TALES OF NORTH & SOUTH: How Tatamagouche and Boxing Rock became two of the most successful breweries in the province
Nova Scotia is a craft beer wonderland. We’re spoiled with truly fantastic breweries in every part of our glorious province, each serving something a little different, and there’s always something new to try. Lucky us. For this issue’s cover story we check in with two of our favourite breweries, Tatamagouche Brewing Company in the north of our province and Boxing Rock Brewing Company way down south in Shelburne, to learn about the triumphs and challenges of craft brewing in Nova Scotia.
Upping the fun in Tatamagouche
As lovely as Tatamagouche is, there wasn’t much happening on the town’s Main Street before the Tatamagouche Brewing Company took over an old butcher’s shop in 2014 and started brewing truly excellent beer there. Now they’ve expanded into another storefront, have a patio on the street, and offer live music and all sorts of other fun. Co-owners Christiane Jost and Matt Kenny have created something wonderful, but Jost says they’re still flying by the seat of their pants.
“The two of us were the biggest amateurs going into this,” explains Jost. “We had to learn everything in these past three years. We were a blank slate when we started this, and are still learning on the fly.” Kenny says that when they started out, the tiniest thing would go wrong and he’d crap his pants. “Now I look back and think, ‘Oh my god that was such a joke,’” he says. “We’ve dealt with so much troubleshooting, and so many things have gone sideways that it takes a lot to rattle me.”
Of course there are still challenges. Tatamagouche Brewing Company is certified organic, and Jost describes the certification process as “a real bitch,” as there are plenty of hoops to jump through. “But we’re happy to do it, and love getting that certificate in the mail each year.” Running out of beer has been a constant challenge, but they’re starting to get more of a handle on that now. “I think we have short memories about what a struggle it was in those early days, because the store is packed, everything is in full swing, we’re feeling pretty good because this is such a great time of year for us,” says Jost.
The truth is, Jost and Kenny have achieved a huge amount in the short time they’ve been in business. Besides having a very cool retail operation and bar in Tatamagouche, they sell through the NSLC, and their beers are on tap at bars and restaurants across the province. Last year they did a tap takeover at Stillwell, and Jost says that doing that and winning three medals at last year’s Canadian Brewing Awards in Vancouver (two golds and a bronze) have been the highlights of their craft brewing careers.
“We had the full tap takeover at Stillwell on Valentine’s Day. That was a great time, and we took all the staff down with us to Halifax to celebrate with their significant others. It was a special night,” says Jost. “Stillwell is the place in Atlantic Canada that you want to have your beer. To have enough good beer that they want it to take over all their taps, that was pretty exciting.”
All this is fabulous, of course, but Jost says it’s the local support that keeps them thriving all year, and the way that locals have adopted their product gives them a real buzz, too. “It’s been really fun seeing the evolution of Tatamagouche craft beer drinkers,” says Kenny. “They’ll come in and start buying something light, then in a matter of months will have worked their way up to our hoppiest beer. Plus, we’ve finally been selling beer down at the legion, and most of those beer drinkers have been set in their ways a long time drinking Keith’s or Bud, so we get a kick out of that.”
Can you go higher than taking over Stillwell and getting your beer into the legion? Jost says that Kenny gets bored easily, so they always have to have something new in the pipeline. The brewery has just undergone a big expansion on the production side, but in the winter, when things slow down, they’ll be putting more work into their barrel program, where beers are blended and aged in different wine and spirit barrels.
“Over winter, when we have more space, we can put stuff in tanks and really let it develop using wild yeasts and aging it in different barrels for up to a year,” Kenny explains. “It’s a total gamble. It produces a lot of flavours, and more comparable to wine making. You could have two totally different beers, but blended together they create something magical.” These barrel-aged beers will be available in their retail store next summer, or as special releases at select locations for Craft Beer Week, so you too can taste the magic then.
Making beer in a small town
Emily Tipton, the founding partner and beer engineer at Boxing Rock, describes the early days of starting the business as terrifying. “You’ve gone out on a limb and remortgaged your house and spent everything you have on beautiful stainless steel tanks. And you’ve made beer and sold it all, then all of a sudden the sustainability of your business means that you actually have to make more beer immediately.”
The need for immediate growth came in part because the NSLC had committed to putting Boxing Rock’s beers on their shelves before Tipton and her business partner, Henry Pedro, had actually produced any. Once they did start producing, it was clear they hadn’t thought big enough, and had to grow fast, and then keep on growing. “You need to grow, even though you have no more resources to grow,” says Tipton. “We’ve always tried to do it in a balanced way because you don’t want to grow too fast, but at the same time if you don’t, people will find something else to drink.
“Every time I’d go in and meet with the category manager at the NSLC and he’d show me the numbers and I’d see how much beer I was selling from the last time I was there six months ago, and I’d get in the car and immediately call Henry and say, ‘You’re not going to believe these numbers. Okay, you need to order another tank right now. I don’t know how we’re going to pay for it yet but you’ve got to order it anyway.’ You just have to take the next step, you don’t have time to think about it.”
Boxing Rock was immediately well received locally and across the province, but was soon recognized nationally. “In 2014, we’d been open not quite a year when we won a Canadian Brewing Award for The Vicar’s Cross in the IPA category, which is the hardest category to win anything in because there are always so many entries,” says Tipton. “That was a defining moment for us, and we won another this year for our Bock beer, which was fun.”
Tipton says she really felt like she’d made it when she was driving into the city to do a delivery and got honked at.
“I rolled down the window because I thought my tire was flat or something and they yelled, ‘I love your beer!’ That was a good moment.”
The most obvious good news they get is when they learn that they’ve run out of beer, which happens most summers and which Tipton describes as being really stressful but really amazing. “You don’t know until you put beer on the shelf and have people buy it and drink it, or that they’re going to keep buying it,” she says. “One of the things that helps me sleep at night is knowing that there are people in Nova Scotia who buy The Vicars Cross every single week, and have done for the past four years.”
Being successful doesn’t mean that Boxing Rock can just rest on its laurels, though, and Tipton says the real challenge now is staying relevant as a brand and as a company in a market that is as busy as it is. “Now we’re established sort of, how do we not become wallpaper and ensure we’re keeping up with what the market wants? How do we make sure we’re staying relevant when there’s a new brewery opening up in Nova Scotia every month?”
So, there must always be the push for something new. “We have to challenge ourselves or push the envelope constantly, that’s important in any business. There’s always something different or new to try, you have to be aware of opportunities and you can’t miss any,” says Tipton, who admits that there is some really exciting stuff going on at Boxing Rock, but says it needs to stay secret for now. “The time has come to get out of our box,” she says cryptically.
Boxing Rock has been around for five years now, and it was one of the first in a rash of newer craft breweries to open in the province. Tipton is part of the Craft Brewers Association of Nova Scotia, and says that when she went to her first meeting four years ago there were just seven members. Now there are 35 members, and the organization has really evolved into a body that is helping beat the drum for craft beer and get much-needed government attention. Tipton isn’t worried that the growth in the number of breweries will impact Boxing Rock’s bottom line, though. “There’s still a lot of room for us to grow without cannibalizing each other. We try and encourage each other to fight the big fight,” she says.
And why did Tipton want to open a brewery in Shelburne? She made a lifestyle choice and moved there with her family 10 years ago, and she just loves the place. “We designed a product that we could export from Shelburne,” she says. “We built the business both because we needed jobs and because we can put ‘Brewed in Nova Scotia’ on every single bottle, wherever it shows up. Part of our brand is this place.”