“Instead of having Chrysler vans out there with logos on them, we send these ’57 Chevy’s out there. It sends a similar message about the ’50s—overbuilt quality and a lot of style,” he says.
Easily its biggest point of differentiation is Steam Whistle’s distinctive green bottle, a vessel that according to Taylor was commonly used a half-century ago. It costs a little more, but it’s well worth it, he says.
“It helps us to get people to try the product based on what they see. If they’re not attracted to try the product, what else have you got going for yourself?” he asks.
“You need to make sure people see something, have confidence buying it and are eager to try it. If you don’t have that, your trials will go way down. You can see somebody drinking a Steam Whistle from across the bar. If your bottle is just like everybody else’s, you lose that opportunity. But once they try it and realize it’s a great product, they’ll buy it again.”
Michael Palmer, a leading beer industry analyst and president of Veritas Investment Research in Toronto, isn’t a big fan of the industry standard brown, long-necked bottle. He acknowledges it costs more to use something different, but breweries should be able to recoup the difference (and hopefully more) through premium pricing.
“If you’re going to play with multi-billion dollar companies, you better come up with something really original,” he says.
Palmer adds it also helps that many beer drinkers aren’t sufficiently savvy to understand they’re being sold the bottle, not the beer. “Consumers are dumb. In a blind taste test, they couldn’t tell the difference between ale and lager but they say Steam Whistle tastes better because they bought it in a green bottle and paid more for it. It’s all perception,” he says.
Unlike many other breweries, Taylor says Steam Whistle will never produce more than its signature pilsner. He says the company motto is to produce one beer, but produce it very well.
“If you’re going to come out with a premium brand, you’ve got to focus on it. It’s a challenge making great beer. If you’ve got six, seven or ten different types of beer, it makes it even more of a challenge. The way to make it right and make it consistently good every day is to make one product and focus on making it as good as you possibly can,” he says.
Taylor says Steam Whistle keeps its premium brand strong by refusing to discount its beer and not lowering itself to compete with the growing number of discount beer producers. He says it’s the premium beers whose sales are continuing to grow at a double-digit pace while the big names with the babes-and-studs advertising campaigns are taking hits to their washboard abs.
“It’s a real challenge to compete against the discount brands; you’re going to have problems if you’re even close to them. Both Labatt and Molson are being hurt by them. But when you’re in the premium category—and we’re well there in terms of pricing and product quality—you’re safe,” he says.
It’s no coincidence that Steam Whistle’s brewery in downtown Toronto is a throwback as well. It used to be a steam locomotive repair facility for Canadian Pacific Railway when it was built in 1929. When touring the facility, beer fans can follow the beer-making process from malted barley all the way to the bottles being capped and put into Steam Whistle’s distinctive suitcases for 12- and 24-packs (another popular feature from the ’50s). It’s all part of Taylor’s “Cathedral of Beer” concept.
“We felt strongly that when people adopt a beer and become loyal to it, they want to know where it’s produced as some heritage. They want to go to the brewery and find this great place where it’s made. It has to live up to their expectations, like the bottle, like the package and like enjoying the product. It’s an effective way to market the product when people come here. They’re happy to see it’s backed up by a great brewery,” he says.
And you don’t have to be on a tour to see the place. Steam Whistle also hosts 250 events a year (wedding receptions, mitzvahs, Christmas parties) in its two reception halls.
Even the name harkens back to the ’50s, Taylor says. Instead of today’s cubicle dwellers who have cellphones glued to their ears whenever they leave the office tower, many people a half-century ago worked shifts in a factory. There was no more welcome sound than that of a steam whistle telling them the work day was done, and it was time to leave the assembly line and head down to their favorite pub for a pint.
(There are several authentic steam whistles throughout the brewery, which are pulled countless times during tours, and you can buy a wooden replica, which imitates the sound, at the gift shop.)
Taylor says without the multi-million-dollar marketing budgets that his biggest competitors can dip into, it’s essential for Steam Whistle to get as big a bang for its buck as possible. That’s why it’s constantly supporting arts, cultural and music events and why its staff is there to introduce the beer to potential customers.
“We’re the underdog. We want to support like-minded people. If you can support opinion leaders, people in the arts and music communities and they’re drinking our product, other people see that and want to try it as well,” he says.