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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