The Ontario Pale Ale and why I hate it


In case you’re new to my blog, you should know: I love Ontario beer. I also love pale ales. And yet, I hate the Ontario pale ale.

To be clear, “Ontario pale ale” isn’t actually a style in the strict BJCP sense of the word, but rather a term I use to classify a rather distinct subset of beer made in this province that goes by all manner of name from IPA to American Pale Ale, to Pale Ale and more. And, truth be told, it isn’t even a particulary bad kind of beer.

But still, I hate it.

The beer of which I’m speaking and my distaste for it isn’t something new. Indeed, I’ve written of it previously in a borderline trollbait article I wrote for blogTO earlier this year with no less incendiary a title than “Five Toronto beer trends that need to die in 2015.” It’s a term I use to distinguish a loosely affiliated beer style that seems to fall somewhere between a hybrid of English and American pale ales, with a fairly subtle hop profile by today’s Mike-Lackey-bitter-in-your-face-IPA standards, and a heavy malt backbone that typically uses Crystal malt predominantly. It’s often amber to light brown in colour and if you’re having trouble thinking of a beer that meets that description you probably haven’t been drinking craft beer in Ontario for very long.

Because there are a lot of them. It’s a beer with ancestral origins I’d probably attribute to Mill Street’s Tankhouse and its direct descendant, Duggan’s Number 9 IPA. At the time these beers were released, they were innovative and different to Ontario beer drinkers. They’re not any more–and yet they persist.

And this persistence, I’ve realized, is why I hate them.  I hate them not because they taste bad (there’s nothing wrong with these beers–save a lack of originality) but because they are a symptom of all that is shitty with the beer scene in Ontario.

I know. Things just got serious. Take a drink and bare with me. I’m going somewhere.

To my mind, the Ontario pale ale exists because it’s hard to make a living brewing beer in the province of Ontario. That is, with our archaic legislation (see: every other post on this blog) and consumer tastes that have been shaped by the limited access to decent beer that has resulted from said archaic legislation (see: the continued existence of Labatt Blue, et. al.) many brewers have been forced (whether they are aware of it or not) into making their flagship beer a tall boy of another iteration of the same fucking beer.

Here’s why: Craft brewing in Ontario has, for all intents and purposes, taken off as of late. In the last three years, the amount of brewers in this province seems to have quintupled (I don’t know if this is accurate and I can’t be arsed to look it up but you get the point) and most of them seem to have shown up in the past three or four years.

A question I’m asked with astounding frequency by business reporters, other beer writers, and a weird amount of college kids who email me their homework is “why it is this boom is occurring now” and while it would be stupid (and impossible) to point to any one cause for this boom, a large part of the “boom,” to my mind, is occurring because people keep talking about the fucking craft beer boom.

That is to say, while myriad external forces are actually contributing to craft beer’s growth here (the trickle up of American trends, increased consumer awareness, the prevalence of social media marketing, etc.), every time some dingleberry writes an article about the “craft beer boom” in Ontario, some other dingleberry gets the idea they can start a craft brewery here and make a quick buck.

And so, being a dingleberry, this person takes the shortest route possible to starting “a craft brewery” and commences contracting someone else to brew their beer [sidenote: I don’t think all contract brewers are inherently evil, it just so happens that the fastest route for evil dingleberries to start a beer company is through contract brewing].

And yes, so far, there isn’t anything inherently rage-induing about this scenario, aside from the fact that you might argue lazy non-brewers are currently trying to capitalize on a trend. But that’s no big deal, and true of any industry and the market should weed out these pretenders eventually.

But here’s where shit gets annoying.

Being dingleberries, all these wannabe contractors commence making all the decisions related to the creation of their brewery based on their own bottom line. That is, given that they’re not fueled by a “passion to make beer” or some “drive to bring their long-held recipes to the people,” they inevitably choose options most likely to make them money and, because of Ontario’s wacky beer industry, they all pretty much make the same fucking decisions.

