HOW IT ALL BEGAN - The founders of Nova Scotia's flourishing craft beer scene
You young beer-loving whippersnappers have no idea just how good you have it compared to those who lived and drank in this city before 1985.
Halifax has always been a drinking town, no doubt, but can you imagine being out at a bar and there only being one or two beers on tap? This was exactly what life was like in Nova Scotia before Halifax’s granddaddy of craft beer, Kevin Keefe of Granite Brewery, changed everything. “Back then, beer was just beer. The draught beer that we sold in taverns, there was no tap handle on it. We didn’t know what it was; it was just cheap and people drank a lot of it,” Keefe says.
Keefe came up with the idea of providing an alternative to this dire beer situation after reading an article in a trade paper about a guy setting up a brewpub on the west coast in the early 80s (called the Troller Pub and Horseshoe Bay Brewery). Keefe was already in the tavern business, running Ginger’s Tavern and The Seahorse, as well as various other establishments here and in Ontario, and was getting tired of it all. So he did his research, saw it as a viable business idea and went to England to learn how to do it from a master brewer. While there he drank the beer, which worked out to be pretty much the same as drinking the Kool-Aid.
“I was just looking for something interesting to do, and
I wanted to have a product that nobody else would have. It wasn’t until I got over to England that I’d got drinking English real ale and just fell in love with it and thought, ‘Okay, I’m going back and doing this,’” Keefe says. He eventually set up in Ginger’s Tavern and turned it into a brewpub. “It was so different from anything that you could get here at the time. When I brewed an English bitter or Peculiar and hand pumped it and all that, they looked at it like, ‘What the hell is this?’”
Not that setting up his first brewing operation was a piece of cake; there were several barriers in place. For a start, doing so was illegal at the time. “There were regulations, but the idea of a brewery making beer and selling it to the public was at the time considered the evilest thing ever, which all harked back to prohibition. So we had to get federal excise laws changed, and get provincial laws written because there was no legal framework back then, and that probably took two years of back and forth,” he explains. “It wasn’t that hard, because I think the government knew this was coming, but it was long and drawn out.”
There was also a serious lack of resources and support. “I’d have had to travel 3,000 miles to find another guy thinking of doing it. If you wanted equipment, you had to go to England or Germany because no one over here was thinking of doing it yet,” Keefe says. But start a brewery he did, and for 12 years he was the only person doing so in Halifax (there were a few other breweries that had set up and failed in that time). Then along came John Allen of Propeller and Brian Titus of Garrison, both of whom opened in 1997 and came with an even more radical plan: They each wanted to start a production brewery that would put a local packaged product in bars and NSLC stores.
New Kids on the Block
Allen and Titus come from completely different backgrounds that had nothing to do with running either a business or a brewery, but both have done fantastically well. Allen was a passionate home brewer who was inspired to start Propeller after watching a local TV spot on Picaroons, but he started out as a fisheries observer and was then a props guy in the movie industry. Titus was a naval officer who says his only real knowledge of the industry came from an appreciation of beer from the other side of the bar. Both men started small and gambled everything they had on making their breweries a success.
When Propeller and Garrison started trying to sell beer, it wasn’t exactly easy, despite the fact that Keefe had somewhat eased the way. “In those days the liquor commission only had a few brewery customers, so there wasn’t a lot of interest from them, and there wasn’t a lot of interest from bars because they’d say, ‘Well you know, I’ve got a pale ale and a couple of imports, thank you,’” says Allen. “It was a slog to convince people to try something new.”
If you’re wondering what it was like for Keefe when he started out, he says that initially it was a tough sell because the beer he was making was unlike anything you could get in the province. “I knew if I could get people to drink it for a while, I’d have them converted,” he says.
He has one story that illustrates this perfectly. “I remember one fellow who was watching this thing being built, and he had the first glass of it and he was kinda confused. ‘It’s very different,’ he said. ‘I can’t get my head around it.’ I told him to try it for a week and tell me what he thought about it. Then about three weeks later I saw him sitting at the bar and asked how he was doing. ‘Fuck off,’ he told me. I asked him what the hell was going on and he said, ‘Well, all my friends are drinking at Sam’s, and the Joel Murphy Band is playing there, the place is packed, but I’m sitting here drinking a beer all alone because I can’t drink the beer there anymore.’ I had him converted.”
Levelling the Playing Field
Converting consumers was obviously important, but in order to become a successful packaging brewery there were a few other hurdles that needed to be jumped. Back in the day, craft breweries were being charged the same tax rate as the huge multinational breweries, and this was considered fair.
“There was a thinking at the time that it’s fair for Labatt, it’s fair for Budweiser, it’s fair for you,” says Titus. “But it’s not fair! There’s no way to ever get into the market. Alexander Keith’s as a brewery has been around since 1820, so their equipment has long been paid off. There’s nothing fair about jumping into the deep end at the same level as multinational companies that have been around for hundreds of years.” Here’s when all three brewers came together to fight the power and challenge this, ultimately winning and seeing a big reduction in the tax that they had to pay.
“The taxes went from $300 per hundred litres to $3,” says Keefe. “That made a huge difference. It saved me $50,000 a year, and I know it saved the other guys a lot more than that.”
It is also worth noting that initially the NSLC was not that interested in featuring craft beer in their stores, so there was another fight that needed to be won. “The mandate of the NSLC was to deliver as much money to the taxpayers of Nova Scotia as possible. They were just fulfilling it,” says Titus. “I pushed back on the concept that if you’re helping local businesses, they are going to hire more locally and use local suppliers and creating a tourist destination. These are all things that are a little harder to quantify but add up to a huge benefit other than just the sale of alcohol for its own sake.”
The NSLC eventually did get it, though, and they became good partners. Titus says this happened about 10 years ago when there was a move to privatization and the NSLC really had to justify themselves. “But that first few years were quite combative,” he says.
These days you can get plenty of really excellent craft brew in Halifax, with much of it coming from the city or more rural parts of Nova Scotia. New breweries are opening all the time, and many have ambitious business plans that see them marketing to the NSLC right out of the gate. “Brian and John had to work real hard at that,” says Keefe. “They broke the ice for other people to come along.” This explosion in the affection that we have for craft beer and success of these new breweries is of course fantastic for everyone in the industry.
“When you crunch the numbers, Nova Scotia has the most density per capita in Canada of craft breweries,” says Titus. “That’s something to be proud of. We’ll be 44 by the end of this year, and that puts us close to 50 per cent ahead of BC, which is known Canada-wide as the hotspot.” What could make things even better, though, is another revision to the tax rate that these craft breweries pay.
“There’s an ongoing attempt to get the government to lower the taxes on craft beer to a similar level to the craft distilleries and wineries, because we’re paying two-and-a-half times what they pay in tax rates,” says Allen. “We’d like to see a level paying field, and it’s been talked about for years, but something seems to be stopping it. It’s about two-and-a-half times what it is in Ontario, too.”
Barriers aside, both Garrison and Propeller have become huge local success stories and are a part of the fabric of this city. Both breweries continue to grow, and both Allen and Titus are thrilled to make a living doing something that they are passionate about. As for the man and the iconic brewery responsible for the very beginning of Halifax becoming the fine beer city that it is today, Keefe says Granite Brewery is as big as he wants it to be. “I just do what I do and cater to the people who like what I like.”