Inside Henderson Brewing’s Rush to attract Canada’s craft beer drinkers

Toronto’s Henderson Brewing Company has partnered with Canadian music icons Rush to create a new craft beer, but this is no fly-by-night operation.

“We have every intention of making this forever and ever,” said Henderson co-founder and GM Steve Himel of Rush Canadian Golden Ale. Henderson will start moving pitchers (well, cans) of the sixth product in its portfolio on Aug. 30, with an initial focus on the Ontario market.

The beer was developed in close collaboration with the two surviving members of the world-famous power trio, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson.

Lee is a noted wine aficionado, but beer is one of the first things he reaches for immediately after a concert. “When I get off stage, I really, really enjoy an ice-cold beer,” he said in a release announcing the partnership. “It’s like a little reward.”

It was during the band’s R40 farewell tour in 2015 the singer/bassist was handed a can of “Trooper” ale—a partnership between the world-famous heavy metal band Iron Maiden and the U.K. brewer Robinsons, named after one the band’s songs and featuring its shambling corpse mascot, Eddie, on the label.

Lee responded by jokingly enquiring where the Rush beer was. His remark was delivered in an offhand manner, but the germ of an idea had been planted in the musician’s mind.

There is actually a longstanding tradition of rock star-branded beer, with AC/DC, Motörhead, KISS (No surprise there: Their brand has adorned everything from KISS Kondoms [“tongue lubricated,” natch] to a $4,000 coffin called the KISS Kasket) and Pearl Jam all introducing their own brews over the years.

In 2017, Rush’s creative team approached Himel and his team about a possible collaboration. The brewer had already dabbled in a Rush-themed beer the year prior, when Himel resurrected a home-brew recipe he’d first developed in the late 1980s called “Put Your Scarf On Geddy.”

The idiosyncratic name referenced something that Lee’s mother would supposedly say to the future rock icon whenever he left the family’s Willowdale house in north Toronto on cold nights. Himel first heard the story in high school, from someone who said they were a cousin of Lee’s.

Friends of friends somehow managed to get a can of “Put Your Scarf On Geddy” into Lee’s hands, although Himel is unsure if it was a factor in the band’s decision to partner with the brewer a couple of years later. “I do know that Geddy got a bottle of the beer… and then I got a call from the Rush camp in the summer of 2017 telling me about this project.”

At first, Himel and his team were skeptical. “We didn’t want to be seen as taking advantage of a band and slapping their logo on a can,” he said. “But at the very beginning they told me a story about how every show of theirs ended with a beer. The role that beer played for them all through their touring career was important.

“That kind of won me over, and I said ‘Let’s make that beer.’ That was the launchpad for this whole project.”

Himel and the band’s creative development team spent six months discussing the market and what a Rush beer might look (and taste) like. “There was a lot of discovery on their end during those first six months,” he said. “In early 2018 we landed on a plan.”

But fate intervened, and their plans we put on hold by the illness and subsequent death of the band’s revered drummer Neil Peart early last year. “We just got a call one day saying ‘This project’s on hold,'” said Himel. “To be totally frank, we thought that was the end of it. And then one day in April last year my phone rang and it was my contact [with Rush] who said ‘The project’s back on.'”

The two camps spent the next year or so further refining the beer, with both Lee and Lifeson taking an active role in its development. “We gave them what we thought was a broad selection of international beers, so that we could have tasting notes that had the same language,” said Himel. “We said ‘Try all these beers, let us know what you like, and we’ll start there.’

“They got back to us with all sorts of comments as we went, which was really great,” he said. As a small brewery, authenticity is a cornerstone of our existence, so we needed it to feel like the band was involved from the beginning. And they were.”

The resulting ale is described by Lifeson as “golden in colour with a dense ivory head” and featuring an “earthy aroma with hints of orange-peel, pine and spicy rice.” Each can features the band’s iconic Starman logo, which first appeared on the inside cover of the band’s 1976 album, 2112.

It’s not the first time that Henderson has collaborated with outside parties. It previously approached Sleeman about reviving Upper Canada Rebellion, a beer from Himel’s youth that had been retired shortly after the brewer acquired Upper Canada Brewing in 1998. Working with Sleeman’s brewmasters, Henderson brought the brand back as Repatriation Lager in 2018. “We tried to recreate the recipe as it was made, and that was really thrilling for us,” said Himel.

A year later, the brewer partnered with the Danish beer giant Carlsberg to launch a new product called Nordic Lager.

“Each of those gave us an opportunity to try something totally new with a different partner, and Rush has been kind of the same,” said Himel, who said that Henderson has modest ambitions for the Rush beer out of the gate. “Our plan is not to roll out 1 million litres in the first month,” he said. “Working with the band, our plan is let it be organic to start, and see where it goes.”

The Rush beer is intended to be a bridge between the mainstream market and craft beer, which Himel said has become “a little bit niche-y” over the past decade or so. The company prides itself on what Himel describes as “approachable” craft styles.

“This is going to give us an opportunity to bring a lot of people who maybe haven’t had craft beer into [the segment],” he said. “Iron Maiden is bringing a classic English-style stout to so many people who might have been drinking Bud Light, which is fantastic. We’re thinking we can do the same.”

With a love for tricksy time signatures and sci-fi inspired lyrics, Rush has earned a reputation for creating music that caters to beard-stroking musos (their music was once memorably described by The Guardian as “widdly-woo guitars and albums about mythic priests”).

But a new video promoting the band’s beer is very much in keeping with the penchant for offbeat humour and hammy acting its members have perfected over the years. It shows Lee and Lifeson (wearing name-tags identifying them as “Beer Drinker” and “Beer Scientist” respectively) visiting the Henderson Brewing facility to discuss their new beer.

Soundtracked by the band’s 1974 song “Working Man,” the two discuss their product with pseudo-seriousness. “How much beer does this factory of beer make,” says Lee. “Well, brewery is the proper term that we use in the science community,” responds Lifeson, barely containing his mirth. He then points to a vat and asks “What’s vat?,” which sends both men into laughter.

Not exactly high-minded, then, but it’s the kind of approachable humour that echoes the sounds of (natural-born) salesmen.


Chris Powell