From Steam Whistle to Top Shed

By Raymond Howells

As the world of craft brewing continues to grow and evolve, it seems every man and his dog wants to get in on the act. It’s not something that can be said about Greg Cromwell; no Johnny Come Lately, Greg has been heavily involved in the craft beer scene since its initial explosion in North America in the 80s.

Back in 1985, he’d heard through family connections that Frank Heaps was starting one of the first microbreweries in Canada, Upper Canada Brewing in Toronto. As he was finishing up at university, Greg started to sell sweatshirts and branded merchandise for them. Then, after he graduated in September the following year, he started working for them, initially as a sales rep then rising to vice-president of business development and helping take the company public before it came to a screeching halt.

‘Merchant bankers had become involved and they had big ideas to take it to the next level,’ Greg recalls. ‘Basically, instead of being an entrepreneurial organisation it would become what they had hoped would be a money-making machine for them and I didn’t fit into the equation, having a very lucrative six-plus-figure salary and wielding a bit of power. They said, “Okay, let’s get this pooch out of here”; so, I was fired.’

As he walked out of the brewery, he said to himself: ‘I’m going to start another one’. So, a year and a bit later, two of his other mates – Greg Taylor and Cam Heaps, son of Frank Heaps – who worked at Upper Canada Brewing were also fired and so, sitting around a campfire, they laid out plans to start their own brewery.

They each put some money in and, spying a good deal, bought a secondhand brewery from a brewery in Montreux before they’d even found a location. They originally considered calling the brewery Three Fired Guys, to be abbreviated to 3FGs but, before launching, they found an old vacant railway roundhouse in the downtown core of Toronto.

Greg says: ‘Greg and Cam, my partners, were out driving around looking for a space and saw this lease sign and said, “Oh, this could be good”. Before we knew it, we took over this hundred-year-old railway roundhouse that had been abandoned and the name Steam Whistle then evolved.

‘That was back in 1998; twenty years later it’s one of the largest craft breweries in Canada.’

Inspiration was taken from another Canadian startup called Creemore Springs which, at the time, says Greg, ‘only had the one beer style and had a waiting list of customers’. So when Greg got the chance to restart in brewing, he followed that blueprint and came up with the strategy that would define the brewery: do one thing really, really well. The trio picked the pilsner style, made it all that Steam Whistle brewed – and it remains the only thing they’ve brewed since.

Greg’s entrepreneurial vision didn’t end with beer. While on honeymoon, he developed some business connections that eventually led to the Australian Boot Company.

‘I obtained the distribution rights after we came back from our honeymoon in 1993,’ he says. ‘I got the rights to Canada for RM Williams boots and, through this mate on our honeymoon, we sourced Blundstones out of Tasmania and we opened a little store, selling boots out of our basement, and we’ve been doing that for almost 25 years now and sell more than 200,000 pairs a year.’

In 2001, Greg moved to Australia for a year with his Australian wife Alison and two of his daughters, Aubrey and Morley. They’re still here now, along with another daughter, Bella, born here in 2002. The original plan had been to launch a Steam Whistle brand here in Australia, a road down which he travelled a considerable distance before discovering he didn’t have the full support of the board. It was a costly mistake that saw Greg step away from the brewing world as he licked his wounds.

As he recalls: ‘I kinda laid low for eight or ten years and then watched the whole craft beer thing take off in Australia, going, “Oh we were so close, we’d have killed it, we’d be killing it”’.

Over time, he found himself drawn back into the beer world, initially doing some web work for the guys at Stone & Wood, getting to know the team there and thinking about how their business wasn’t too dissimilar from the dream he’d had for Steam Whistle in Australia.

Fast forward to two years ago and Greg found himself sitting in his farm’s top shed with a couple of rugby mates when the idea came up to brew some beer together. Initially, it was to be homebrew but momentum kicked in and the entrepreneurial spirit fired up again. The result is the Top Shed nano-brewery, now based on his Goonengerry farmstead in the Byron Shire hinterland.

Subsequently, in the little town of Morpeth, he chanced upon a little brewery located in the Commercial Hotel. He tried the beer, met the brewer Dave Allen, and invited him to brew beer for him. Then, on another trip to Newfoundland for his daughter’s wedding, Greg fell for the cream ale at Yellow Belly in St Johns and suggested to brewmaster Liam McKenna that they collaborate; soon afterwards, the Top Shed East Coast Cream Ale – its name a nod to St Johns being the most easterly point of North America and Byron Bay the most easterly point of Australia – was born.

‘Liam came up with a unique brewing profile for our cream ale and we’re still tweaking it,’ says Greg. ‘He’s just finished his fourth batch [and] it’s one of their best sellers.’

Having relocated to a new farm, Top Shed is currently in the process of regaining its commercial licence after relocating from its original location on Friday Hut Road just outside Bangalow, with Greg having big plans for the brand.

‘Well, I would like to think that my vision for Steam Whistle that didn’t quite happen is that I see Top Shed having operations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US,’ he says. ‘I see it being a global craft brand but not on a big scale – still on a very boutique, artisan scale.’

Greg admits he’s not a brewer. ‘I have homebrewed in university and I did one other batch after that but I do not have a passion for brewing beer; I am definitely not a brewer,’ he says. ‘I know about it but I am a branding and marketing guy. I’m not a designer, more of a barking leader, and I just don’t necessarily have any particular talent other than I’m not afraid to try something and I believe that shit can get done.

‘I surround myself with people much smarter than I and let them have a go. Not saying I’m not interested in brewing beer but that’s not my passion; I love drinking beer and experiencing different beer and really like bringing new things and new ideas to the market.’

Instead Greg leaves the brewing to Liam McKenna as head international brewmaster and consultant with the hands-on brewing in Australia to be carried out initially with the assistance of Byron Bay Brewery and wholesaling out of the Goonengerry site. Together, they’ll be refining East Coast Cream Ale then developing new recipes.

First, however, the main aim for Top Shed is, as with Steam Whistle, to do one thing really, really well.

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