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Dartmouth’s Nine Locks Brewing is off to a strong start

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Dartmouth’s newest brewery opened on Leap Day with 20 barrels, and weeks later the team at Nine Locks was already on the hunt for more tanks to increase brewing capacity.

“We don’t want to disappoint people when they can’t get their beer,” says co-owner Danny O’Hearn. The brewery’s regular offerings are Extra Special Bitter, IPA, Porter, and Dirty Blonde.

Like many ideas, the brewery was conceived on a warm summer night over backyard beers. “We kept talking and it got more serious,” Danny says. He recalls that initial conversation with his distant cousin and business partner Shawn O’Hearn, owner of Your Father’s Moustache and Rockbottom Brew Pub.

Shawn’s travels to gather new ideas for his Halifax eateries sparked an urge to open a brewery. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do alone,” he says. “I wanted to do this with someone I knew understood the business.” Enter Danny, Shawn’s cousin and a 30-year veteran of Moosehead Brewing.

“That first night we probably solved all the world’s problems,” says Danny. “But as we kept talking it got more serious.”

Finding a location on the other side of the harbour was key to the project. “We’re Dartmouth boys and take a lot of pride in that,” says Danny. “There’s a turnaround. You’re seeing a lot of people who used to live in Dartmouth coming back to the area.”

The brewery is named for the nine locks of the nearby Shubenacadie Canal System. World-renowned Nova Scotian artist Tom Forrestall painted each lock, and prints of all nine hang in the retail space.

In addition to the history lesson, the spacious retail area features a tap counter for growler fills, clothes, insulated metal growlers, and locally made Bad Mouth Soap incorporating all four brews. Lining one wall are fridges of canned beer. NSLC outlets across the province carry the ESB and IPA in cans, and all four cans are available at private liquor stores.

One side of the retail area holds a picture window looking into the brew room. Beer enthusiasts can watch the canner slide empty, topless cans down the line, inject them with beer and foam, slap on lids and seal in the frothy brew.

The canner processes about 30 cans per minute. By comparison, Moosehead can fill about 1,000 in the same time. Chris Downey, Nine Locks’ brew master, says that the 20-barrel brewing floor is built to expand as fast as the company can grow.

Downey left his 20-year career as brew master at Montreal’s Brutopia brewpub to come to Dartmouth an oversee Nine Locks’ brewing. In addition to loving the ability to live in a rural setting with a short commute to work, he says he wanted a new brewing challenge. In addition to Downey and the co-owners, Rockbottom head brewer Jake Saunders lends a hand with the brewing.

For Danny, the differences between working for Big Beer and owning a craft brewery are legion, but the most notable is a positive. “You don’t experience walking in and smelling the beer [at Moosehead],” he says. “I love that aroma. You walk in here in the morning and you can smell the oatmeal, the hops, and everything. It smells like a breakfast cereal.”
Halifax’s love affair with craft brewing doesn’t surprise Shawn. He watched from behind the bar at the Moustache as wine took the same trajectory in the 1990s.

“When wine was becoming popular it was a lot of fun,” he says. “People learned about the regions and the grapes. Now that’s happening with beer and hops. We’re just touching the tip of the iceberg of where this is going in Nova Scotia.”

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