The Ontario Inferiority Complex

At one time or another, every craft beer drinker in Ontario has probably described a beer by saying, “It’s pretty good… for Ontario.” Our judgments of beer made in Ontario are always skewed by something I call the Ontario Inferiority Complex. There is often a qualifier added to any comments about a locally made beer, which can sometimes be positive (“I can’t believe this is made in Ontario!”) or negative (see above). In either instance there is a strong undertone that Ontario beers are being judged by a different set of requirements, with the understood implication that beers from Ontario are inferior to beers from other countries or provinces.

I am just as guilty for making statements like those (even last Friday night, when trying the awesome House Ales X Amsterdam Night Train, which I couldn’t believe was made in Ontario), but am fucking sick and tired of them. Saying that a beer is good considering it was made in Ontario is pretty much the same as saying the beer is okay, but it surpassed your lowered expectations. No beer drinker should make a concession for flavour – say if it’s a bad beer or just okay. Judge an Ontario-made beer the same way you would any other, or else you are continuing to reinforce the idea that our beers are inferior.

It would be great for the beer industry in Ontario if everyone stopped comparing beers made in the province to those from the States. Not that I think Ontario beers can’t match up to American ones, but how is it fair to compare the output from one province to everything made in the USA? You’re pitting a province of thirteen million people (where liquor laws and bureaucratic red tape are a hindrance to breweries, both provincially and nationally) to a country that has three-hundred million more people (and many states with significantly different liquor laws). There are twenty-nine breweries in the OCB and 1,400 in the Brewers Association. This is a comparison that Ontario will never win, no matter what our breweries produce.

Yes, it is easy to drive to Buffalo or Detroit and get lots of awesome beer, but those beers don’t all come from New York or Michigan. We think “Look at all these great American beers,” because they are representative of the whole country and not the state itself. Our attention is also often focused on the best breweries in a state (say, Brooklyn or Founder’s) and miss all the crappy ones. Sure, Wisconsin has New Glarus, but they also have Leinenkugel’s. Our beer blinders don’t allow us to see all the shitty breweries that other states or countries have. Our focus is usually on the best of everywhere else and the worst of Ontario.

The most infuriating part of the Ontario Inferiority Complex is when people aren’t willing to spend money on good Ontario beer. The same people that bitch about the lack of availability in Ontario are the same ones that complain when a beer costs over eight dollars (often making the comparison that for the same amount of money they could get Beer X from Stone or Beer Y from Dogfish Head). Have they tried the beer and do they know how it tastes? Usually not, but they know it is from Ontario and there is no way an Ontario beer could be worth that much money.

I always find it funny when people say that, yet have no problem spending twelve or thirteen dollars on a six-pack of Ontario beer when some states have sixers of something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for seven or eight dollars. In this case it is understandable that laws and taxes create an inflated price, but the expectation for a 500 or 750mL bottle is that it should be cheaper because it is from Ontario. If it is good beer, there is no reason to expect it to cost less just because it is from an Ontario brewery.

The cure for the Ontario Inferiority Complex is for beer drinkers and breweries to stop making excuses. Yes, the situation in Ontario is less than ideal, but that is no reason not to make great beer. Our breweries have the resources, knowledge and capabilities to produce fantastic beers, which is what consumers should expect. We have to stop unfairly trying to compare Ontario to the States and just focus on creating a dynamic, thriving beer industry that allows Ontarians to have access to great locally made beer.

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9 responses to “The Ontario Inferiority Complex

  1. So, we’re meant to judge Ontario beers the way we would judge other beers, but we’re not meant to compare the Ontario beers that we’re judging to beers from other places?

    • I know it sounds contradictory, but it just means to judge the beer as it is, not necessarily how it matches up against your idea of a beer from another country. Don’t say, “It’s really good, but I’ve had better from America/Belgium/wherever.” Just say it’s a really good beer.

  2. I agree with most of what you’ve written. I’ve been in Ontario for less than a year and after working very hard to try everything that’s offered I’ve found that most of the beers here are really, really good. The thought of drinking only Ontario beers for a year is one that has crossed my mind more than once simply because there are many good options – but – if we’re going to address the inferiority complex there is one issue which we need to address: the style issue.

    If I look at the top 100 beers on a site like Beer Advocate most of them are giant hoppy monster DIPA’s, barrel-aged imperial stouts, and Belgian abby styles. Those are the beers people really lament not having access to in Ontario. Sure, Ontario might have all the classic stock ales, a bundle of good (5-6%) IPAs, great dark ales, pilsners, pale ales, and so on, but where are the big beers? Ontario has the session beer market down and for everyday drinking we have nothing to complain about. Most beer-bars have a great rotating selection of one-offs and great experimental beers, but we’ve yet to really get a good, persistently available beer that’s able to swing with the beers that people really want from outside the province. I mean, I’m fine with taking Mad Tom over Dogfishhead’s 60 minute IPA or Junction Conductor over Sierra Nevada, but what fills the void for a DIPA or a Tripple? Again, where are those big beers?

