Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen 2017: the world's best breweries bringing their A game to Copenhagen

From hygge to smørrebrød, there’s a myriad of reasons to visit Denmark. Its capital city, Copenhagen, has established itself as a culinary mecca – boasting 15 Michelin Stars – but this time of year, people flock here for another reason. The month of May brings the Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen (MBCC), formerly known as the Copenhagen Beer Celebration, an event that attracts beer drinkers from across the globe.

Set in Øksnehallen, a former market hall in the city’s Meat Packing District, MBCC 2017 ran from Friday, May 12th to Saturday May 13th across four sessions: one in the morning and the second in the evening each day. Attendees can purchase a single session ticket, splurge on an all session ticket, or dig even deeper for a gold VIP ticket for all sessions – setting them back about £300. My red session ticket granted me free reign during the Saturday morning session for £60. Entry includes unlimited 50ml pours from over 100 breweries, most of which had two beers on keg, making the financial hit justifiable.

The MBCC is the highlight and crescendo of Mikkeller Beer Week (May 8th – 14th), which sees a host of events unfolding across Copenhagen’s brewpubs and taprooms. The whole premise is attributed to Mikkel Borg Bjergsø from Mikkeller, who launched the initiative to gather the world’s best breweries in one spot to showcase two of their best beers per session. And once the beer runs dry, it’s gone.

This is the sixth year of MBCC and tickets – especially those VIP or all session wristbands – are snapped up. The event has spawned a sister festival, the Copenhagen Beer and Music Celebration, stateside in Boston, Massachusetts. This is set to take place in September again this year. 

The ambiance of the festival itself vacillates between convivial and very serious – I made a beeline for Bokkereyder, a lambic brewery from Belgium that ran out of beer within an hour during Friday’s sessions. Aside from having a general idea of the other stalls to visit – admittedly nearly all of them – I made a point of pacing myself. Others, however, sat furiously recording their thoughts on each beer on their laptops and iPads. Some were rumoured to have runners, fetching beers on their behalf.

Despite this, the majority of people were there to try something novel. For me, I was especially keen on finally tasting beer from the impressive list of coveted US breweries. Despite the 2,500 drinkers in attendance, queuing was rare – only Omnipollo required a substantial wait, which was still less than fifteen minutes. I managed a good circulation of the room, trying everything on my hypothetical list with time to idle between drinks, load a hot dog with infinite toppings, peruse the merch stand and even meander over to familiar UK breweries.

The volunteers were chipper – I recognised many faces from London - concealing any hangover commendably. There was even a tattoo booth for the fearless. This year saw a section devoted to 25 new talent breweries, representing countries from Sweden to China. Stigbergets from Sweden was a highlight that I'd experienced the night before, when their beer was pouring at Fermentoren, but tasted equally as outstanding during the MBCC session.

A large section of the beers were barrel-aged or imperial strength. As the session wore on, it became increasingly difficult to differentiate one beer from the next, but despite this, some did stand out as being exceptional.

Bokkereyder: Muscaris Lambic

One of the two lambics that we began our session with, this was an alluring beer that I would've returned to had it not disappeared so quickly. Poured from a bottle, decanted from a basket in the traditional Belgian fashion, the Muscaris embodied beautiful lambic characteristics, with funky, sour notes on the nose and bone-dry tartness in the mouth. Fruitiness comes from hints of white grapes and apples, paired with a nice acidity to balance everything nicely. This soft and sharp beer was both being excellent and unique in contrast to the bolder and darker styles that were abundant.

Jackie O's Pub & BrewPub: Pockets Of Sunlight

Ohio-based brewery, Jackie O's, had two solid beers on, including a bourbon barrel aged maple imperial porter. But Pockets of Sunlight, a beautiful saison, really stood out, a charming beer brewed with honey, coriander and lemon verbena. Spicy, funky and crisp, this is a delicate, but mature, saison: it's fermented with mixed cultures and wild yeast, then stored in a stainless steel barrel following fermentation for six weeks, where the mixed culture is reintroduced. As a result, this complex - yet subtle - beer is highly palatable and refreshing.

Jester King Brewery: Bière de Lenoir

Once again, a shift away from those rich imperial stouts with this alluring sour. Jester King Brewery's Bière de Lenoir is barrel aged in oak, then refermented with Lenoir grapes. It pours a crimson red with red berries and tart cherries jumping from the glass. Sweetness from the grapes is tempered with a vinegar-like tartness and the beer is exceptionally dry, making it easy to indulge in another sip. 

Monkish Brewing Co: Monkey and Toad

Another glorious saison was offered up from California's Monkish Brewing Co. This was brewed to commemorate their 5th birthday and is an oak fermented farmhouse ale with peaches and nectarines. The fleshy fruit came through in a torrent, making this easy to savour. Reminiscent of fuzzy peaches sweets, this sweet and tart combination was a marvel. I was charmed with this beer and returned for seconds, as I found it an intensely enjoyable palate cleanser.

Other Half Brewing Company: Hop Showers - Double Dry Hopped

Brooklyn's Other Half Brewing often knocks it out of the park, so it came as no surprise that we relished their double dry-hopped IPA. Incomparably fresh and bursting fruit aromas made this the IPA of the session with juicy hints of tropical fruit. Big on fruit and lightly complemented with pithy bitterness, this is a thing of beauty. Their Dream in Green was just as popular, a cloudy, milky IPA that gets a creamy body from oats and wheat and also bursting with juicy, tropical hops.

Omnipollo: Gimbagagompa Coffee Vanilla Granola

A beer that required a queue, this was a classic jaw-dropping Omnipollo beer. This Swedish brewery are venerated for their creative, bold styles. Here, a delicious rich imperial stout stood apart from the rest with a powerhouse of dark chocolate, coffee, hazelnuts and caramel in the body; chewy roasted malt and intense sweetness made this an outstanding dessert stout, topped with a frothy creamy head. It only inched ahead of the Mikkeller Beer Geek After Eight stout, which tasted like liquefied After Eight chocolates (better than it sounds, I promise).

Prairie Artisan Ales: Prairie Bomb!

Prairie Artisan Ales hail from Oklahoma and were proffering both their Prairie Bomb and their BA Prairie Bomb. While both were superb, the original Prairie Bomb was the surprising favourite. This luxurious imperial stout is aged with espresso beans, chocolate, vanilla beans, and ancho chile peppers, giving it a rich spectrum of flavours. Decadent chocolate and intense espresso meets just a hint of heat from the ancho peppers. Moreish sweetness veils its 13% ABV and a velvety body help this go down with remarkable ease. While the barrel aged version was also delicious, the bourbon barrels imparted a stronger alcoholic taste - despite having the same ABV, rendering it slightly less balanced than the original Prairie Bomb.

While it would be reckless to attempt to recount every beer that tickled my palate - and this list is certainly not exhaustive - these are some of the most memorable beers enjoyed. There's a high contingency of USA breweries, yes, and while I downed countless excellent stouts, it was difficult to pinpoint the standalone great examples. This might explain why the saisons and sours made such an impression on me. I also enjoyed many superb beers from UK breweries and the new talent as well.

MBCC granted me the opportunity to try some of the big American breweries that rarely make an appearance in the UK and to access a long list of new breweries from around the world, all of whom were eager to make an impression. Paired with a trip to stunning Copenhagen, this was a festival that lived up to the hype and was an enchanting break from London, even if it felt like we'd brought a slice of London to the party.

Brussels, Belgium: Cantillon and the champagne of Brussels

A trip to Brussels wouldn’t be complete without an afternoon spent at the Cantillon brewery. Its proximity to the Eurostar terminal in the Anderlecht municipality of the city is opportune; unlike the Trappist breweries based in monasteries outside of Brussels, Cantillon is central and astonishingly convenient from London.

Less restrictive luggage allowances for the train are ideal for bringing back a few cases from the brewery – or even filling up an empty suitcase to capacity, an admirable feat that we witnessed on our visit.

