The secret to great tasting beer

Steam Whistle’s motto is “Do one thing really, really, really well.”

That slogan may be selling the company a little short.

Yes, the craft brewer produces only one beer, a crisp, flavourful pilsner made in the heart of downtown Toronto, but it’s also found unbridled success at creating something entirely different—a fun, unique company culture that attracts (and more importantly, retains) quality employees.

Tucked away behind the CN Tower in the historic John Street Roundhouse, a high-ceilinged, wood-beamed, train-station-cum-brewery, the business began in the late 90s. It’s founders, Greg Taylor, Cam Heaps and Greg Cromwell, decided to strike out on their own after the Upper Canada Brewing Company—which was founded by Heaps’ father and produced some of Toronto’s first micro-brewed lagers and ales—was bought out and closed down. Vowing to create a Canadian pilsner that could compete with the best in the world, Steam Whistle was born.

Like their beer, which only uses four ingredients (malted barley, spring water, hops and yeast), Steam Whistle’s directive is simple: Work hard and play hard. Playing to that mindset, the brewery is big on rewards.

Profit sharing and stock and investment options come standard after a year of employment. After five years, staff are invited on a trip to Prague and Munich for Oktoberfest, and they’re given a  six-week paid sabbatical after 10. Those who haven’t made it to these milestones are still invited to Taylor’s cottage every summer for a weekend filled with swimming, barbecuing and tone-deaf renditions of Jukebox Herobelted through a rented karaoke machine.

Employees also get lots of free beer, and other, less-tangible incentives.

Matty Burns, a retail and events supervisor, joined Steam Whistle five years ago as a tour guide and bartender while in theatre school.

“[They] treat their staff like their number one customer,” he says. “Everyone who works here basically brands Steam Whistle through their own personality and background.”

Burns temporarily leaves his full-time position occasionally for acting gigs, and appreciates his employer’s flexibilty—not only with scheduling, but also in their management style.

“I’m literally allowed to come into work and run the store as I best see fit,” he says. “I [use]my own personality and background to lead the team, bringing my own creative ideas to the table.”

Sybil Taylor, Steam Whistle’s communications director, has watched the company grow from

16 employees to over 146 in 14 years. She says all the credit goes to the founders.

“They figure if people are happy at work, they are going to be more productive,” she says. “We spend most of our waking hours at work, why not make it a place you want to come?”

The Roundhouse is full of what the company calls “Good Beer Folks”—employees with a solid work ethic producing a quality product. But that mantra also refers to Steam Whistle’s pursuit of being a good corporate citizen. This policy is present in all aspects of the business—especially in employment, environmental impact, and how the company gives back to the community through partnerships with organizations such as the National Ballet of Canada and the Toronto Humane Society.

All that good karma makes for an atmosphere that Roundhouse visitors can’t help but notice.

“It’s like going to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” says John Bunce, founding director of Toronto’s weekly Wavelength live music series. Steam Whistle has provided thirsty music fans with beer at many of their events over the last four years. “The employees act as if they have the best job in the world, and that positive energy rubs off.

But landing a job at Steam Whistle is not an easy feat. Most positions are filled internally or through referrals from existing staff. If positions are posted outside the company, the application process is meticulous, often involving at least three interviews and occasionally requiring written tests.

The company usually hires three times a year, and most workers get their foot in the door as bartenders, event staff and tour guides (although everyone is encouraged to try out other positions in the company). This makes for a work force with lots of mobility among positions.

“Steam Whistle provides a lot of opportunity to learn and continue learning,” says Dana Kaluzny, director of retail and events. “That stimulates growth in the company.”

Such was the case for Trish Yee, a chemical engineering graduate who worked at the brewery’s bar before before moving to a beer-testing job in quality assurance.

“It’s such a flat hierarchy,” she says.

Like most staff, Yee went through a hiring process seemingly more suited to a theatre company than a brewery. Applicants must participate in a group audition, which includes improv games and the presentation of a one-minute commercial for Steam Whistle. It’s an unusual approach, but one Kaluzny says is critical to the company’s success.

“One of the reasons we have an amazing team is that when we are hiring, we try to get to know people based on personality and activities,” she says. Kaluzny adds that the exercises give insight into an applicant’s creativity, listening skills and interaction style in a way traditional interviews simply can’t. Plus, everyone loves it.

“We have people come up to us afterwards who tell us ‘I really enjoyed this, I wish more companies did this.’”

Steam Whistle’s workforce is young, with an average age of 31. The staff take only 1.7 sick days per person per year, and the turnover rate is just 7.3 per cent. In other words, the company’s approach simply works, and they’ve earned lots of awards—including KPMG’s Top Employers for Young People and Deloitte and CIBC’s 50 Best Managed Companies, plus a slew of environmental accolades—to prove it.

It all goes back to that fun, hard-working company culture.

“There is a lot of socializing that goes on here, so we have to make sure we hire people that fit,” says Taylor.

“After all,” she adds, “Beer is a social product.”