To wit:

  1. The dingleberry looks at the two places that he or she might sell their beer once it has been created and sees, on one side, The Beer Store; a place any brewer might conceivably sell beer, but for a fairly large price, and on the other side, the LCBO; a less expensive, albeit bureaucratic place to sell beer. The dingleberry naturally chooses the LCBO.
  2. The dingleberry realizes that it is relatively easy to get one SKU at the LCBO, but not so easy to get a second or third. A deep lineup with a variety of beers is thus not financially practical for the dingleberry, thus he or she commences all important “market research” in order to find one flagship beer that will provide the be-all, end-all ROI.
  3. The dingleberry takes a cursory look at the styles of beers that are selling well in Ontario and notes that “hoppy” beers are having a moment (and have been since roughly the time Tankhouse arrived on the scene) and so they decide “Our flagship beer should be ‘hoppy.'”
  4. The dingleberry realizes that, while hoppy beer is trending, Ontario’s market is generally still “safe.” That is, like most of the world, people who drink beer in Ontario don’t want something too intimidating and so the dingleberry opts to dial back the “hoppiness” and lands on a relatively safe American/English Pale Ale Hybrid.
  5. The dingleberry is made aware that the LCBO prefers beer that is in tall cans as opposed to bottles or other formats.
  6. The dingleberry contacts the cheapest facility available to contract brew their beer and dictates their needs in terms of style and thus Paul Dickey gets to work at Wellington Brewery crafting another Ontario pale ale in a tall boy.

Obviously, I’m being somewhat facetious and Paul Dickey’s accomplishments as a brewer shouldn’t be sneezed at, but if you think about it, I’m not really that far off. I’m confident that some sort of craft beer Darwinism will eventually take care of the myriad iterations of the same beer that’s currently lining the shelves of the LCBO but, until then, it seems like we’ll be treated to at least a few more “Medium amber colour, biscuit, caramel, soft fruit, malt, touch of citrus and light hops, with a balanced hoppy bitter finish” press releases.

It’s like “Opening a craft brewery in Ontario” is a shitty choose-your-own-adventure book where all choices lead to the same mediocre ending. “You open the can of beer. It tastes OK. The end.”

I hate it.


The irony that I wrote this post which ostensibly accuses new brewers of being “too safe” in the same week that fellow beer writer Jordan St. John blasted new brewers for trying to be too experimental before they learn the basics is not lost on me. Your takeaway should be that you if you are a new brewer and you’re half-assing your beer production and/or R&D one way or another you’re fucked before you get started and should go try another career.

That or there’s no pleasing beer writers. 


27 thoughts on “The Ontario Pale Ale and why I hate it

  1. My immediate question, Ben, is why did you evidently feel the need to get naked in order to write this story? And why do you implore your readers to “bare with you” and do the same?

      1. Ben: U R a ASS! the Ontario beers are great and I doubt that you really taste them!
        As for writing in the buff – Proves my point!!

  2. I’m not sure that I follow your logic. You have a problem with local, balanced, drinkable pales? Please correct me if I’m wrong. This (pale ale) is the fundamental style of the ‘craft’ movement. Consumers like it. Not because you do. Not just because it is the only thing available. It is not. It may be ubiquitous but is not shitty or boring. To pretend thusly is to disrespect us all. Consumers, producers and distibutors, IMHO. Smacks of kind of ‘holier than thou’….hop aroma is short lived in the absence of using hop extracts at packaging. Drink fresh and local. Do you buy your bread from the west coast of America? Germany? Japan? England? Ireland?…to do so would be foolish. What’s the point of making a loaf of bread that people only want one slice of? When it comes to pale ale, people want the entire loaf.

  3. Excellent article! I think you buried your lead insight, point #2, which is brilliant and unacknowledged by those outside the industry, and something I’d really like the LCBO to think on. The model where every SKU is a year-long holy grail quest is unsustainable for a growing future. But what’s much worse is that this isn’t just some “trouble ahead” issue; it’s actually hurting innovation *right now* and has been retarding growth in the sector since incubation.

    The cure shouldn’t be beyond the LCBO though: craft specialty agency stores that can issue POs and manage their own shelf space and inventory without interfacing with the mothership.

  4. Is there a place where a viable entry model to brewing is making a trappist-style cherry 9% double bock with a twist of elderflower as your flagship beer? Frankly, if I’m thinking of starting a brewery I expect my bank to want me looking at something that is likely to sell.

