Canadian Packaging

Picking up Steam

George Guidoni   

Toronto brewer gets back to its founding basics with single-minded product focus and renewed passion for packaging excellence and innovation

Being a one-brand company my seems like an outdated business strategy in these days of relentless new product launches and brand extensions, but for Toronto-based Steam Whistle Brewing, staying true to its roots is an idea that has recently come full circle.

Founded in 1998 at the outset of the game-changing craft beer revolution sweeping through Ontario and across North America, the company’s original Steam Whistle Pilsner has enjoyed fabulous market growth over the years, enabling the company to outgrow its humble microbrewer origins to evolve into a highly competent and reputed Canadian beer industry stalwart with national market presence and resounding brand loyalty for its premium European-style pilsner product.

And while the flagship pilsner remained the company’s one and only brand for just over 20 years, the opening of a new production facility in Toronto’s west end five years ago provided an irresistible opportunity for Steam Whistle to diversify its product portfolio, as well as to launch a complementary co-packing business at the new site.

However, after launching several new beer brands into the market—including Steam Whistle Pale Ale, Session Lager, Lemon Shandy and Harvest Lager, among others—the company’s management found that this brand proliferation was beginning to dilute the brewer’s original focus on making the best possible pilsner product.

This realization prompted a recent decision by management to reverse course by “discontinuing our brand extensions and renewing our commitment ‘to do one thing really, really well’.”

As the company’s brewmaster Erica McOustra points out, “Making only one style of beer means you can possibly come close to perfection, because you’ve given yourself the time and opportunity to do so.

“The practice of doing one thing allows you to pick out subtleties of flavour and aroma, McOustra says. “You can explore the depth and elegance of each ingredient until you arrive at the ‘true expression’ of the Pilsner style.

“This is the difference between good beer and truly world-class beer.”

Because making a world-class beer typically requires world-class facility and equipment to brew and package it,” Steam Whistle has poured millions of dollars into equipping its new 35,000-square-foot plant with some of the best brewhouse and production machinery available in the market.

On the brewing side of the plant, the facility’s tank-farm comprises:

  • Wort production: A three-vessel 110-hectolitre brewhouse manufactured by Esau & Hueber;
  • Beer fermentation: A total of 21 tanks—in 400-, 300- and 260-hectolitre capacities—manufactured by Highland Equipment Inc., Falcon Brewing Company and MacDonald Steel – HDP.
  • Beer aging/maturation: A total of 13 aging tanks—in 400- and 425-hectolitre sizes–supplied by Highland and Falcon.
  • Beer filtration: A DE (diatomaceous earth) filter with 50- to 60-hl/hr capacity from Krones AG, along with a trap filter and a lenticular filter manufactured by Pall Corporation.
  • Filtered beer storage: Three 600-hectolitre bright beer tanks from Highland.

On the packaging side of the plant, configured to accommodate three production lines—cans, bottles and kegs—the Steam Whistle facility employs:

  • A Krones can filler for 355-ml and 473-ml cans.
  • A fully-automatic bulk depalletizer, manufactured by Alliance Industrial Corporation, processing arriving empty cans at speeds of up to 1,500 cans per minute.
  • A high-speed Quickflex cartoning system from Graphic Packaging International (GPI), for packing cans of beer into four-, six-, 12- and 24-pack cases.
  • A fully-automatic Columbia Machine model HL2000 palletizer.

On the bottling line, the plant deploys a Krones bottle washer and a Krones filler—both handling 300 bottles per minute—and a Standard Knapp case packer.

Employing 35 full-time and 20 part-time people on the production floor, the plant produces about 550 hectolitres per day over a three-shift, five-day-week schedule, with working Saturdays added during the peak summer season.

About 60 per cent of the output is reserved exclusively for the production of Steam Whistle Pilsner, with co-packing accounting for the rest of output.

Cans account for 60 per cent of the total Steam Whistle Pilsner brand output, with signature-green 341-ml glass bottles for 20 per cent and kegs—available in five-, 20-, 30- and 50-litre sizes—for the remaining 20 per cent.

Available across most of Canada, Steam Whistle Pilsner is sold at various landmark entertainment venues, liquor board outlets, retail chains, grocers, local bars and restaurants in bottles, cans and as draught in most provinces.

According to the brewer, the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) accounts for about 70 per cent of the brand’s total sales, with rural Ontario for another 10 per cent, and the remaining 20 per cent split between British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec.

Primarily targeting younger men in the 25-to-55 age-range bracket and women in the 25-to-35 demographic, the brand appeals primarily to urban, socially-conscious professionals with balanced lifestyles, healthy eating habits and a preference for stylish setting for their beer consumption outings.