Tourists flock to Cantillon for lambic beer, a Belgian specialty that relies upon spontaneous fermentation. In contrast to most breweries, where yeast is cultivated and large-scale production seeks consistency, lambic beers are left exposed to the air, attracting the native wild yeasts and bacteria which flourish in the surrounding Zenne valley. What effect does this gathering of wild elements have on the beer? Well, lambic is characterised by both bone-dry and sour notes. It can be like sipping a sharp, dry cider, or it can be much sweeter – but Cantillon is the authority of the lambic style and everything fermented here is flawlessly balanced. They’ve had plenty of time to perfect their technique; the brewery was founded in 1900 and has remained independent to this day, passed down through the Cantillon family line, from father to sons, then sons to son-in-law.

The Cantillon brewery is world away from the gleaming, sterile environments of most modern brewhouses. Some of the original equipment, dating back to the early 20th century, is still in use today and the crushing machines – used to masticate fruit for their kriek – look like barbed medieval torture devices. Entering the brewery, guests are thrown into the thick of palates and busy workers. Tours are offered at 7€ per person, which includes an introduction from a member of staff and a booklet for the self-guided route. At the end of the tour, visitors are able to sample 1 year old gueuze, which is both young and fresh, and one drink of their choice from the bar’s menu.

Some visitors beeline to the bar, but the tour is worth the time, allowing guests to explore the brewing area with its mash tun, then climb a set of stairs to the hop boilers, crushing machine and hot water tank. Another ascent leads to the granary, an expansive attic storage space for malts and hops; in the production of lambic beer, raw Belgian wheat, malted barley and aged hops – which have lost some of their bitter edge – are used; Cantillion use two to three times more hops than the average brewery to achieve a high level of tannin, which is a natural preservative, in their beer.

The most fascinating room held the cooling tun, which assists the spontaneous fermentation so crucial to lambic beers. An imposing rectangular copper vessel sits in a loft above the granary, like a shallow paddling pool. Also known as a cool ship, its purpose is to cool down the wort quickly across a flat surface area. The brewing season here extends from April to October because the ideal wort temperature is between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius, which is generally only achievable during the evenings in the colder months. This temperature range is ideal for the airborne yeasts and bacteria. Following this cooling period, the wort is then transferred to the fermentation vat in the room below.

From here, the wort is stored in barrels. Interestingly, the type of wood used in the casks – which are either oak or chestnut at Cantillon – doesn’t affect the fermentation of lambic beer. The process of aging the beer in wood imparts wine-like flavours to the liquid. After a few days in the barrel, the sugars present in the wort react with wild yeasts, triggering spontaneous fermentation – this results in the creation of a huge amount of carbon dioxide, causing an eruption of foam to bubble out of the bunghole in the barrel; during this reaction, 5 to 10 litres of wort can be lost per 225 or 500 litre barrel.

Following this active stage of fermentation is a slower process. After three to four weeks, the barrels are finally sealed and left to sit for three years. During this time, another 20% of the beer can evaporate inside the cask. Young lambics can be used to blend with other beers, but most brewers will wait at least a year to let the delicate flavours develop. Gueuze is a blend of one, two and three year-old lambic beers; the sugars from the younger beer trigger a second fermentation in the bottle and the older lambic imparts the complex taste profile.

As for kriek, this is a two year old lambic blended with fruit – specifically sour Schaerbeek cherries at Cantillon – where 150kg of fruit are used per 500 litres of beer. Other fruit beers include their Fou’foune, a lambic with the addition of soaked apricots, lending it a gentle sweetness. On our visit, we also indulged in the Zwanze (2012), a lambic with rhubarb, which was exceptionally delicate and refreshing.

The tour of the Cantillon brewery is a half an hour well spent, moving from the brewing area to storage and the bottling line. At the end, visitors are rewarded with a taste of young one year old lambic and another glass of a beer of their choice. From here, the natural tendency is to get comfortable next to the bar, where seats are tables are arranged around a wood-burning stove. As a group of five, we worked through the styles available on the day, taking some recommendations when it came to the rarer (and more expensive) bottles.

The 750ml bottles come wedged in a wicker basket that makes the act of decanting both ceremonious and occasionally awkward. We relished the Kriek and Fou’foune, then eyeballed the more unusual selections, such as the Saint-Lamvinus, a lambic soaked in black Merlot grapes, and the Grand Cru Bruocsella (2007), a three year lambic selected for its superior colour, taste and flavour. We concluded our afternoon on a Lou Pepe Kriek (2013), where secondary fermentation in the bottle is aided by the addition of cane sugar; this process would usually rely upon the reaction when a young lambic is added in the gueuze blend. It was intensely juicy with the flesh of sour cherries, boasting a vibrant ruby red hue and a faint pink head. Its predominantly lick-puckering tartness married with hints of lactose and funk. Not as delicate as the more subtle styles, but its robust flavour profile made it intensely memorable.

Visitors are welcome into Cantillon until 5pm and until then we stayed, sipping and savouring the champagne of Brussels.

Brussels, Belgium: Moeder Lambic, La Porte Noire & Delirium Village

This is a continuation from last week's feature on some of the highlights of our recent trip to Brussels, found here.

Branching out at Moeder Lambic

Place Fontainas 8, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

Looking for a chic, central spot to sample a rotating selection of drinks from both tiny local breweries and further afield? Then Moeder Lambic Fontainas is your proverbial beer nirvana. This isn't the original Moeder Lambic location, which is in Saint-Gilles, but is more accessible to visitors passing through the city centre. More a sleek taproom than a dusty bar dripping with nostalgia, this is a lively destination that offers something different to entice drinkers on every visit. We designated this as our meeting point with friends who had also travelled from London. Here, we sampled the most experimental beers of our Belgium sojourn.

Inside, the place is dimly lit,  populated with stools against the bar and booths lining both sides of the venue. The drinks list is a fold-out pamphlet bolstered with a list of guest beers, scrawled on several chalkboards suspended from the ceiling. We transitioned from the classics – starting on gueuze or kriek – then moved on to modern hoppy beers including Hop Harvest from De Ranke and a barrel-aged sour beer from Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes (BFM) in Switzerland. The latter was particularly divisive, characterised by bold tartness, intense sweetness and bracing bitter notes. The razor-sharp acidic tones were too dominating on the palate for the majority at our table, who likened it to drinking balsamic vinegar; however, I found the beer oddly balanced, imparting soft notes of vanilla and oak from the barrel.

We were pleased to see Beavertown Brewery and The Kernel Brewery represented at Moeder alongside other International picks, such as Birrificio Lambrate from Italy and Le Trou Du Diable from Quebec, Canada. We didn’t have time to scrutinise the fridges, but were advised that their bottle collection was brimming with rare beers. There was a sufficiently vast selection offered across the 40 taps to keep us busy. In addition to these, there are six handpulls reserved for Lambic beers. Some of the highlights included the Band of Brothers collaboration between Moeder Lambic and Brasserie de la Senne and Witkap Stimulo from Slaghmuylder.

Sadly, our visit was in January, but the outside area of the bar was ideal for drinking al fresco. In the summer months, the stretch of patio will undoubtedly be teeming with relaxed drinkers.

Peeking behind La Porte Noire

Rue des Alexiens 67, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

Of all the drinking establishments visited during our stay, La Porte Noire – which translates to ‘the black door’ - was swarming with the largest crowd of locals. Visitors enter via the eponymous black door and descend a staircase to a cellar bar. We’re used to drinking beneath arches in London, so we were at ease in the dimly lit, claustrophobic and cramped space. Furnished with long wooden banquet tables and makeshift barrels to perch on, the energy in the bar was electric. Music swelled in the air throughout the evening and the composition of drinkers was varied, but most appeared to be university students letting loose on a Friday night. The level of English among the staff wasn’t as accomplished as other venues, implying that not too many tourists amble down the stairs.

The bar itself is small, but equipped with ten taps pouring a selection of beers – we started here, going for some pales and blondes, but found ourselves drawn towards the wall of fridges that hosted a trove of treasures, including gueuze, Trappist beers and some local representations; this is where we worked through a range of The Brussels Beer Project’s beers, as we didn’t have time to visit their brewing site on this whirlwind trip. We had a lot of success with our selections, partially due to a passionate member of staff who directed us towards the most exemplary options. 

