Let's face reality – at least for today – and admit that right now the LCBO is the best source for craft beer in Ontario. Okay, but the problem is that for a government monopoly there is an uneven distribution of quality between locations.
Some get every bottle from each seasonal feature, brewery feature, and local special releases while the larger location down the street doesn't. Perpetually empty shelves at certain popular store indicate that this isn't necessarily a difference in ambition.
Here are my top 5 LCBOs for craft beer:
Summerhill: I toyed with the idea of not putting this one first for dramatic purposes, but decided I didn't want a (virtual) pelting with empty bottles in brown paper bags. This might be the only location on the list that satisfies both the aesthetic voters — it's housed in a beautiful, old train station — and the ones who demand selection. I don't have any scientific data to prove it, but I think this is the location most likely to have free samples. Maybe the only bad thing to say about Summerhill is that there isn't enough parking.
Laird and Eglinton: Toronto's wine fans know that Vintages releases come out on a strictly controlled schedule. That's not so for beer. Somehow this location always manages to jump the gun and have new bottles available a few days before everyone else. They also have a spacious and attractive display that features OCB beers. Special beer rooms like this one were designed in consultation with the OCB and have advanced features like a system of oranising beer choices by style.
Bloor and Royal York: Etobicoke's biggest LCBO has the double advantage of getting in most of the hard-to-find bottles and attracting a clientele more interested in Pinot than pale ales, so there is plenty of selection for the rest of us. This far west feels like the suburbs, but this location is an easy walk from the subway.
Dufferin and Wilson: Call it a hidden gem, undiscovered treasure, or sleeper pick. However you put it, the outpost near Yorkdale subway station is excellent because no one seems to know about it. If there is a particular bottle that hit shelves four or five months ago and you thought you had missed your opportunity to snap up a few, chances are they'll have it here. Best of all, it will probably be in the spacious, walk-in cooler.
Queens Quay: It's not as pretty to look at as Summerhill or as quick with the releases as Laird and Eglinton, but this one does equally well at all of the jobs we expect of it. The store tends to get an outsized allocation of special one-off releases, so if you feel like rolling the dice rather than searching for a dozen products on the LCBO website this is the one to hit with a shopping list. The downtown location and ample parking also help.