Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia: brewing and lore on the North Shore

The seaside village of Tatamagouche is located in Nova Scotia’s Northumberland Strait, taking its name from a Mi'kmaq term, Takumegoochk, which loosely translates to ‘extending across’. It’s home to the Tatamagouche Brewing Company, the Atlantic Canadian Beer Award’s 2018 Brewery of the Year.

With a population of just over 2,000 people, it ticks all the boxes of a small, tight-knit community. Its Main Street boasts a bakery, butcher, a family-owned restaurant and an artisan chocolate shop. Blending into its surroundings, the brewery emulates the streetscape frontage, betrayed only by a gleaming water tower looming overhead.

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The brewery site was originally a butcher shop, but Tatamagouche Brewing took over the lease in 2013 and opened its doors to the public a year later. Founded by couple Matt Kenny, Christiane Jost and Christiane’s parents (who sold Nova Scotia’s largest winery, Jost Vineyards, in 2012), the business struggled to keep up with demand from early days. They’ve gone through a series of expansions since 2014 and, when we visited in January 2019, they were gearing up for yet another upgrade to double the size of the brewhouse.

The team brews up to five times a day in the summer and most days in the winter. Despite this incredible volume, quality remains at the heart of their business. They’re proud of their certified organic accreditation and have the second lowest dissolved oxygen level in Atlantic Canada, which helps their unpasteurised beer to stay fresh as long as possible.

Tatamagouche Brewery Nova Scotia

They’re committed to increasing the brewery’s energy and water efficiency; sustainability is a concern for those who live in the village. At the time of our visit, residents were protesting against proposed gold mining exploration in The French River watershed, a local water supply. The brewery is proud to employ 20 people during the summer months and — with more growth on the horizon — they see this as a socially responsible way of creating local jobs for local people.

Tatamagouche Brewery Nova Scotia

Tatamagouche Brewing’s taproom was bustling even in the winter; it acts as a hub where neighbours congregate and tourists immerse themselves in a beer flights. Off-duty employees gave us an impromptu brewery tour and then kept us company for an entire afternoon. It’s that sort of place.

Tatamagouche Brewery Nova Scotia

The North Shore Lagered Ale is a popular dependable beer with locals (and won a Bronze at the 2015 Canadian Brewing Awards). An homage to the kölsch style, it’s refreshing with a whiff of grass and a touch of balanced citrus flavours. But it’s Deception Bay, their West Coast IPA, that appeals to the province’s craft beer drinkers. A modern beer, it delivers a wave of bitterness and an intense flavour and aroma profile from US and German hops, delivering punchy grapefruit, melon and resinous notes. The night before, I watched a keg of this beer fly off the tap in Battery Park, a beer bar back in Dartmouth.

Tatamagouche Brewery Nova Scotia

The world of Nova Scotian brewing occasionally borrows from local lore; Shelburne’s Boxing Rock Brewing Co takes its name from a legendary place where sailors would resolve their differences over blows. Tatamagouche Brewing’s logo is a two-headed bull, which aptly reflects the brewery’s duality of championing progress while embracing the past. It also refers to a piece of history about a two-headed calf born in the village over a hundred years ago.

Which is exactly the kind of extraordinary tale that’s best recounted over a beer.

Quidi Vidi, Newfoundland: a brewery with a view

Picturesque Quidi Vidi in St. John's, Newfoundland is a surprising location for the province's largest craft brewery. Against the backdrop of a historic fishing village, Quidi Vidi Brewing Company has been turning out beer since 1996 and today accounts for 2% of total beer sales on the island.

Quidi Vidi Brewery

The brewery rose from the ashes of a former cod processing plant, which stood on the site from 1960-1992, when it was closed following a moratorium on the Northern Cod fishery. The location plays a pivotal role to the brewery, where visitors are regaled with not only a history of the beer, but of the surrounding area. When Quidi Vidi opened its doors, founders David Fong and David Rees aimed to not only compete for a share of the market predominately controlled by Molson Coors and Labatt in Newfoundland, but to brew an exceptional range for the locals. They initially set out to reproduce a light beer that could surpass the quality of what was available on the market; Newfoundlanders, or Newfies, prefer sessionable styles in particular. Light beers make up 60% of sales in the province.

They launched Quidi Vidi Light, a 4% American style lager, as a gateway beer - one to convince and entice drinkers to shift their brand allegiances and drink from a local brewery. This crisp lager did the trick and now accounts for more than ten million dozen beers per year per capita in Newfoundland.

Quidi Vidi Iceberg

Their most intriguing offering is Iceberg Beer, a lager brewed with twenty thousand year old water from icebergs. The brewery has an iceberg harvester contracted to extract iceberg water, a dangerous process involving cranes and grappling hooks. An unfortunate effect of climate change means that Iceberg Alley, a colloquial term used for the ecozone that stretches from Greenland to Newfoundland, is replete with icebergs traversing the waters. Some have been visible from St John's harbour, according to the locals.

Iceberg Beer makes up 25% of the brewery's sales and its clean taste shouldn't really astonish - iceberg water contains virtually no impurities. In addition to this, the beer is bottled in a stunning electric blue vessel which has proved equally as popular as the beer. The brewery quickly began to run out of the bottles because they were being used for arts and crafts across the province, from makeshift vases to beach glass. To coerce the public to return them for recycling, the brewery offered them 20 cents per bottle, increased from the usual 15 cents offered .

