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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.'”
- 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.
- The dingleberry is made aware that the LCBO prefers beer that is in tall cans as opposed to bottles or other formats.
- 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.