The curious case of Von Bugle Brewing

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. 

I finally had one today, poured fresh at my local, Bungalow here in London, and it just..misses the mark so hard for me. I don’t get this choice at all. 

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. 

22 thoughts on “The curious case of Von Bugle Brewing

  1. With respect, Ben, I think you miss the mark here. First, Steam Whistle didn’t so much break down barriers in Ontario brewing as did Upper Canada, its sire. (Which I think is what you meant, but I may be wrong.) Secondly, Von Bugle is as much a Munich lager as Steam Whistle is a Czech style pilsner, which is to say almost but not quite. (At least going by my one experience with it thus far.) It approaches a Munich, much as Steam Whistle approaches a pilsner, but stays somewhere short of the style, What it is, I do not know, but I’ll try it again soon and get back to you.

    Finally, I guess out in far off London you missed the memo that lagers are in growth mode big time: Godspeed, Tooth & Nail, Muddy York, Kichessippi, Kensington, etc. Everyone is making ’em and they’re selling. (I even made the next round of ‘5 Beers 2 Brains’ for Original Gravity all about lagers.) But no one is doing quite what Von Bugle is doing, and I think that’s the key. It will appeal very strongly to Steam Whistle’s existing customer base, providing a dark-hued yang to Steam Whistle’s golden yin. It’s a far more original move than would be yet another hazy IPA or kettle sour, and in that regard I think it is moving things forward. Thankfully.

    1. Yes, the Lager craze has made its way all the way to the reaches of Southwestern Ontario. I just don’t see this beer fitting into that craze. And given that Steam whistle is clearly going to be pushing for volume, I’m not convinced this is a beer that will help them accomplish the it.
      I get the concept that this the dark to their pilsner’s light, but for me it fails in execution and the branding misses the mark.

  2. What exactly is wrong with beer styles that come from the second half of the last millennium? Some of the best beer styles in the world are still largely unaltered and have been so for hundreds of years. Styles that break new ground are often great, some are even fantastic but that should not detract from what has gone before and that is still around. Trend and tradition can survive side-by-side.
    By the way Stephen I didn’t think your moustache was so bad but I may be biased having had one since I was 17 years old.

    1. I chose to ignore the unwarranted jab at my old ‘stache, Michael. It’s just Ben acting out again.

  3. I lost all respect for Steam Whistle when they lawyered up about Alberta supporting local breweries.

    1. Alberta imposed expensive taxes on breweries from other provinces and it was kind of crazy. I actually saw that as Steam Whistle using their own dollars to fight a legal battle that would benefit Ontario brewers hoping to one day expand distribution to Alberta (Steam Whistle ponied up for a battle that could serve to benefit Muskoka Brewery, for example). I’m all for governments supporting local, but the tariffs Alberta put forward were a little crazy. It would have resulted in at least a dozen direct job losses at breweries who employed sales reps etc in the province.

  4. I think it’s a smart move to create a new brand rather than muddy the existing one.

    Steam Whistle’s key marketing message is to do one thing really well. People tend to view a company who specialize in one thing as doing a better job than a company who does many things. It’s part of the reason Google, with its simple and uncluttered interface, rose to dominance. It would be foolish of Steam Whistle to abandon this.

    Furthermore, the Steam Whistle model seems to be to build a brand around a traditional and approachable style with a name and logo that involves a noise-making wind instrument of some sort, and this is in keeping with that approach. It seems like a perfectly logical next step. I don’t view them as an experimental, envelope-pushing brewery and I would never expect anything like that from them.

    That said, I think the name Von Bugle is terrible and having bugle imagery and tap handles is silly.

    I agree that the messaging on their website is awful. A painful attempt to create a backstory from thin air and make nothing sound like something.

    What even does this mean: “It announces a move away from bypassing quality to save time, and surge toward transparency of intention.” Ugh.

    And does anyone even remotely care about an antiquated purity act?

    And don’t even get me started on this crap:

    “Von Bugle is made with no fillers, artificial preservatives or chemical enhancements. What you see is what you get — and unlike other beer companies who keep their ingredients concealed, you can see ours listed proudly on the label.“

    Steam Whistle needs to knock that shit the hell off. And learn how to type an em dash.

    Anyway, I haven’t tried it, but I applaud them for bringing a Munich lager to “the beer scene”. While it’s a great time to be a beer drinker in Ontario— and I hate to complain— I often find myself rolling my eyes at every visit to the LCBO when some new Ontario brewery or other has a new beer on shelves. It’s another pale ale, an IPA, a Kölsch, a basic lager, a dry-hopped sour, and just generally more of the same. Breweries do seem to like following trends.

