Wet your Whistle

Within a current landscape that has mushroomed to nearly a thousand microbreweries nationally, having a unique space is essential to attracting beer lovers in a competitive market.

To say that Canadians love beer is a keg-sized understatement. In fact, that love has been a defining part of our international identity, for better or worse — think Bob and Doug McKenzie from SCTV. Although we may not like being associated with those flannel-wearing hosers anymore, we sure do like a good pint. What’s changed, however, is what we consider good: no longer those brown “stubby” bottles of Labatt’s Blue and Molson Canadian strewn around the Great White North set of the McKenzie brothers; we prefer “craft.”

Craft beer as a term is one that most people would tell you they understand but would then have a hard time defining. There is no bright line test that distinguishes a craft brewery from any other type of brewery. For our purposes we view craft breweries as being artisanal as opposed to commercial,” say the authors from Vancouver-based CCC Investment Banking in their 2018 report The Craft Brewing Industry. “The term originates, no doubt, from the concept of being “hand crafted” implying smaller batch runs as opposed to large process runs. While not every small brewery is a craft brewery, size certainly does matter, and is a main defining point for the industry. 15,000 hectolitres (hl) of annual production is a useful benchmark in Canada as statisticians tend to use this number as a category marker. Under 15,000 hl per year of production defines the majority of craft brewing participants and they can be thought of as the small craft breweries.”

Small, maybe, but these upstarts have been making waves in the industry in recent years. “The number of brewing facilities increased by 21.8 per cent from 817 in 2017 to an all-time high of 995,” says industry association Beer Canada. “Most of Canada’s breweries are small, local operations with 93 per cent producing less than 15,000 hl in 2018.” This is in stark contrast to circa 1985, when the number of breweries in Canada was just 10, and owned by three companies, according to the 2018 report The Canadian Craft Beer Sector.

Government incentives are one of the reasons cited for the dramatic growth in the number of craft brewers, but another more visible reason appears to be a demographic evolution that sees whole cohorts who define themselves by their cravings for locally anchored food experiences. In effect, we are talking about the beer-drinking equivalent of the “foodie.” “The more successful craft brewers are building their brand around catering to a more discerning consumer; one to whom quality of ingredients and flavour matters most,” says CCC Investment Banking.

And this is where designers are coming in. Eschewing the age-old lifestyle stereotypes of sports and partying embraced by mega-brewers, craft brewers want to project a more sophisticated, urban feel without turning their backs on the industrial underpinning upon which their businesses are based. For example, at Establishment Brewing Co. in Calgary, form followed function for their new space, which opened in January of this year. From the onset, the primary goal was an efficient brewery, followed by a beautiful taproom. Inspired by their client’s branding, Calgary-based Fort Architecture created a design with a subtle nod to the Bauhaus movement. A play on simple geometric forms and color blocking, their design intentionally exposes the craft of beer making by using active barrels as a screen between the production space and tap room. Where breweries tend to be vast and large, “we utilized a central bar to create a feeling of coziness with an intimate lounge at the back,” say the designers.

Modest finishes are highlighted throughout the design. From birch plywood to epoxy flooring, Fort Architecture took otherwise “back of house” materials and utilized them as featured elements in the brewery, exposing the honesty in the materials, which itself is a mantra of the microbrew industry and a rallying cry for its target market. “Honesty in materials” is on display three provinces to the east with Junction Craft Brewing’s new 14,600-sq.-ft. all-in-one space containing a brewery, canning/bottling operations, taproom, retail, event and head office space, and designed by Toronto-based Plant Architect and housed in an historic Art Deco “destructor” building.

Subjected to vandalism, used for illegal parties and set on fire several times, the former incinerator building had become a safety hazard and concern for the neighbourhood and declared surplus by the City of Toronto in 2009. Plant Architect’s first task when taking on this project was to rehabilitate and transform the building while appreciating its derelict history. The project preserves the original Art Deco and industrial character, as well as the palimpsest of additions from its latter days like graffiti, while repurposing and adapting the space for a technically demanding manufacturing system, retail and social space.

The industrial processes, from brewing to packaging, is squarely in the foreground, fronted by a light-flooded bar and retail space dominated by the “JUNCTION” emblazoned on the wall in 14-ft.-high letters, reminiscent of advertising signage painted on old brick warehouses. Fully visible from the taproom but generally closed off from it during the brewers’ workday, the production area designed for efficiency can be opened up for after-hours events, tucked into the heart of the industrial brewing area and when used immerse patrons in the brewing process. In its first year these have included concerts, more than 30 weddings, and a Bootcamp & Beer fitness class. These year-round rental revenues are a critical aspect of the programme, as they offset seasonal variance in brewery revenue: people consume more beer in hot weather than when the temperature plunges.

With its 25-ft. skylight-pierced ceilings, large windows, and time-scarred brick walls, the base building is ruggedly gorgeous. The rhythm of the existing tall deco windows is mirrored in backlight panels in the face of the bar, and further emphasized by strips of epoxy floor coating matching to the width of the windows. Railway artefacts and old maps of the Junction are integrated into the interior of the brewery, which has integrated such symbolism into its brand with beer names like Conductor’s Craft Ale and Stationmaster’s Stout. Retail space and the taproom occupy the light-flooded zone near the main entrance with a 40-ft.-long recycled wood and galvanized metal bar. Moving into the more prosaic spaces like the bathrooms, Art Deco meets industrial with round windows, arced stainless counter and a giant circle hole in the ceiling to look up into the raw industrial space. A metal mesh stair connects the offices to the industrial space and stripped plaster walls remain as a backdrop to the open office space and boardroom.

The interior designs of these breweries not only mixes the crafts of architecture, beer and making into an approachable and unique drinking experience, but also embody each client brands’ ethos: a passion for quality raw materials, and seeing beauty in the brewing process.

Photography by: Steven Evans (Junction Craft) / Jamie Anholt (Establishment Brewing).