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LCBO grounds Flying Monkeys beer

By Raymond Bowe, Barrie Examiner

Barrie's microbrewery has had one of its brands banned from liquor store shelves due to its provocative name and label imagery.

The LCBO has sent Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery's new Smashbomb Atomic IPA back for possible revisions, but brewery founder Peter Chiodo says he has yet to decide on the downtown business's next step.

It's not a matter of David and Goliath, said Chiodo, adding he understands the liquor store's reasoning for the rejection.

"It's a tough one for a small brewer any time that we're censored," Chiodo said. "But the reality is, the LCBO is really our biggest fan, so we have to be mindful of that. They are supporting the craft-beer movement."

According to Chiodo, the brewery's LCBO sales were up 85% last year.

The LCBO has a few issues with the new brew, which features a colourful, cartoonish label.

"It really comes down to the imagery, as a depiction of an explosion," said LCBO spokesman Chris Layton.

Every product brought forward for possible sale is vetted, but rejections are "few and far between," said Layton, adding the liquor store releases more than 10,000 products per year.

"We recognize that opinions will vary, and whether certain images on products are appropriate or not," Layton said. "Many products are marketed today as provocative, edgy and tongue-in-cheek at times, but we're also sensitive that some consumers find depictions of either violence, explosions or bomb blasts disturbing."

According to Chiodo, the name Smashbomb is an acronym for 'single malt and single hop', and 'bomb' refers to the explosion of flavour "from the mango and citrus of the experimental hop that we're using."

The LCBO's stance on Smashbomb Atomic IPA was no surprise.

"With their social responsibility department, they don't like beers like ours that are edgy, a little bit out of control and crossing the line," Chiodo said.

"In the States, this wouldn't even be an issue, but the LCBO is a little bit more conservative up here," he added. "This kind of eclectic packaging didn't work for them. We thought it would be slowed down, but we didn't think it wasn't going to be approved, especially the name. We thought we could probably squeak through by our fingertips."

The LCBO's stance has more to do with the global state of affairs than anything else.

"These days, you always hear so much about bombings, in this post-9/11 world, as they call it," Layton said. "We try not to be censors, that's not our role, but we do try to keep our finger on the pulse of what people might be sensitive to."

And the LCBO is no stranger to peculiar marketing.

They have been asked to carry a vodka brand that comes in a bottle shaped like an AK-47 assault rifle.

"We naturally declined," Layton said.

And there have been others.

An Italian spirit with figurines inside the bottle in various sexual positions.

Killer Beer with an attack dog on the label.

"Some of the products presented raise the eyebrows," Layton said. "As a government agency, we want to have some standards about what goes on the shelf."

The liquor store would also take a pass on products that contain sexually exploitive or overtly violent imagery, appeal to minors or trumpet health benefits, Layton said.

"We've tried to promote a positive image for beverage alcohol," he said. "As a retailer, you want to have images on your shelf that fit your brand."

The LCBO takes its cues from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), which publishes advertising and promotional guidelines, providing the general framework for what is appropriate and permissible when promoting beverage alcohol, Layton said.

The LCBO wanted to get Smashbomb into stores, but its imagery was a stumbling block, Layton said. Packaging changes have been discussed by the two sides to reach a compromise.

"Our door is always open," Layton said. "The dialogue will continue and we'll see where we go from here."

Chiodo and his team are looking into what changes can be made to make people on all sides happy.

"The name change is what scares us the most," he said. "We don't want to change the name, but we also want to deal with the concerns of the LCBO. We're still trying to work it out and we're having trouble with the name. The artwork, we can manage through that."

Flying Monkeys is notorious for its off-the-wall names. Some of their 'retired' beers include Cowardly Lion Hairball Cranberry, Heartless Tin Man Tangerine and Munchkin Toss Mango. More well-known brands from the downtown brewery - formally known as Robert Simpson Brewing Co. - include Antigravity and Hoptical Illusion Almost Pale Ale.

Every product Flying Monkeys has submitted to the LCBO has come back for fine-tuning, Chiodo said.

"For Hoptical Illusion, it probably took us about 12 weeks in social responsibility, going back and forth to change the packaging," he said.

Smashbomb Atomic IPA is highly sought after by beer connoisseurs, Chiodo said, "and they've wanted it on the LCBO shelves for some time. We've had it out there and haven't had one negative response.

"Our customer is the beer aficionado and the LCBO's philosophy is that it's not just about the beer geek," he added. "They're also about the other people who aren't the beer geeks. So they have to be cognizant of that."

Other options available to Flying Monkeys are in-house sales, on draught at restaurants and bars, and The Beer Store, which is jointly owned by Labatt, Molsons and Sleemans.

However, the latter would cost the local brewery $2,600 to have their brand in The Beer Store, plus $280 per store. That could range anywhere between $17,000 and $20,000, Chiodo said.

"It is really expensive for a craft brewer," he said. "We are our own marketing machine, so we really only have curb appeal. At this point, we don't want to go down that route - we'd rather partner with the LCBO."

In the meantime, Smashbomb Atomic IPA is available from the LCBO by private order on a one-case minimum, Layton said.

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