We found The Brussels Beer Project's range both affordable and intensely drinkable, including the Grosse Bertha Belgian Hefeweizen, a good rendition of the style with a creamy body, nice citrus and banana notes accompanied by a dash of cloves and a balanced tartness in the finish. The Dark Sister, a black IPA, was just as sessionable, bringing a bouquet of sweet maltiness peppered with hints of dark fruit and married with a clean citrus edge.

This was a intended to be quick stopover that transformed into hours of working through the draught lines and fridges, immersed in the congenial ambiance and the smug satisfaction that we’d uncovered the perfect late night venue: lively, cool and with an expansive – but still manageable – beer offering.

Dizzy in Delirium Village

Impasse de la Fidélité 4, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

It would be remiss to avoid Delirium, which is home to an unwieldy beer selection that surpasses 3,000 options. It’s raucous, popular with tourists and a disorientating maze inside – qualities that might make your lip curl if you think of similar central London venues. We arrived weary from a long day, but were determined to stay for a drink. The bar is actually an assembly of buildings known as Delirium Village, comprising the Delirium Café, Hoppy Loft and the Taphouse.

You might recognise the Delirium moniker from the beer branded with a pink elephant against an opaque white bottle. Their strong Belgian ale, the Delirium Tremens, is popular both in Belgium and internationally. In the Taphouse alone, the beer selection stretched across several boards, a range wide enough to leave us straining to make a decision. There’s a bottle list – more of a catalogue – rumoured to be a hefty tome, but we opted to stick to the taps.

The taproom is littered with antique tin beer signs promoting Belgian beer and a mishmash of seating arrangements; visitors might find themselves sitting inside a train carriage or inside a hollowed out fermenter tank. The environment was less refined Brussels and more a backpacker's haven, seeing throngs spilled out into the street, stumbling over cobblestone roads and screeching to each other between venues.

Despite the shift in the ambiance, it was worth witnessing the sheer magnitude of Delirium and the frenzy unfold around us. And it was only a Thursday night. After a round of drinks, however, we were ready to bid Delirium adieu and move on towards our hotel, where we were lured into a friterie and ordered a cone of fries in shoddy French.

Between the scenes at Delirium and the late-night snack, this was the closest I’ve come to reliving my student days in years. We were thankful for our decision to refuel because our next day was reserved entirely for the main event: Cantillon.


Brussels, Belgium: au Bon Vieux Temps & Poechenellekelder

When a recent Eurostar promotion saw ticket prices to Europe plummet to £19 for a single fare, I couldn't resist the urge to plan a whistle-stop tour of Brussels. Naturally, this would revolve around a visit to the beer mecca, Cantillon. With a trusty beer bible in hand, the excellent Around Brussels in 80 Beers by Joe Stange, we jumped on a train, crossed the English Channel and embarked upon a two night stay in one of Europe's most exciting beer destinations.

Timeless drinking au Bon Vieux Temps

Impasse Saint-Nicolas 4, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

Only a stone’s throw away from our hotel in central Brussels was a curiously ornate arch. It marks the entrance to a narrow alleyway that leads to au Bon Vieux Temps, an unimposing venue, sunken behind St. Nicholas church. Inside, the moniker is appropriate – translating to ‘Good Old Times’ in English – and the hallmarks of a classic antiquated pub are in good order, from heavy mahogany to muted daylight streaming through its windows. We shared the venue with another couple whose presence was known only by disembodied murmurs from a corner of the room. The bartender was a kind woman who spoke broken English and spent the lulls in service transfixed by her mobile phone.

Next to a hulking and disused fireplace, we sat and examined the menu. Classic rock music wafted across the room. Despite this, all seemed eerily still and frozen in time.

On the menu was Westvleteren 12, a Trappist beer hailing from the St. Sixtus Abbey that, in 2014, was crowned the best beer in the world by Ratebeer.com. It’s challenging to source, making it relatively rare – it's only available by appointment in advance in extremely limited quantities. Of the 11 working Trappist breweries in the world, they produce the smallest volume of beer: only 4,000 barrels annually. It’s rumoured that the monastery’s designated ‘beer phone’ gets up to 85,000 calls an hour at peak times during the year.

The Westvleteren 12 didn't come cheap, priced at 15€ for a 330ml bottle. We were asked if we’d prefer the beer from the fridge or at room temperature – we opted for the latter – and our server briefly disappeared into the cellar below the bar, emerging with a bare brown bottle devoid of any label or branding save for the generic ‘Trappist’ lettering emblasoned around its neck.

The beer is a Quadrupel boasting an ABV of 10.2%. With such lofty repute, we were apprehensive to delve in, unsure whether the beer would crumble under its almighty reputation. Thankfully, there was a lot to savour, from its creamy head to the rich aromas of sweet caramel and dried dark fruit. The complexity of the beer had us scrambling to pinpoint each of the nuances we detected, from liquorice, cinnamon, raisins and toffee. Well-rounded, beautifully rich and running silky-smooth over the palate, we agreed that this was a hugely impressive tipple. Whether or not it was the best beer in the world is impossible to categorically say, but it was a fine way to kick off our pilgrimage through Belgium’s diverse and ancient landscape of beer.

And drinking it in au Bon Vieux Temps, cloistered away from the Brussels bustle, felt remarkably apt.

Pleased as punch at Poechenellekelder

Rue du Chêne 5, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

A clumsy mouthful for English speakers, le Poechenellekelder is the perfect refuge for a drink in Brussels. It's plonked down adjacent to the city’s busiest tourist spot – the corner that hosts Manneken Pis, the beloved urinating fountain – but this shouldn't be held against it. Despite the constant flow of weary visitors, the bar draws a crowd of locals with its extensive and well-curated drinks menu. A spectrum of Belgian beer is represented, over 90 styles, including some lambics and gueuze from Cantillon, Mort Subite, Tilquin and Boon breweries. The speed of service varied drastically between our two separate sessions at this bar, but was always charming when it arrived.

The décor is kitschy, but that’s no surprise given the bar’s name refers to Pulcinella, who evolved to become Mr Punch of Punch and Judy fame in England. Littered with antique and occasionally grotesque marionettes suspended from the walls and ceiling, there’s plenty to keep your gaze occupied. The mixed cheese platter is worth a punt to keep your stomach lined as you work through the drinks menu; a plate with sliced farmhouse loaf accompanied by four generous portions of mild and soft cheeses with a tangy marmalade, it's easily shared between two ravenous patrons. Oude Gueuze Mariage Parfait from Boon Brewery was lightly sour with delicate hints of hay, crisp enough to cleanse the palate, cutting through the cheeses that we happily grazed upon.

We also indulged in some Trappist beers: I particularly relished Orval, with its bouquet of evolving flavours that leaped from its branded chalice. It was intensely aromatic with nuances of sweetness balanced with bitterness of the noble hops. The nose is mostly funky yeast esters, but the complexity of this beer makes it a widely venerated drink. I was served my 300ml bottle in two Orval glasses- a large one and a small one - the waiter going to great paints to ensure that the foamy white head remained perfectly in tact as he decanted into both.

I spotted that locals were drinking Brugse Zot Blonde from De Halve Maan brewery, arriving in a vessel akin to a wine glass depicting a grinning jester. I followed suit, finding it very refreshing and a solid representation of the style, a subtle blonde with fruity yeast flavours and hints of bready malts.

The waiters at Poechenellekelde are knowledgeable and happy to make recommendations tailored to your palate or to complement your food. And, like every good continental bar, you get a small dish of salty nibbles with every round. You might find yourself straining to get the attention of the waiters during peak times, but they’ll give you their undivided attention once hailed over.

We delighted in the discovery of both of these cozy venues, especially in advance of the main event, Cantillon. But, as we quickly found, Brussels is heaving with drinking posts that are worth your custom and deserve an extra day or two spent in the city to explore.

