“Do one thing really well.” That was the much-marketed tagline of Toronto’s Steam Whistle Brewing from its beginning in 1998 to 2018. And it served the brand well as it steadily ascended into a national beer distributed across Canada. But times-they-are-a-changing.
In the last two years, few other Canadian breweries have undergone as much upheaval in leadership as Steam Whistle. First co-founder Greg Taylor and his wife, and long-time Communications Director, Sybil Taylor, announced they were retiring from the company in July 2017. That made way for co-founder Cam Heaps to run the ship solo. Plans for the second production brewery in Etobicoke evolved from just brewing way more Steam Whistle to free up the more space for events in their downtown Roundhouse — to also launching a side hustle, Von Bugle Brewing.
Von Bugle Munich Lager hit shelves in May 2018. The style choice was puzzling: A dunkel, really? It’s basically the opposite of on trend. It couldn’t’ be further from the sought-after sours and juicy IPA’s that craft beer drinkers line up for these days. But Heaps saw a gap in the marketplace (no one makes them here, but they love ‘em in Germany) and it fit with Steam Whistle’s expertise in making traditional lagers.
Just five months later, Heaps announced he was retiring as CEO, (He remains on the Board of Directors). In his place is Andy Burgess, an industry outsider with an impressive corporate track record of building, selling and investing in companies. Burgess, a Princeton graduate, started his career as a consultant with McKinsey & Company, before joining the management team at Loblaws. Then he struck out on his own, co-founding a private label music company and building it into a $100 million public company with over 200 employees.
The company is in a transition period. “We’re shifting from being a craft beer brand to a craft beer company,” says Tim McLaughlin, Vice President of Marketing at Steam Whistle. That means adding more products to their mix. This year they took on Colorado’s New Belgium’s Fat Tire — they’re contracted to brew, sell and market it across the country.
Burgess is bringing a new vision to the company. With the Etobicoke brewery fully online, they’ve doubled capacity to 200,000 HL — and now they’re figuring out what to put in all those new tanks. When it comes to developing products, it’s no longer about intuition and gut feel, it’s about data and smart analytics.
New beers are on the agenda — but the styles choices will be led by the consumer, says McLaughlin. Under Burgess’s leadership, Steam Whistle is in the midst of a major consumer research project. “It’s a pretty sophisticated consumer segmentation model that identifies what beer aligns well with a certain segment,” explains McLaughlin.
Drinkers will have to wait a bit for new beers to roll out — in the meantime, Steam Whistle’s Roundhouse is being redesigned to take advantage of freed-up space. This spring they’ll open their modern take Munich-style Biergärten with steins of frothy pilsner and food ordered picnic-style from a shipping container and delivered tableside. And they’re adding a new event space for 1,000 people. The Etobicoke brewery’s tasting room is also open three days a week and Steam Whistle is working with nearby Black Oak and Great Lakes to create a brewery hub in the area with bus trips and brewery tours of the trio.
So, what’s the brewery’s new tagline in the post “Do one thing really well” era?