    Maybe I’m too safe, and overly shaped by my years drinking in the UK, but I think every brewer should have a flagship, “core” offering that sits in that “best bitter” or “session ale” part of the spectrum; something that is both tasty and repeatedly drinkable, both in one session and over weeks/months/years. I think there’s a challenge for Ontario craft brewers there, to make a tasty beer without resorting to mega-hops.

  5. I’m wondering – aloud and to myself – if I would have enjoyed this article more if your nude image accompanied it..?

  6. I agree that some Ontario brewers need to step up their game if they are going to compete with some of the world class beers that are now available in this province. But I think it’s worth noting that there already are a few who have “stepped up their game” and continue to deliver exceptional beer namely Great Lakes​, Bellwoods and Indie Alehouse​.

  7. I’m a consumer of way too much beer and consider myself a ‘Beer Enthusiast’. I enjoy trying different styles and brands and really get off on finding a diamond in the rough from time to time. I have brewed a few batches of beer, myself. Yes, they were from concentrates. Sometimes, they were pretty good, once in a while pretty shitty, but rarely life altering. But they were all great for being cheap alternatives to the LCBO and Beer Store brands. Most beer drinkers I know tend to gravitate to a safe, non-offensive, session beer. A lot like wine drinkers, come to think of it. It’s fun to find a nice bottle of wine or beer that tickles your palette. But for most drinkers, they pick their brand(s) and stick to it. Once in a while, when they have a couple of extra bucks, they might pick up a couple of singles to try. If they like the new stuff, they might buy a few more some other time.

    That’s your market.

    And Beer Nerds.

    Wine and beer tasting is lost on most people. Not everyone has the budget to be a wine/beer snob. But beer nerds only drink small batch Ale using rare hops that can only be found growing on sheep shit in Tibet. They love to tell you that their particular brew has nutty overtones with subtle nuances of factory worker. And, most of all, they love to shit on the big breweries for having “uninteresting” beers. They made a batch of Saisson #5 de Hon Hon in their basement one day and all of a sudden they are the moral authority. They cocoon themselves in the basement for 6 or 8 weeks, making batch after batch of beers only they care about, choosing recipes based on personal preferences for orange flavours. They are completely convinced that the yeast they use, that can only be grown in hockey jerseys, makes a superior beer. Then the cocoon shoots out a Dingleberry Butterfly.

    I get the feeling that craft beer brewers forget it’s the general population that is going to keep the lights on. I don’t see what’s wrong with throwing a batch of middle of the road beer at the LCBO so you can stock “interesting” beers in house for the beer nerds.

    I’ve seen beer recipes using 3-6 different types of hops, 6-10 various other ingredients, orange peel, cocoa, fruit, honey, flowers, the traditional stuff, cooked like it was some ancient incantation for warding off the evil eye. And what does it make in the end? Weird fucking beer that nobody buys.

    You show up to the breweries themselves and all they have left for service is some chocolate/Jalapeño blend made with smoked barley. For 6 bucks a bottle! What!? THAT’S what you call ‘interesting’. It’s not Paella, guys. We’re talking about beer. And the ‘core’ beer I came for sold out two days after they bottled it. All I’m saying is there is nothing wrong with giving the majority what they want. It’s a shame if you think what they want is large quantities of novelty beer.

    Don’t get me started on this carbonated hops juice people have been trying to peddle as quality small batch brew. It’s shit. This trend of “hops coming out of it’s ass” has to go. Seriously. That’s most of what’s out there now. I used to like craft brews. Now I don’t, for fear that I’m going to get yet another glass of beer that someone drove over a cliff.

    And to the author, thank you for this article. I thought it was really great. I only wish beer enthusiasts would stop admonishing people for liking the big breweries. Beer enthusiasts are a different kind of beer drinker. We enjoy a variety of beverages because we love it and our palettes demand that we explore all of their characteristics we can. The average consumer doesn’t give a shit. I get it, “they don’t know what they’re missing.” but you know the big breweries would make a beer out of dog food, if they thought the majority would buy it.

    1. Are you sure that’s yeast and not polyphenols and/or chill haze? It’s pretty tough to keep yeast in suspension.

      1. yeah it’s typically the bottom of the pour is a big slug of yeast that’s dropped out in the bottom of the can. I don’t mind chill haze or the haze you get from dry hopping.

