I’ve been lucky enough to call home two amazing small cities with long working-class histories. In Newcastle, Australia, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, I have been lucky enough to witness a rebirth in craft beer and cocktail culture. These two places are hardly metropolitan epicentres like Sydney and Toronto (respectively) and yet the craft renaissance has gripped them like nothing I’ve seen before. After pondering on this for some time, and comparing and contrasting these two very similar towns, it seems to me that the success of the resurgent hospitality cities comes down to the people in the cities.
For the years from the ’60s through the late ’90s, Newcastle’s heart and soul was the steel mill. When BHP closed much of the heart of the city was torn out, and the formerly bustling main street fell into disrepair. Hunter Street became a ghost town. But while our industry may have died, Novocastrians (inhabitants of Newcastle [henceforth referred to as God’s Country]) maintained the humble, working-class modesty that made our city great. Always keen for a yarn over a beer and to discuss the footy. When the craft beer revolution took off, people embraced it in such a non-judgemental manner that small craft breweries could not help but feed off it.
The people of God’s Country were seasoned on VB or Tooheys New (and never the twain shall meet) because they had been drinking it for thirty years, and their fathers before them. Those whose doctors told them they could no longer drink, drank XXXX Gold (a mid-strength beer). But presented with a multitude of delicious beers that only cost a buck or two more, the punters took them on with gusto.
There was no snobbery, no “ooh I want a beer with x flavour profile”, just “fuck that’s a good tasting beer, I’ll have ten.” And then the tap would rotate onto a new craft beer and the process would repeat. The people of God’s Country took to these craft beers in the way I had hoped they would. A sense of adventure based on a wholehearted love of beer.
I see a lot of the same here in Halifax. For many people who come into our brewery, their visit may be their first experience of craft beer, and they approach it hoping to be given something they like. Not to find a beer that adheres to a certain judging criteria, but just that tastes great and will get them on the way to a good time.
So as I see the craft beer revival thriving in these two places I love I have to give immense credit to the Novocastrians and Haligonians who are making it succeed. When it all comes down to it, without people to drink the beer, there’s no point brewing it.
So give yourselves a pat on the back guys, you make the process worth it, and are an integral part of the renaissance of craft beers and cocktails.
It’s a funny old game this business of slinging drinks. As I speedily approach my ten year “hospoversary” (hospitality anniversary), I spend more time reflecting on my time in the industry, what it has given to me, and what it has taken from me.
At its core, I love it with all my heart. Through my interactions with the many amazing customers and co-workers I’ve met throughout the years, I’ve become close to people from all walks of life. From discussing Camus in the dishpit, to talking footy over the bar, between front and back of house we’ve solved all of the world’s problems. The people with whom I have engaged in discourse with have opened my eyes, shared some amazing things with me, and I do my absolute best to reiterate this, giving the best of myself to every interaction. Some of the best times I have had in my life have been enjoyed on both sides of the bar, with the people I have worked with, and the people who I have worked for: my eternal boss, the customers. I love it, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
However there is a darker side to this industry, particularly for those suffering from mental health disorders. This dark side is one that I rarely share with people in my professional capacity, as no-one wants to hear about their bartender’s shitty day when they’re enjoying a beer. But at the same time, this industry can run you into the ground and spit you out. The long hours, late nights, hectic work environments, constant excuses to drink, and anti-social schedules can force a person into seclusion.
When you’re working, your friends are drinking and socialising. When your friends are drinking and socialising, you’re working. So you drink when you’re not working. Whether it’s pounding beers till 7am after your shift, or sitting on 3 bottles of red wine on your day off because it’s a Tuesday and everyone else is at their “real jobs”.
As someone living with Type 2 Bipolar Disorder, this “routine” has led to some very self-destructive periods in my life. It isolated me, it got in the way of friendships and relationships, and threw me into a hole that I was lucky enough to make it out of. Some are not so lucky. The immense lows that a bipolar sufferer endures were compounded by the drinking, the lack of sleep, and the separation from my loved ones.
