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Monday, October 25, 2010

Meet The Honourable Steve Peters - Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario

John Hay (OCB President) and Steve Peters, 2008
The following interview appeared in the Spring 2010 Issue of TAPS The Beer Magazine on page 61. To obtain a copy, or other back issues of TAPS (dating back to 2007), shoot me at email for details.

*I've known Steve for three years now and I can say without hesitation that his passion for the historical aspect of beer, and his support for local breweries, is amazing. So much so that when the Toronto Beer Week committee was looking for someone to tap the ceremonial 'first cask' to welcome in the week, we looked no further than Steve.

Steve Peters has a pretty cool job … and a pretty great hobby. A career politician, Peters is the Member of Provincial Parliament for the riding of Elgin Middlesex-London and he is also the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. He is also a huge craft beer advocate and sees changes on the horizon for the Ontario brewing industry.

Since being elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1999, Peters has held various cabinet positions over the years, serving as Minister of Agriculture and Food as well as the Minister of Labour. In 2007, after being re-elected by the citizens from his riding, Peters was elected Speaker of the Legislature by his fellow MPPs.

One of his first initiatives in his role as the Speaker was to increase awareness of Ontario products at Queen’s Park (home of the Legislative Assembly). Peters, being a long time beer drinker, breweriana collector, and staunch supporter of local breweries, looked no further than the members of the Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB) to assist him with his goal.

The Speaker, along with John Hay, President of the OCB, have organized two successful annual tastings of OCB members product at Queen’s Park, which are attended by MPPs and Legislature staff members. Individuals have the opportunity to sample the various beers and choose favourites in different categories and the winning beers will then have sway for a years time throughout the Legislature.

Peters, who has a hectic and busy schedule, recently sat down in his office to talk with TAPS’ Troy Burtch about his efforts to showcase Ontario breweries, his love of the fermented beverage, and his interest in brewing history and collecting beer relics of yesteryear.

Q - Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, craft beer advocate, long time breweriana collector, that’s quite the combination?
A – I always have fun with beer. I am a beer drinker. I’m not a wine drinker or a spirits drinker – strictly a beer drinker. I enjoy my beer! I grew up in a household with my father who enjoyed beer and two grandfathers who enjoyed beer. As someone who is interested in history, in Ontario history, I’ve discovered our brewing traditions in our province goes way back. It fits in quite nicely with me because in my own community (St. Thomas, ON) we had two breweries that started in the 1830’s, one in ’32 and one in ’33. One operated all the way until prohibition and the other closed in the 1880’s. As a collector of local memorabilia I have bottles from those breweries; I have a keg, a wooden crate, a glass mirror, and advertising from those breweries. It’s nice that I can tie some history into my love of beer as well.

I would say that part of my love of beer comes from my days as Minister of Agriculture. I spent two years doing that, trying to advocate and encourage people to buy local, buy Ontario, buy Canadian, and one of the things I did after I was elected Speaker, in 2007, was to ensure that we did what we could within this Legislature to promote Ontario product. We serve only VQA Ontario wine and for the past two years now we’ve proudly had local craft beer here – chosen by members and staff of the Legislature.

Q - Where did this passion for beer and collecting come from?
A – It was a family thing, I would certainly say that, as I mentioned earlier. But I can remember even in University in the 1980’s going into the Beer Store and we would buy a different brand of beer each week just to taste all the different ones. I remember one of my favourites for a long time was a Labatt product called Gold Keg. It was a nice beer, but long since disbanded.

Q - You’re a member of the Canadian Brewerianist Society. How did you get involved with collecting beer memorabilia?
A – I started collecting antique bottles around 1972, and I started to find bottles from the St. Thomas area and one in particular happened to be a beer bottle. I then became interested in the history of brewing in St. Thomas. I had no idea about a brewery once operating in my hometown, so my interest grew and led me to start looking for more beer bottles from the area. I joined an organization, which was then called the Canadian Brewerianists’ in 1982, a group that was dedicated to the history of Canadian brewing with members collecting everything from coasters, beer trays, caps, bottles, cans, posters, you name it. So I’ve been a member and a subscriber to their magazine for over 25 years. I attended their annual convention in Toronto in my first year (1982) and it opened my eyes to the diversity of breweriana collecting in Canada. I’ve made a lot of good friends all across the country that like beer and like collecting.

Q - Every collector has something they’re most proud of…..what’s your treasure?
A – Ahh! That’s a tough one. I have a lot of treasures. My number one piece? I guess it would be a mirror. It measures about 3 feet by 8 feet and it says “Ask For Rudolph and Begg Beer” and they were a brewery in St. Thomas. The mirror hung in a hotel, behind the bar and it disappeared before I was old enough to drink. It was gone for over 35 years. I got a call one day from a friend of mine who said, “Steve, a guy has moved back into town and I think he has the Rudolph and Begg mirror.” I got in touch with the gentleman, who had moved all over Canada with the mirror in his possession, and I was able to acquire it from him.