Brighton: cask culture and London's creeping influence

When it comes to drinking craft beer, Londoners are a captive audience. In the city, drinkers are open-minded and are accustomed to flocking to taprooms to drink from rotating selections. They’re content to spend more money to enjoy a tastier beer in smaller measures. They demand their beer as fresh as possible - ideally straight from a fermenter tank. The appetite for assertive IPAs is still rife and is perhaps a factor of why keg still reigns supreme in London bars. Their cooler serving temperatures and carbonation help showcase bitter hops and a blast of carbon dioxide rouses their herbal, earthy or citrus aromas, making them jump from the glass.

Following a visit to the much lauded Harp pub in Covent Garden to hear beer writer Pete Brown extol the virtues of malts and cask ale, it was apparent that there was one gaping absence in London’s drinking culture, a shameful oversight that has yet to be righted – the availability of good cask ale. Despite cask being at the helm of the UK’s traditional beer styles, the brown ales or bitters that have seemingly fallen out of favour with city drinkers, losing out to sours, DIPAs and creamy milk stouts or anything deemed more worthy and novel.

Anyone from outside the confines of the city would dismiss most cask served in London as undrinkable - an uninspiring selection of styles that aren’t properly served. The Harp is an exception as a pub that has fostered a staunch reputation for ensuring that cask is served in a faultless state. Cask necessitates much more care in storage than keg, which requires a meticulous eye and precision in the length of conditioning time, temperature and pristinely kept lines to avoid infecting the beer. Cask beers arrive from the brewery still alive, unfiltered and unpasteurised. The Harp is often cited as one of the few pubs in the city where punters are guaranteed a great cask ale served exactly as it should be.

Of course, that’s London. A quick trip to Brighton demonstrates a focus on cask ales that is astonishing – here, another young, modern city that lies only a 90 minutes’ journey away from the city, almost every pub has a selection of hand pumps in constant use. The beers on cask herald from an all-star list of local Sussex breweries and represent an astonishingly wide range of styles. IPAs, barrel aged beers and espresso stouts are offered, giving a taste of what inventive and audacious options that could be translated to cask.

The Evening Star is one of such pubs, but that shouldn’t surprise – it’s the home of Dark Star Brewing Company, who originated as a microbrewery in 1994. They have since left the premises for a larger brewery, first in Ansty, then in Partridge Green. Specialising in cask beers, they’ve experimented with everything from traditional to continental styles. Their beer has been internationally recognised with a number of decorations, including the Dark Star Original, which won Champion Beer of Britain in 1987 before brewer Rob Jones brought the recipe to the brewery. It was also awarded Supreme Champion of Champions at the Great British Beer Festival in 1996.

The Evening Star remains a popular destination in Brighton, only a short amble away from the train station. It boasts 7 hand pumps and 8 keg lines cramped across a curved bar counter, and locals don’t stop to ponder over the vast cask offerings- they’ve made their choice before approaching to order. It can be initially intimidating for the unversed cask drinker. On our visit, punters made a beeline made for Murder of Crows from Kissingate Brewery on cask, a 10% double mashed imperial stout. Perched against a pillar with both active CAMRA members and beer writers, the normalcy of drinking cask here was striking. At The Evening Star, the crowd was more varied in age, background and appearance than the intensely homogeneous drinking environments in London. It maintained the characteristics of a local pub, replete with the interior cosy stylings of a traditional boozer, but without any infiltration of macro beers. Most were focused on cask, but Tiny Rebel Brewing Co and 8Wired were also pouring on keg.

Other venues exemplifying commendable beer offerings without losing the charm of a local pub were within easy reach of each other, including The Prince Albert and The Great Eastern. A good showing from another Sussex brewery, Gun Brewery, on keg and cask was consistent across this bill. The Zamzama IPA is a good iteration that delivers requisite pine, grapefruit and astringency in a well-balanced, but not too brash, IPA. At home in both the familiar pubs and the trendy brewhouses and craft bars, Gun is obviously appealing to a wide demographic of drinkers.

Turning to the modern industrial décor of trendy craft bars, Brighton has a BrewDog that was heaving with drinkers still polishing off kegs of the annual Collabfest event held a couple weeks prior. Highly reminiscent of its London locations in ambiance and fittings, cask was limited their Dead Pony LIVE project, which is an attempt to modernise cask by dispensing it via key keg. The intended result is serving real ale, conditioned in the container, with the benefits of the consistency of keg.

The spacious North Laine Brewhouse celebrates all locally brewed beer alongside its own range from Laine Brewing, which can also be found in Hackney’s People’s Park Tavern. There were hand pumps at the bar and their take on a traditional bitter – Bestest Bitter - is modern, with a playfully designed cask badge and a silly moniker. It’s an easy-going session beer with nice malty notes rounded off with a dose of bitterness. Served in trendy, young environs, this is a gateway cask beer for a younger generation who have never veered from keg; alongside BrewDog’s LIVE beer, cask is still playing a visible role in the most modern spaces.

Even a trip to The Seven Stars, one of Brighton’s oldest pubs that was recently acquired and revamped into a craft beer pub by Indigo, was noteworthy – Dalston’s 40ft Brewery were on tap next to Beavertown Brewery, Gun Brewery, Siren Craft Brew and Wild Beer Co. Londoners would be at home here, tucking into tasty street food menus against the soundtrack of live jazz. But perhaps this was London outside of London- familiar, current and easy.

Brighton’s drinking culture represents some fascinating juxtapositions. Traditional and modern, cask and keg - all seemed to exist in harmony. Much more ubiquitous than London, cask is more varied and venerated here. However, the more recent additions to Brighton’s drinking scene obviously prioritise keg.

It would be devastating to see the popularity of cask wane because of trends creeping in from London, where the emergence of tank bars and taprooms has seen cask put on the backburner. It seems that cask still needs further revitalisation with stronger and more modern choices to appeal to today’s drinkers.

We can start by treating cask the way it deserves – moving away from the dusty image that unfortunately still persists in London – and discovering what modern styles or reinventions taste like from a hand pump. While not everyone will take to it, some styles of beer have the nuanced complexity that really shines without intense carbonation or served at frigid temperatures. Cask isn’t dead, but it does need a facelift – hopefully more local breweries will begin to expand their range to challenge drinkers who are fully (and often unapologetically) committed to keg.

Halifax, Nova Scotia: brewing across the capital

A port city heavily populated with university students and a longstanding beer drinking culture, Halifax is in a prime position to embrace a growing beer market. Capital of Nova Scotia and home of the Alexander Keith's Brewery, founded in 1820 and one of the oldest commercial breweries in North America, the city boasts a pub culture driven by nostalgia that's typical in areas with a high population of UK immigrants. After Canadian, the top three ethnicities represented in Halifax’s population are English, Scottish and Irish respectively.

The age and background of a large section of its inhabitants- and the region’s history- are the perfect ingredients for a thriving beer scene. Haligonians have also proved willing to pay a premium to support independent breweries and the local beer industry. Now that the fire has been stoked, the city has gone into hyper drive, seeing a wealth of breweries, styles of beer and an evolving image of an archetypal beer drinker transform and mutate into something unrecognisable to anyone who left the city as recently as three years ago.

Enter Stillwell, the starting point

For many, Stillwell Bar kick-started the fervour of drinking local when it appeared on the scene in November 2013 in Halifax. Before then, the city was home to craft breweries such as Garrison Brewing Co and Propeller Brewing Co, whose growler stations were popular with locals, and some bars like the Henry House and Rock Bottom were microbrewing. It wasn’t impossible to source something small-batch and exciting, but only the passionately devout were bothered. The rest were merely regaled about the prolific beer cultures in larger Canadian hubs and on America’s east coast from colleagues.

Of course, it wouldn’t take long before a saving grace would manifest itself and open up channels to expose Haligonians to the notable beer being brewed in Nova Scotia. Breweries were popping up across the province, producing high quality beer that was more flavoursome, more audacious and more inventive then ever before. Stillwell represented them across 12 taps- 11 dedicated to beer and one to cider- allowing many to drink fresh- and often unfiltered- local beer in a stylish but unintimidating environment.

