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Still Going Strong…

Posted September 13, 2011 | 12:46 am, by nadine

Upper Canada Brewing Company was the first microbrewery in Toronto. Its many employees worked tirelessly to create a wide variety of flavourful products and to introduce drinkers to the world of craft beer. The brewery was located on Atlantic Ave. in downtown Toronto from 1985 until 1998 when it was bought by Sleeman Breweries. The downtown plant was soon closed, and its army of dedicated and enthusiastic employees scattered. A close look at the Ontario brewing industry reveals that they haven’t gone far…

I first began suspecting that many former Upper Canada Brewing Co. employees were still in the Ontario craft beer industry when I started working with Oliver Dawson. Dawson spent fourteen years at Upper Canada. When the plant closed in 1998, he was “heartbroken”. He couldn’t imagine working for another brewery and chose instead to found the Beer Lovers’ Tour Co. in order to continue spreading the word about craft beer. As Dawson and I were researching and preparing tours, we twice came across former co-workers at Ontario breweries. I became intrigued, and a brief round of phone calls quickly established that a surprising number of people working at Ontario breweries had, at one time, been employed at Upper Canada. In addition, a number of them were still in touch and were curious to know how everyone was. Many even suggested other people with whom I could chat. In total, I contacted fourteen people. The general response I got was nostalgic and the consensus seemed to be that Upper Canada Brewing Co. had helped its employees discover and explore an enduring passion for craft beer, instilling in them the drive to share it with others.

The people I spoke to who had worked in production at Upper Canada (brewing, bottling, packaging…) all felt that beyond the knowledge and experience they acquired at the brewery, the feeling that they were working together to provide a varied and interesting portfolio of beers to the public was very exciting at the time. George Eagleson, now head brewer for F&M brewery in Guelph, spent some time on the bottling line at the beginning of his seven year stint at Upper Canada. He remembers it vividly: “The bottling line was like an organism, there were fifteen, sixteen people running it. It’s a very loud line, so sign language was very common in how we communicated to each other. It was pretty amazing.” Andrew Henry, who met Eagleson at Upper Canada and now brews with him at F&M adds: “We had a lot of fun. The whole time. Upper Canada was big into having good parties.” This was Henry’s first job in the brewing industry and he reflects the words of many former employees when he adds: “I wouldn’t have my current job if I hadn’t started at Upper Canada. That’s where I had the foundations of my learning about beer and beer production and bottling and packaging.” Rob Creighton, now the brewmaster at Grand River Brewing, applied to Upper Canada for different reasons. He had been working at a large plant and the opening of the Upper Canada brewery provided him with the long-awaited opportunity to move into the craft beer segment: “What’s the beauty of a small brewery? You wear a lot of hats. In Labatt, I did very specific tasks and I did them over and over and over and over again. In the little breweries you gotta think on your feet, you gotta do engineering, you gotta do sales, I was giving tours at the same time I was brewing.” No matter what their previous experience, for brewers and others working on the production end, the size of the brewery and variety of products at Upper Canada presented a unique opportunity to learn.

Apart from its quality and selection of beers, the Upper Canada brewery was also known for its passionate and tireless sales force. Karen Gaudino worked her way up to the position of marketing manager in her seven years at Upper Canada and is now the director of sales and marketing at Creemore Springs Brewery. She talks about the drive that characterized the sales and marketing division at Upper Canada: “It was all about entrepreneurial spirit and selling premium beer. We did whatever we had to do. We needed to work hard and be passionate to make the business viable.” Convincing beer drinkers to switch to craft beer was, at the time, an interesting and unique challenge. Bruce Eaton, who worked promotions at Upper Canada and is now the sales and marketing manager for Wellington Brewery describes the grassroots sales tactics that put Upper Canada on the map in Toronto: “ We had a lot of reps on the street, we were pretty much an army of people. We were the first microbrewery to really support the music scene and the arts. Chances are if you were having a record release party or an art opening, you were somehow trying to get Upper Canada involved. It helped us a lot in getting into the Horseshoe and Lees Palace, the places where these bands all played.” In sales, like in the production area of the brewery, working together towards a common goal was a bonding experience. Eaton explains: “One comparison that really sticks out to me that someone said once: it’s like going to beer University. That’s a good way to describe it because we didn’t have any template. We just did what we were doing because we thought it was right and it was fun.”  In addition, as Simon Rollason of Great Lakes Brewing Co. recalls, whenever he was launching a beer at a Toronto bar, as a sales rep for Upper Canada, he could always count on employee support: “There were so many different personalities within the brewery, but when there was a common cause, a common goal, a common thing, everybody was on board. Without even asking, everybody just came out.”

