I really like Steam Whistle.
I have for as long as I can remember. They make an excellent Czech-style pilsner and, provided you’re having it fresh and not from a green bottle that’s been exposed to the sun, it’s about as reliable a beer as you’ll find in any pub in Ontario, if not Canada. That’s, of course, largely because they make an effort to maintain all the draught lines pouring their beer and they’ve invested in a lot of expensive technology to ensure that the beer that gets to your mouth is always fresh as possible.
Of course Steam Whistle, for some reason, has its haters. It’s a big company and has a pretty heavy-handed marketing presence and that isn’t always a turn-on for the die-hard craft beer fans. For my money though, Steam Whistle is also owed a pretty large debt of gratitude by this province’s craft brewers and craft beer drinkers for being among the brewing pioneers that broke down a lot of the early barriers to independent craft beer production and sales in Ontario. They fought a lot of fights so that brewers who came after them didn’t have to, and any one who chooses not to drink their beer because “the company is too big,” or some iteration on the theme of them being “too corporate” is, in my opinion, being ignorant of the Toronto brewery’s history and importance to the scene.
Steam Whistle cares a lot about making good beer and they seem to care about the state of craft beer in Canada.
And that’s why I really can’t figure out what the fuck they’re up to with their latest move.
In May, Steam Whistle announced news that most people in the beer scene already knew was coming, namely that they would be opening a new brewery. It’s called Van Bugle Brewing, and the beer the new company has launched with is a Munich Lager.
I was a little surprised that the move included an entirely new brewery and brand. I always thought Steam Whistle had a clear next move when they were ready to make it: Just finally make another Steam Whistle beer. When Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen co-starred in the Magnificent Seven, McQueen’s ego couldn’t stand being cast next to a larger star, so he tried every trick he could think of to steal focus from Brynner on screen. Watch the movie and you’ll see he’s always fiddling with his saddle, bending down to get a drink from the creek, or checking the sight on a gun in order to draw focus to himself. Rumour has it, one day Brynner, who was totally bald, had had enough and told McQueen, “If you don’t knock that off I’m going to take off my hat and no one will be looking at you.”
I had always assumed when they felt their market share or relevance with today’s consumer started to slip, Steam Whistle would simply unveil a great second beer, taking off their proverbial hat off to steal back focus. They have very talented brewers working for them so they’d certainly make another great beer, and the tongue-in-cheek marketing practically writes itself (“OK, so we do TWO things really well”)—but it seems a bit like Steam Whistle, unlike Brynner, took off their hat to unveil a rich, well-made, obvious hairpiece.
By that I mean Von Bugle Munich Lager is just kind of…cheesy.
First, let’s be clear: it’s unquestionably a well-made beer. It’s got subtle nutty sweetness in the aroma and the taste is slightly sweet raisiny, oatmeal maltiness with super subtle hopping in the finish. It’s very balanced. It’s inoffensive. I have no idea why it exists.
OK sure, if you’re clamouring for a sessionable amber lager with malty sweetness that’s very subtle, this beer gets it done, but realistically has anyone clamoured for this style of beer since 1998? Steam Whistle waited 18 years to brew a second beer and dumped a bunch of money into a brewery and brand that looks and feels like I took a fucking time machine to order my pint. The beer is served in a chalice with a gold rim, the branding revolves around a bugle (the tap handles are actual bugles) and a sort of vaguely-european beer-garden-font adorns the packaging. I can picture this beer alongside a can of Dennisons in a dusty LCBO. It’s all just too cheesy and dated. I feel like if I had too many pints of this I’d leave the pub sporting Stephen Beaumont’s old moustache.
I get that if they were going to stray from the one thing Steam Whistle does, a darker beer might seem to make sense, but a malty Munich lager, to me, just seems tone deaf. It’s a style that seems unlikely to capture the imagination of an increasingly young and experimental local consumer and instead it feels like a beer that might appeal to that group of septuagenarians that still meets at The Granite every Sunday afternoon for a nice soup.
Ultimately, I think I’m just disappointed in Steam Whistle. Some people will like this beer, sure, but Steam Whistle is a good brand and a good company and I expected…more.
As it stands, if I knew nothing about this brewery and stumbled on a Van Bugle Munich Lager, I would have no idea that this brewery was owned and operated by Steam Whistle, one of Canada’s most successful independent brewers. I would also probably assume (especially from nonsensical web content like “IN A WORLD DEAFENED BY NOISE, THE CALL OF VON BUGLE IS CRYSTAL CLEAR”) that this was yet another contract brewing company wrapping a can of someone else’s beer, and I’d probably assume that, while it is surely a nice recipe, it must be a recipe from the latter part of the last millennium, not 2018.
This beer moves the needle for Ontario craft beer and for Steam Whistle exactly nowhere. And that’s a damn shame.