Stillwell’s location in the heart of Halifax’s busy downtown district has made it a highly visible venue in an area with heavy footfall. They’ve also experimented with pop-up beer gardens in alternative locations, including on the bustling waterfront in 2015, an area were tourists and residents collide to enjoy a stroll along the harbour or patron expensive restaurants overlooking the water. They had ten taps flowing from a shipping container-cum-bar all summer, but lost the tender to pitch up on the same location for a second year. In 2016, the beer garden landed on Spring Garden Road, a shopping destination next to the city’s Public Gardens and proximate to one of Halifax’s largest universities, Dalhousie University.

In the new outdoor site, the banquet tables are lined up in an empty lot, set under strings of twinkling fairy lights. Food comes in the form of 10-12 small barbecue-themed dishes, all curated to complement an afternoon or evening drinking session. There’s also a dairy bar onsite, proffering soft serve cones that were exceptional enough to draw in crowds in their own right.

This is how you popularise good beer- Stillwell gave Halifax the shot in the arm that it desperately needed to draw in crowds with a great atmosphere, erudite staff and- most importantly- a breadth of styles from some of Nova Scotia’s premier breweries.

Good Robot and quirky brewing

In December 2015, Good Robot Brewing Company opened its taproom. Brewing since May, the brewery was the brainchild of three former Dalhousie University students and friends, Angus Campbell, Josh Counsil and head brewer Doug Kehoe. Originally carrying the moniker of Wrought Iron Brewery- a nod to their engineering background- the founders had a change of heart and rebranded the operation Good Robot Brewing two weeks before their launch. This madcap move aptly summarises the ethos of the brewery- they consciously distanced themselves from a serious and patriarchal image to something quirky, playful and with a broad appeal. This is discernible in their brand, their brewing and their engagement with drinkers, and it has resonated well with younger crowds in particular.

Their flagship beer is the Goseface Killah, a beer that’s laced with salinity, coriander and a tart kiss. It’s a relatively pared back gose, where the sourness is heavily balanced with sweet fruity notes, but this is a good introduction to sour beers for the dubious. It’s a nice summer sipper that’s been exceptionally popular with visitors, demonstrating a growing appetite for styles that veer from the more ubiquitous pales and IPAs.

A highly experimental and unorthodox approach sees Good Robot churning out a number of styles with unusual adjuncts and twists- in September 2016, beers including 4th Chamber, a sour ale, the Leave Me Blue Kentucky Common corn ale and Ol' Scurvy Bastard, a margarita inspired saison/farmhouse ale. Although some of their brewing is occasionally cacophonous, their playfulness is admirable and people are lapping it up, especially in the confines of their charming beer garden, which serves as an oasis on a stretch of Robie Street in the North side of the city that is otherwise occupied with car dealerships and parking lots. Tables are lined up on a bed of AstroTurf, backing on to the open brewery and drinkers are attended by friendly staff. The taproom is spacious inside, boasting a mezzanine space, booths and tables and a décor that’s as bright and cheery as the beer.

Unfiltered but not unfocused

Perhaps the most jarring contrast to Good Robot’s beers and philosophy comes from only a short and walkable distance away on North Street. There’s no bubbly beer garden here, but instead there’s the Charm School, an ironically labelled pub and growler filling station adjacent to the brewery. Anyone familiar with Unfiltered Brewing will appreciate this sarcasm- this is a brewery with a hardened reputation for accomplished beer without the bullshit. Their marketing strategy is prickly and occasionally offensive to some, their policies are contentious, but their beer- well, it’s outstanding. They excel in unapologetic and brash IPAs that embody as much attitude as the brewery’s founders.

Diametrically opposed to nice guys Good Robot, it’s Unfiltered’s brewery- not its taproom or beer garden-that’s the showpiece. In 2015, Greg Nash, notorious for being the province’s ‘rock star brewer’, launched the business with Andrew Murphy, a professional photographer with an equal fixation on producing good, solid and hop-heavy beers. The brewery is something out of a big budget sci-fi film: impossibly pristine, sterile and highly functional. Although it’s only 1,200 square feet, this might be the most customised brewery in Atlantic Canada. For those fortunate to get a glimpse inside the operation, they wouldn’t believe that this was a real brewing site- everything gleams with clinical tidiness. It’s evident how much has been invested in setting the space up and on the brewing kit and how much care is taken during every brew.

As the brewery’s name implies, all beers are unfiltered, but that doesn’t apply to the brewery’s offerings- what makes the cut is intensively vetted and scrutinised, as Nash has concentrated on reliable and consistent core beers. The Exile on North Street IPA is abundant with the resinous pine, citrus and the judicious helping of hops that you’d expect, but perfectly rendered for balance with a sharp bitterness in the finish. It’s a beautifully rich beer packed with a time bomb of flavour. The Twelve Years to Zion DIPA packs even more of a wallop for the hopheads, a hazy golden beer that masks its ABV with juicy tropical aromas, nice sweet malts balanced with bracing bitterness.

While they might be on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to conforming to conventions and engaging with the general public, their beer has remained revered and Nash is widely respected in the industry. People baulk at their candour, but this is a brewery that only wants to deliver beer that’s worth the journey- they don’t bottle or can and you won’t find them on the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation’s shelves. So if drinkers want to quench their thirst, they have to go to the source (or hope to find them on keg at Stillwell).

Despite their off-kilter strategy and disinterest in good PR, Haligonians are still making a beeline to North Street for the beer. This is an instance where the beer really does speak for itself and, contrary to all expectations; the staff at the Charm School are very congenial and as astute as the beer.

More headway for Halifax

This is just a snapshot of the breweries and taprooms that are helping form the Halifax beer drinking scene in 2016. Another brewery, 2 Crows Brewing Company, is set to open a 20 bbl (barrels) site any day now in the downtown area, but details are scant. North Brewing Co, who operate a growler station out of Battery Park in across the harbour in Dartmouth, are located in the city’s North end on Agricola Street with a focus on Belgian styles.

This is an ongoing narrative that will continue to unfurl across the coming months an years, where the landscape of drinking and the choice will expand as drinkers become more discerning and demanding. While a glut of new breweries have sprung up in Dartmouth in 2016, there’s still an abundance of room for new businesses in the capital’s urban core. 

As such, expect a lengthy postscript to this story. By the summer of 2017, there's no telling what Haligonians- and Nova Scotians- will be drinking.

Dartmouth, Nova Scotia: local beer emerging from the darkness

Separated by the Halifax Harbour, Halifax and Dartmouth might mirror each other geographically, but have discrete personalities. Once both cities, the latter was absorbed by the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) in 1996. The HRM is the capital of Nova Scotia, boasting a population of approximately 400,000 in its metropolitan area. Its vibrant nightlife and drinking scene is heavily influenced by the number of universities in its urban core. Across the harbour, connected by two suspension bridges and passenger ferries, lies the former city of Dartmouth, now a community with a population of 67,000.

Compared to Halifax, the downtown Dartmouth area is much less developed and, inevitably, less lively as a consequence. But, just as regeneration is dramatically transforming some of London’s most squalid areas, this is rapidly changing. Ten years ago, a Dartmouthian would endure disdain and mockery from Haligonians for living in ‘Darkness’, the uncomplimentary moniker applied to the ‘other’ community across the harbour. In recent years, however, perceptions have been noticeably shifting.

Brewing local with room for expansion

Dartmouth’s transformation is assisted by the emergence of several local businesses in the guise of restaurants, coffee shops, record store/barber shop hybrids and, most relevantly, an excellent taproom. All within walking distance from each other in the heart of the downtown area, these facilities are drawing people in from across the harbour to see what all the palaver is about. Some of these businesses were suddenly awarded placements on ‘best of’ in the Halifax Readers' Choice Awards from the popular local independent newspaper, The Coast. The 2016 list has yet to be finalised, but many of these venues haven’t been operating long enough for consideration in previous years.

