When the co-founders of Spindrift Brewing Co. approached Kellye Robertson to design and run their new brewhouse she seized the challenge. In 2014 she was fresh out of Niagara College’s brewing program. She expected her career to move fast in Nova Scotia, where the beer scene grows monthly—but not this fast.
One of the co-founders, Andrew Bell, wanted to pay homage to his grandfather’s Bavarian Brewing Co. in Newfoundland by brewing a lager.
“I said, ‘If we’re going to do one lager, what’s stopping us from having a brewery that has lagers as its focus?’” says Robertson. “I knew the industry was growing and eventually it’s going to get to a point where we’d have to start differentiating ourselves.”
Brewing lager is different from brewing an IPA or a stout. Those styles ferment faster, at warmer temperatures for weeks before being ready to bottle. Lagers ferment at cooler temperatures for months at a time, making them more expensive to produce.
Robertson banged her head against the wall early on. “I had to completely rethink the way I brewed before,” she recalls. “A lot of that had to go completely out the window for sure.” Never one to avoid a challenge, she spent months brewing different lager styles and yeast strains to perfect Spindrift’s flagship beer: Coastal Lager.
A year later, Spindrift offers three beers, Coastal Lager, Riptide India Pale Lager, and Knotty Buoy Pilsner, in cans in stores, growlers at the Dartmouth brewery shop, and on tap at bars across the city. Occasional releases from the Seventh Wave series allows Robertson to try different ideas in smaller batches.
“It can be scary brewing lagers,” she says. “I had my notions of what lagers are or were like: yellow, fizzy, nothingness. That’s just one style that unfortunately the North American market has told people that’s all lagers are. There are so many styles that no one is doing anymore. We thought about how cool it would be to bring some of these old styles back to life again.”
Robertson grew up in a “food-centric” family in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, who focused on the importance of buying local and cooking at home.
She started brewing on store bought home kits while in her commerce degree at Saint Mary’s University. Before long, she was brewing with fresh ingredients and devising her own recipes. Her hobby consumed her weekends and evenings completely.
“I thought ‘Oh God, what am I doing to myself? Maybe I should do this professionally.’” she says.
In 2012, she enrolled in the Canadian Food & Wine Institute’s two-year Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program in Niagara-on-Lake, Ontario.
Brewery instructor Jon Downing remembers her as an ideal student. “She was one of those ones who you watch coming into the program, progress through all of the classes, and you can just see the knowledge being soaked up,” he says. “You can see her applying the knowledge she’s acquiring. It was a joy to watch her learn. Having students like that makes teaching fun and more enjoyable for sure.”
During the first few months of school she entered and won Garrison Brewing’s Home Brew-Off Challenge in Halifax. Her win led to a new rule banning brewing students from the competition.
The way Robertson tells it, her next move was all down to timing. She returned to Nova Scotia to brew her award-winning beer, Kellye R’s Wild Rye’d (rye IPA), with Garrison brewmaster Daniel Girard, and learned the brewery was hiring another brewer.
Girard says it was more about character than timing. “She takes responsibility,” he says. “You can tell by the way she listens and incorporates what she’s learning that you had someone who is having a career.”
When Robertson finished school she says she packed up her car “and drove as fast as I could, and went straight to work.”
After nearly two years at Garrison, Spindrift co-founders Bell, Andy Armstrong, and Rob Green approached her to helm their new brewery.
“It was a tough choice for sure,” she recalls. “Garrison was going through an expansion and there was growth there in my position. At the same time it’s tough to say no to someone who says you can build the place you want and brew the beers you want.”
The move didn’t surprise Girard. “We see all kinds of people in this industry, and when you see people who are driven you understand that they are different from the crowd,” he says. “It was no mystery to me that the way she was working that she was someone who has a career path.”
A little over a year after Spindrift poured its first growler, Robertson says the risk of opening an all-lager brewery is worth the reward.
“People ask if it was the right choice, and I say 100 per cent, completely,” she says. “We might spend a lifetime trying to perfect it but it constantly keeps us in a state of striving for excellence.”
5 questions with Kellye Robertson
What beer is in your fridge right now?
The most recent beer that was in there was Lindemans Cuvée René, from Belgium.
What’s your favourite local spot to grab a beer?
A place I’ve been frequenting often is Studio East. That place is great for local beer and food.
What’s your favourite beer style and food pairing?
A gose and oysters.
What beer do you dream about brewing?
That would be a Flanders red ale. I went to Belgium in 2012, and I’d already loved Belgian beers before, but that style really spoke to me. It goes beyond brewing. You have to be an excellent blender and be patient as a lot of them take years to mature. When you find one you like, you know exactly how much work has gone into it.
What’s the weirdest beer you’ve tried?
I once had a beer in the States, and I don’t remember who it was by, but it’s a hot drink made with beef broth, blended with beer. I never quite understood why.