“It’s my day on the kegging line,” Steve Himel, Henderson’s founder and general manager, explains as he answers the phone. I’m calling to find out about their most recent project – reviving Upper Canada Brewing’s Rebellion lager as their own Repatriation.
After putting me on hold for a minute – to, in true craft brewer style, “manage a very small problem” – the racket has died down to a dull roar and he’s back to chat about the project that has captured his attention.
Painting with very broad strokes: Ontario beer hit a nadir in the 1970s when consolidation peaked; by the 80s entrepreneurs were fighting back; the 90s brought contraction and bankruptcies for microbreweries; and it wasn’t until the 2000s when craft, as we know it, found a true foothold. Upper Canada was one of the leaders, especially in Toronto in the 1980s and their Rebellion lager was one of the beers that were most obviously different than Molson Export or Labatt Blue.
Sleeman bought Upper Canada in 1998 and that was basically the end of Rebellion. (Cam Heaps, Greg Taylor and Greg Cromwell, the co-founders of Steam Whistle were all Upper Canada alumni and the sale to Sleeman was a big part of what pushed them to start their own operation.)
When they started Henderson Brewing Co., Himel and his partners took a similarly pared-down approach and “didn’t want to end up with a huge lineup of beers,” he says.
Instead, they make their Henderson’s Best and Food Truck blonde ale and augment them with a new one-off every month.
Himel’s own history with Ontario microbreweries goes back decades to when he was a brewer at Connor’s. “It was a much more hostile environment,” he recalls, “in terms of drinkers and competitors.”
In 1987, Upper Canada released Rebellion, in theory, to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the time a few dozen reformers got too far into their cups and made a stunningly unsuccessful attempt at insurrection. But it was also because the brewers at Upper Canada had a new beer recipe they’d entered in a festival contest and a few bars thought they could sell the leftovers.
That year, Himel was 20 and the big beer release was the underwhelming Schooner by Labatt. He remembers thinking Rebellion “was a shocker. It was like hearing the first heavy metal song in 1966, or whatever. This is so different I’m not sure I like it yet, but I know I will.”
He thinks it is important to recognize that “it was the first time a company stood up and said we are different.” At the time, he saw Upper Canada flipping the proverbial bird to the macro-breweries and was ready to jump on board.
To revive the recipe in 2018, Himel, his partner Adin Wener and Henderson’s head brewer, Mark Benzaquen, had a task akin to reassembling a pirate’s treasure map. They got in touch with many of Upper Canada’s former employees to bring the recipe back to its 1980s original and each of them contributed a piece of the puzzle.
For their part “Sleeman asked for nothing – they’ve been excellent partners,” says Himel.
The only proviso set by the brewery who owns the recipe (and, is in turn, owned by Sapporo) was that Repatriation cannot become a regular part of Henderson’s lineup.
Repatriation is a 6% lager that is a touch darker than gold and has a surprising smoothness for its strength. The 473-ml cans ($3) are available at the brewery bottle shop and through the LCBO. It’s also on tap around Toronto, mainly at places that carried Rebellion.
Himel says there is a higher goal to the Repatriation project beyond filling a slot in the Henderson monthly calendar. “The primary reason,” he says, “is to recognize that we have a legit craft beer culture that goes back 30 years. [We’re trying to] recognize the people and companies that went to bat in the absolute worst circumstances.”
Craft beer is booming in Ontario, but this is a rare opportunity to get a sense of the formative time when it was still micro and struggling for survival.