In tandem with cheaper rent, Dartmouth is now an attractive prospect for launching a new business. It’s hardly surprising that several new breweries have gone from their establishment to whirlwind success in a matter of months; Nine Locks Brewing Company epitomises this. Since opening in January 2016, they’ve been frantically brewing to supply the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC)’s government-owned stores, private boutiques and kegs to a number of local businesses.

Nine Locks launched straight into canning and sell in 473ml tins- they’ve also put enough forward planning into their business to cater for growth and the capacity to keep up with surging demand. Founded by two cousins, Shaun and Danny O’Hearn, they came into craft brewing with a proven background in the beer industry; the former is owner of a popular restaurant and bar in busy downtown Halifax, Your Father’s Moustache, alongside the Rockbottom Brewpub located beneath the main bar.

The Nine Locks' site is about 7,000 square feet (650 square metres) with a good-sized bottle shop and growler station abutting the shiny new brew house. They’re drawing in a range of beer drinkers, mostly locals who have developed a palate for their superbly refershing IPA, which has a dry bitter sting rounded off with juicy citrus and floral notes thanks to hopping throughout the boil. Their Dirty Blonde has proven just as popular and is a North American style wheat beer, using Canadian wheat and barley for a smooth yet effervescent beer with nice bready notes and a clean finish.

Another Dartmouth brewery success story is Spindrift Brewing Co, whose beer appeared on NSLC shelves in July 2015 as the first Nova Scotian craft beer in a can. Like Nine Locks, Spindrift has invested in a brew house that’s ready for further expansion- they’re working with over 3,400 square feet (315 square meters) of production space. They’ve concentrated on lager and invested in Kellye Robertson, a brewer who cut her teeth at Garrison Brewing Company in Halifax, the brewery credited with introducing craft beer to Nova Scotians in 1997. Once again, the new independent breweries are demonstrating a remarkable head for business and foresight in spades.      

Finally, the nano breweries are also muscling in, proffering their beer in pre-filled growlers at Saturday farmer markets and drumming up a presence via social media. Brightwood Brewery began from such grassroots beginnings, the brainchild of two homebrewers, Matt McGrail and Ian Lawson, and their 1 litre home brewing kit. Their inaugural brew was launched in July 2016 as The Big Lift IPA, which was followed by Smokey the Beer, a smoked honey ale with an accomplished balance between honeyed sweetness and nuances of smouldering campfire in the body.

Battery Park: engaging the local community through crowdfunding

There’s no shortage of beer flowing on the either side of the harbour and even a presence of a retail shop and growler filling station from a Halifax brewery, North Brewing Co, now in downtown Dartmouth. This is courtesy of a new taproom and eatery, Battery Park, which opened in October 2015, piquing a huge amount of interest from beer drinkers across Halifax and Dartmouth in equal measures.

Acting as a counterpoint to Halifax’s much loved Stillwell taproom, Battery Park promised to bring a solid selection of local craft beer on 13 rotating taps- one of which dispenses nitro and another cask- and additional taps offering one homemade non-alcoholic soda, one local cider and four additional taps on the outdoor patio bar. Despite the fact that it’s still early days, Battery Park has been hitting the right notes from the beginning. It was a crowdfunded project that aimed to be intrinsically woven into the local community. Its founders were intent on receiving the support of their neighbours- they acknowledged that from their previous successful crowdfunded operation in Halifax, a restaurant called Brooklyn Warehouse, over 85% of shareholders resided in the same postal code as the business.

While some skeptical types still need convincing that Battery Park is an accessible venue to meet a friends and grab a beer, it’s evident that the business has been designed to be approachable, comfortable and low-key. Staff are the ideal balance of welcoming and knowledgeable and the beer selection covers a wide array of styles, from seasonals to core favourites from the likes of Big Spruce Brewing, Tatamagouche Brewing Company and Boxing Rock Brewing Co. Brightwood and Nine Locks were frequently represented in September alongside Halifax stalwarts Propeller Brewing Co, ensuring that all tastes were catered for.

Inside, the décor is minimal with idiosyncratic flairs of illuminated marquee style lettering and industrial fixings without being painfully minimalist. The outdoor patio is an idyllic retreat in the summer and proved to be exceptionally popular during the hazy summer evenings of 2016. On the whole, it makes for relaxed environs to have a drink or stay for several, whether arriving in a group or pulling up a solo stool at the bar. And the prediction was right concerning the clientele- it’s evident that most are local and known to staff, many enjoying a quiet drink before filling their growler and heading home.

Making Halifax- and its drinkers- take notice

While it will take some time for downtown Dartmouth to catch up to the cultural, gastronomic and commercial retail attractions of Halifax, the winds of change are palpable as money is invested into the area- mostly in the form of new build commercial housing. But its fuelling change and the first independent businesses to open in the downtown area have seen locals flock through their doors. Alongside the charming cafes and artisanal eateries, it wasn’t long before something like Battery Park came along.

Haligonians should get used to the ferry across the harbour. The hunt for an exceptional drink will undoubtedly lead to Dartmouth, so cast your prejudices aside and embrace the spirit that the province's breweries have already embraced: a unified plight to get every Nova Scotian to drink locally and drink well.

Shelburne, Nova Scotia: Boxing Rock is rolling with the punches

Boxing Rock Brewing Co takes its moniker from a local maritime legend in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. The story goes that the Boxing Rock was a site where disgruntled crewmen were left to reconcile their differences; they could either box each other until one survivor prevailed, or put their quarrel to bed over a beer. The association is apt, marrying the brewery’s coastal roots on the province’s south shore with the testimony that their beer is- simply put- legendary. Based on their current runaway popularity with Nova Scotian drinkers, it can’t be refuted that there’s something mythical coming out of Shelburne.

Founded in 2012, Boxing Rock aspired to balance new technology and innovation with tried and tested brewing methods. It’s not surprising that its founders, Emily Tipton and Henry Pedro, both come from an engineering background. This is a prevalent trend across Nova Scotia’s independent breweries, where the majority of brewers boast impressive academic credentials in the vein of engineering and microbiology degrees. This scientific nous has played a pivotal role in the remarkable speed at which fledging breweries are transforming the drinking culture in the province.

While a methodological approach to brewing is beneficial to guarantee consistent batches and ensure that beer is packaged and delivered to customers in prime condition, this doesn’t imply that Boxing Rock are playing it safe. On the contrary, they’ve challenged local palates with not only their collaborations- often working alongside other Nova Scotian favourites such as Big Spruce Brewing and Tatamagouche Brewery- but even their core beers are unconventional.

Their best selling beer is The Vicar’s Cross, a double IPA. Despite it's ABV of 8.5%, it's enormously drinkable with a smooth body and tempered bitterness courtesy of a lovely malt base that whispers of caramel and butterscotch. Temptation Red Ale is another highly characterful beer that benefits from strong hop flavours attributed to a judicious amount of hopping, both throughout the brew then followed by dry-hopping, which is balanced with a chewy malty backbone. The red has appeased many drinkers who don’t usually have a fondness for the style.

The Boxing Rock brewery is bordered by forest and, like Big Spruce in Cape Breton, seems to exist symbiotically with its woodland surroundings. It’s a modern construct fused with the homeliness of a timber lodge, welcoming visitors to sample beers in the tasting room and offering regular brewery tours over the weekends. There’s an on-site merchandise and bottle shop and growler station and- on our visit- a crowd of people were participating in a spot of friendly axe throwing outside. It proved the quintessential Canadian experience.

The brewhouse hosts a 17 barrel (bbl) kit and is spacious enough to sustain further growth. Unlike many rural breweries in the province, Boxing Rock had the foresight to invest in their kit from the get-go and plan for expansion; we were advised by one of their brewers that there was no immediate plan for further development aside from the addition of another bright tank and the vague possibility of another fermentation tank in the near future. The owners are satisfied with current production levels. But he admitted that over the summer of 2016, the brewery was only able to keep up with demand in Nova Scotia alone and not from the adjacent provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Outside of trendy taprooms, a DIPA like Vicar's Cross is destined to be a harder sale, but that’s where the easily palatable Hunk Dory Pale Ale shines. It has manifested itself on drink lists across the province- I found it on offer in small communities on both the mainland and on Cape Breton island at restaurants purveying lobster suppers. Once again, this is an apposite analogy of the traditional clashing with the new: tourists donning ridiculous plastic lobster bibs in a rural community hall, washing down their crustaceans with the finest local brews available.

