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.