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.