Hunky Dory is another beer that’s perfectly poised to act as a gateway into a fuller and more open-minded way of drinking. It’s bright, clean and bursting with citrus aromas and a palate of green tea with earthy and floral notes. Balanced and approachable, this beer is also readily available in the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC) branches; this is significant because of how liquor distribution works in the province. The NSLC is the sole distributor of alcohol with the exception of a handful of privately owned boutique stores. Alcohol isn’t sold in grocery stores, nor do Nova Scotians have the luxury of a local off-licence.

The upshot is that the average drinker will source their domestic rations from their closest NSLC, so the local breweries represented here are those that will reach this crucial demographic. And this is the most challenging pitch, targeting customers who haven’t necessary crossed the threshold in search of local or independent offerings. The converted craft drinkers are already filling up their growlers elsewhere or fastidiously studying the shelves of specialist shops.

Despite being thrown into the ring with the big breweries in the NSLC stores, Boxing Rock has faired remarkably well. This might be a testament to the willingness of Nova Scotians to eat and drink local, a movement that's gained roaring momentum over the past few years and fuelled the ubiquity of farmers’ markets up and down the province. Halifax is home to the oldest continuously operating farmer's market in North America, which has run out of several locations since 1750 (including the original site of the Alexander Keith’s brewery, which was featured on the blog here).

Another interesting point was the brewery's preference for bottling. They've opted not to can and this looks unlikely to change in the coming months, as they’ve deemed bottles to be logistically advantageous. Their 650ml sharing bottles are popular on the shelves of the NSLC, especially in the case of Vicar’s Cross, and might be a contributing factor to its astonishing success. Customers are less wary of a fiery DIPA if they’re encouraged to split it between two- or several- friends. Again, the brewery is swimming against the tide with this approach, as many new breweries are moving straight into canning, but it hasn’t impeded their success And they’ve kept busy this year, having brewed at least 15 different styles of beer since May 2016.

While their contract with the NSLC has been both lucrative for the brewery and for boosting the profiles of Nova Scotian beer more generally, their bottles are supplied six months in advance to ensure that they can fulfil their orders and keep shelves stocked. This beer inevitably sits in a warehouse in the interim before sold to the public, giving even more incentive for aficionados to visit the brewery for the freshest examples, or to purchase it from boutique stores or taprooms, where it’s certain that beer is rotated to guarantee that it’s served at its best.

As with the majority of small breweries in Nova Scotia, Boxing Rock launched without any notion of how the local beer industry would explode or how quickly they would be embraced by imbibers. Despite this, they’re managed to keep their head above water. Unlike many of the rural breweries we visited, who are now undergoing expansion to keep up with soaring demand, it’s unlikely that Boxing Rock will change much in the coming years.

Given the breakneck speed that everything seems to be changing across the industry, a sense of continuity is novel and welcome. But don't expect the same stability reflected in their beer- it's guaranteed that the styles and iterations coming from this brewery will become more audacious with time.

Cape Breton: where Big Spruce is keeping craft local

Stemming from a business proposal to sell a few dozen growlers in April 2014, Big Spruce Brewing was an instant hit with drinkers across Nova Scotia. Operating out of Breton Fields, a farmland in Cape Breton with lineage stretching back to the mid 19th century, brewing is a recent addition to the farm’s repertoire. Breton Fields is also a certified organic farm and yields harvests of hops, an apple orchard, a greenhouse and a market garden. When the property was purchased by Jeremy White and Melanie Bock-White in 2008, it stood derelict. Now, it hosts one of the province’s most widely lauded and popular breweries. 

Breton farm is located in a suburb of Baddeck, a village on the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The province is geographically divided into the mainland- which is a peninsula- and the island, which are connected by an artificial causeway. Cape Breton is particularly celebrated for its Cabot Trail, one of the world’s most spectacular scenic roadways characterised by dense forest, misty highlands, vast oceanic panoramas and dramatic cliff faces.

Tourism represents a crucial part of the island’s economy and is mostly reliant upon the Cabot Trail, but people are now pilgrimaging to Cape Breton specifically to visit Big Spruce’s tasting patio and growler station. They’re eager to get a glimpse into the birthplace of Cereal Killer and Kitchen Party, the brewery’s two flagship beers; they’ve become seminal drinks, symbolising the advancements of Nova Scotia’s independent breweries and the public’s shift towards more flavoursome, unfiltered and unpasteurised beer.

From Halifax, Big Spruce is approximately a three-and-a-half-hour drive, making it a feasible destination for a weekend away from the din of the province’s urban centre. The brewery’s tasting patio is a charming space sitting on the apex of a hill that rolls down to the Bras D’Or Lake, one of the world’s largest saltwater lakes.

The surrounding tranquility is palpable and draws in locals and visitors alike for a a flight of beer and, on Friday to Sunday, to listen to traditional music from local musicians. The current brewing site lies behind the tasting room, a 7 barrel (bbl) system that is at full capacity and soon to be supplemented by a new 20 bbl brew house. The brewery has upgraded their old 7 bbl kit, which will undoubtedly be useful in further one-offs or seasonal brews to supplement the new brew house’s output. Their old system has been sold on to Sober Island Brewing in Sheet Harbour (read more here)- allowing another Nova Scotian brewery in its nascent stages to increase its capacity.

The build is already underway and the new brewery is set to open in early 2017. With a canning line rumored to be part of the expansion, the current supply issues that have hampered the brewery should be remedied. Or will at least allow them to fulfill current demand. The tasting patio saw more than twice the number of visitors this year than in 2015, indicating that even further expansion might already be necessary.

Big Spruce’s popularity can be partially attributed to their approach to brewing, favouring accessible and highly palatable beers over trends- Jeremy brews for all types of drinkers, not to impress those already immersed in the scene or in the industry. Thankfully, those who dutifully log each pint downed into an app also revere the brewery and acknowledge the irrefutable quality of their range.

The core range is fairly obiquitous around taprooms in Nova Scotia- Cereal Killer is particularly widespread, occasionally the sole representation of a dark beer on menu boards. Part of the brewery’s core offerings, this oatmeal stout was brewed to plug a gap in the market; prior to its introduction, the style was rarely seen in the province as a perennial feature. It’s a magnificent feat, boasting all of the right notes in the right places: enticing aromas of chocolate and espresso, a frothy tan head, ink-black opaqueness and an astonishingly silky smooth body. The rich mouthfeel and aromas are echoed in the flavor profile, with additional hints of liquorice and a dry finish. This beer has been a gateway drink for many Nova Scotians, encouraging them to move away from the commercially brewed black stuff to something local. Today, it remains one of the best beers available in the province.

The counterpoint to an oatmeal stout is, naturally, a pale ale- and Big Spruce aimed to develop an approachable light beer for easy drinking. Explosive flavours with tropical and resinous notes are balanced with a knife-edge bitterness in their Kitchen Party Pale Ale, a beer that’s as wonderfully aromatic as it is to sip on.

The seasonals available at the brewery included Tim’s Dirty IPA, which relies entirely upon the availability of Simcoe hops. It’s a golden hazy IPA with a nice caramel profile from the malts and a rounded bitterness from those elusive Simcoe hops. Luckily enough, it was flowing freely at the brewery’s tasting patio and in taprooms in Halifax and Dartmouth throughout the month.

Another oft-spotted seasonal was I’m Wit Chris, a witbier infused with lemon and ginger, giving it an intensely citrus nose followed by a fiery kick of ginger on the palate. Enormously drinkable and made with the farm’s own ginger, this tasted exceptionally fresh at the brewery.

