In 1800, when Toronto was a small garrison town called York, a man named Robert Henderson began serving bitter English to redcoats and British civilians. He undoubtedly had a loyal following: at the time, he was the only master brewer in town.
Today, Henderson’s eponymous brewery caters to a very different type of clientele. With a location in the west end of town, Henderson Brewing Company offers a host of proven beers and a monthly Ides series of small-batch beers.
Steve Himel, Henderson’s managing director, who once wanted to join the clergy, spent 25 years in the world of marketing and consumer consulting before realizing that his first job after high school – as a as a brewer at the Don Valley Brewing Company – was to be his future. . 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 nondrinker-shaped elephant in the tavern:
In 1987, you decided to become a rabbi. Here you are, at the head of a brewery. What happened?
One of the things that really intrigued me about clergy, whatever it is, is that it is human labor. You help people find answers or a place of comfort. It was really intriguing to me. As a young man, I took some support from the clergy I had access to. I felt like he was someone who had answers when you didn’t. I followed this path, briefly, and realized that in fact, I was an atheist. So it wasn’t going to work.
Not too far from this discovery, I also discovered beer. I could understand that, certainly for us in Canada, and for most western countries, sharing a beer with friends is a very intimate and personal moment. That’s what got me into the beer business. For a lot of people I know, going out for a beer is a special time for them to be 100% who they are, in a place they want to be, with people they want to be with.
I think for people who don’t have that moment, they will find it in church or in synagogue or in mosque with their community, sharing things that are important to them.
You became a brewer at the Don Valley Brewing Company right out of high school. Are you old enough to drink?
We were in grade 13 at the time and it made me 19, at least, when I started there. In fact, I remember my first beer. When I was a child, my mother made sure we had beer in the fridge whenever my grandfather came. The beer he wanted to drink was Heineken. After six months when I realized that when he came he had a beer, I asked him if I could taste it.
I remember it was the worst thing I have ever tasted in my life. As a youngster, your taste buds are really sweet. So taste a hoppy European lager – holy smokes. I hated beer. But the seed had been planted, and I recognized the importance of this thing, this drink. Later in life, when it came time to drink beer again – probably in a park with my friends – I understood its meaning. It was easier to fall in love with it.
Toronto’s craft beer scene is quite large today. What made you feel Henderson Brewing could compete?
What prompted my partner, Adin Wener, and I to open this brewery was that we thought craft beer was just getting too crafty. We really wanted to take a step back, almost, and bring the ethos of craftsmanship – which for me is handmade, quality ingredients, real care – to more standard recipes.
We’ve seen breweries push the boundaries of all kinds of flavors, whether it’s adding fruit, hops or funk. We thought there was an opportunity for a brewery to stick to the basics. Sometimes people blame us for that, because we don’t make the most interesting beers in the world. But that’s kind of what we want to do.
When you worked in marketing, one of your clients was Heineken. Did you learn anything about beer marketing from working with them?
When it comes to marketing any brand and especially beer, the key is to communicate what makes you different. One of the things we’ve tried to stick to here at Henderson is to say we make more consistent beers. I always struggle with that word, because no one ever wants to be regular. But when people walk in and they’ve already been a little burnt out from the craft beer and we’re giving them a great experience and they say — “Wow, that tastes like beer!” That’s what we’re trying to do.
Henderson Brewing releases a new type of beer every month, your Ides series. Where do you find 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 is a certain monotony in working on the same thing all the time. So we decided to do a monthly beer series and take inspiration from the city we live in.
We now take stories from the GTA, but really from Ontario as a whole, and sit down once a month with our brewing team and say — how about a beer on so and so? What kind of beer would that be? How would that reflect the story? 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 would be less on Honest Ed’s and more on Honest Ed. We decided that if there was going to be Honest Ed’s beer, it would be the cheapest beer you could manufacture. So that’s what we decided to do. We searched for recipes for the cheapest types of beer. You use as little grain as possible and just put sugar in it to ferment it.
So we took it a step further. We drove a truck to Honest Ed’s, bought a pallet of sugar off the shelves and put it in beer. We ended up with this very cheap and cheerful, tasty, yet incredibly simple beer. It brought the story to life.
You joked about living on airplanes for 25 years before starting a brewery. Considering all the work it takes to start a small business, do you now live in the dining room?
Totally. I joke about living on airplanes, but I really did. I was a consultant. I was flying all over the world working 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 brewing that attracts me incredibly. It’s like the smell of chocolate or coffee. When the beer is first boiled, there is a sweet, bready smell that is just fantastic.
I also really enjoy – and I think my partner Adin would agree – seeing people sitting in our bar, sharing a beer with their friends and chatting. That, to me, is an incredible reward. When things are tough or when you’re having a bad day, looking outside and seeing that you’ve created a space and a product that facilitates happy conversation between a group of people is like a victory in life.
So you created a beer brand with Rush. How did it happen exactly?
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? It’s Rush. Are you interested in having a beer with us? That’s really how it started, over five years ago now.
Basically, they thought it would be nice to do a beer with a small brewery like ours. We tried a bunch of different things and found out what they liked about beer and what they wanted to do with this project. It was fantastic.
Initially, we were concerned that it was just a branding issue, but that hasn’t been the case at all. It’s been really collaborative and fun, and I really enjoyed it.
Overall, Canadians are drinking much less than 20 years ago. Many people don’t drink alcohol at all. Can Henderson Brewing seduce them?
This is my favorite question. The front page of the Toronto Star’s business section recently ran an article about how Molson Coors is getting into seltzers. I think I read that their beer per capita went from 270 liters in 1972 to 60 liters. But here’s the thing. Henderson makes an incredibly small amount of the total amount of beer Ontarians drink. We represent 0.01% of this volume. We don’t even aspire to reach one percent of that volume.
I think small breweries like Henderson are the future of beer, where we make a local, high-quality, artisanal product. It’s where people go when they want to drink beer. When you look at a brand like Molson Canadian: yes, they had a massive downsizing, but they had a huge proportion of drinkers. These people may not be drinking anymore. We have so few customers in comparison. For us, it’s not really a problem. You just have to recognize that people who still drink beer want to drink quality local beer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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