Not so much a treasure, but in the summer of 1995 a buddy and I discovered where the Rudolph and Begg bottle dump was. We got permission from the owners of the property and we rented a backhoe. We cleared all the top layer of earth and spent the summer digging through the old bottle dump and finding one whole bottle for every five hundred broken ones. It was quite a thrill.

Q - You played a key role in introducing Ontario-produced craft beers to members of the Legislative Assembly and fellow MPPs – what sparked this initiative?
A – The spark? Ensuring this building, which belongs to the citizens of Ontario and has been our Legislature since 1893, with over 300,000 visitors a year, that this building showcase the province; show off the great products we have in Ontario. As Speaker, one of my initiatives has been getting those products in the house. We have been serving VQA wines for over twenty-five years, chosen by MPPs and staffers, and I thought we should be doing this with beer. We worked with John Hay, the President of the Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB), and we modeled our beer initiative after the wine. We have six different categories plus a Speakers beer, the categories chosen by the OCB. We brought the breweries in and we’ve had two years of beer tastings here at the Legislature where MPPs and staff sample and pick the winning beers that will be served over the next year.

Q - What has the feedback been like from your fellow MPPs since you started the OCB tastings two years ago?
A – It’s been extremely positive. I think from the standpoint of people who have, over the years, been used to drinking beer from large breweries, this was their first experience at trying a craft beer and they quite enjoyed them. And by having the wide number of samples it gave them the opportunity to taste the different tastes coming from all over Ontario. I think people are extremely conscious of doing what they can to support businesses that are home-grown and operate in our own backyard, including breweries, and I’m a big believer in planting seeds and pouring beer on them and watching them grow.

From discussions I’ve had with other MPPs I’ve learned that they’re now aware of the local breweries in their respective ridings, which is great. I was just in Eastern Ontario touring around with MPP Jean-Marc Lalonde and one of the places he took me to was to Beau’s All Natural Brewery in Vanleek Hill, ON.

Q - You choose a ‘Speaker’s’ beer as part of the tasting – how do you make your selection?
A – Whatever the Speaker likes (with a laugh). The first year I went with Neustadt Springs Scottish Pale Ale – a) because I like Val and Andy Stimpson (the owners), and b) because I really enjoy that beer. But I toast my glass to the Stimpson’s for what they’ve been able to achieve in Neustadt, utilizing that old brewery. It’s a great piece of history that dates back to the 1860’s or 1870’s and knowing that beer is still being produced there using the same water source that Mr. Huether (famous brewing family in Ontario during the 19th century) once used to brew his beers is pretty great. I appreciate the heritage, but at the same time, it’s a good beer.

The second year was Mill Street Tankhouse. Of all the Mill Street products the Tankhouse is my favourite. It’s an interesting, flavourful beer. I use it to introduce craft beer to visitors at Queen’s Park, and even at my house. I find that it’s easy to hook people on the taste.

Q - Will the tastings occur every year?
A - Yes, the tastings will continue to take place each year – every June. We’ll start to work with John Hay and his group again shortly to organize another tasting.

Q - Bar recognized your dedication to showcasing the beers of Ontario at the 2008 Golden Tap Awards. What did that mean to you?
A – (The Speaker turns around to show me his vast collection of awards, including the one presented by Cass Enright of Bar Towel)

Right behind my desk! It’s always a great feeling to be recognized, but I think if it wasn’t for these breweries and their commitment to brewing a quality beer, then we wouldn’t have the opportunity to showcase it. I think we all need to be salespeople for local product. I look at people like Ralph Morana at Bar Volo (Toronto beer establishment) and what he’s doing promoting beers from all over the province with weekly rotations of his draught menu. I look at my friend Suzanne van Bommel and her chef M. Earl Wilson with M.E. & Suzie’s Restaurant in Port Stanley, trying to push Ontario products. I was certainly gratified to receive the award but I’m only doing what I believe in and that is trying to sell Ontario, particularly encouraging people to drink Ontario craft beer.

Q - The present day government has done a great job assisting the small breweries of Ontario. Could they be doing more?
A – Well, I was proud when I was the Minister of Agriculture that we were able to work with the Minister of Finance at the time to get the initial $5 million allocated for the craft breweries, and then to see that announcement again in 2008 of additional assistance to the industry. I’m proud to advocate that.

I think we need to be prepared to sit down and have a long hard discussion with the owners of Brewers Retail (The Beer Store – AB/Inbev, MolsonCoors, Sapporo). We have got to find a way to assist those small breweries with getting a greater presence in the Beer Store. I commend the LCBO for what they’ve been doing, but most people, including most of my friends, buy their beer from the Beer Store, not the LCBO, and we have got to be able to find a way to get beers from small craft breweries into those stores.

