Vancouver is ranked world’s most livable city for good reason. The international throngs set to descend in February for the Winter Olympics will no doubt be awed by the city’s setting, between snow-capped mountains and the green-gray waters of the Pacific. They’ll marvel at its sleek, modern architecture and efficient public transport. And they’ll probably warm right up to that earnest Canadian charm. But sooner or later, Olympic fans are going to get thirsty and discover Vancouver’s dirty little secret: exorbitant alcohol prices.
I’m not a beer snob. I’ll drink a microbrew, but I’m just as happy with a Bud Light. The problem is that even budget beer has premium prices in Vancouver. My first trip to a B.C. Liquor Store – the provincial chain authorized to sell booze in Vancouver – was a wake-up call. Domestic or import, beer or wine , it made no difference. There wasn’t a cheap buzz in the house.
Take Coors Light, for example, standby of frat boys and bargain beer fans everywhere. In lots of places in the U.S., you can walk into a 7-11 with $10 and come out with a dozen cans of the Silver Bullet and enough change for a Slurpee. That same 12-pack north of the border: $18, factoring in the exchange rate, plus tax and deposit. I checked out the other beers to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. 12-pack of Heineken: $22. Case of Corona: $37! I even went looking for PBR, bargain-basement refuge of functioning alcoholics everywhere. It just didn’t seem fair: $7 for a measly sixer.
The problem lies partly in the way British Columbia’s liquor board taxes and distributes alcohol. First, beers are assessed a boggling array of mandatory taxes and sin taxes. On top of that, the board adds its own markup. Sales are then restricted to official government stores and select, private liquor stores, which tack on their own margin.
Ordering a drink in a pub or restaurant can be even worse. Unlike the hospitality industry in other cities, bars and restaurants in Vancouver generally pay retail prices for their booze. So the alcohol served to customers has to be marked-up even further. Factor in five percent sales tax and a 10 percent liquor tax, and a pint becomes a major investment. Adding insult to injury, happy hours here are illegal.
Wine drinkers are no better off. A mid-range bottle of imported wine is assessed a 117% tax when it enters Canada. So even generic international plonk ends up extravangantly priced. A bottle of Yellowtail Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, sells for $6.65 in Washington state’s Safeway grocery stores. Cross the border, and the same bottle will cost you $11.50. Vancouver lawyer and wine enthusiast Mark Hicken has railed against British Columbia’s wine regulations for years. So far, though, all he’s come up with is this depressing wine calculator, which shows you exactly how much you’re getting fleeced for a given bottle of wine.
So what’s a thirsty Olympic fan to do come February? One option: Pack it in. Canadian law allows international visitors to bring in up to one case of beer, two bottles of wine or 40 ounces of hard liquor. For those without the extra carry-on space, there’s another possibility: homebrewing. Partly in response to the high prices, several outlets have sprung up in Vancouver offering u-brew supplies and even on-site kettles for boiling up custom blends. Just don’t tell your hotel you’re brewing pale ale in their bathtub.
And there’s even talk of bootleggers, who supposedly truck in cheap shipments of beer from south of the border and sell it at a discount. Sounds a bit far-fetched, but things are getting desperate. Consider this: A 12-pack of Molson – maybe the most Canadian of all beers, proud emblem of Canuck culture the world over – now sells for about $18 in Vancouver. Make your way across the border to Washington, and you can find Molson 12-packs on sale in Safeway for $9.95.
What do you think? Does Vancouver have the priciest beer in North America? In the world? Any ideas on finding cheap drinks in the Olympic city?