The Steam Whistle Brewery Tour, Toronto, Canada

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If you look straight down over a thousand feet from the observation deck of the CN Tower you’ll see, between you and Lake Ontario, a huge semi-circular brick building that looks old and oddly out of place. The rest of the nearby city centre, you see, is modern and high rise, and getting more so by the month (they say there are 2 seasons in Toronto, construction and winter, although recently I’ve seen building work continuing even though temperatures have been as low as minus 15 to 20 degrees!) So to see such an old, low rise building in a prime real estate area where the land it stands upon must be worth millions, is a fine and startling site.

The building is home to The Steam Whistle Brewery, one of Canada’s finest independent breweries. The Steam Whistle story began in the spring of 1998 when three friends were on a canoe trip in the Ontario heartland. Greg Taylor, Cam Heaps and Greg Cromwell had all been colleagues at a microbrewery producing quality beer in the late 1980′s and 90′s – before it was bought out by a national brewer and closed down. As they sat around the campfire the guys dreamed of running their own brewery one day, and of making a Pilsner that would compete with the best in the world. They wrote a plan and quickly attracted investors with their vision and passion. It must have been a great plan to raise the capital needed – as I’ve mentioned, the brewery is based in a huge old building that some of the real estate people must have been itching to turn into high rise accommodation, and such a location couldn’t have come cheap.

We were interested in tasting some of this renowned beer, and in checking out the inside of this grand old building (it was built in 1929 and used to be a Canadian Pacific Rail steam locomotive repair facility), so we decided to take one of the Steam Whistle’s brewery tours.

Tours run every half hour during the day, between 1 and 5pm. We booked ourselves on by email and turned up a minute or 2 before our allotted time. The first thing the tour guide did was lead us upstairs to a bar, offered us a place to leave our coats and bags and then handed us all our own bottles of cold pilsner, before launching into an explanation about how the beer is made using traditional brewing techniques and only four natural ingredients; spring water, malted barley, hops and yeast - all GMO-free. 

This isn’t unusual in places such as Germany but in the UK, Australia, the US and Canada beers are all too often full of chemical rubbish and give you a terrible hangover as a result. In the province of Ontario, for instance, brewers are legally allowed to put over 100 ingredients in their beer. Can you imagine! All those chemicals, just to make it seem fizzier, or sweeter, or whatnot. Anyhow, thankfully the Steam Whistle doesn’t get up to any of those tricks.

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She handed around containers of barley and hops. I tasted the barley, nice, like any cereal, and the hops smelt pungent. I’m used to the aroma and like it as I used to live near the small town of Faversham, the home of the English Shepheard Neame Brewery, and this same smell infuses the town centre for much of the year. If you’ve never smelt hops before you’re in for a treat.

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We walked up above large metal conical containers, giving us a great view of the brewing process as the guide explained it. We were all wearing headphones so it was easy to hear her above the noise of the brewery.

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We were able to enjoy the building – it’s as impressive inside as out – and after the tour, which lasted about half hour, we were led back to the bar and offered another beer.

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The bar downstairs was open to the public and very busy. The Steam Whistle organises many events and a convention was going on, but I’m told it gets busy regardless – the brewery is as popular with locals as it is with tourists. The basic tour that we took costs $10 and lasts about half hour although you can also pay more and receive more beer to take away with you at the end as a result, and you can even organise private tours with food included. It’s a fun thing to do in Toronto and I’d say that since beer is an important part of Canadian culture and the Steam Whistle is one of Toronto’s finest independent breweries, if you want to understand more of the city then this is as important an attraction as either the CN Tower or any of the city museums or art galleries. And talking of art galleries, the brewery also supports and encourages local artists, who exhibit at the  brewery and also advertise their forthcoming shows on the brewery website. We liked this – any business that makes efforts to support the local arts community (as well as creating a beer that’s GMO/chemical rubbish free) gets our wholehearted support.

Check the website out to discover more – http://www.steamwhistle.ca

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