But as I’ve been told so many times, the key to everything is balance. The highs that this industry offers me more than make up for the crushing lows, and it’s a game that I’ll play for a long while yet. While the industry intrinsically has its problems, the people that I’ve met and shared my time behind the bar with and the moments we’ve shared have made it all worth it. It’s a simple as a customer enjoying a beer I’ve poured them, a thank you as they leave the bar, a wind-down beer with a co-worker after a shift. As I grow older, the balance is shifting more in my favour, and the good times are outweighing the bad.
Keep your chin up, and let’s grab a beer sometime.
We frequently hear of hops shortages, though rarely does one hear of an equally important problem: malted (roasted) barley shortage. While demand currently fits supply, within a decade, supply could be problematic.
How did this happen?
In the past 135 years of global temperature data, 4 of the 5 hottest months on record all happened in 2015. Near-droughts, excessive rain and weather fluctuations yielded poorer quality crops in 2013 and 2014.
As poor as the Canadian crops were, the American crops suffered even worse. By virtue of NAFTA, tariffs on Canadian malt were eliminated and American breweries began purchasing Canadian crops without restraint.
Most barley is produced to feed cattle. Canadian beef production is down. Mad cow disease continues to hurt Canadian beef export. In addition, an increasing number of citizens are eating healthier and sustainably by reducing or eliminating red meat from their diets.
Barley for beef feed is competing with soybeans, canola and corn, all genetically modified crops with better resilience, production and pricing than barley. Monsanto Company invested $10M over 10 years for short-season corn in Alberta, destroying barley competition in Canada’s biggest barley province.
Macrobreweries tend to use alternatives to malt, such as corn and rice, to cheapen production. Popular macro beers also tend to be lighter and lower in alcohol. Therefore, craft breweries use, on average, 4x the amount of malt per unit volume than macrobreweries, creating a higher demand on barley.
THE FUTURE OF BEER
In the next 10 years, we have 180k metric tonnes of malting capacity under build. Projections show we’ll need 1M metric tonnes (Canada Malting Group Annual Presentation, Halifax, 2015). Canada will begin importing European and Australian malt sooner than later, though the incoming El Niño cycle will likely yield a very harsh winter in Europe and hotter and drier conditions in Australia. Expect wheat beers to gain prominence since wheat is more resilient than barley and GMO wheat will likely enter the commercial market soon. Brewers may also begin experimenting more with sugary alternatives to barley, like sorghum, millet, rice, corn, quinoa, spelt, oats, and rye.
But, you know, the picture isn’t that bleak. We adapt. We’ll always find a way to get buzzed. Ever had prison hooch with rotted fruits fermented in a sock?
If you’re reading this, you’re likely familiar with the current situation. If not, let me get you up to speed. A yoga event we were hosting was shared on our Facebook page. The description of the event was misogynistic and deeply offended many people. Here is the screenshot taken of the event details, which then spread to social media:
It is a fact that the way the event is written is offensive. Connie, the owner of RIO Pilates approached me a few weeks ago about hosting a yoga event on our lawn. She hosts a weekly yoga class called “Broga”, an all-male yoga class followed by beers. She wanted to start serving our beer at her studio and proposed a collaborative yoga and beer event. Being a fan of yoga myself, I jumped at the opportunity. RIO was to take care of everything: ticketing, promo, setup, clean up, etc. My only task was to obtain the liquor permit. We agreed that I would not promote the event on our social media because we wanted to attract mostly RIO’s existing customers and friends, and only 20-30 people could attend.
I did not properly proofread the event description and, for that, I sincerely apologize. I did not perform my duty as Marketing Director.
I’d like to iterate three points.
1) Myself, my two co-founders, Angus and Doug, as well as our 15 employees do not share the sentiment communicated in the event description.
2) Neither I, nor anyone from our company, proofread the event description even after my girlfriend warned me about it. For that, I sincerely apologize. We will screen all content and events associated with our brand in the future to ensure nothing like this happens again.