Collaborations between Nova Scotian breweries have become endemic- many of its smaller independent breweries are struggling to keep up with swelling demand and many are in the midst of expansion. To keep beer flowing across the province, breweries share facilities and unite; this is exactly the case with the Shame on You IPA from Boxing Rock Brewing Co and Big Spruce: a bitter, hop-forward drink that draws the drinker in with whiffs of pineapple and citrus, then slaps them across the face with a building astringent finish. It’s an assault on the senses, but becomes more mellow and drinkable with every sip. It’s an accomplished beer from two of Nova Scotia’s best breweries.

This spirit of community is entirely reminiscent of London’s independent brewing scene back in the United Kingdom- breweries are colleagues and all speak highly of each other’s beer. There is one marked exception, Unfiltered Brewing in Halifax, who take a more anarchistic and unapologetic approach to their brewing, but deliver on seriously hoppy rocket fuel that is widely respected. Jeremy at Big Spruce, on the other hand, is an engaging brewer who graciously talked us through the brewery’s pursuits while allowing us to sample some experimentations that weren’t quite ready to see the light of day. Jeremy also spoke of foray into experimentation with yeast- ten strains were being tasted that were derived from swabbing every surface on the farm.

The brewery’s commitment to celebrating local ingredients and its roots has garnered respect from the surrounding community and Nova Scotia’s beer aficionados alike. Although Big Spruce can be sourced from most taprooms and independent bottle shops in the mainland, visiting the brewery in Cape Breton is an immersive juncture, bringing one more critical component of the inspiration behind the beer into the forefront: the surrounding scenery and the local people, who have been filling their growlers here from the beginning. The serene environs are intermittently broken by the strumming of an acoustic guitar and a powerful rendition of Farewell to Nova Scotia from a musician in the far corner of the tasting patio.

The sight of the framework of the new brew house, which is within eyeshot of the patio, acts as a reminder that there’s more to come from one of Nova Scotia’s most venerated breweries. This quiet corner just outside of Baddeck is set to become a mecca for beer lovers, whether they’re local or merely dropping in. There genuinely isn’t a better way to experience Nova Scotia than a Kitchen Party Pale Ale in hand and Cape Breton's awe-inspiring vistas.

Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia: Sober Island, where craft brewing goes rural

A couple of hours outside Halifax lies Sheet Harbour, situated on the scenic stretch of Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. Awash with picturesque oceanic views, the community is inhabited by a population of 800 and relies primarily on tourism, fishing and forestry. Although technically part of the Halifax Regional Municipality, it’s approximately 120 kilometres outside of the city centre. It feels like another world altogether, where land, property and family trades are passed down and local roots can be traced back several generations.

Given the size of Sheet Harbour and the distance away from Halifax, it’s incredible to think that there’s a craft brewery making a name for itself here, located in the centre of this small community- but that’s exactly what’s happening. After a mere five months in operation, Sober Island Brewing Company is on the cusp of its first stage of expansion, moving from a 1/2 barrel (bbl) system above the Henley House Pub & Restaurant to a 7 bbl kit in its own purpose-built extension. Land has just been broken on the new site, which is annexed to the Henley House, and the tanks, bought second-hand from Big Spruce Brewing in Cape Breton, are ready to install. Further kit is due for delivery in December this year. Last week, the foundations had been dug and concrete was due to be poured any day.

But this is just the beginning for Sober Island. Rebecca Atkinson, the brewery’s founder, explained that they were at the stage where the expansion was compulsory- with the assistance of another brewer, she had gone from brewing one to several batches at once and there was no more space available to keep up with mounting demand. Even their mobile truck, a converted horse trailer where beer was dispensed at local events and food markets, had its fridges filled to the brim with fermenting beer.

While the brewery’s success has been unprecedented, Rebecca is resolute on winning the local community’s approval and enticing visitors passing through the Eastern Shore to drink her beer at the source. She’s adamant that the business remains in the area and the beer is good enough to beckon drinkers outside of the confines of Nova Scotia’s urban centres. Sober Island proudly promotes itself as a small town brewery with big ideas.

The brewery’s flagship is an oyster stout, something that resonates well with the east coast’s traditions. Using live oysters from local suppliers in the boil, a nod to the lifeblood of most coastal communities, this is the perfect style of beer for Nova Scotia. Naturally, it pairs well with the seafood so amply represented on menus up and down the province, giving it relevance to not only to beer drinkers, but within the cultural tapestry and culinary history of the area.

The beer stands up as well. The oysters lend a light minerality to the body of the stout, which also demonstrates the characteristics of a well-rendered version of the style. Medium-bodied and dispensed on nitro, this is a highly drinkable dark beer with rich aromas of espresso and chocolate and a touch of salinity in the finish from the oysters. It’s a solid achievement by the brewery of a hugely underrepresented variation of a stout in the region.

The brewery’s other styles include an English Golden Rye and a Private Ale ordinary bitter- but Rebecca has yet to settle on the brewery’s core range and indicated that the summer rye might become a seasonal offering. It’s a good session beer with the sunshine in mind- perhaps not as covetable during the harsher, colder months- and the idea of a winter iteration was being considered. I liked its maltiness in particular, which gave it a nice bready nose and a mellifluous body with hints of caramel and only slight bitterness. The colour is hazy golden- and the haze has caused Rebecca endless frustration, as this is a consistent issue with her batches that she can’t overcome. Even after speaking with numerous brewers, the cause of the haze remains a mystery. She recalls only one batch coming out clear, but no notes were taken on this particular brew and it has never been replicated. Regardless, the haze wasn’t particularly noticeable nor problematic for us.

Nearby tourist destination, Liscombe Lodge, has two dedicated lines for Sober Island’s beers and they have on occasion been represented in taprooms in Halifax and Dartmouth, but supply has limited this. While the interim expansion will increase production significantly, Rebecca’s ultimate ambition is to move to brewery to the real Sober Island, which is located approximately ten minutes away from Sheet Harbour. The land there is privately owned and has been passed down through a local family, but they are still in the stages of agreeing an arrangement whereby the brewery can erect a permanent site to include a taproom and space for local events. Rebecca hopes to move to a 20 bbl system on Sober Island by 2019 and draw in crowds to the community.

In the meanwhile, there are more proximate milestones pending for Sober Island. They are foraying into cask- and there was a small batch pilot brew of a beer fermented with locally foraged mushrooms for this purpose- and the first IPA was being fine-tuned on a Grainfather brewing system. Preferring an English style that isn’t dominated by hop flavour, instead opting for a nicely balanced maltiness, this will counterbalance the abundance of aggressively hoppy IPAs that are on trend and prolific across the province. Although the brewery has already dabbled in canning exclusively in crowler-sized vessels, which are 946 ml sharing cans, the oyster stout will be given this treatment in a smaller can soon.

Given her determination to get more beer drinkers out to the Eastern Shore, Rebecca aspires to see the Henley House site offering a growler station soon. And in one further step to keep every component of Sober Island’s beer as local as possible, she hopes to eventually source her malt from local malthouse, Horton Ridge, who supply other Nova Scotian brewers with grain, including Big Spruce Brewing and Tatamagouche Brewing Co on the North Shore. However, it’s currently not within the fledging brewery’s financial scope to afford local malts just yet. Rebecca hopes that the government might eventually offer craft breweries a subsidy to allow for this.

In its current manifestation, as an onsite microbrewery in the Henley House, three styles of Sober Island’s beer can be enjoyed on a tranquil balcony setting in Sheet Harbour where the bustle of Halifax seems like a distant memory. On a Thursday night, the pub is a hotbed of activity, where locals gather for a weekly quiz, a beer and a chinwag. The pub’s menu also offers a satisfying counterpoint to the beer, with all fish  delivered, shucked and prepared that day.

Obvious jokes aside with reference to the Sober Island moniker, this is a brewery founded in rural Nova Scotia, but that hasn't impeded its innovations or growth. In the coming years, Sober Island will be a destination for visitors to fully immerse themselves in the province's culture, where the sea air and the shellfish mingle with hops and malts to create a beer that's manifestly Nova Scotian- and, like the province itself, it's a beautiful thing.

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