Halifax, Nova Scotia: brewing across the capital

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.

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