  8. Ben one day I would love you to try our beer from Lake Wilcox Brewing Co. We will be launching in the Beer stores early July and available at the Richmond Hill Ribfest

  9. NickelBrook’s Naughty Neighbour is their flagship beer and has helped them gain a considerable foothold in the LCBO craft market. It’s also delicious with bright, bold flavours that don’t equivocate. I’m pretty sure that’s all Ben’s looking for in other entrants – beer that’s not the liquid version of white bread

  10. Hey Commenters. I wouldn’t normally censor any conversations here, but some jackass added a series of comments that added nothing to discussion and somehow managed to make offhand remarks about violence against women, so I’ve deleted them. So if you’re wondering why there are less comments than earlier, it’s because there’s some shit I won’t tolerate. If you’re the commenter who made the asinine remarks, please fuck off. Thanks!

  11. You got the part about Darwinism right – time will sort this out. In addition, research on organizational ecology tells us that contract brewers stand a greater chance of business failure than other craft breweries. This is so because they quite literally do not have what it takes to be a legitimate brewery – a production facility to brew their own beer. The same will happen in Ontario, and the tap from which all that “bad beer” flows is going to run dry, or at least slow down to a dribble. If you can stomach the sociological jargon and have a penchant for statistics, check out the following:

    Carroll, G.R., & Swaminathan, A. (2000). “Why the microbrewery movement? Organizational dynamics of resource partitioning in the U.S. brewing industry.” American Journal of Sociology, 106: 715-762

  12. “a borderline trollbait article I wrote for blogTO earlier this year with no less incendiary a title than “Five Toronto beer trends that need to die in 2015.”

    So…you’re writing articles not so much to provide useful information to the public but to “troll” readers, and presumably, brewers/owners. Great stuff. A+ journalism.

    Grow up, dude.

    1. That’s “troll bait” as in, it draws the trolls. My articles are full of useful information and I’m a grown up. Thanks for stopping by with your constructive feedback!

  13. I know exactly what you mean and it is too bad. I do really like a lot of Paul Dickey’s beers, he does English styles really well (I miss milds).

    But when back in Toronto (I live in New York after a stint in Berlin), I was disappointed with the lack of progress. Everything was this Ontario pale ale at the LCBO. I just grabbed some Muskoka Detox (in a can) and Pilsner Urquell (in a can) and enjoyed those for my days, not even really wanting to try something new unless someone I trusted recommended it.

  14. I’ve been sporadically reading your blog here and there over the past couple months, and always enjoy your insight. Most of all, I enjoy your willingness to be honest and not worry that throwing some much-deserved criticism at Ontario brewers (specifically the “Dingleberry” brewers) is somehow going to damage and / or crumble the current “craft beer boom” in one fell swoop. Too many people have the attitude that we have to be “all positive, all the time”, and act like “it’s local, so it must be good! Don’t you dare say anything different!”. This lack of just being honest when an Ontario craft beer is shit and not holding brewers accountable for brewing mediocre-at-best beer is doing nothing but breeding more and more dingleberries spewing out the same shit, and the average beer quality will continue to hover at “mediocre”… But I’ll leave the ranting to you.

    Just wanted to say this posting was awesome, and so accurately reflects the feelings of myself and every other person in my beer drinking circles, who are both young and old, male and female, and from many walks of life, not just a bunch of “beer geek elitist hipster hop heads” or whatever other stupid labels the defenders of the sub-par, done-to-death Ontario Pale Ale will throw on people with actual taste buds on our tongues. If I wanted 20+ identical iterations of the same beer with different labels slapped on them, I’d have stuck with buying macro lagers. But I guess there has to be beer for the people who WOULD be content drinking the macro lagers, but want to jump on the “drink local, drink craft” bandwagon and look “hip and cool” without sullying their palates with some actual flavour. … Sorry, there I go ranting again… Final note, point 6 made me laugh hysterically, because – being a resident of Guelph, with many thoughts on Wellington that I won’t get into here – I just brought this point up to a friend of mine last week (that every contract brewer is brewing out of Wellington).

    Anyways, keep up the good work, and I will be frequenting your blog much more often in the future.

    P.S. How in the HELL did you not identify Smashbomb on the OCB podcast =P the moment I heard “coppery, metallic tasting with old school hops” (or something to that extent) I shouted out “SMASHBOMB” immediately. Cheers, good sir.

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