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.