The Ontario beer scene has gotten so fucking boring.
I started blogging in 2009, back when we were still using the term “microbrewery.” Things were pretty shitty, but they were getting better. It was still a big deal to have Dieu du Ciel available. IPAs were weird to the average beer drinker. Restaurants didn’t offer good beer. Most bars only offered bottled beers purchased from the LCBO or Beer Store. But the culture was starting to change and it was exciting.
Over five years later, it feels like the industry has grown up, settled down, had a couple of kids and gotten comfortable with a slightly larger pay cheque. (Most of that also applies to me. I realize that.) Really good breweries opened. Some existing breweries turned shit around and became really good. Other breweries just continued making good beer. The level of standard for beer in Ontario was raised by a huge margin in the past five years.
So why is the Ontario beer scene boring?
Because fewer breweries are trying to raise the bar. It seems like the age of experimentation is over with a lot of breweries. I can just imagine there are a few breweries where someone said, “Look, we made a hoppy beer, what more do you fucking want?” The recent trend has been scaling intensity back for a wider audience, leading to breweries touting their crushable new beers. I love the sessionable beer trend, but that doesn’t mean to stop putting beers in barrels and playing around with new yeasts and hops. And no, taking the Dogfish Head approach of putting unique/random ingredients into your beer doesn’t mean you’re an experimental brewery.
There are exceptions to this. I’m not saying that all breweries have stopped this, more that it has been toned down in recent years. While overall quality for a lot of breweries has increased in the past couple of years, it has come at the expense of some of their more unique offerings.
Because the new imports on draught are boring. Having Stone, Ommegang, BrewDog and Atwater on tap seemed cool at first. It was a sign that things were opening up slightly for draught beers and that people were realizing there was a market for craft taps from outside of Ontario. While most of the new beers are good, they are mainly limited to the one or two big sellers from the breweries. Maybe this will lead to more interesting offerings in a couple of years, but for now we’re basically getting the excess production that can’t be sold south of the border.
Things would have been very different if these beers came to Ontario five years ago, but you can find lots of comparable beers brewed in the province. (In my opinion, there are better IPAs made in Ontario, so why would I buy the Stone IPA other than as a change of pace every now and then? The one exception is the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, though I haven’t had it on tap here yet.) For the consumer, the long-term impact might be really interesting. In the short-term, I’m trying to stifle my yawn.
Because I’m fed up with our retail system. This winter I tried to stock up on good beer before my beer trading stopped due to freezing temperatures. I remembered from previous years how bleak things get in February when the LCBO has had the same seasonal beers on the shelves for a month and nothing new is in sight. The LCBO floods its shelves before the holiday season, then we are left with the scraps for months until the temperature warms up. In some ways my planned work, except it’s hard to stock up on IPAs when you’re trying to drink them fresh.
So many words have been wasted on how awful it is to buy alcohol in Ontario. The LCBO and Beer Store model makes it harder for breweries to build a diverse portfolio, because getting shelf space takes money (Beer Store) or luck (LCBO). For both systems, it’s best to make a lot of one or two beers that are widely distributed, meaning store shelves look the same month after month, year after year. For those that want to try new beers with an obsessive zeal, we have a retail system that makes beer extremely boring.
Because the new breweries suck. Breweries are opening at a staggering rate in Ontario. Go into Volo or Bar Hop on any given night and you’re likely to find a beer on tap from a brewery you’ve never heard of. I have often ordered beers from unknown breweries, because, well, that’s what I do. On nights where luck is on my side, the beer might be pretty average. Many times they have been fucking terrible. No surprise, those breweries are often never seen back on the draught list.
Obviously you can’t have every new brewery be the next Bellwoods. It often takes time for brewers to figure out their system, tweak recipes and really hit their stride. But I’m tired of drinking crap beer just to support the new guys and hope that they get better. I love that a lot of the new breweries are trying to be creative and are not just making generic pale ales, but don’t sacrifice quality. I’m sure some of these breweries will figure shit out and become the next big thing in Ontario, but for now I’m going to drink from breweries I can count on.
Does this slightly contrast with my earlier point that fewer breweries are trying to raise the bar? Yes, in a way it does, but quality has to factor into the equation. I’m also not sure if these new breweries are trying to raise the bar or just stand out in a more crowded market. (Though that’s my biased opinion from living in Toronto, where great beer is plentiful. If you live in a smaller town where your options for local beer are limited, that new brewery can be seen as raising the bar for the province as a whole.)
