Toronto Brewmaster

Toronto's New Brewmaster

Back in the 1980s, Mike Duggan could be found behind the drums in any number of bars and clubs downtown, playing for beer and a cut of the door. Today, Duggan owns the door - he recently opened Duggan's Brewery in a long-empty heritage building on Victoria, putting his name up front after a long career working at practically every craft brewery in the province and beyond.

Those of us who were there remember Duggan as a rock-solid drummer, the indefatigable engine behind bands like Woods Are Full Of Cuckoos, The Lawn, Plasterscene Replicas and more - part of an underappreciated scene from which only The Rheostatics and, to a lesser degree, Change of Heart managed to produce more than a debut album or a few demo tapes, and which has yet to see any critical reappraisal. What few of us knew was that Duggan was spending his days studying for a degree in biology; he was working toward becoming a doctor, but looking back he sees it as part of the long and almost accidental apprenticeship that prepared him for a career in beer.

"Playing in a band and being in university nobody had any money," Duggan recalls, so he and Cuckoos guitarist Patrick Gregory started home brewing, a thrifty move that, unfortunately, would often see the product of their labour disappear during a single rehearsal. It was a dismal age for beer, Duggan recalls, before the appearance of small brewers like Connors, Wellington, Creemore and Amsterdam, and by the late '80s Duggan had a job at the Connors plant in the east end.

Duggan says that his biology degree helped him understand the process of brewing, but adds that a job at a Coca-Cola bottler in his teens - the same plant that his grandfather had unionized decades earlier - gave him an understanding of the engineering challenges involved in putting liquids in bottles. It was just one of the many fortunate accidents that he can now see almost inevitably led to a career that he never really planned for.

By the turn of the '90s he'd finished his degree and was touring with the Plasterscene Replicas, but it was a hand to mouth existence. "It was evident that it wasn't going to be my full-time job at that point," he recalls, and over the next few years he put his brewing credentials to good use, taking part in the microbrewery explosion in Canada and south of the border, where he helped set up countless small operations, even traveling to Cuba to work on a now-shelved brewpub project. "I just fell into these jobs because I had knowledge and connections, and some of it's luck and being in the right place at the right time, and I seem to have this flair for designing recipes that I enjoy, and I'm lucky that other people seem to enjoy them as well."

With two partners, Duggan started up Mill St. Brewery in the Distillery District, where his successes with their Organic and Tankhouse Ale increased his profile - all while continuing to work with other small brewers like Cool Beer. A disagreement with his Mill St. partners over expanding the business - Duggan was against it - led to his departure, and a search for a location to start his own brewery under his own name. "I made the mistake at Mill Street where I should have done it then, and I vowed not to make that mistake again."

The building on Victoria Street was once home to the Louie's/Growler's/Conchy Joe's brewpub complex, but had sat empty for years, and Duggan says it's been real work getting it in shape again. "It has beautiful bones, this building, but every contractor and utility guy has been in here, and it's got a terrible history." It has given him a chance to control his destiny, however, and he's even managed to put a few old bandmates and fellow musicians on the payroll - while we talk, one of them can be heard building a stage in the downstairs bar where Duggan plans to play.

"I don't see myself as just a brewmaster. I still play drums. I'm hoping to use the brewery to get the old band together - a place to play and a reason to play. I don't see myself as that one dimensional guy in my job."

"The thing with getting the band together is that it's music that I really enjoyed playing and loved hearing and the only way I can do some of that now is to play it. I kind of feel like it hasn't really changed at all. It's not the 80s, obviously, and we're not really as carefree - I have over 40 people now who I'm responsible for their income, so it's a bit more pressure, but I don't feel that different. I don't feel almost 50 - not yet."

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