Steam Whistle: a modern day brew with historic taste

(Photo by Jeff Blay)

By: Jeff Blay (Archives 2010)
@JeffBlay

TORONTO, ON — The forefront of brewing innovation has found a home in the heart of downtown Toronto – no longer do Canadians have to travel to Europe to get a taste of true brewing tradition.

Cam Heaps, co-founder of Steam Whistle, vows that his company is striving to have “the best brewery tour in the entire world,” and the most respected beer in Canada. A tour of the Steam Whistle Brewery is offered publicly on a day-to-day basis, and the environment exposed inside is more than welcoming – it’s cozy and historic. Touring the brewery is certainly a must-do while you’re visiting downtown Toronto any time of year.

“C’mon down! Everyone is welcome. Not every product you support offers a unique look into the operations and procedures of how they craft their products,” Heaps said in a 2010 interview at the brewery. “We wanted to find a way to create an environment where people are stoked – where our staff can get to know our customers, and feel like one big family.”

The Steam Whistle story began in 1998, when three friends were on a canoe trip in northern Ontario. Greg Taylor, Cam Heaps, and Greg Cromwell met while working at a microbrewery before it was bought out by a national brewer, at which time they left the company. It was as they sat around the campfire on the aforementioned camping trip that the trio decided they wanted to one day own their own brewery. They also wanted to make a traditional Pilsner that could compete with the most renowned beers in the world, and with the passion and knowledge they acquired from their previous stint in the brewing industry, they turned their dream into a reality.

At first the founders were thinking about naming the beer “Three Fired Guys”, but after talking it over, they wondered how far the name could take them. While meeting downtown Toronto to discuss things further, the guys found themselves looking up into the windows of office buildings, wondering why people were still at work so late. From there, the idea of the Steam Whistle was born.

“We looked up and saw people working late, and told ourselves we wanted to always end the day at a reasonable time,” explained Heaps. “We thought it would be cool to have a steam whistle blow at the end of each work day to let the workers know the day is done, and we took that idea and turned it into the name for our beer.”

The group decided to name the beer “Steam Whistle” before they secured a location for the brewery, which ironically turned out to be at the historic John St. Roadhouse, located just south of the Rogers Centre and CN Tower. The prime location makes the brewery a perfect place to stop in while attending a Toronto Blue Jays game or before taking in an event in the nearby Entertainment District.

A shot of the Steam Whistle tower next to the CN Tower. (Photo courtesy Don Henderson)

The Roundhouse was formerly a functional Canadian Pacific Rail steam locomotive repair facility built in 1929. It operated until 1986 before it was bought by the City of Toronto, who officially pronounced it a historic site. Steam Whistle then leased the location to house their brewery, preserving the structure’s original architecture.

“A lot of breweries relocate to the suburbs, but we feel it is important to stay central to get the feel of the city,” he said. “We wanted to not only be in the heart of Toronto, but in the heart of Canada.”

With the first beer rolling off the line in 2000, Steam Whistle has since been recognized for making a quality premium pilsner that could rival some of the most well known European beers.

The brewmasters developed a distinctive pilsner recipe using traditional brewing techniques and all natural ingredients, including: spring water, malted barley, hops and yeast – all GMO-free.

It’s not artificially preserved or pasteurized and it’s naturally carbonated over 28 days of aging, which results in a very fine bubble that settles really well in your stomach. If you try the beer and compare it to others, you may notice it leaves you feeling less bloated and for the heavy drinkers out there, less hungover.

Steam Whistle also produces their bottle independently; the green tinted glass is made 30% thicker than standard bottles so they can be reused more often, and the twist-off cap keeps the beer nice and crisp.

In addition to producing a fine brew, Steam Whistle is also heavily involved in the local music and arts scene, often hosting galleries and concerts at the brewery or sponsoring events elsewhere. Not to mention, everything from the production operations to the labels on their bottles are environmentally friendly. The Roundhouse itself is powered entirely by Bullfrog Power (Canada’s green electricity provider that offers a 100% clean, renewable electricity using wind turbines). The label is silk-screened directly on to the bottle, saving on paper and preventing the use of toxic inks (the label can outlast the bottle itself!) and the beer cases are uniquely constructed to form into a suitcase of sorts.

But don’t just take my word for it; you’ll learn all of this and more by visiting the brewery – certainly an interesting outing for any legal-aged drinker. The Steam Whistle story is truly unique to Canada and will one day be a prideful part of Canada’s brewing heritage. So when you’re looking for something to do this summer, drop in, have a taste, and check out one of the most intriguing breweries this country has to offer.

– This article originally appeared in Humber College’s YYZ Magazine in 2010.

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