    Of course, Great Lakes and Amsterdam have big stouts rumoured to be coming to the LCBO, and Wellington has a great imperial stout, and 10 Bitter Years is rumoured to be put into wider production, and Witch Shark is a killer DIPA, and Spring Oddity is Belgian-inspired, but it’s still a drop in the bucket of the styles that beer-geeks consistently rate as world-class. Plus, most of them are limited time or required dedicated trips to Etobicoke. I can’t just grab a bottle to show a visiting friend what Ontario brewers are capable of. Don’t get me wrong, I’m hopeful that some of these styles are going to emerge in Ontario and soon, but I do wish that instead of trying to get another standard (but good) IPA on the shelves, some brewery would make a bomber-sized DIPA year-round or a killer imperial stout or make some Belgian inspired Doubles and Triples. Something that we might want to actually take down to the States to show off what we’re doing up here. If we really want to get over the inferiority complex we need to realized that our beers are not inferior – they just aren’t as complex – yet.

  3. On the flip-side, it would be nice to see more critical reviews/comments about some of the questionable product that Ontario produces 🙂 We all know there are one or two Ontario breweries out there that are universally derided by the beersnobs.

    What bothers me is the pre-release excitement for some beers and once they hit the street, nothing but silence, as though the industry and hangers-on are afraid of insulting each other. Sure, its fair to be nice and follow the “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” ethos, but it’d be nice to see more honestly across the spectrum of the opinions.

    Now, this isn’t an Ontario-specific problem. If you look at RB or BA ratings, I would love to see as many 20-ratings as 80, and as many 10 as 90+ ratings, but clearly that isn’t happening. Human nature means its fun to write about the great stuff and people aren’t as critical they like to believe, so I understand the results and do take them with a grain of salt.

  4. Your post reminds me of Stephen Beaumont’s comment – “If it’s only “pretty good for a big brewery beer/brewpub beer/beer from X country,” then maybe it’s not really all that good.”

    “How is it fair to compare the output from one province to everything made in the USA?“ I don’t think it is unfair to say that if Alesmith IPA was available at the LCBO for a comparable price to many of the locally produced IPAs, I’d probably stop buying a lot of them. Do you take umbrage with people who say things like “The best BBQ in Toronto”? When what they mean is “This doesn’t hold a candle to the BBQ I had in the Southern USA, but they are pretty good.”

    I tend to agree with much of groulxsome’s post. There are awesome beers in Ontario – some of the best stuff I have had recently has been from Ontario – but they are not all that easy to get, and some of the best ones are consistently good, but not yet consistently *great* in my opinion. Is it improving? Hell yeah. Will I be able to consistently buy cases of House Ales Night Train, Great Lakes Lake Effect, or Bellwoods Farmhouse to take home from the LCBO in the near future? Probably not.

    Pricing is always relative. There is increasingly resistance to paying a premium for fancy bottles I think, and I don’t think that it is unfair for cost conscious customers to ask if IPA X is really worth more than IPA Y if they are both locally available and of comparable quality.

    Maybe we need to be a bit more generous in our compliments, but perhaps also accept that not every beer can be superlatively good.

    • 1) Saying something is the best in Toronto or Ontario is fine. When I read reviews of a restaurant like Barque and it’s called the best BBQ in Toronto, there is no implication that it still doesn’t compare to the Southern USA. It’s just damn good BBQ.

      2) Yes, there are cost conscious consumers, but also beer geeks who will pay anything for Utopias or won’t blink at buying Southern Tier beers for $10, but are angered that Amsterdam’s Tempest may cost $9-10 (which it won’t). If you’ve had it before and don’t like it, fine. But don’t refuse to buy it just because of its origins.

  5. This post reminds me – I think AYOB should really update their banner to all-Ontario brews, if indeed your “beer goggles” are focused on the changing Ontario scene. Assemble the required glassware and beers!

    Pretty exciting things are happening in Ontario and I look forward to enjoying the results. We’re right in the middle of a really cool transformation. And hey, if every great Ontario beer were available at the LCBO, there’d be a heartbreaking decline in bragging rights and brewery visits. (note, I still want to see Tempest, 10 Bitter Years and more Great Lakes into the LCBO ASAP!)

    • Good call! Any breweries want to give me some glassware?

      Tempest, Boneshaker and a number of Great Lakes offerings should be in the LCBO this year.

  6. One issue will always be the fact that beer is all about the experience, and the flavours perceived by one individual. When it comes to flavour we all judge the quality or our preference of that flavour relative to something. To your point Mike, too often we compare one beer to an American beer using Ontario as the crutch. I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with doing so, except when you take a specific example (the beer you are drinking right now) and compare it to a wide sample of examples (“American Beer” is more than one beer). Plus, if you are going to judge a beer and use a comparison to substantiate your claim, putting it up against a huge field doesn’t validate it in my eyes… Great article!

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