THE NEXT GENERATION - Who says Nova Scotia's craft beer industry is saturated?

THE NEXT GENERATION - Who says Nova Scotia's craft beer industry is saturated?

Article: Lola Augustine Brown
Photos: Riley Smith

The past few years have seen an explosion in the number of craft breweries in Nova Scotia, and that is a beautiful thing indeed to beer drinkers. I’m not just talking about the hardcore hop-heads or ale connoisseurs, by the way, but also those of us who are always looking out for what’s fun and new. 

The Craft Brewers Association of Nova Scotia currently lists 25 member breweries on its website, but there are apparently another 12 set to open in the next year or so. More than half of the existing breweries are in rural Nova Scotia, but that still leaves more than half a dozen in Halifax. So, how can a city and province of this size support that many craft breweries? Quite easily apparently, and there’s plenty more room for the industry to grow here. 

No Such Thing as a Saturation Point, Yet

Josh Counsil, one of the owners at super cool north end brewery Good Robot says there’s still plenty of room for the industry to grow, because he has witnessed it elsewhere. Originally from Ottawa, he moved to Halifax from Seattle to start the brewery with two buddies from college. “When I was living in Seattle, the market share for craft beer was 25 to 30 per cent, maybe even 40,” he says. “There are myriad other places in this city that don’t tap into this and could; there’s tons of room here.” 

Kellye Robertson - Spindrift Brewing

Kellye Robertson - Spindrift Brewing

The notion that this is all somehow a bubble waiting to burst perpetuates, though, and Kellye Robertson, brewmaster at Spindrift in Dartmouth, says the same thing was said in Ontario three or four years ago. And yet, the industry is still growing there. “I don’t think saturation is going to be a problem. In Nova Scotia, craft beer is still only 5 per cent of beer sales. In B.C., it’s more than 10 per cent,” she says. 

And how can Nova Scotia’s craft breweries increase their market share, you may ask? Ultimately that rests in the hands of the NSLC, but it starts by educating consumers. We have to learn just how good local beer is — and buy more of it — so that the NSLC feels the need to give it more shelf space. 

Craft breweries need to do that by “pushing the local thing,” says Robertson, but we also need an infrastructure where the promotion of craft beer doesn’t just come from the breweries. “We have so many great craft beer festivals with new ones popping up each year, and the participation numbers are high for all of them,” she says. “Plus there are businesses such as beer bus tours, and all this grows more consumer awareness.” 

When you talk to brewers in Nova Scotia, they are all rather nice about each other. “We see each other at these beer gatherings, and it’s all very friendly,” says Robertson. “If one of us wins, we all win. People who are drinking craft beer, they don’t want to drink just one, they want to try everything. The more each of us can get that first-time consumer and convert them over, then that’s going to help out our neighbours. It’s a great industry to be in and perhaps one of the last surviving ones where you help your competition.”

There still is, of course, some fear that there will eventually be too many. “You can hear the tension in the room at our Craft Brewers Association meetings when someone says, ‘There’s another 12 opening this year in the province,’ but I think, ‘Good,’” says Counsil.

The Rural Advantage

When a craft brewery opens in rural Nova Scotia, several wonderful things start to happen. For one, the brewery creates at least a couple of jobs in what is usually an economically depressed area. For another, the brewery gives people an additional reason to visit said town. These rural breweries are doing very well indeed for themselves, and they’re helping the communities they exist in, too. 

The Tatamagouche Brewing Company opened two years ago, and has been a runaway success. “We thought it would do well, but we didn’t think we’d be growing and selling at such a rapid rate. We’ve been adding new tanks every three months, and have expanded our space, and have had to lease a basement down the street for storage,” says Christiane Jost, who owns the brewery with her parents (who owned Jost Vineyards for 30 years before “retiring” to start this), and her partner, Matt Kenny, who is head brewer.

