontillado shoved down the front of her white knickers, on show to all the world as her trousers were halfway down her thighs. She came and sat with us, revealing a little of her history as we chatted. It was a sight I’d never seen in eight years in Madrid, where beer and wine are not considered alcohol, children are welcome in bars and beer is sold on the beach along with Coca-Cola and water (that’s the irony of our planned beach barbie: even if we had found some beer, we wouldn’t have been able to drink it on the beach – unless we hid it in a bag. The smell of weed is often to be found wafting through the air, however).
I wish I could say she was a rarity on the streets of Toronto but sadly, there are many sad sights around with obviously bigger problems than alcohol. And I can’t help thinking (sorry, bit of a Carrie Bradshaw moment there) that Beer Store and LCBO and the puritanical licensing laws exacerbate the problems: the off-licences are cheaper than bars, where a pint costs on average $6-$8, and it’s better value buying larger amounts so those with problems buy from there and sit on the street. Plus defining alcohol as merely a way of getting drunk – or turning it simply into a series of logos on a wall – removes any attempt at finesse and destroys the beauty of a finely brewed drink. Listen to a group of real ale drinkers talking about their favourite brews and you soon realise there is an entire beverage world far removed from the litre bottle of Smirnoff Ice drinkers. It’s like equating a Michelin-star meal to a McDonalds.
But enough of the pontificating. There is one subtle method of cutting back the amount people drink – put your purchases into paper bags, as the LCBO did my four cans of Alexander Keith’s IPA (very nice) one rainy Thursday. A few yards from our home, the growing soggier paper bag decided there was no point in existing any more and disintigrated, sending my four cans to the four winds of Eglington Road East and Sloane. I zig-zagged my way through the oncoming traffic to try and save them only to have this mass suicide continue as two of them then exploded, leaving me a beer-soaked wretch, much to the amusement of the drivers starting to queue up at the traffic lights. Our alcohol consumption was cut down 50 per cent in one move. Who’d have thought the answer would be so simple?