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.