“We strive to be the choice of beer for drinkers looking for an approachable, high-quality beer in the premium segment,” says Steam Whistle Brewing president Bromlyn Bethune. “We are the only true Canadian brand that can stake a claim as ‘Canada’s Beer.’

“Since the company was founded in 1998, we have been committed to our original vision of becoming the most respected premium beer in Canada,” Bethune states.

“Steam Whistle is uniquely positioned to compete against of the leading import and premium brands available in Canada,” she adds. “We have all of the aspirational qualities of leading European beers, while at the same time being authentically Canadian.”

Says Bethune: “The beer industry continues to be a competitive landscape: consumers have more choice than ever before, brewers continue to launch new innovations weekly, and RTD (ready-to-drink) beverages continue to take space from the beer category as a whole in retail.

“Our brand really flexes between various categories of drinkers, from those looking for a great Euro-style Pilsner, import, premium and craft drinks alike.”

As Steam Whistle plant manager Euan Miller points out, quality control is a paramount priority for the brewer, both for its own brand and its co-pack customers.

“Our on-site QA (quality assurance) lab conducts hourly quality checks,” says Miller, “using statistical analysis to help us identify ways in which we can improve.

“We do all the required tests to ensure packaged product targets are met, including dissolved oxygen, carbonation, pH, fill volume, fill level, etc.

“We continuously track all the incidents, hazards and near-misses,” Miller says, “and we have a joint health-and-safety committee performing monthly inspections and team meetings.”

Energy efficiency is another area where the Steam Whistle plant keeps making continuous improvements, according to Miller.

“We introduced an ionized air line from R.E. Morrison for cleaning empty cans before filling,” he says. “This replaced rinsing the cans with water, significantly reducing our water usage.”

“Moreover, the recent installation of the GPI Quickflex case packer enabled the canning line to switch from single-use plastic wraps to fully-recyclable cartonboard, Miller says, resulting in “less waste and increased packaging efficiency.”

As Miller elaborates, “Our brewhouse captures heat from outgoing brews to heat the water for the next brew.

“Our green bottle can be refilled more than 45 times, due to its thicker glass that doesn’t break, and because of the painted label on our bottles we save paper, color inks and glue from going into wastewater or landfill.

“We also have a cardboard baler a plastic baler for recycling,” Miller says, adding the company uses the services of Wasteco to recycle waste bottles, and Attar Metals for recycling empty cans.

Adds Steam Whistle’s marketing communications lead, Sybil Taylor: “In the last year, we got out ahead of coming government regulations that outlaw single-use plastics by removing our plastic-wrap machine and converting to cardboard packaging again for all our canned beer.

“The was a very significant project for us, from the equipment purchase and installation to the retooling of conveyors and the introduction of a new carton design.

“In fact, we have redesigned our cardboard boxes, trays and even our cans, making our Steam Whistle trademark front-and-centre on all our packaging,” says Taylor, stressing the critical importance of packaging innovation for the company’s marketing strategy.

“When you don’t have new products to share,” she says, “one way to attract attention is by launching new packaging and gift packaging.

“We made a big splash this spring with our five-litre Mini Party Keg for Steam Whistle Pilsner,” she says, “which is the only domestic craft brew on offer in this 14-beer equivalent package.”

The brewer also partnered up with houseware product manufacturer Igloo Product Corp. to create Steam Whistle-branded IGLOO Playmate Cooler, which will be used in upcoming limited-time promotional campaign at the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) this summer.

And to mark last year’s acquisition of Beau’s All Natural Brewing, Steam Whistle will soon launch a special commemorative three-pack carton of Beau’s Lug Light brand containing a branded collectible beer glass.

As Bethune points out, “Consumers demand a lot from their brands, and it goes far beyond beer.

“So we are always looking for new ways to bring consumers in,” she says, “and format innovation can do that when you have a single-brand focus like Steam Whistle in a category known for never-ending choices.

“After two years of consuming cans or bottles at home, post-COVID is all about the experience we have been missing, enjoying that brewery-fresh draught beer at your neighborhood bar or favorite local restaurant,” Bethune remarks.

“Cold and convenience is where it’s at for Gen Z these days,” she states, “so we expect the can format, both 473-ml and 355-ml, continue to grow.

“We have also found that beer drinkers are also really looking for their tried, true and trusted brand, something they can count on, like their favorite pair of jeans,” Bethune adds.

“That continues to be a big branding and CPG (consumer packaged goods) trend,” she concludes, “and being a one-brand brewer fits into that perfectly.”

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