Mixing it up: Serving beer and wine

Tips for serving alcohol at an event
Tips for serving alcohol at an event

Networking over a glass of wine or chatting with colleagues over a cold beer is a common sight at after-hour business events. And with the proliferating number of craft breweries around the region, serving a local beer can add a distinctive touch to your event.

Deciding to serve alcohol at a meeting or reception means answering several questions: Do you need a permit? What do you offer your guests? And how can you keep costs under control?

While we've all been warned about the dangers of over-imbibing, event organizers can still take some simple steps to help prevent guests from drinking too much.

Serve Food:

Ensures attendees aren't drinking on an empty stomach.

Portion control:

Serving drinks in smaller glasses will help limit how much people drink.

Non-alcoholic alternatives:

A fizzy water bar - with sliced cucumbers, fruit or ginger - will make non-drinkers feel included and reduce perceptions that the event is centred around drinking.

Lay out limits:

Restrict the amount of time that a bar is open. Or hand out drink tickets, which can be an informal way of tracking how much alcohol is served.

The paperwork

The provincial government tightly regulates the distribution of alcohol in Ontario, which can mean extra paperwork for meeting planners.

The good news is that organizers don’t need a permit to serve drinks for free at a private place where the public is not typically permitted, such as an office. So there’s no issue with putting a case of beer in the company fridge or placing a couple of bottles of wine in the boardroom.

However, the rules change if you plan on selling alcohol or serving drinks anywhere other than a private or licensed venue. This means organizers of charity fundraisers or receptions typically need what’s known as a special occasion permit, which for the moment is issued through certain LCBO stores on behalf of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.

However, that’s scheduled to change in fall 2017. The LCBO will no longer accept or process paper applications, and event organizers will have to apply for an SOP through the AGCO website.

Event-goes network over drinks in downtown Ottawa
Event goers network over drinks in downtown Ottawa

Drinks menu

Once you have your paperwork sorted, it’s time to exercise your creative side and decide what to serve. Experts say limiting the available options, rather than offering a full bar, is an easy way to keep costs under control.
But sticking to beer and wine is far from the only option, says Amanda O’Reilly, president of event planning firm Balance InStyle.
 

"A signature drink can definitely bring down the cost. Whether it is your logo, or a blue martini, come up with something creative"

Working directly with a local craft brewery is another option and a way of supporting local businesses.

While smaller craft breweries will likely appreciate the exposure and reaching new potential customers, trying to trade publicity for free beer is a non-starter, experts say.

“When it comes to beer and alcohol, the government regulates it so tightly that they really have to watch what they’re doing,” says Randy Fitzpatrick of Knowledgeable Consumption. “We can’t ask that of them.”

Who’s behind the bar?

When it comes to determining whether to hire a bartender or just bring it a cooler filled with beer, Ms. O’Reilly advises organizers to think about the atmosphere they are trying to create.

Having an informal meeting on a Friday afternoon in your own office space with 20 people, for example, has a very different feel than events with formally invited outside guests.

However, Ms. O’Reilly says hiring a bartender brings other advantages. “It allows people to be guests at their own event,” she says.  “It also controls the liquor consumption.”