There are plenty of occupations that stretch back hundreds – if not thousands – of years, from tailors and farmers to butchers and architects, but only a few seem to latch onto historic locations to ply one’s trade.
Architects often gravitate to old brick piles with tons of character, but even more so are the craft brewers. To be a brewer, I think, requires a big helping of chutzpah, but softened by the addition of rose-coloured glasses … even metaphorical ones.
“If you go back 110 years ago, every small town and city had their own little brewery,” says brewer Jack Doak of Old Flame Brewing. “So for me the nostalgia of the brewing industry, the coupling [of] it with heritage buildings … I wanted to find unique locations or unique buildings to help tell the story.”
And it’s quite the story. One that starts about a decade ago in Port Perry, Ont., is peppered with a dislike for suburban industrial plazas as potential brewing sites, and ends, currently, in Toronto. Mr. Doak, a salt-and-pepper haired, almost-60-year-old with an intense gaze, is sitting at a high table at his new location in the Distillery District – so new a Google search fails to locate it at 43 Tankhouse Lane – with a glass of Helles lager at his elbow, so full of stories that he almost vibrates.
But, after a rundown of how food service will be handled in the 4,200-square-foot space via pop-ups with existing Distillery restaurants – ”We don’t build kitchens; we’re not restaurants; we’re not bars; we’re breweries: beer is the star” – he begins, thankfully, at the beginning.
Born in Newmarket, Ont., Mr. Doak spent 35 years in the fitness industry, owning and operating clubs, and consulting on, and branding them, for others. Also a hockey player who once played at the NCAA (college) level, it was with his hockey buddies decades later that the sudsy light bulb switched on during postgame wings and beers at the local chain restaurant “down the road” from the rink.
“I would whine and complain that the beers weren’t very good,” he remembers. “I’m not a big drinker, I can’t drink spirits [and] red wine gives me a headache. Being in school in upstate New York and Michigan, I got introduced to craft beer fairly early. So, as a whimsical thing, my buddy said, ‘if you don’t like the beers here, stop whining. Go make your own.’”
By 2012, he’d written a business plan. After meeting with beer educator Roger Mittag, it was decided he’d brew traditional German-style lagers, which are more time consuming, rather than ales, since the market was already flooded (pardon the pun) with those. The pair came up with a blonde (Helles), a red (Vienna), a brunette (Munich Dunkel) and a raven (a black lager). And then, through Niagara College’s brewmaster program, Mr. Doak found Scott Pautler to perfect the recipes.
Of course, the really important puzzle piece was real estate. Which, he says, had to be downtown since “the whole charm of a craft brewery is foot traffic; we want to go where the dance is already happening.” After a failed attempt at leasing a 1950s fire hall in Newmarket, his wife suggested Port Perry, a charming Victorian town they’d often stop in on the way to the family cottage. And there, he happened upon an old LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) building that did not look heritage, but was strategically situated at the corner of Perry and Mary streets.
When he began peeling back the layers of 1970s stucco and drywall, the 1884 carriage factory building revealed itself: old red brick; curved lintels; quoins; and big openings for carriage doors. There had even been two fires during its history, which dovetailed nicely with the Old Flame moniker.
A six-pack of years later, the Newmarket fire hall hit the market again, so Mr. Doak jumped at the chance.
And even though the brewery was winning awards left and right, he knew he had to have a presence in the T-Dot. After visiting and enjoying the Distillery District’s famous winter market for more than a decade, the choice of location was obvious.
“The Distillery became a little bit of a muse for me,” he recalls. “I said to my wife, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be cool, one day, [if] I could actually put an Old Flame here?’ By having a presence in Toronto, it just elevates our brand.”
But despite spreading over five hectares and including more than 40 heritage buildings, space is at a premium at the Distillery, and a brewery needs quite a bit. While he toured a few potential spaces, he admits he “lost momentum” due to other commitments. When he finally refocused, he was able to secure the old GW General antique store, which, ironically, isn’t in a heritage building but, rather, occupies the glassed-in space between two heritage buildings, with a concrete ceiling that supports the new condominium tower over top. Which means, thankfully, that pockmarked brick walls, the district’s ubiquitous green-shuttered windows, and original signs that read things like “STOCK TANK NO. 36 4250 IMP. GALS. 1,178,414 CU. INS.” fill the walls.
And Mr. Doak, a self-confessed antique “picker,” has filled the remainder with curios of his own, such as barber chairs, an old school gymnasium scoreboard, milk jugs, old bicycles, and vintage sofas. It’s a cozy space, and one he hopes Torontonians will warm to enough that they might even put down their cellphones while imbibing.
“In fact, my staff are trained that if they saw you and I sitting here having a beer but we’re both on our phones, they would come over and encourage us to chat,” he finishes with a laugh.
A chat that would surely include heritage architecture and how well it pairs with an aged lager.