3) Due to a death in Connie’s family, RIO has postponed the event until further notice. RIO will address the situation when Connie returns.
If you have anything to add to the conversation, please do in the comments, our social media, via email, or a phone call. Thank you for taking the time to read this.
“What’s your lightest beer?”
“What do you have that tastes like beer?”
“What do you have that’s like [Labatt/Keith’s/Bud Light/Oland’s/Corona]?”
These are the most common questions we get when we sample our beer in an area outside of our usual patronage, as we did at Moo Nay Farms this weekend. (As an aside, when these new subjects try our beer, the most common feedback we get is eyes wincing, tongue sticking out, head shaking, and a general look of disgust.)
Ironically, these same patrons happily crowded the grill next to us to try a locally made, farm-fresh, preservative-free sausage. They care about their food quality. So why is beer any different?
A little Canadian beer history…
Much like the US, Canada was ripe with beer at the turn of the 20th century – about 118 breweries with a population less than 7M. After Prohibition ended in 1930, the brewery total declined to about 69 breweries, which survived by brewing beer for consumption outside Canada. (Prohibition was even more devastating for the US, with over 4k breweries dwindling to about 500, which further declined to about 40 through to the 1970s.)
After Prohibition, beer control fell in the hands of publicly owned stores and liquor boards, who imposed heavy, often ridiculous restrictions on alcohol. Many breweries consolidated, the most famous of which was E.P. Taylor’s merger of 30 Canadian breweries into one conglomerate later known as Carling O’Keefe. By 1980, Molson, Labatt, and Carling O’Keefe controlled well over 90% of the beer market.
Then, a series of fortunate events unfurled. In 1971, a group of passionate British drinkers formed the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which sought to educate the public about traditional, flavourful beers fermented in casks. Michael Jackson (no, not him) published The World Guide to Beer in 1977, which sparked international interest in beer. One year later, the United States legalized homebrewing, sparking a sudden resurgence of small breweries and brewpubs, while a disgruntled Carling O’Keefe employee decried the state of Canadian beer in a popular magazine article. British Columbia minister Peter Hyndman deregulated beer pricing in 1981 to increase competition between breweries, but the Big 3 all increased their price to the same amount. Hyndman then began handing licences to “cottage breweries” to aid in the competition. Craft brewing in Canada was born.
So, there you have it. The “lightest beer” – the beer that “tastes like beer”, like a Blue or an Oland’s or a Schooner, is a pale lager, a style ubiquitous in our nation since 1930, a style the big conglomerates brewed solely because they knew it sold. Your parents drank it. Their parents drank it. And chances are, you’ve drank it. Craft beer isn’t a new style of beer. It’s mostly a reemergence of old styles that were prominent before conglomerates took the stage. Craft beer is what your great-great-grandfather may have drank. It’s in your blood. Though hopefully below 0.08.
The major problem with our brewery is that you guys come here, buy the beer, and leave. Some of you send us pictures of yourselves enjoying the beer. Then, while we’re taking a leak at The Stubborn Goat, we check our phones and see that fabulous picture of our beer on your backyard porch. Or your office desk. Or a mountain top. Campsite. Living room. Schoolyard.
See the problem?
We don’t get to drink our beer with you.
Let’s remedy that.
Our driveway has come a long way, from Denzel Washington movie set to 10,000 pounds of transplanted soccer field. And although John MacNeil Elementary may not get the practice they need to make the finals this year, I’m sure even they’d appreciate the complementary colour coordination we pulled off. Go Dolphins!
Demolition, structural, plumbing and some electrical are finished. The second-most interesting phase involved turning a living room into a mezzanine overlooking the bar. The most interesting phase will be explaining to our landlord what happened to the residence upstairs.
You may notice that, as compared to our brewery construction blog posts, our taproom construction blog posts contain few nightmares. Andrew Flood and his amazing team at Five by Five Renovations are to thank for that. While they’ve been hammering through taproom construction, which should be complete in about 6 weeks, we’re catching up on brewery operations, which are difficult. Brewing is demanding. Cash is tight. It’s horrifying to watch your sales increase as your bank account dwindles, but it’s the reality of owning a business. We feel similar to how we did just before the brewery opened. By the time the graffiti mural below hits our wall, we’ll be days away from opening our taproom, which we want as much as you do. Just forgive us if we pass out after one pint.
