Back in 2013, it was with some degree of fanfare that Kensington Brewing Company, then a contract brewing company producing its beers at Wellington Brewery in Guelph, announced they would be opening an actual bricks and mortar brewery in their namesake neighbourhood.
At that time, a brewery in Kensington Market, one of Toronto’s most vibrant and eclectic neighbourhoods, seemed like a novel idea.
Fast forward to 2017 and Kensington Brewing Company, still under construction at 299 Augusta Avenue, is now practically in a race to be the first brewery in the neighbourhood as two–count ’em two!–other brewing facilities are potentially in the works on the very same street in the market.
Both Mike Duggan, a craft beer pioneer who helped found Mill Street brewery, and Collective Arts, a Hamilton-based operation with ties to the art and music scene, are seeking to launch brewing operations on Augusta Ave.
Duggan, who is enjoying some success on Queen West at Duggan’s Parkdale after taking a lengthy hiatus from “bricks and mortar” brewing to contract his beer, confirmed to Ben’s Beer Blog that he is involved in a space in Kensington. Duggan tells me that this new venture is not related to the Duggan’s brand other than Mike’s involvement but he says he hopes to be up and brewing next month.
He’s hesitant to reveal many details yet other than the fact that “it is going to be a cool spot” but he indicated that, somehow, customers will be able to make their own beers there.
As for a rumour I heard that he was ditching the Parkdale spot when his lease was up, Mike tells me that Parkdale continues to chug along and that “the live band space is heating up now that Gary Topp is booking acts in the basement.” He also didn’t fill me in on the exact location of this new venue, but rumour has it that it will live at 319 Augusta, the former home of Burger Bar, where, coincidentally, the idea for Kensington Brewing Company was born back in 2010.
Meanwhile, somewhere else in Kensington (and rumoured to be on the same street) Collective Arts Brewing Co. is seeking space to open brewing operations. Founded by Matt Johnston and Bob Russell in 2013, the Hamilton brewery with a curated selection of art on its labels has likewise confirmed to me that rumours of a possible Kensington Market space are true. I spoke with Johnston, who told me “Yes we are looking for a space in Toronto and yes we are looking at Kensington.”
Collective Arts is rumoured to be considering a wider proliferation of its brand with a series of live-music based brew pubs, and while I had heard that a Kensington brew pub opening might be coinciding with the launch of a Collective Arts brew pub in Brooklyn, Johnston wasn’t willing to comment on any loftier designs just yet.
“We are a little bit different,” he tells me. “We connect to artists and musicians. We’re ‘beer first’ but we have other aspects to us that cause us to think beyond Toronto. I’ll neither confirm nor deny that’s in our future because I really don’t know.”
For now, Johnston seems focused on securing space in Kensington Market and on doing so in a way that respects the neighbourhood. “We want to be part of Kensington as it exists,” he says “not part of some gentrification of it.”
If and when a Collective Arts facility happens in Kensington, Johnston tells me, “we want to be good neighbours.”
Among those neighbours of course (and finally!) will be Kensington Brewing Company, whose space at 299 Augusta Ave is nearing completion.
And much has changed for the neighbourhood’s eponymous brewery since an actual bricks and mortar location was first announced. The company has suffered numerous delays, which Michael Gurr tells me are related in part to “zoning issues, a lot of issues with trades and with construction, and just basically things that happen when you’re building things from scratch.” Gurr, who is now Kensington Brewing Company’s VP of Operations, said it essentially boils down to the fact that the company “just had a real difficult time kind of getting our shit together” in terms of generating cash from the contract brewing model.
Now, a week or so from the company’s first brew on site, Gurr sounds very confident that they finally have their ducks in a row. Much of that seems due to the fact that, in the past little while, the brewery sought help from private investors. “We have a couple of guys who are heavily invested but silent partners or sort of play an advisory role,” he says. “A couple of guys are semi-retired from corporate environments and are bringing their skill set to the team which I think was really needed to get the team where we need to go.” The company also has benefited from a new President, Emma Livingston, who comes to Kensington Brewing Company by way of brief stints in Toronto and Edmonton working for Labatt’s in Trade Marketing Analyst and Sales Development roles and whom Gurr says is managing all high level operations.
After an intense focus on finding the right partners to get the brewery up and running, Gurr seems excited to be talking about selling beer again. “We’re getting really close now,” he says. “2017 has been kind of a renewal year for us. We have a pretty high degree of self-awareness and what I mean is that I know we haven’t been the most exciting company for a while.” Gurr says that’s due in part to focusing on securing financing and building the brewery while pulling back on things like festival participation or a huge LCBO presence.
He also seems acutely aware that the market today is different than the one in which Kensington Brewing Company launched. “The beer scene now isn’t the same as it was in 2011 so we know it’s not good enough just to be local or just to slap ‘craft beer’ on your can, or just to put out a pale ale so we’re completely rebranding.”
When the doors open at 299 Augusta Avenue, Kensington Brewing Company will have new packaging, a new logo, and new colour scheme, which Gurr says have all been done with an eye to doing a better job of communicating what it is that makes the neighbourhood special. “We got away from that for a while and we just want to refocus and connect with people.”
In addition to the beer, now being brewed by one of the Niagara College Brewing Program’s first cohort of graduates, Johnny Briggs, they’ll connect with people in the neighbourhood by way of the space’s retail store and small bar, which has a small, 30 person capacity.
Gurr says that all three of Kensington Brewing Company’s flagship beers, Augusta Ale, Fisheye PA, and Watermelon Wheat, will continue to be brewed at Common Good, where they’ve been made for the last six months, and that they are being tweaked by Briggs to make them “more appropriate for 2017.”
Once those beers are at a place where the company likes them, the new brewing set up at 299 Augusta will be used to brew a variety of styles, including a new pale ale, a saison, and a kettle sour, all of which are on the brewing schedule within the first 12 weeks of operation.
How Kensington Market will react to the reimagined Kensington Brewing Company, a Collective Arts facility, or the beers of Mike Duggan are still any one’s guess, but I predict that, at the very least, there will be no shortage of places to drink freshly made, local beer on Augusta Avenue between College and Dundas in the next few years.