As I’ve mentioned before, Mill Street Brewery in Toronto is where I first started getting serious about collecting beer bottles way back in 2005. I don’t remember how I found out about them, but I remember getting very excited about the concept of a “coffee porter” at a place that actually brewed their own beer. It was all so new to me. I hijacked a friend and dragged him over to the Distillery District where we walked nearly empty streets and found a small Mill Street Brewery sign. What we found inside was what you currently see all the time in tap rooms across the world. There were a few tables, a bar with a few stools, one person behind the bar, and a bunch of brewing equipment in a restricted area behind the bar. I walked away with a t-shirt, 3 bottles, and the start of a collection.
You can probably imagine that I was pretty damn excited about going back to Toronto this year. My plane was going to land at 2pm on a Sunday and I would have plenty of time to get to my hotel, unpack, and head on over to Mill Street for a reunion before starting work the next day. In my mind, I pictured Mill Street as I remembered it. Maybe just bigger. Wasn’t I in for a big surprise. I started to realize just how big they had become when I got onto the plane wearing my 2005 Mill Street Brewing t-shirt and the flight attendant pointed at my shirt and declared “we have that beer on the plane”. I knew I was going to the brewery and the beer would probably be cheaper there. But, I had to get one on the plane just for the experience.
I continued to be surprised at the size of Mill Street when I took the train from the airport to Union Station and saw a permanent-ish Mill Street beer tent right out on the street.
Then I went to the Distillery District and the new size fully hit home. The once nearly empty district itself was now crawling with businesses and people. Where there once was a small shop with a few employees, there was a Beer Hall packed to the rafters with customers and employees. On a Sunday night, there must have been at least 20 employees on site (I have no facts to back this up. Just the impression I got). This place had become huge.
I started my trip there in the best way I know how. I got a flight and stuffed a few coasters into my pocket.
I talked with the bar tender for a while and discovered that the little place I had been to in 2005 was still around. It had just expanded enormously (even within the old building). I went over to the old building and found at least some remnants of the old place I knew, surrounded by a massive brewpub and a gift shop.
They even have biershnaps now. However, at $40 a bottle I wasn’t going to get any this time around. Keep an eye out for it later in this post.
I waffled a bit on whether or not to take the $10 tour of the brewery (when you’ve seen enough breweries, you already have a pretty good idea what you’re going to see). But, I decided to go ahead with it, just because the place means so much to me. Spoiler alert!… if you find yourself in the area, take the tour!
As it turned out, I was the only person that wanted a tour at 7pm on a Sunday night. Go figure. What that got me was 1 on 1 time with the tour guide (who happened to be the same guy I had been talking to in the gift shop for the last half hour). Because he knew I already have a good working knowledge of how brewing works, he was able to skip all of the stuff for standard tours and really get into the history of the Distillery District and Mill Street Brewing. A good tour guide can make all the difference. And my guide (David) was incredible. I learned many things, oh my brothers. I found out that Canada also had a prohibition. I found out that the founders of the Gooderham and Worts distillery (for which the district is named) had unimaginable numbers of children. I discovered that the brewing equipment we were looking at was now used for small batches and the majority of the brewing was conducted at a facility in Scarborough.
Then… at last… I found out how and why Mill Street Brewing had such an impressive distribution as to be found in every bar across Canada and even on Air Canada flights. My heart broke just a little bit when I found out that Mill Street was purchased by Labatt in 2015. Labatt, in turn, is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. So, Budweiser now owns my memories. But, I have been assured (David, I’m holding you to this come hell or high water) that most of their growth happened before the Labatt purchase and that, so far, Labatt was being extremely hands off. The owner and brewmaster (since 2005) are still quite active and running the show. I must say, after 11 years, I still have enormous respect for this brewery. I’m just going to go ahead and think of them as the Boston Beer Company of Canada. Huge, but still doing it right.
Before you know it the tour ended and David brought me to yet a third dining/drinking area where I could see the distillery used to make the bierschnaps. He also provided me with a flight of beer and a sample of the bierschnaps.
As a final thought, I want to present some quick math for those who might be considering the tour. I paid $13 for a flight of beer when I first arrived at the Beer Hall. When I walked into the gift shop to book my $10 tour, I was handed a sample of beer. Then, when the tour started, I was handed a larger sample of beer. At the end of the tour, I was provided with a flight of beer and a shot of the bierschnaps (the second shot in the picture I ordered on my own). So, I was provided with far, far more than $10 worth of beer on the tour. Seriously… take the tour.
And, finally, the way I end most of my brewery visit posts. I walked away from Mill Street having purchased 10 beers (the Organic Lager in the picture is the one from the plane), a new t-shirt (the 2005 version can now be stashed away for safe keeping), and a few pieces of hops that they let me rub together in my hands to experience the odor.