That’s my rant, one that may be affected by the freezing temperatures and general malaise that strikes at the end of February. Maybe I’m just becoming less and less interested in beer, as evidenced by my lack of motivation to blog or tweet about beer. But I’m starting to think that part of the reason is because Ontario is just boring the fuck out of me right now.
Fewer breweries trying to raise the bar – I almost feel that toning down a touch is part of the learning process that spurred the breweries to make Imperial EVERYTHING a couple of years ago. Even with that incredibly adventurous spirit I think nearing that phase’s end I felt that most of the beers were just paying lip service. “Put Brett in it” quickly became the “put a bird on it” of the Ontario beer scene. However I think a lot of brewers have started looking at simple done well and got inspired by beers with such big reputations as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It’s not unreasonable that older breweries will want to dust off some long abandoned brands and that newer breweries will want to start with something easy (though I don’t quite like the latter). What I find disappointing is that it seems several breweries are waiting for the bar to be raised rather than taking the initiative. On the one hand it’s probably a cost thing…we’ve seen some very terrible unique beers in our time. But on the other, how are you going to know how it goes if you don’t try?
New imports are boring – Agreed. Five years ago, hell even three years ago, Stone IPA would have been a godsend. I’m sure there will be a honeymoon period for a few months because of the reputation but then it will just slowly sink down in to the noise. Which in itself is pretty nifty and a good sign of the times.
New breweries – My biggest issue with a lot of new breweries are that a lot of them are satisfied with “whatever, good enough” because they are in such a rush to get the beer out there and their life as a Professional Craft Brewer ™ can begin. From a financial point I get it, but from a quality point it makes me want to take a rolled up newspaper to their nose and shout “NO!”.
Sorry, coming back to say one more thing…
I think to be honest the Ontario beer scene has never been more exciting. Our little scene has finally put on its grown-up pants and is making beers that are equal if not better than many international beers (and many beers that inspired us). Breweries have also learned that they don’t quite have to cater to a specific (though admittedly large) group anymore, and as such are focusing on something that might seem “boring” but in essence is incredibly complex and difficult to make (example: I recall one brewer telling me that his personal home brewing project is to attempt to clone Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Hell of a lot more difficult than he though, he says). If you don’t like those beers, I kinda feel that there are plenty of other beers with more experimental flavours out there on offer. The only difference is that not everyone is brewing those and to pretend that back when everyone was making them there wasn’t mediocrity among the overabundance of them is bordering on delusion.
We still got some balance issues to work out, but we’re getting there.
The Ontario beer scene has never been better, but that doesn’t equate with it being more exciting. I feel like it’s plateauing right now.
I love a well made pale ale like Sierra Nevada. But when every brewery is trying to make very similar APAs or ISAs, it gets old pretty quickly. Why not try a hoppy lager? A Belgian ale?
Can’t you try to perfect making a great pale ale while also experimenting with other styles? I don’t see why the two things are mutually exclusive.
“Can’t you try to perfect making a great pale ale while also experimenting with other styles?”
Sawdust City, Amsterdam, Mill Street, House Ales, Granite, Great Lakes, Flying Monkeys, Beau’s, Black Oak, Left Field, Wellington, Lake of Bays…the list kind of goes on of Ontario breweries who are doing both. A simple (though not quick) trip to Bar Hop will show that there’s a pretty healthy mix. The only obvious difference is that breweries are no longer practically tripping over themselves to make them. They have time to plan them out better and there’s no longer limited tap space like there was before. I kind of feel like your bigger point is that you miss those all-or-nothing days, but if I recall, those days had their fair share of boring “exciting” beers too.
As I said though, we have some balance issues to work out for sure.
It’s all personal, but I’d only say about half of those breweries are doing interesting beers that I want to try. Some were doing more creative beers two years ago and with comparable quality to their present beers.
I agree that the past does creep in. What was once novel soon becomes old hat. Nothing is linear, either. The beer scene is always changing, as is personal tastes and preferences. It’s great when those intersect. Maybe they did for me two years ago and don’t now. My decision to stop regularly writing about beer can be seen as one sign of that.
Mike, I have to agree with you on this one, but I also have to offer a counter argument from my own personal life.
