Landing my first beer column—which ran for four years in The Grid newspaper (RIP)—required me to learn a lot about beer very quickly. I’ll never forget brewmaster Michael Hancock patiently outlining the “Four Basic Food Groups” in an hour phone conversation one evening, and later taking me through the brewhouse at Cool to show me how he was made his famous Denison’s Weissbier. That was in 2011. He told me then that he was working with a group of investors to find a location for a new bricks-and-mortar brewery of his own. That dream came to fruition three years later, in May 2014, when SideLaunch Brewing opened in Collingwood Ontario.
Hancock’s Hefeweizen and Dunkel have been repackaged as SideLaunch Wheat and SideLaunch Dark Lager, and they’re some of the best beers on offer year round at the LCBO. To celebrate this great Ontario brewer and his delicious ales, I thought it’d be fun to run the original Grid column from 2011, so we can see how far he’s come. You can read it below. Cheers!
Originally published in The Grid, May 2011
Michael Hancock brews one of the best wheat beers on the planet in a contract brewery in Etobicoke, and that’s fine with him—for now
When he moved from Southampton, England, to Toronto in 1976, then-21-year-old Michael Hancock barely drank. “I was a student,” he says. “Drugs were better value.”
Hancock had been set up with a solid gig in the family business—which happened to be Molson’s— but after 10 years, on the path to upper management, he quit. He moved to Chicago to study brewing, and in 1989, returned to Toronto, where he and a handful of partners, including his friend and fellow beer enthusiast Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, opened Denison’s brewpub at 75 Victoria St.
“All the recipes were designed to be as simple as possible, because we were using equipment that was basic, stripped down,” says Hancock. Denison’s traditional Weissbier is a case in point: a 60 over 40 wheat-to-barley ratio (the classic mix, preserving the beer’s murky, wheaty appearance), water and a pinch of hops, nothing more. In 2002, a founder of ratebeer.com, the go-to beer rating site, ranked Weissbier the number one Hefeweizen—German-style, unfiltered wheat beer—in the world, making Denison’s a darling of beer nerds from Brooklyn to Breda.
It was a high point before a low. In 2003, soaring rents at the downtown location finally shut their doors. (Duggan’s Brewery, which moved into the same space in 2009, closed for similar reasons). Hancock was given sole rights to brew Denison’s beers, but he’s had to switch brewing facilities three times since the pub closed. Right now he uses a small brewery in Etobicoke called Cool Beer, where Duggan’s No. 9 and No. 5, among many others, are also brewed.
Regulations prevent contractors from actually making their own beer. So while Hancock’s always on the floor when his beer is being made, not getting his hands wet is heartbreaking for a man who loves the process.
Still, Hancock is happy enough. Cool is the only brewery in town with a copper brew house, circa 1965, from West Germany. “This is beautiful in so many ways,” he says, resting his hand on the vessels. It doesn’t affect the flavour, but it’s simply engineered and classic in design, just like his Hefeweizen.
While the long-term goal is still to open his own brewery (he’s shy to divulge more detail, at this time), Cool Beer is enough for now. And he drinks a lot more beer than he did in his youth—more than ever, in fact. “I can’t walk into a bar and not taste the beer that they have on tap,” he says. “Otherwise you’re totally disconnected.”