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Bicycle Friendly Business: Steam Whistle Brewing

April 4, 2016  |  By Blair Smith

“At Steam Whistle it’s a badge of honour to bicycle.” says Kendra Nicholson, Community Manager at Steam Whistle Brewing. This gives an idea of the cycling culture that exists at the brewery, which recently won Toronto’s Most Bicycle Friendly Business at the 2014 Toronto Bike Awards. Aside from being a really cool place to visit (and have a sample or two), we wanted to learn why cycling is so important to the Steam Whistle brand.

Kendra Nicholson at Steam Whistle Brewing

In addition to Kendra, who has been with Steam Whistle for six months and rides “80% of the time”, we chatted with Chris Johnson, Director of Purchasing who has pedalled the streets of Toronto as an urban cyclist since 1980. “It’s the best way to get around. It’s fun and it keep me young.” he proudly proclaimed. Finally we spent some time with Sybil Taylor, Communications Director, who “doesn’t ride as often any more” but is a major reason why cycling is so entrenched in their values.

Steam Whistle's Chris Johnston and Bicycle

One connection led to another, and the rest is history
Steam Whistle was invited into the cycling community soon after they opened. It started with bike couriers looking for sponsorship of their urban cycling challenges. As word spread they started getting requests from road racing teams and mountain bike racing teams. “Cycling in all its forms and craft beer attract a like-minded audience with many shared values. So it has always been a really natural fit for the Steam Whistle brand” said Taylor.

What accelerated this was getting connected with the Ride to Conquer Cancer. In addition to sponsoring the event, Steam Whistle formed a team, designed cycling gear (which also meant they now had swag to giveaway as prizes in addition to beer) and built a custom beer-dispensing tricycle that co-founder Cameron Heaps rode and kept riders hydrated en route. The taps kept flowing from there. 7,000 people were involved in the most recent Ride to Conquer Cancer and Steam Whistle gladly supplied them with over 21,000 beers.

From that relationship, Norco Bicycles reached out to collaborate on a limited edition Steam Whistle branded cruiser bike. It keeps going from there. These connections have largely happened organically. Steam Whistle is often happy to oblige. According to Taylor, “it’s been a very natural progression that’s evolved nicely over time for us.”

A competitive advantage for the brand
There are 450 beer brands available in Ontario alone. This makes it challenging to stand for something unique and also compete for share of voice–especially in the face of the brands owned by the large global breweries. “We’re an independently-owned urban brewery. We’re authentic in what we do. It’s always made sense to support the urban cycling community. Nobody else is doing it to this level. So it’s become a real competitive differentiator for the Steam Whistle brand.” said Taylor. They tend to invest in things that serve a dual purpose of branding and utility. From the fleet of vintage delivery vehicles to products like cruiser bicycles, cycling clothes, racks and soon-to-be-launched bells.

Do many bike friendly things, really well
While Steam Whistle proudly produces only one style of beer–a premium pilsner lager–they do many bike-friendly things internally and externally:

  • Central office location in downtown Toronto at the historic roundhouse beside the CN Tower. “Most of our employees live centrally, which makes sense to attract good talent and keep them happy and healthy” said Nicholson.
  • Flexible work hours so employees can adapt to time (and weather) that works best for them.
  • Covered, secure bicycle storage. “It’s always full in the summer,” said Johnson, “we actually need to expand it.”
  • Showers and towel service.
  • Public bike repair station that’s outside the brewery. According to Nicholson, “These have been a huge success. The one here is used regularly.”

These public bike repair stations are recognized as the most innovative way Steam Whistle supports cycling. According to Nicholson, “they get a ton of recognition online through social media”. In 2015 the program will continue to expand with 10 more stations getting installed in different communities across Canada, to bring the total to 27. Steam Whistle partners with local cycling shops who commit to ongoing support of the repair stations. “It’s important for us to not only install them, but also maintain them because they have our brand.” said Taylor.

In supporting cycling in a very authentic and holistic way, it’s easy to see why Steam Whistle Brewing has earned the recognition. Check out the full list of 2014 Toronto Bike Award winners at Cycle Toronto. Nominate a Toronto business for the 2015 Bicycle Friendly Business Award.

What do you think? Are there any other bike-friendly innovations that Steam Whistle could do?

(Images courtesy of: Blair Smith)

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