The other thing I’d like to see change is in the way beer is distributed in the province. One of the challenges many small breweries face is distribution. A lot of them consist of one person acting as brewer, bottler, marketer, delivery driver, etc. I would love to find a way that we could assist the craft brewers with the creation of a distribution system that would see a group of regional breweries in Southwestern Ontario for example, get together to help each other.

I also think there has be to greater discussion on this, because I know a lot of people have been advocating on behalf of it, is the sale of craft beer in corner stores or ‘craft beer stores’. That is something that I think politicians need to sit down and discuss with the convenience store industry. I think it’s worthy of looking at, but it needs to have some real good discussion first. It works elsewhere in Canada and in the US.

Q - Where do you see the Ontario brewing industry in the next ten years? What do you hope to see?
A – Well I think there are a couple things that come to mind. One is that I find that, and I have a lot of respect for the brewing industry in Ontario, is that as I travel around Canada I see the breweries are a little more adventurous then here at home and I would encourage more breweries in Ontario to look into that.

The other thing I would like to see would be more partnerships between the breweries and the restaurant industry. There is a strong desire for local foods and the local food movement, and we need to make sure that as people are thinking about food they are thinking about beer that way too.

And thirdly, I’d like to see some breweries spring up in places that could support them. Look at London, ON. They haven’t had craft beer in London in more than ten years, longer probably.

But the biggest thing I’d like to see change in Ontario is more access to the Brewers Retail for smaller breweries, and if that means that the government needs to step in to conduct a review, then so be it.

Q - Importing beer from another province into Ontario is a pretty arduous task that is tightly controlled with rules and regulations. As a fan of good beer, would you like to see more Canadian craft beer available in Ontario?
A – Yeah, for sure. I’m a big believer in that trade goes both ways and that we cannot expect borders to be open if we’re closing our own. I know that the Premiers have been talking about removing barriers to inter-provincial trade and I think the craft brewing industry could be an excellent area to look at. I’ve heard of the challenges and the hoops Half Pints owner David Rudge has to jump through, through the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) to try and get product to Ontario. I’ve talked to Morana at Volo and heard his challenges when it comes to bringing in beer. Food safety and quality have to be first and foremost, but we need to find a way to reduce these barriers to get these great products into Ontario and onto our shelves.

Q – You’ve touched on this briefly, but Ontario allows for private wine retail stores in places like grocery stores but does not allow speciality beer stores. Quebec, Nova Scotia, Alberta, and BC have private beer stores. Will Ontario ever expand beyond private wine stores?
A – We use free trade as the rationale for not getting beer into some of these stores, the wine stores were grandfathered because of free trade. But I don’t think we can always be ‘boyscouts’. I think we have to take a look at what other jurisdictions are doing. I’ve traveled in the different States and I’ve seen the ‘Made in Michigan’ stores, and I’ve seen the ‘Made in Pennsylvania’ stores and this type of store would be great in Ontario, especially for craft beer. If other provinces in Canada are doing it and some states south of the border are doing it, I think the time has come that we can take a hard look at them.

Q - Ontario has a rich brewing history that you’re quite aware of from your time with the Brewerianist Society. Is there anything the provincial government could be doing to assist the society in the preservation of that history?
A – There is currently no provincial funding for the Brewerianist Society. It would be nice. Beer is part of our heritage. It goes back to our earliest days. That’s what I’ve appreciated most about the society – our dedication, personal dedication, to preserving beers history, and an important part of it. Yeah, I would love to see the Museum of Civilization or something like that to come along and say ‘we’re going to start collecting Canadian Breweriana. Is there government funding, no, it’s a dedication of love, that collector bug that’s in everybody, and that’s what makes it so special.

Q - The Premier has recently stated that the government is looking at options to pay off the current Provincial debt which include the possibility of selling the LCBO. Any chance this could become a reality?
A – I guess we’ll find out in the budget that is set to come in the Spring. The government undertook a review of the LCBO back in 2005 and the decision was to hang onto them. If selling it off is seriously considered there would have to be a good cost/benefit analysis completed. I mean it brings close to $2 billion in revenue a year! I will say that the one thing that strikes me with the LCBO is that they do an outstanding job at regulating the sale of alcohol. I think anytime that you start to potentially start to water that down you can allow for greater access for underage drinking, or irresponsible sale and serving. The LCBO has been a good friend of the craft brewing industry .

Q - Your riding features a craft brewery (Railway City) in St. Thomas. What has the brewery brought to the community?
A – I can step out my front door and I can look at the brewery! When they opened, it was the first time in over ninety years that beer was brewed in St. Thomas! They have brought a commitment to the community. They have worked with a wide variety of groups to assist them in promotions and in turn they have been able to serve their product. It has helped to increase the awareness in taste in the city by offering citizens a taste they’ve never experienced before. It has been great for St. Thomas.

Q - And finally. Best time for a pint?
A – Ah, right now. I enjoy a good pint in the evening at the end of the day, when my business is done.

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