Stand-up comedy is a huge part of our lives. In Seattle, I took weekly trips to the comedy clubs just to hear someone say something meaningful. In fact, Doug Stanhope’s Steal Shit and Quit routine helped push me to quit my job and pursue the brewery. On a road trip we took, Doug had to pull the Chevy Suburban over while listening to Patton Oswalt’s Tom Carvel bit since he was laughing too hard to drive. Angus, Doug and I still attend comedy nights at Gus’ Pub on Mondays and Dal Grad House on Wednesdays. Comedy and beer go hand in hand as catalysts of free speech and, of course, good times.
Introducing Just Vorlaufs, a weekly stand-up event showcasing the best comedians Halifax has to offer. No TVs. No pool tables. No smartphones. Just you and whatever unfiltered thoughts come to the comics’ minds. We also envision a series of beers to pair with the comics, like Doug Stanhop, Lewis Black IPA or Patton Osmalt.
So join us once a week at Halifax’s second-best comedy venue and eighth-best brewery. We need comedy. Here’s why:
“Comedy and tragedy are two halves of the same coin. Comedy unites us—the moment the laugh spreads through the room we come together, it unites. Tragedy is its opposite—it always divides. We like to believe otherwise, in “a country united by tragedy” and shit like that, but it’s not true. Every person’s tragedy is theirs alone, and it divides us off, even as we are sitting together in a room. These two great forces, pushing and pulling, are the axioms that underlie all storytelling. Anyone who counts comedy as a lesser force isn’t seeing clearly how integral they are to each other—subtract either one and the world just doesn’t exist any more.
Remember that kid who freaked out because he only got 89% on a calculus quiz? That’s us. Sure, our brewery is finally open for business, we’re on tap at some of our favourite spots, and we’ve got some sexy events coming up, but why enjoy the fruits of your labour when you can ferment them? Let the taproom construction begin!
Breakhouse has taken our ideas and expanded, refined and improved them. Like an engineer, our exterior is cold, grey and closed off to the world.
But when you get to know us, we’re warm and approachable, like a sunny beer garden.
We want the taproom to have the cozy warmth and conversation of a classic pub or dive but with a modern, surrealist vibe. Like our beers and personality, it’s not true to style. A neighbourhood haunt for misfits in search of good times and good brews.
The taproom is currently an old restaurant with a residence on top. We’re tearing out a portion of the residence floor to make a mezzanine overlooking the main floor.
The bar features 12 taps, 2 of which will be casks, some of which will be guest spots, and 1 of which will be connected to Doug’s veins. On the left is a small prep area reserved for finger foods courtesy of Food Noise, who makes healthy versions of the awful food we enjoyed in college. The chairs will be drop-top cherry Cadillac love seats capable of sitting 2 or 3 people, or 1 Angus lying down.
The back end is adjacent to huge windows which allow you to watch your day disappear in real time. The booths will be loaded with posters of various festivals and shows we’d love to attend if we had the foresight to know we will never travel again.
We’re shooting for a September opening, but given the rate of our current accomplishments, I’d wager we open in early 2018. So strap on your hover-boots and gravitate your way here. Schedules are overrated. So is growing up.
I have a brain that, in the words of my favourite stand-up, won’t shut the fuck up. Teachers, bosses and friends have called me absent-minded, but it’s almost the opposite of that. It’s absent-bodied. I’m often unaware of my surroundings because I frequent my head, which can often be a negative place. The added stress of running a business compounds that tenfold. Sometime last summer during a breakdown, I began meditating. By picturing myself as a mountain and my thoughts as passing clouds, I developed an ability to better control my brain. For many months, I was able to set aside some time each day to focus on my breathing and control the negative thoughts attacking my brain like so many lipases attacking my fat cells (sorry – I’m eating Domino’s cheesy bread). Once construction began and the brewery opened, it became near-impossible to find a time or place to meditate.
