Interview: Henderson Brewing Company’s Steve Himel

Here’s a reason we’re already impressed with 2016: Toronto is getting more local craft beer. Spring will see the launch of Henderson Brewing Company in the Lower Junction. Henderson is named for Robert Henderson, Toronto’s first brewer, and the brewery will be anchored by Henderson’s Best, a new take on an English ale. Why English ale? Because that’s what guys like Henderson were brewing for Torontonians in the early 1800s.

In what may be a brewing first, Henderson is reaching out to Kickstarter for a little extra help. They already have their building, staff, material, and more, but they’re in the market for the latest and greatest kegging line, so they decided to do a little crowdfunding. What’s in it for supporters? Well, the coolest thing is a ‘subscription’ to Henderson’s monthly special brews.

Henderson is the brainchild of two men: brewmaster Mark Benzaquen and Steve Himel. Bezaquen learned his craft at MolsonCoors before becoming the lead technical adviser to the Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB), which has seen him help craft breweries around the province. Himel started out as a brewer at Connor’s, one of Toronto’s original craft breweries back in the nineties. We spoke to Himel about all things craft brewing, crowdfunding, and how Toronto is becoming a craft brew destination.

Why is 2016 a good time to launch a craft beer brewery?

More and more beer drinkers are appreciating that there are choices that go beyond the big advertised brands, and as such are looking around at their options. In 2016 there are more open minded drinkers and often once they have tried one or two alternatives they are left saying ‘wow, what else is there’. Imagine a generation raised on Wonder Bread tasting their first bakery-fresh bread. We are only at the beginning of the craft beer renaissance in Ontario. I think it is also important to point out that we are trying to be more of a ‘neighbourhood’ brewery than a craft brewery per-se. This means Henderson is focusing more on servicing our community with great, high-quality, fresh beer rather than always reaching for the vanguard of beer creativity.

You guys have a tonne of experience in the beer industry. Which experience was most valuable?

Well, we all come from different areas of expertise and I think the most valuable experience that we bring to this is the maturity to trust our partners. But that is not really an answer to your question, so I’ll try again. I think, since we have all brewed professionally before, it is the experience of letting go of a bad batch. It’s a hard thing to face considering all the work that goes into making beer, but once you’ve done it you realize that starting over is the only option in some circumstances.

Do you miss Connor’s?

Having the chance to brew at one of Ontario’s original craft breweries was amazing. I learned a lot and loved the experience. Plus, at that brewery everybody could and did do everything. Brewing, packaging, tours, retail, sales—we had to be able to work together to achieve a common goal.

Part of what killed the brewery was one of the things that I definitely do not miss—the one and two litre PET bottles. They were terrible! The beer never tasted great and went flat very quickly in those bottles. At that time there was little appetite for craft beer on tap and as such that is how many people experienced the brand. Not ideal and I wouldn’t want to go back there.

Not too many breweries have turned to Kickstarter. What made you guys go the crowdfunding route?

We did a full business plan well in advance and for the most part stayed with it. But a few months ago Mark Benzaquen and I were are the OCB conference and had a chance to talk with and examine all the latest and greatest available to small brewers. Well, as you can imagine, this fuelled the desire for some equipment that was exceeding our original intentions.

At the same time we had been looking for, and talking about ways to involve beer lovers in our project. Kickstarter gave us the opportunity to do both.

What kind of styles are you guys planning on making for your monthly releases? Will there be a Scotch ale in the cards?

The idea for the monthly series came from watching ‘cupcake wars’ with my kids. Its a simple formula—people who are really good at what they do given a challenge to create a product based on a theme. In our case, we hope to both have the opportunity to deliver classic styles of beer in our own way as well as to create new styles based on the stories we are trying to bring to life.

We have so many awesome stories, paces, events and people in this city and are very excited to bring them to life in the beers we brew.

We are holding our hand pretty close to our chest, but I can tell you a Scotch Ale is in the cards. It’s based on the story of the Scottish work crew sent out to lay a new road running north of Queens Park—now Avenue Road. Apparently upon arriving at the proposed site of this roadway proclaimed “let’s ‘ave a new road here”.

What’s your favourite Toronto watering hole?

Impossible question to answer. I can say this however: the number of great places to drink beer in this city has multiplied exponentially since the days of Connor’s. Many places now care about quality product, clean lines, and knowledgeable staff. I’ll take you out for a beer anytime and we can visit a few.

What are you drinking when it’s not Henderson’s Best?

I’d have to split that into three categories.

One: the aforementioned vanguard. So many jaw dropping choices in this category just in Toronto, and elsewhere around the province and country. Burdock’s Dark Saison knocked my socks off when I had one at the brewery earlier this week.

Two: the ‘go to’ beers that are refreshing and easy to share. Steam whistle and Beau’s are almost always in the fridge.

Three: classics: I always have a bottle of Chimay Red around.

You guys are really into the history of brewing in Toronto. What did early Toronto brewing have that’s missing now?

We are in a much better position now. The knowledge of brewing techniques and refrigeration allow us to make beers that never could have been made before. They really had no advantage. A short brewing season, moving beer by horse and cart and much less cooperation made it an amazingly difficult business to be in.

However, Toronto’s early brewers had to make and move their beer very quickly which really forced them to sell fresh. This is something that would have been a great benefit to drinkers.

What craft beer trend do you think has run its course?

I think it’s the mainstream guys who create trends that die. Just look at the nineties beer wars—Ice, Steam, Max, Red, etc. The craft beer guys are too good to fall into ‘trend’. Now saying that, taste swings on a pendulum and it is likely that the taste for super-hop-bombs is starting to swing back.

But this is what is great about craft brewers—they are creative, motivated and nimble. They will push the boundaries for the fun of it, to see what comes out at the other end. I love that.


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