Farmers’ markets are now in full swing across BC, with more and more crops coming into their harvest seasons, nugget potatoes, snap peas, early garlic, and…wine? Yes, very soon you will start seeing local wine, beer, mead and spirit producers with their own booths at BC farmers markets.
In a bid to update many of our archaic liquor laws, the provincial government is now allowing the sale of beer, wine, cider and spirits at farmers’ markets across BC. And because we are talking farmers’ markets, the organizers at many farmers’ markets will apply the same standards as they do to their other vendors, in that they will focus on local producers of these beverages. I’ve seen wines and spirits for sale at farmers’ markets in Oregon and all over Europe. You can get a little taste of what the producers are selling, and it all seems to take place in a quite civilized manner. After all, people are not buying drinks, they are just getting little sips to try.
Of course there are some regulations. I spoke with Elizabeth Quinn, the executive director of the BC Farmers’ Market Association, and she’s just sent the regulations out to her member markets. She says many of the regulations came about with the association’s direct consultation with the provincial government. Any liquor vendor at a market will have to have their ‘Serving It Right’ certificate, and they also must have an existing storefront where people can already buy their products. Some markets have let her know they are not interested in having the beverage producers there, while others are wholeheartedly embracing it. She says how each farmers’ market decides to integrate the producers will be up to the individual market, since they all have their own unique culture, and some municipal bylaws may have to be amended if they don’t already allow liquor sales to take place at public venues like the markets.
I’ve received a variety of reactions from some of the beverage producers I know on the Island. Stephen Schacte in Duncan has been planning and building his Ampersand distillery for the past three and a half years and he’s just about ready to start producing gin and some specialty liquors like a tayberry-infused vodka made from berries at Sol Farm, which he and his wife Ramona own. They have already been selling their fruits and vegetables at the market, so now he’s really looking forward to being able to greet their regular customers and new ones at the market with his products. I’m going to go out and visit his distillery for a future column because he tells me the still he’s building is unlike any other.
But up at Hornby Island, Peter Kimmerly from Island Spirits Distillery (the folks that make pHrog gin and vodka) says he’s not interested in doing farmers’ markets, especially off-island, because he has more than enough people coming right to his door these days, and a lot of his profit can be eaten up by just taking the ferry to the mainland.
One of the larger producers near me in Cobble Hill is Merridale Cidery, where co-owner Rick Pipes helped lead the way in getting liquor laws friendlier to the artisan distilling industry. Rick’s wife Janet Docherty says she thinks the idea of being able to promote your craft at local markets is great; she’ll definitely look into it, likely won’t bother sampling their ciders there, but they would like to get people tasting and more familiar with their distilled products such as their apple and pear brandies. And I got the same reaction from Linda Holford at Rocky Creek Winery and Marilyn Schulze at the Venturi-Schulze Vineyards. Linda already has her application in to the Duncan Farmers’ Market so I wouldn’t be surprised if Rocky Creek is one of the first producers will we see at a market here on Vancouver Island.
Potential downsides to this? As Marilyn Schulze said to me today, the devil is in the details. Anything new to established set-ups or a cultural change may take a little while to settle out. Each market will have to determine how they will deal with the new vendors coming in. Steve Schacte was concerned all the producers may get lumped into one area, where he would rather just add on to his established table for his farm. Elizabeth Quinn told me the Whistler Farmers’ market has already decided to limit their vendors to one craft brewery, one distillery and one winery each week, and they will rotate among the different producers who want to come in so no one gets an exclusive run at the market. So I just hope that the markets themselves don’t add on too many unnecessary or cumbersome regulations that would end up driving the artisans away instead of encouraging them, because I think this has the potential to be a great way to encourage more local spirit production in this province.