The 1892 was their first beer, named after the year of The Great Fire of 1892, which was the worst disaster to befall St John's and said to have caused $13 million dollars worth of damage in the day's currency. A traditional ale, the beer is characterised by malt sweetness with some chewy caramel notes and nuttiness. It offers a departure from the lagers that the brewery focusses on.

If you needed further evidence of how Quidi Vidi successfully resonates with their local clientele, one must only consider the below poster, which was used to advertise their Eric's Red Ale. After being pitched inane ideas by a big city agency involving women in bikinis in the freezing waters of the Atlantic ocean, the brewery took their own approach - and it was intended to give fellow Newfoundlanders something to talk about.

Quidi Vidi Brewery

Despite the hospitality offered in spades at the brewery itself, its founders are reported to no longer be on speaking terms following a messy court battle over misappropriation of funds. There's no sign of anything amiss to visitors, but the future of the brewery is uncertain. Given its market share in the province, it's potentially an easy target for Big Beer.

Until then, the popular kitchen parties will continue and Newfie culture will be entrenched in the brewery and the beer; no matter what happens down the line, this local focus will hopefully continue, as it's been the key to the brewery's success.

Halifax, Nova Scotia: Alexander Keith's and how craft beer is taking shape

Only two days into a trip home to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the tell-tale signs of an emerging craft beer scene are unmistakable. This city, whose metropolitan area boasts a population of under 400,000 and an urban centre focused around the second largest natural harbour in the world, was historically a significant trading hub for privateers. Today, it’s home to several large university campuses, making it the hub of university education in Eastern Canada. Given its rich maritime history and the marked contribution of a constant flow of university students to the vivacity and energy of the city, it’s a prime breeding ground for independent breweries to thrive.

The past two years have seen a dramatic upheaval in Halifax’s drinking scene and everything is in a whirlwind of transformation. When I was a student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, we happily cradled sloshing pitchers of Alexander Keith’s IPA without a thought of hop characteristics in our heads. Founded in 1820, the Alexander Keith’s brewery is one of the oldest commercial breweries in North America and is famed for its flagship IPA. In Halifax, you can’t go far without having a Keith’s thrust upon you- it’s the province’s favourite sup and was heavily marketed under the slogan “those who like it, like it a lot” throughout the summit of its popularity in the 90s.

The IPA itself- which is substantially less hoppy and lacks any bracing bitterness- is more congruous of a benign pale ale, lacking any real juicy aromas or anything remarkable on the palate. I can attest that based on my observations this week, its popularity has not waned with locals. It’s incontestably synonymous with Nova Scotia and every Nova Scotian will have a nostalgic affection for the beer and the branding.

Keith’s was bought out by Labatt, a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch InBev in 1971. Despite this, the brewery has made efforts to remain relevant to the evolving tastes of the province’s customers. In June 2016, the original brewing site was opened again after being mothballed since 2006. After ten years, the lights were turned on to accommodate a small-batch operation. The range encompasses a perennial Cornerstone Edinburgh Pale Ale and a series of seasonals, including a Lunenburg Coffee Cacao Stout and the Fundy Low Tide White IPA.

Although some will lambast these new attempts and label them as incisive marketing to profit from the rising popularity of craft beer, the range demonstrates some commendable characteristics- especially when contrasted to some pilot batches that I’ve come across from big breweries in the UK. I’ve been underwhelmed by beers that promised an abundance of flavour notes and infusion of audacious ingredients in the past. It’s imperative that breweries demonstrate a grasp of contemporary drinking habits and keep their finger on the pulse.

The Cornerstone pale is a fine rendition- it surpasses expectations with a pleasant caramel and citrus nose. The flavour delivers a rounded balance of sweet maltiness with a citrus tang, finishing with enough of a bitter edge to satiate. The Low Tide, however, really struck me as an apt middle ground between the legacy of the Keith’s brewery and the modern drinker- a white IPA using dulce and sea lettuce from the Bay of Fundy, the beer’s namesake. The bay has the highest tidal range in the world and is a site of phenomenal beauty that is equally beloved by tourists and locals alike. The incorporation of these marine ingredients appeals to the sentiments of Nova Scotians while imparting a savoury profile to their beer, harmonising with the citrus flavours of the hops to result in a satisfying and easily relished brew.

Although Keith’s sits under the AB InBev umbrella, it plays a seminal role in the evolution of Nova Scotia’s beer culture and continues to actively participate in the impassioned discussion. Still ubiquitous on tap across the province, it’s the beer that prominently featured throughout my university years. So much so that Greg Nash, head brewer at Unfiltered Brewing, an independent brewery established in 2015 in Halifax’s north end, discovered the original recipe for Alexander Keith’s IPA and recreated the beer. And, according to their co-founder, Andrew Murphy, it was hop-heavy and dank, demonstrating the characteristics of any noteworthy IPA by today’s astute and shrewd standards.

No journey across Halifax’s emerging craft beer industry can overlook Keith’s, which is a beer that is emblazoned in the memories of many Nova Scotians. Today, Haligonians might reach for the oily, resinous and explosive IPAs from Unfiltered or the crisp Belgian styles from North Brewing Co, but we all need to start somewhere.