In 1998, when Sleeman breweries bought the brand and moved production up to Guelph, a number of Upper Canada employees were let go. Doug Pengelly, now founder and brewmaster for St. André, had left his position at Upper Canada two weeks earlier and is glad that he wasn’t there for the announcement:  “There was a lot of uncertainty. A lot of people that had been working alongside each other for a long time then suddenly didn’t know what was going on and felt like they were in a competition for jobs.” Henry, who was still working there at the time, describes the atmosphere at the brewery as one of “grim fear.” Interestingly, Gaudino feels that some of the relationships she built at Upper Canada were strengthened at that time, “because going through something horrible brings you together”. Eagleson agrees: “It was a hard adjustment coming out from there. We all helped each other.” As it turns out, with Upper Canada Brewing Co. on their resumé, many were able to find jobs fairly quickly. Brewer Doug Warren, now at Olde Stone in Peterborough, explains: “People have that flash of recognition. It provides a lot of us with credibility when people know that we’ve worked at Upper Canada. It’s one of the benefits of having worked there.” Like many of his former co-workers, Warren keeps track of where others are working and helps out whenever he can: “Certainly when asked, I’ve always been able to put in a good word.”

In 2000, two former Upper Canada employees Cam Heaps and Greg Taylor (along with a third partner at the time) decided that they wanted to re-capture those Upper Canada days. Together, they founded Steam Whistle Brewing in Toronto, which currently employs fifteen former Upper Canada employees (see sidebar). Heaps explains:  “One of the main reasons we got back into it is we missed that work culture. We all felt like we were part of a family. A lot of the people we worked with still work together here at Steam Whistle and others are spread throughout the industry, but we still maintain a strong friendship.” These friendships come in handy, particularly for the smaller breweries. Eagleson explains: “They have done some analysis for me because we have a very small lab. They have a more elaborate lab at Steam Whistle, so I might from time to time use some of their services.” Heaps confirms that the Steam Whistle team is always willing to help friends at smaller breweries, When asked whether the smaller breweries are able to return the favour, he replies: “We’ve been helped by some of the small breweries through the years.”

Amsterdam Brewing Co. Brewmaster, Jaime Mistry, who spent two years at Upper Canada, points out that this spirit of camaraderie is present throughout the Ontario craft brewing industry: “Even though we’re all trying to sell beer and compete, at the same time it’s cool that we all try to help each other out.” Greg Taylor agrees, but feels that those years spent working together for Toronto’s first craft brewery formed particularly strong bonds within the industry: “It was a very social atmosphere that created long term friendships for sure. We have a rapport that is different than one with just a peer in the beer business.” These bonds grew not only from having shared a common experience but more specifically from the fact that Upper Canada Brewing Company employees were all united in a common cause. Many of the ones that I spoke to, compared the work that they were doing back then to fighting in a battle together. At the time, they all embarked on a crusade to bring a variety of quality craft beer to the public. Most of them are still crusading now. Oliver Dawson sums it up best when he says: “The legacy of the Upper Canada experience creates kind of a glue that focuses the vision of all of these different craft breweries to the possibility of an industry that is growing. It’s vibrant. It’s an industry with a really, really bright future”


Meanwhile at InBev International U.S.A…

As it turns out, some former Upper Canada Brewing Company employees have also gone on to work in other segments of the industry. I was lucky enough to get in touch with Doug Corbett who is the President of InBev International in the U. S. He admits that he probably wouldn’t be where he is today, if it weren’t for his experience at Upper Canada.

Corbett was already working in sales and marketing before his stint at Upper Canada, but this was his first job in the beer industry. He was blown away by the energy and dedication of the employees at the brewery: “They really would do anything for the business… people working seven days a week. They really believed in it. It was almost like they were on a mission to spread the word, the gospel of this craft beer. That was quite unique and very different than a corporate environment.” Corbett found that he enjoyed working with specialty products and, of course, really enjoyed the beer business.

From his job at Upper Canada, Corbett went on to work for the Oland Specialty Beer Company, and then Labatt. From there, he worked his way up to his current position: “I’m very proud to be with InBev. Now I’m working on brands like Stella Artois and Hoegaarden and Leffe and Becks and Bass and Boddingtons, which are all extremely flavourful authentic brands. Upper Canada gave me an appreciation for the craft of brewing which, by the way, is not limited to craft brewers. The larger brewers as well have a tremendous quality and a tremendous variety in flavour profile. It’s a great industry and I do very much enjoy it.”


Who and where?…


Here is a complete list of former Upper Canada Brewing Co. employees currently working at Ontario breweries:



Jamie Mistry



Karen Gaudino

Ian “Peach” Hodgkinson

Jeremy Moore

Geoff Pinkham

Jon Potts



George Eagleson

Andrew Henry



Rob Creighton



Simon Rollanson


Doug Warren



Doug PengellyPengelly



Richard Armstrong

Maureen Doyle

Cyril George

Nancy Goodchild

Cam Heaps

Reuben Huizenga

Dave Inglis

Chris Johnston

Laura Martin

Jorge Mendonca

Jeff Pearson

Paul Ruttan

Greg Taylor

Sybil Taylor

Adam Welch


Bruce Eaton


Other Ontario breweries for which former Upper Canada Brewing Co. employees have worked:

Barley Days Brewery

Black Oak Brewing Co.

Church-Key Brewing Co.

Cool Beer Brewing Co.

Kawartha Lakes Brewing

Lakes of Muskoka Cottage Brewery

Lakeport Brewing

Magnotta Brewery

Mill St. Brewery

Neustadt Springs Brewery

Sleeman Breweries

Stratford Brewing

Publication: TAPS Magazine

Date Published: Winter 2008/2009

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

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