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.