I have been trying new beers and trying to write reviews when I can for about 5-6 years. I started with mass produced beers only because I wanted to document my experiences from ground zero to becoming a beer aficionado one day (still working on this). Over the years various beers have raised the bar for me to the point where a year, or so ago, everything new and old seemed to be below that bar so I stopped buying and drinking beer on a regular basis. Life got in the way and I stopped experimenting with brewing my own beer (which by the way is a great way to make beers you want to drink but are not available). I think that people who enjoying trying new beers have gobbled up all the exciting stuff and are expecting the same wow-factor from new entries.
We expect way too much from new beers simply because we got so used to new experiences when building up our palates. Our demand has outpaced innovation….wait, no, only OUR demand, the demand of a handful of aficionados, not the demand of the market, has outpaced the market.
In order to cleanse myself, I started looking elsewhere for that wow-factor. My liquor collection has grown quite a bit since putting a pause on my beer drinking. I started frequenting places like Bar Chef and Caledonian instead of Volo or Bar Hop to get my rocks off and if I get that craving for a beer, I head down south for the day.
Yes, I am bored with the beer we have access to, but that is my fault. I tried way too many brews way too quickly and my thirst for new experiences is not longer satisfied by what the market has to offer.
I agree with a lot of that and many other people have said similar things about hitting a wall after a certain time. It gets harder to find amazing new beer experiences the more you drink. But that doesn’t mean we should stop pushing for change. My demand has always been ahead of the market, but there needs to be a group of people encouraging breweries to take the next step even if there’s only a handful of us. Eventually someone will listen. I’ve always thought that there is a market here for well made beer, whether it’s a pilsner, IPA or something that has been barrel-aged. Bellwoods is a great example of this.
I wouldn’t say that I’m bored with beer, just that my tastes have changed and I have a better sense of what I want.
+1 to Slavi! Nailed it. I drink a lot of whiskey and wine now, make cocktails at home and drink Bell’s Two Hearted IPA (fresh) when I want a beer.
Exceptions are only any wow beers I can get. For example only, Maine’s Lunch, Other Half’s All Green Everything, world class imperial stouts, Kernel’s Export Stout, ridiculously fresh dry hopped Pale Ales or fresh unpasteurized German Helles/Landbier or Czech pils . Other than that, a trusted bartender needs to tell it is amazing, but my beer consumption is much lower than it used to be, not just an Ontario problem. For context, I live in New York, lived in Berlin and go back often, but I am from Toronto. This is more of a worldwide problem than just Ontario. I am bored with beer.
The one thing that really drove me nuts in my last trip to Toronto were all the pale ales in cans and on draft. Most were boring. They should be fresh, local and super floral. That is what local should be! Ontario should get that right. Use local to an advantage that no importer could beat (while learning to make some wow beers).
I think the beer scene is just overall saturated right now and this is coming from a guy in the US. Sure you have your experimental brews, but it all comes down to the same styles just done a little differently. For the past couple years it was who can out hop one another, then it moved on from there to BARREL AGE EVERYTHING. From there we got into the whole ‘citra hops’ thing for people who want a beer that also tastes a small bit like Sprite. The big thing down here right now is ‘short term sours’ like Brett’s and frankly they’re not that appealing even when they’re done right. That is probably my own taste though.
It’s tough to be a new brewery and be trying to do something unique but also afford all the people, equipment etc. There are no shortage of breweries popping up locally in my area and I find a lot of them to be entirely mediocre in their offerings. Like you I try and encourage them to stick with it with my dollars, but I refuse to continually reward mediocrity in a world where there are so many options. My decision making is skewed even further by wonderful unique beer creating craft breweries pumping out truly GREAT beer and having no problem selling out of it.
I guess like any other industry we’re going to see a bumpy expansion period where there are a whole lot of options and only a handful of them are good.
Man you’re bitter!
If getting people’s attention was your goal, mission accomplished!
I agree with “Robin,” it’s an exciting time for the Ont Beer Scene. Five yrs ago options were limited and now we all know of the options out there. There is plenty of quality beer and people in this industry! So stop looking for negatives and celebrate how far the industry has come!
I always hope to get people’s attention!
The industry has come really far, but I always think there needs to be people pushing it forward. People can’t just write about the positives, because that doesn’t always accurately portray what is happening.