Last week, I saw one of my favourite stand-up comics, Tig Notaro. I did not enjoy myself. Tig was on point, but I wasn’t. With opening week and Nova Scotia Craft Beer Week insanity, my mind was overloaded. I could not focus. I barely even laughed. Given my passion for stand-up, I knew something was wrong. Enter The Floatation Centre.
I first met Lindsay through Ladies Beer League. So, yes, this is a shameful plug. But it’s an earnest, shameful plug. Lindsay’s mantra – Attack with Love – fits her personality like tangy marinara fits a hot, toasty piece of Domino’s cheesy bread (again, sorry). She has a heart of gold and only wishes the best for everyone. Meditative floating is a natural extension for her.
During floating, you rest inside an insulated tank filled with a heavy saline solution. You float, so your sense of touch is suspended, and the insulated chamber prevents much sound or light from entering. Since you shower beforehand, smell plays little role, and your only taste may be a bit of that salty brine if some should touch your lips, a lovely precursor to the Domino’s cheesy bread you will no doubt enjoy afterwards for only $5.99. In other words, your brain has no distractions. Some people hallucinate. Others experience nothing but a calming silence. My journey wasn’t mystical, and I’m hesitant to call it enjoyable, but it was necessary.
During the first few moments of floating, my mind was, in Angus’ words, a Rolodex of superficial problems. Did I mention to that customer that our gose is gluten-free? Was I nice enough to that bar manager? Did I wipe front to back? After these initial problems, problems that often seem urgent yet are not all-that important, my mind drifted to deeper problems. When did I last chat with my mother? Is a craft beer ambassador a glorified drug dealer? Will I ever be honest with myself? As the questions became increasingly heavier, my heart raced faster and breathing intensified. Eventually, the truly deep-seated problems, the ones we put on the back-burner and cover up with busy work, floated to the surface, problems I’d rather not discuss in a brewery blog post. Overwhelming waves of sadness and aggression eroded my senses until suddenly, BAM! A strange and sudden stillness. That eery calm after a huge storm. The closest thing I could describe it as is indifference, maybe even acceptance. It is what it is. Or better yet, as worded by my favourite TV drama…
Business and busyness are rarely, if ever, separate. Entrepreneurs often possess a dissatisfaction with the status quo, and in some cases, this dissatisfaction stems from something deeper. A broken heart. A painful childhood. A lack of cheesy bread. We often cover our problems with day to day tasks that keep the forefront of our minds occupied while purposely neglecting the painful undertones. I’ve been so busy for so long that I’ve been neglecting many of these undertones, which can erupt in toxic ways if not addressed. Lindsay tearfully told me of an older gentleman who was recently in a car accident which dramatically affected his nervous system. He was constantly fearful and the promise of a meditative, relaxing journey sounded promising. He tried floating today for the first time and said it was the first serenity he’s experienced since the accident.
As I left my session, Tycho was playing through the lobby, which was funny in a sad way. I used to listen to Tycho on my morning bus routes through the grey, rainy Seattle fog on my way to a job I didn’t like. The surreal, melancholic, almost dream-like quality of the music fit my mood perfectly. I would think to myself, I finished engineering school. I got the engineering job. I’m making money. Domino’s is open 24/7. Why am I unhappy? The brewery seemed like the ticket, an external patsy to an internal conspiracy. Don’t get me wrong – I’m much better suited and happier in my current life, but the same feelings of emptiness that haunted me on those lonely bus rides came pouring over me again tonight during my float session. I made a promise to myself to make floating a regular part of my life. Self-improvement may be a bit strong of a goal, but self-acceptance is as important and difficult.
We’re one more week away from opening and two more mistakes away from aneurisms. The last month has been hellish. It’s difficult to even laugh at the situation, but that’s our only defence mechanism at this point, so here goes nothing.