    And finally, tell me this young man: What is wrong with a beer which appeals to people in their seventies? It’s ageist to suggest this is a lesser market and imply that the only segment that matters is the one you belong to.

    1. I’m suggesting that 70 year-olds are a lesser market to target because they ARE.
      24.4% of Canadian domestic beer consumers are men 18 – 34
      17.9% are women from that age group.
      Men and women over 65 made up just 4.4% and 2.1% of the market, respectively.
      I’m not being ageist. If there’s a demo you want to target with a new beer though, it should be pretty clear.


      1. Fair enough. I read the following: “that group of septuagenarians that still meets at The Granite every Sunday afternoon for a nice soup” as being somewhat disparaging of people in that age bracket. My apologies for projecting.

        I’m doubtful that Von Bugle (which we all know is an anagram for “Bung Love”) are specifically targeting an elderly demographic. Though if they are, I think there’s an argument to be made in support of niche markets and being a big fish in a small pond.

        That said, I don’t really know who this will appeal to other than people like me who enjoy trying new beer probably only once in this case.

        The branding is a complete misfire. Which is perplexing considering how good Steam Whistle’s branding is.

        It doesn’t play up the local aspect that seems to drive many people to craft beer.

        It’s not something new and exciting.

        It’s neither trendsetting nor trend-following.

        I don’t really know what the USP is here? Based on their website what sets them apart is that this is an Ultra-Uber-Super-Really-Really-REALLY-Like-We-Are-Talking-Ridiculously Canadian European beer that only uses four ingredients. Which who cares?

        Anyway hopefully it works out for them. I don’t think it’s the worst idea, it’s just really badly executed.

        Oh. Question. Cans and bottles are normally topped with foil to keep them clean for consumption from the can or bottle. Is that the thinking here too? With the foil? On the cans? To drink it from the can? Surely not.

        Anyway I find this all very fascinating. Thank you for your patience with my stupid comments, Ben. You deserve better.

  5. Now it has been a few years, but I recall them saying on the tour that one of the conditions of them buying the original recipe (or was it the building?) was that they could only ever make the one beer under that label. I could be confusing that with something else, but if that is the case, it would explain why it’s an entirely different brand.

  6. There is only one problem with this beer imo: not enough taste. You identified well the taste it has, which is excellent, but it needs more. If the same sound was amped up from 2 to 6 on the Marshall dial it would be a great beer.

    I’m assuming Steamwhistle has carefully calibrated the palate to what it thinks the mass market (not craft) is looking for, the next step up from Rickards Red, or two steps from Canadian. And maybe they’re right, time will tell.

    Meanwhile, they would shift more volume to the craft segment if they at least introduce “Mark II” , same beer but amped up, maybe with a touch more ABV. Call it Blaring Bugle. I’m in. I think you’d be too.


  7. I’m not that surprised that it is ‘almost there’, kinda like Steam Whistle itself, no? Craft beer in name not taste. Ace Hill anyone?

    I’ve always gone to the import aisle for Pils. But now we have Side Launch Mountain & Howe Sound Lager going for us. Which is nice.

    1. Another terrific (relatively new – 18 months) pilsner is Stone House. They’re located outside of Varna, a “hamlet” (that’s what they call themselves) about 20 km east of Bayfield. It’s a one-man show, and the brewer-owner, Mike Corrie, only distributes locally – out of the front of the brewery itself, and to local pubs (not LCBO, sadly). But I’m telling you, his pilsner is superb. Too bad he’s not more widely known.

      1. Indeed. I’ve been and I agree. Very nice beer. Mike had just added a black lager to the two-beer lineup when I popped in and it was also great. I ended up buying six of each.

  8. Bill have to disagree with you on Steamwhistle and Ace Hill Pilsener. To me they have assertive, German-type lager taste. I had a number of German beers of similar style at a beer festival in England recently and they were very similar.

  9. Took my brother-in-law from Quebec to the craft beer fest at Steamwhistle in August. Was telling him about how all these breweries do all these experimental things with (in my view) mixed results., and good ol’ Steamwhistle sticks to one thing and do it really well. Then tasted this, very disappointing. And then chatting and found out it was Steamwhistle behind it, so even more disappointing. The irony is that their tent was right beside Lagershed, which makes the BEST lager I’ve EVER tasted.

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