Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia's craft brewing industry has frothy outlook

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Nova Scotia's craft breweries to take a hard look at how they run their businesses and the products they sell. Two years into the pandemic, the industry remains about the same size, with the number of closures being offset by new breweries.

Breweries optimistic about future after COVID-19 forced them to radically change their operations

People enjoy some craft beer at Tusket Falls Brewing's Halifax location on June 4, 2022. The company expanded from its southwestern Nova Scotia home and opened a taproom in Halifax last September. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

For years, Nova Scotia's craft brewers have heard the market is saturated with too many breweries. Add in the COVID-19 pandemic and it supposedly spelled doom.

"We have a word for that in the industry," said Brian Titus, the president of Halifax-based Garrison Brewing and the president of the Craft Brewers Association of Nova Scotia.

"It's called: they're wrong. The rumours of saturation and the demise of local craft brewing are much exaggerated."

Two years into a pandemic, only three breweries have shut down in recent years, said Titus. Those shutdowns have been offset by three breweries that opened, something Titus called "really remarkable."

There are around 70 microbreweries in the province, which employ about 1,150 people, according to association statistics.

Brian Titus is the owner of Garrison Brewing in Halifax. He says it's 'really remarkable' that the total number of breweries in the province hasn't changed during the pandemic. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

Sales of Nova Scotia craft beer through the NSLC were up 11.3 per cent to $6.7 million, according to its latest quarterly financial results.

"I think an industry like this that can weather a two-year-plus pandemic is a pretty good sign of a strong industry," said Titus.

Pandemic redefined what breweries do

He said the pandemic forced breweries to look at how they do business and make big changes. For some, this included setting up online shops, offering home delivery and diversifying product lines to include non-beer options.

But Titus said some others have made big moves to grow their businesses.

Halifax's Good Robot Brewing recently announced it's moving brewing operations from its Robie Street home to a location in Elmsdale that will allow for increased production.

In part, the aim is to get their beer into other provinces. The new facility will also offer contract brewing — making beer for other breweries.

"We're always looking to future-proof in some way," said Lindsey Davidson, Good Robot's marketing manager.

Lindsey Davidson is Good Robot Brewing's marketing manager. She says that while the company had always wanted to offer home delivery, the pandemic made them do that. (Submitted by Lindsey Davidson)

The Elmsdale site will also be home to a beer garden and retail space. The company's Robie Street location will still be used for brewing some beer, and the retail and taproom spaces will remain.

It's quite the change in fortune from when the pandemic hit and the company had to lay off most of its staff.

Good Robot will continue to use its Halifax location, but the majority of beer production will now be done out of a facility in Elmsdale. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

Good Robot has around 60 employees today, which is higher than its pre-pandemic numbers.

Davidson was a longtime customer before she started working for the company recently.

"They've made some really impressive leaps and have managed to keep things rolling, keep people employed, they're growing at a crazy rate," she said. "We're hiring new folks all the time."

Tusket Falls Brewing shares some elements of that. When the pandemic hit, they had to lay off a lot of staff and shifted to online orders and deliveries, said owner Melanie Sweeney.

Melanie Sweeney is the owner of Tusket Falls Brewing. With their location in southwestern Nova Scotia and the geographic challenges that presents, she says opening a taproom in Halifax was always part of a growth plan. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Each lockdown was tougher than the last one, she said.

Sweeney said the business especially felt the pinch when officials were telling residents to stay close to home.

"We definitely felt that people weren't coming to pick up retail, even from 15-minute neighbouring communities like they were previously," she said.

Tusket Falls went ahead with opening a taproom last September on Gottingen Street in Halifax, far from their home base of southwestern Nova Scotia.

A server pours a beer at Tusket Falls Brewing's Halifax location. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

"We found a great space and we just kind of [hunkered] down and decided to just go straight, just keep on going and work hard and hope for the best and do the best that we can and try to make it work," said Sweeney.

She said the company has always taken big swings with its operation — and this is no different. When they opened in December 2017, they built a building and bought brewing equipment that far exceeded their immediate production needs.

After two years of pandemic restrictions, people in the craft beer industry are optimistic brighter times are ahead.

"We are looking forward to what everybody is talking about, [this] being the best summer for our industry in quite a few years," said Sweeney.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Woodbury is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia's digital team. He can be reached at richard.woodbury@cbc.ca.

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