Our timing has always been off. We studied the night before exams. We show up at bars after last call. I plan on marrying at 72, then again at 76. But this past month has truly pushed us to the limit, beginning with our equipment arrival. After several delays due to inclement weather (which we predicted in our last construction update), our equipment arrived during a record-setting snowfall at rush hour on the busiest street in Halifax. The tilt-deck truck got stuck, blocking off all of Robie St. for 45 minutes while we frantically tried to dig it out. A skidsteer attempted to pull the truck out, but also got stuck in the process.
Inside the brewery was another nightmare. The tanks were too tall to tilt, plus the tilt chain seized up. The HVAC had to be removed and reinstalled to finish the job.
Like the Amityville series, the nightmare continues. Since the burner on the kettle is propane-fired and American-made, it required a CSA approval inspection and sticker. No problem. We knew this last July and planned accordingly. The week of our CSA inspection, the inspector had a massive heart attack. (We’ve since found out the inspector, Andrew Johnson, has passed away. Rest in peace, friend.) With no replacement in Atlantic Canada available and Nova Scotia Craft Beer Week just around the corner, Angus pulled every string he could, negotiating between Irving Propane, Office of the Fire Marshal, and DME (equipment supplier) to obtain a temporary brewing licence by installing myriad additional safety features. The whole ordeal is too exhausting for a blog post, but Angus would love to tell you in person over a pint sometime. Most importantly, we could brew beer once the system was commissioned.
DME sent Don (beauty) of Barnone Brewing – you may remember him from our trip to PEI last summer – to help commission our system. Day 1 went flawlessly and we celebrated our first victory in ages with wild beers at Stillwell and wild grinding at Reflections. Six hangovers and one lost wallet later, we began brewing beer – eight batches in seven days as required to meet our opening demand while still staying within the confines of our temporary burner approval – and encountered nearly every brewing problem in the books: a clogged mill, improper readings, insufficient water, and a stuck sparge. Lucky for us that Doug has an able-hand at brewing and managed to salvage everything.
The biggest horror came when some silly goose decided to turn off the heaters in our brewery and the temperature dropped overnight. Yeasts are like Florida retirees: they like consistent warmth. We tried every trick in the book to bring the tanks back to room temperature. We jacked the hydronic heaters. We rented a 65,000-BTU propane heater. We blasted the tanks with high-temperature water from a heating element. We jogged on the spot. The air was hot, thick and sugary, like a Candy Land rainforest. We didn’t sleep that night, possibly because we were jacked on sugar fumes. But it worked. The yeast recovered. With three weeks until opening date, we had beer brewing.
Do you like migraines? So do we. With all the ongoing construction and brewing mayhem, we thought, Hey – We’re opening in two weeks. Why not completely change our company name, brand and logo? With the guiding hand of our amazing taproom designers and branding affiliates, Breakhouse, we found a direction that worked better for us. Insane Masochist Brewing Company was taken, but Good Robot seemed to fit the bill, too. This also meant all our suppliers of glassware, merchandise, signage, tap handles and other paraphernalia could share in the migraine. We owe back rubs to Tom of Jymline, Jenna and Jake of eyecandy, Nigel of Fresh Prints, Sean Lanzner of Maritime Labels and Packaging, Roger of Atlantic Digital, and everyone else that has tolerated our childish nonsense. We also owe a huge thanks to our college buddy Marc Clauser who flew in from Toronto to help us out with everything. In some cases, the damage was already done.
In sixth grade, I pooped my pants. I was a little on the brown side of ripe to be pulling a stunt like that and my reputation suffered. But I bounced back by laughing at myself and inviting people to join in on the laughter. That’s all we can do at this point. That’s all we can do at any point in life where everything seems to be crashing down. We’re human. We make mistakes. We’re one week away from opening and we’ve put ourselves through a hell of a grind. But we have a brewery, a brand, and most importantly, we’ve got beer. Really good beer. We can’t wait for you to taste it next week at Nova Scotia Craft Beer Week and at our brewery on Saturday, May 9th. Come drink at your expense and laugh at ours.