The building used to be painted an undesirable mustard-yellow. Now it’s known more for the golden ales and lagers poured inside.
In Ottawa’s Centretown neighbourhood, about 10 minutes south of Parliament Hill, Flora Hall Brewing – a craft brewpub serving up nine styles of beer and a menu of shareable snacks – has opened its doors to residents to much fanfare. In just a few months, more than 15,000 customers have imbibed.
Much of the charm of the community brewery is thanks to the changes to its 90-year-old building, and Flora Hall is one example of craft breweries across Canada taking on mid-century structures and turning them into modern spaces for food and drink.
The 4,440-square-foot heritage building in Ottawa was first home to Welch and Johnston, an engineering firm. It was then leased to two garages, one specifically for motorcycles and the other for cars and trucks. A proposal in 2004 to make 37 Flora St. into a multilevel apartment complex fell through, and it sat empty for nearly 15 years (with its fading yellow facade) before Flora Hall founder and owner Dave Longbottom bought the building with capital he had from starting, then selling, a number of Ottawa-based businesses over the past three decades.
He transformed the space by adding a separate area for brewing, a commercial kitchen, and two floors of drinking and eating space. He was pleasantly surprised during renovations to discover hardwood floors in the upper level of the hall – a memento from the original Welch and Johnston business. He kept them.
There were constraints in renovating the heritage structure, however.
He wasn’t able to change the shape or the location of the openings of the building (the front facade is almost all glass windows and doors), but he “loved” that charm. The bigger problems came with the amount of work he had to do.
“I had to go right down to the bare bones,” says Mr. Longbottom, who had to add all new infrastructure to make a workable brewery, including three-phase power, a bigger water supply, and a bigger gas supply.
“That was the most challenging part, but working with an old building was a pleasure because that’s the only way you get this kind of end result. You can’t build this from scratch. The challenges were there, but they also yielded a great finished product.”
Mr. Longbottom, who has an engineering degree from Queen’s University in Kingston, says he had the time, the means and the desire to take on the challenge of renovating a heritage building for the Ottawa market. Ottawa, he says, has a thirst for community breweries.
“The building was waiting for someone to come along with a vision for the place and the money to implement that vision,” he says. “It wasn’t a place you could lease. If I had this business and I rolled up here and just rented this building, it wouldn’t have made economic sense.”
According to Mr. Longbottom, the commercial and residential neighbours have been nothing but supportive. There were growing pains during construction, but since he took over a building that was sitting empty and acting as a drag on property values, they were happy to see their neighbourhood get a bit of a boost.
And no one apparently minds the smell, either.
“It smells amazing. The whole street smells like beer,” he says. “The other neighbours are Kentucky Fried Chicken and Domino’s Pizza, so I think our stuff smells better than that.”
Neighbours were also pleased when Brickworks Ciderhouse in Toronto opened its doors in early 2018, according to co-founders Chris Noll and Adam Gerrits — so much so that they received bouquets of flowers from the two nearest businesses.
Brickworks, a craft cider brand recently bought by Mill Street Brewery, pressed 23 million apples in 2017 to make the ciders it sells across Canada, including in the Yukon.
The co-founders engaged Halifax-based designer Breakhouse Inc. to spearhead the renovation for the 3,000-square-foot, mid-century building at Queen Street East and Broadview Avenue, about 10 minutes east of Toronto’s financial district. It now features a multilevel dining and drinking space, and a commercial kitchen. The basement has all Brickworks’ tanks for aging the cider — seven total.
The adventure to move the full cider-making operation into a tight space in Toronto’s core was not without its challenges.
Martha Lowry, the head cider maker, says they had to do some cutting into the basement floor just to get the tanks into the basement – a worthwhile project as she says it helps keep the liquid at the right temperature, and things are kept clean more easily. Even then, the tanks clipped the roof as they were being installed.
“The space is relatively small but we were able to fit a pretty sizable cider operation inside,” adds Mr. Gerrits. “We have a good cellar with a good amount of aging tanks and keep the major show pieces [upstairs]. We have our fermentation tanks and apple press up there, so it’s interactive. All the things that aren’t interesting, like aging cider, that we need a lot of room for, we had the space in the basement. … With a lot of older buildings you’re not going to get [that].”
Mr. Gerrits says they brought the building – which has history as an Irish pub, a Jamaican restaurant, and a bank – right back to the walls (Mr. Noll says the only thing they kept from the previous tenants were a few panes of glass) and had to rebuild the electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems. They took advantage of the existing architecture, which includes floor-to-ceiling windows that wrapped around the building.
The biggest issue they had, he recalls, was actually something small.
There was a fire exit in the front of the building, facing Queen Street, but safety codes had changed since it was installed. They had to take out a “perfectly good” staircase and increase its size by a mere 10 centimetres to meet the code. It cost nearly $50,000 to rebuild and was a “massive” amount of work, says Mr. Gerrits.
Not unlike the Centretown neighbourhood in Ottawa, the Queen and Broadview area in Toronto is becoming trendier.
The Ciderhouse’s location is diagonally across the street from the Broadview Hotel, one of Canada’s oldest hotel structures at more than 125 years old. The co-founders of Brickworks returned to the city after sourcing fruit in the country early in the development stages and they noticed the similarity between the Broadview next to the modern Ciderhouse. It was a look they had seen all day in the country: older farmhouses that all had contemporary additions.
In this case, the Broadview represented the classic farmhouse, and the Ciderhouse was the modern addition.
“There were a million other things in the business case we had to look at, but that idea – a piece of farm country in the city – we had it, right here.”
The mix of old-and-new is evident in Ottawa as well, as Mr. Longbottom says he’s already had people visit who used to have their motorcycles serviced at the now-beer hall. He’s also been in discussions with one of the descendants of the original Welch and Johnston founders to come for a visit and see how the building was repurposed.
“This place has 100 years of history. It wasn’t 100 years of history as a brewery, but it was 100 years in this neighbourhood. You can’t reproduce that,” he says. “It feels like it’s been here for a while… because it has been.”