Henderson Brewing Company co-founder Steve Himel on the art of crafting, making a brew for Honest Ed and launching a beer brand with Rush
In 1800, when Toronto was still a tiny garrison town called York, a man named Robert Henderson began serving English bitters to the British redcoats and civilian population. He undoubtedly had a loyal customer base: he was the only master brewer in town at the time.
Today, Henderson’s brewery of the same name serves a completely different clientele. With a base in the city’s west end, Henderson Brewing Company offers a variety of trusted beers and a monthly Ides line of short-run beers.
Henderson general manager Steve Himel, who once loved going into the clergy, spent 25 years in the marketing and consumer advisory world before realizing that his first job out of high school — as a brewer at Don Valley Brewing Company — was his future should be . In 2015 he co-founded Henderson Brewing Company and is now firmly entrenched in Toronto’s independent beer scene.
Himel spoke to the star about his journey from clergy to craft brewing, his first drink and the elephant in the form of a non-drinker in the taproom:
In 1987 you decided to become a rabbi. You run a brewery here. What happened?
One of the things that really intrigued me about the clergy is that it’s a people job. They help people find answers or a place of comfort. That was really fascinating for me. As a young man, I took some support from the clergy that I had access to. It felt like this was someone who had answers when you didn’t. I walked this path briefly and found that I’m actually an atheist. So it wouldn’t work.
Not far from this discovery, I also discovered beer. I appreciate that, certainly for us in Canada and most of the western world, sharing a beer with friends is a very intimate and personal time. That’s what led me to the beer business. For a lot of people I know, having a beer is a special moment to be 100 percent who you are, in a place you want to be, with people you want to be with.
I think for people who don’t have that moment, they will find it in the church or synagogue or in the mosque with their congregation and share things that are important to them.
You became a brewer at Don Valley Brewing Company right out of high school. Were you old enough to drink?
We were in 13th grade at the time, so I was at least 19 when I started there. I actually remember my first beer. When I was a kid, my mum made sure we always had some beer in the fridge when my grandfather came over. The beer he wanted to drink was Heineken. After six months of realizing he had a beer when he came over I asked him if I could taste it.
I remember it was the worst thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. As a young person, your taste buds are really primed for sweetness. So try a hoppy European lager – Holy Smokes. i hated beer But the seed was planted and I realized how important this thing, this drink, was. Later in life, when it came time to start drinking beer again – probably at a park with my friends – I knew its importance. It made her easier to fall in love with.
Toronto’s craft beer scene is pretty big these days. What made you feel Henderson Brewing could compete?
What prompted my partner Adin Wener and I to open this brewery was that we felt craft beer was just getting too smart. We actually wanted to almost take a step back and bring the ethos of craft – which to me means handwork, quality ingredients and genuine care – into standard recipes.
We’ve seen breweries push the boundaries of all possible flavors, whether they’ve added fruit, hops, or funk. We thought there was a way for a brewery to just stick to the basics. Sometimes people scold us for not making the most interesting beers in the world. But that’s what we want to do.
When you were in the marketing business, one of your customers was Heineken. Did you learn anything about beer marketing from working with them?
When it comes to marketing a brand, and beer in particular, the key is to communicate what makes you different. One of the things we’ve tried to stand by here at Henderson is to say that we’re making beers more regularly. I always struggle with that word because no one ever wants to be regular. But when people come in and they’re already a bit burned from craft beer and we give them a great experience, they say, “Wow, that tastes like beer!” That’s what we try to do.
Henderson Brewing releases a new style of beer each month, their Ides range. Where do you find the inspiration for this?
When we started we wanted to focus on quality and consistency and really try to stick to our core brands. We wanted Henderson’s Best to always taste the same. But there’s a certain monotony to working on the same thing over and over again. So we decided to do a monthly beer series and be inspired by the city we live in.
We’re taking stories from the GTA now, but really Ontario as a whole, and we’re going to sit down with our brewery team once a month and say – how about a beer about so-and-so? What kind of beer should it be? How would it reflect history? What can we do to make it interesting?
One of my favorites was When Honest Ed’s closed. We sat around the table and decided the beer should be less Honest Ed’s and more Honest Ed. We decided that if there was to be a Honest Ed’s beer, it would be the cheapest beer you could possibly make. That’s what we decided. We searched for recipes for the cheapest types of beer. They use as little grain as possible and basically just put sugar in for fermentation.
So we went one step further. We took a truck to Honest Ed’s, bought a pallet of sugar off the shelves, and put that in the beer. In the end we have this very cheap and happy, tasty but incredibly simple beer. That brought the story to life.
You joked that you lived on airplanes for 25 years before starting a brewery. With all the work involved in starting a small business, do you live in the taproom now?
Total. I joke about living on airplanes, but I really did. I was a consultant. I flew all over the world and worked on different brands and products. I enjoyed this for a while, but it’s so great to come to the same place every day. There is a smell of brows that is incredibly attractive to me. It’s like the smell of chocolate or coffee. When the beer is first brewed there is a sweet and bready smell that is just amazing.
I also really enjoy – and I think my partner Adin would agree – seeing people sitting in our taproom having a beer with their friends and chatting. That’s an incredible payoff for me. When things are tough or you’re having a bad day, it feels like a blessing in life to look outside and see that you’ve created a space and a product that facilitates joyful conversation between a group of people .
So you created a beer brand with Rush. How exactly did this happen?
I was walking my dog on the West Toronto Railpath just outside the brewery when the phone rang. Someone said – and I’ll simplify the conversation: “Is that Steve from Henderson? This is Rush. Are you interested in brewing a beer with us?” That’s really how it started, more than five years ago.
Basically they thought it would be fun to make a beer with a small brewery like us. We tried many different things and found out what they like about beer and what they want to do with this project. It was fantastic.
Initially we were concerned that this would just be a branding thing, but it wasn’t at all. It was really collaborative and fun and I really enjoyed it.
By and large, Canadians drink a lot less than they did 20 years ago. Many people do not drink alcohol at all. Can Henderson Brewing address them?
That’s my favorite question. A story about Molson Coors switching to seltzer recently made the front page of the Toronto Star’s business section. I think I read that their beer per capita has dropped from 270 liters in 1972 to 60 liters. But here’s the thing. Henderson makes an incredibly small batch of all the beer Ontarians drink. We make up 0.01 percent of that volume. We do not aim to achieve even one percent of this volume.
I think small breweries like Henderson are the future of beer, where we make a quality, handcrafted, local product. That’s where people go when they want to drink beer. If you look at a brand like Molson Canadian, yes, they had a massive slump in their store, but they had so many drinkers. These people may not drink anymore. We have so few customers in comparison. It’s not really a problem for us. We just have to realize that the people who still drink beer want to drink quality, local beer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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