Jost and her partners were pretty confident that they’d chosen the right location to set up shop, and think it’s a viable business for others in more remote locations, too. “We thought, ‘If Tatamagouche can have a craft brewery, with a population of 900 in the winter and 2,500 in the summer, if we can make a go of it, then literally anywhere could have a craft brewery,’ and we are seeing that now.” 

Brewers who set up in small towns are finding that small communities just latch to them, says Robertson. “And the bigger they grow, the better it is for that town because it’s creating more jobs. It’s a beautiful thing how it works full circle in that sense.” 

Different Strokes for Different Folks

There is, of course, a need for breweries to differentiate themselves from the others, and some breweries have gone out and created brands that have very unique products. Jost says there’s a pressure to come out with a beer that hasn’t been done yet in Nova Scotia, but that’s becoming more impossible because everyone is trying to do that. “So it’s more about how to focus on how can we put our spin on a Belgian tripel or a double IPA,” she says. “Most breweries are producing an IPA, but everyone has their own house flavor and different approach to craft beer.”

Angus Campbell - Good Robot Brewing

Angus Campbell - Good Robot Brewing

Spindrift focuses on lagers, and although they still produce a lagered IPA (Robertson says that because there are so many hop-heads, it’s like throwing away money if you don’t do an IPA), they also produce interesting takes on lagers. One is their black lager, The Abyss, which Robertson describes as not as full bodied as a stout and with the mouthfeel of a porter, so it has those super smooth and extremely drinkable lager qualities.

Over at Good Robot, the owners describe their beers as eccentric and experimental. This fits, considering how the brewery was opened by three college buddies who came up with the idea one drunken night and moved here to specifically open Good Robot (they all now live above the brewery together). Good Robot’s inventive marketing sets them apart from the many breweries that have embraced our Maritime heritage in their marketing or naming. Goseface Killah is my favourite of their beer names, with Skratch Plaskett coming in a close second. Counsil says that the secret to coming up with cool names for your brews is to do so while enjoying your product and drinking heavily.

Another way these breweries differentiate themselves is in how and where they sell their product. “We’re just going about our business in a different way,” explains Jost. “Not everyone wants to go to the NSLC, not everyone wants to sell in the farmers’ market, and not everyone wants to sell in Tatamagouche or Halifax.”

There are breweries with tap rooms, while at others you have to bang on the back door and the brewer will stop what he or she (for there are many female brewers in Nova Scotia) is doing to sell you a six pack. An ever-increasing number of restaurants are offering local brews on tap as well, as are the two beer gardens in Halifax that are hugely popular and helping educate many people on the wonders of our craft beers. This is great, of course, but many of our craft brewers are looking for placement in the NSLC and private liquor stores right from the start, and some look beyond Nova Scotia, too. 

Christiane Jost - Tatamagouche Brewing

Christiane Jost - Tatamagouche Brewing

Tatamagouche Brewing Company covers all of those bases. “We’re mainly selling out of our store in Tatamagouche, but also selling our North Shore Lagered Ale and Deception Bay IPA through NSLC,” says Jost. “We sell at the Truro Farmers’ Market, and sell to private liquor stores in Halifax, too. We also have licensees from Tatamagouche to Halifax.”  

Spindrift has only been brewing for a year, but they also have their products in NSLC stores as well as at least one brand in stores in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. “We applied to be a packaging brewery from day one,” says Robertson. 

This is not to say that opening a craft brewery is a license to print money. “There’s no real money in craft beer unless you want to expand, expand, expand and sell the brewery to a larger brewery. So you’ve really got to do it because this is what you love to do,” says Counsil. 

The love is important. Robertson is highly passionate about producing great beer, and she feels incredibly fortunate that she gets to make it here in Nova Scotia, her home province, especially after having to work away in order to get ahead before deciding to go into brewing and studying the art in Ontario. “Sometimes I have to step back and give myself a little pinch,” she says. “It’s hard to believe where we are at now, and that a little more than four years ago
I decided to do this, and here I am now running a brewery in NS. I really wanted to come home, and here I am doing a job that I love every single day.”

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