3 microbreweries to try this summer
I have long suspected that the main thing the best-selling beers on the market have going for them is familiarity. Take a brand like Molson Canadian, for example. Introduced in 1959, the beer has been advertised to Canadians for nearly 60 years. Everyone recognizes the name and the logo, but would you recognize the brewers if you passed them on the street? Chances are you wouldn’t.
There’s a level of alienation that accompanies large-scale brewing. For the vast majority of beer’s history, it was produced locally. Brewer was a job held by someone within your community. Consolidation at the beginning of the 20th century meant that the number of breweries dwindled while their size grew exponentially. Products became homogenous as brewers focused on universal appeal and shipped products made centrally to many different locations. The difficulty is that people don’t live universally; people live specifically — on a street in a neighbourhood in a town with its own problems and challenges.
At a point in history where we curate playlists on Spotify and have any number of options for interacting with the world via our smartphones, it makes sense that drinkers crave a galaxy of options in terms of beer styles. At the same time, however, small microbreweries are popping up in communities across Canada, businesses that contribute to a sense of local pride because they are enmeshed in the day-to-day life of wherever they are based.
The personality a brewery displays can be a result of their place within the community or the community’s place within the world. Take Port Rexton Brewing on Trinity Bight in rural Newfoundland. Nearly three hours from St. John’s, Port Rexton is nestled amongst some of Canada’s most beautiful landscape. With a population of only 350, the inclusion of a local brewery would not normally make sense, but it adds an attraction to the tourism boom that occurs each summer as people visit the Skerwink Trail. Better yet, being housed in a disused schoolhouse and community centre means that the brewery blends seamlessly into the fabric of the town.
For all that, Port Rexton Brewing is anything but quaint. It is, after all, one of Newfoundland’s first modern-era craft brewers, with a different sensibility than Yellowbelly or Quidi Vidi in St. John’s. As one of the first brewers in Newfoundland to make a modern American style IPA (“Horse Chops” is named after a nearby rugged outcrop), Port Rexton’s beer is in demand during the winter months when its taproom is shut down. The solution has become a retail shop in St. John’s open Fridays and Saturdays that only serves to build the reputation of the Port Rexton taproom as a destination for locals and tourists alike. The lure is the ability to try terroir-specific beers like their Gardner’s Gose, featuring locally grown coriander and Newfoundland sea salt.
Sometimes, a local brewery can result in an unprecedented level of local involvement. Meander River Farm and Brewery in Ashdale, Nova Scotia, came into being in 2014, at a time when the local community hall was being closed due to a lack of financial commitment. Despite only having three seats, the brewery’s taproom became a focus for local gatherings. “It’s great to be part of something,” says Campbell Bailey, the daughter of the owners, “and to be able to introduce people to each other.” The tasting room has expanded this year in order to keep up with demand.
For Meander River’s Bailey family, the legacy is a long one. The farm has been in the family since the 1960s, but all of the children went their separate ways. In 2004, Alan and Brenda Bailey took over and their hop yard began to supply other breweries in the province by 2010. “It came at around the time of farm-to-table, when people were beginning to ask where their ingredients came from. In our first harvest, we invited the neighbours and they all turned up. Now, in August or September, they’re all there and picking and putting in the work and telling the newbies what makes hops so great.”
As a mechanism for funding the brewery’s early expansion, Meander River used a Community Supported Agriculture model to offer tiered packages for consumption throughout the year, in some cases using the hops the members picked. “We sold out of all the shares. We’re doing a smaller version now, but it’s still most of the same members.” Support has grown. “The model brings people from all walks of life and different areas of the world. Every small town should have exactly what we have going on.”
It’s not just small towns, either. Halfway across the country, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Mark Heise, the owner of Rebellion Brewing, has realized that a local brewery can be a force for good, helping to revitalize parts of a city that may not have fared so well over the course of the 20th century. Working with local organization Audacity YQR, a group focused on supporting local entrepreneurship, Rebellion has created a beer that specifically helps to fund the initiative. “It’s about the value add of entrepreneurship to millennials and immigrant populations. I think of it like an ecosystem. I want there to be more cool stuff.”
Whether it results in the hipster donut shop or artisanal butchery Heise imagines, it can be nothing but good for Regina’s agricultural connections. Rebellion wears this connection on its sleeve with one of its flagship brands, Lentil Cream Ale. With 20 percent of the fermentable material coming from AGT Foods’ King Red Lentil, Rebellion really has its finger on the pulses of the local agriculture scene.
And crops are not the only resource being cultivated. Rebellion also features a Community Tap program where the brewery crowdsources ideas for new beers and charitable opportunities that will make life better for everyone in their town. Even without that initiative, breweries are helping. A recent study by Economic Development Regina suggests the small breweries in town have resulted in a $10-million addition to the local economy.
For Heise, it’s at least partially about pride of place. “Saskatchewan has this ‘aw, shucks’ attitude. No one wants to brag or to be too proud. I say ‘let’s tell the whole world there’s awesome stuff happening here.”
All across Canada, especially in rural parts of the country, brewers are discovering that they can be a part of the day-to-day life of their town and, in doing so, give people a sense of pride in where they live and in the connections that they forge with each other over something that is not quite as simple as a pint of beer. With connections to the land through ingredients, and to the past through repurposed buildings, there’s the sense of a rising tide accompanying the opening of local microbreweries.