Microbrewery taprooms are revolutionizing New Brunswick’s drinking culture
If you walk into the taproom at Rothesay, New Brunswick’s Foghorn brewery on a Saturday afternoon, you’ll probably find around 15 or 20 locals sitting around sipping pints of beer or cider, with perhaps two or three dogs lounging around, occasionally begging for some of the Covered Bridge potato chips people are snacking on.
There’s music playing, but there are no VLTs or TVs. There’s also no kitchen, no servers carrying trays of food and drinks, nor stage for live music. It’s just a gathering spot for folks to chat and pet each other’s dogs. And the brewery is right there: there’s no barrier between drinkers and the work going on, as brewer Andrew “Esty” Estabrooks lugs around grain bags. It can get hot, steamy and “beer smelly” but people don’t seem to mind. In fact, they seem to enjoy being part of the action, albeit only as interested observers. After a pint or two, many will buy a growler of beer and head home for supper.
This is the new “local pub” and, more and more, it’s becoming the norm. Whether you are in the taproom of Railcar in tiny Perth (recently relocated from Florenceville-Bristol); Big Axe, overlooking the Saint John River, in Nackawic (yep, the place that’s home to that really big axe sculpture); Picaroons’ General Store in Uptown Saint John or their main brewery in the roundhouse across the river from downtown Fredericton; TrailWay, just a short walk from Picaroons’ Round House; Graystone in downtown Fredericton; or Grimross up on the hill, you will be drinking beer with a crowd of mostly locals — with the odd beer tourist thrown in for good measure.
And such taprooms are not just in New Brunswick, but are becoming common throughout the Maritimes.
What’s the difference between a brewery with a taproom and a brewpub? Fair question. One key difference is they don’t serve hot food or provide table service, but you can come in to most taprooms with a pizza slice, a burger and fries, or — the traditional Maritime beer-drinking food — a donair, that you bought at less inflated prices than a typical pub, or even something you made yourself at home. They are more like brewpubs with benefits. Unless you don’t like dogs.
A brewery taproom is different from a pub with dozens of taps of local and out-of-province beers — that’s the typical beer geek hangout. Instead, taprooms, some of which are in quite rural locations, are for everyone, and, because of that, they are probably introducing more “average drinkers” to flavourful beer than any hipster-laden, speciality-beer pub. Many of the patrons are walk-ins — truly local — or folks popping in on the way home from work. If you look around the room in Foghorn, you’ll see a range of ages and careers represented. It’s definitely not the “beards, indie music and tattoos” clique you find at craft beer meccas. Rather, it’s a bit of an older crowd, more “barbers, independent business folk and tradespeople,” although, of course, there’s overlap …
One of the most exciting things about the explosive growth in small breweries in New Brunswick, and the Maritimes in general, is that even small towns are getting a brewery. Or perhaps two or three — like Rothesay, a community of slightly more than 12,000 people just outside Saint John, where Hammond River and Long Bay have joined Foghorn.
The fact that these new businesses are opening, creating jobs and generally making good, fresh beer that is readily available — particularly in smaller markets — has made beer a very important sector of the rural tourism market in Atlantic Canada.
New Brunswick is a unique part of Canada. Unlike provinces west of us, which are very sparsely populated in their northern regions, people are more evenly spread out over this bilingual square that’s roughly 450 kilometres by 450 kilometres. The ability to sell beer to Alcool NB Liquor (ANBL), out of their own stores, direct to pubs and in their own taprooms means that small breweries can thrive from north to south and east to west in this deceptively large province.
It’s to the point where it feels like every small town will soon have its own brewery, or perhaps three. And why not? What community would want to be left out of that deal? At last count, according to the Atlantic Canada Beer Blog (www.acbeerblog.ca), there were 41 breweries, brewpubs and cideries open (or soon to open) in New Brunswick — and that number just keeps growing.
One potentially negative aspect to a brewery having its own taproom is the perceived competition with pubs that are also key customers. There were certainly some rumblings from local pubs when Picaroons opened its small brewery and taproom in the heart of Uptown Saint John, where it quickly became a popular hangout. Part of this popularity is that people can bring their dogs, but there’s also a feeling of lack of pressure when you go to a taproom. You aren’t taking a seat from someone waiting to order a meal.
“I don’t think we compete with the pubs,” says Stephen Dixon, owner and brewer at Grimross and current president of New Brunswick Craft Alcohol Producers. “As a matter of fact, I think we create more interest in local beer, and beer in general, that helps the local pubs sell more and better beer. When our customers go out for dining and food, they have a deeper sense of craft beer and local beer. People feel a better connection with local. And if the pub is serving local craft beer, it is a bonus to our mutual customer. For pubs not serving local craft beer, they may feel a pinch and a disconnect with their customer.”
It would also be naïve to underestimate the dog factor. Many people with dogs have made “going to the pub” a regular part of their dog-walking duties, which all dog owners know is a regular occurrence. In fact, one wonders if these folks would go out for a beer at all if it wasn’t for these places. Some pubs have made their patios dog friendly, including the Saint John Ale House and the Stillwell Beer Garden in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which, like most brewery taprooms, provide a water bowl and are tolerant of the occasional bark and dog squabble.
There is a necessary assumption that only owners of dogs that behave well would even consider bringing them to a taproom. One suspects there have been a few occasions where things have escalated a bit, but the typical person who frequents a local brewery taproom doesn’t fit the dog-fighting stereotype. That said, if you want to pop into Foghorn for a brew, don’t be surprised if Lucy the Lab sticks her nose in your unmentionables while you are in the beer lineup.