When Chill Street Fresh Beer and Cider Market opened in Elmsdale this summer, owner Barry MacLeod upset local brewers and beer fans by describing his brew as “craft.”
According to the NSLC, a microbrewery produces less than 15,000 hectolitres per year. That’s pretty much the whole definition.
Visit any other small brewery in Nova Scotia, and you’ll largely find the same core process that brewers have used for centuries. They malt grains, mill them and steep them in hot water to release flavouring and sugars to make wort. They then “lauter” the wort in a multistep process that removes grain particles and rinses sugars from the grains. The brewer boils the wort, adding hops and other flavour additives. Next it’s cooled, then finally fermented with yeast.
The process involves a long day of hard labour and monitoring temperatures closely. (Plus coming up with recipes and testing them out.)
Chill Street uses a system that allows it to skip a step: concentrated liquid wort, made elsewhere and imported. Chill Street’s website boasts that it uses “the finest ingredients from around the world.” The concentrate is mixed with hot water before hop or flavouring additions.
In August, Emily Tipton, founding partner of Boxing Rock Brewing in Shelburne and the president of the Craft Beer Association of Nova Scotia, sent media an open letter highlighting the differences between Chill Street and other local breweries. Summary: small, traditional, independent.
Chill Street is small, tucked away in a grocery store, and independently owned. But it’s not remotely traditional. It doesn’t use traditional methods like making wort from scratch. Owner Barry MacLeod refused an interview but the word “craft” appears many times on the company’s website.
Tipton’s letter also says this first of its kind store is “a pilot for a much larger roll out across the province if the loophole isn’t closed.” Tidehouse Brewing co-owner Shean Higgins thinks Chill Street could be dangerous to Nova Scotia’s still-growing brewing industry.
Just how to define “craft beer” is an endless debate amongst industry insiders. Global beer behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV owns Alexander Keith’s (along with international brands like Budweiser, Corona, Stella Artois, and Beck’s). But the Keith’s small-batch brewery on Hollis Street holds the same licence as Chill Street, Boxing Rock, and the rest.
The brewery follows the same brewing method as other local microbreweries, but many craft-beer fans declared it “not craft” when it opened in 2016 because of the brewery’s access to preferential pricing on hops and malt, thanks to its big parent.
In June, the Brewers Association, a non-profit trade American group dedicated to promoting and protecting the U.S.’s small and independent breweries, launched a symbol for breweries to indicate craft status on labels.
To use the label breweries must meet criteria about ownership (less than 25% outside ownership by a non-craft entity), and how much beer is produced (6 million barrels, about 5.8 million hectolitres). A number of U.S. breweries have panned the move, as the seal doesn’t speak to the quality of the beer, while others believe no major brewery ownership should be allowed.
CBANS members have a vested interest in protecting the definition of the industry they’ve built. And well they should. In 2016 it employed 400 people, and over the last 10 years has brought new industry and interest to communities like Tatamagouche, Nyanza, Shelburne, Liverpool, and Digby.
Unless the government updates the definition of a microbrewery under the Liquor Control Act, or CBANS creates a labelling scheme similar to what the American association has done, craft will continue its march toward joining artisanal and extreme in the list of meaningless words.
In the end, regardless of how we define craft beer, the market will win out. Consumers will spend money on the beer they enjoy, and those who don’t make the cut will close.
The Big Stink (IPA)
Roof Hound Brewing
6.5%, 65 IBU
This Digby brewpub’s beers have been a mainstay on tap at Bishop’s Cellar, and now that Roof Hound is bottling, it’s starting to pop up in other stores. This beer is worth drinking as fresh as you can get it: big, sticky hop aroma.
It’s the fifth year of this annual collaboration. Inspired by gruit, beers bittered with herbs and plants. In this one you’ll find berry leaves aplenty and four Nova Scotian-grown hops. It’s floral and earthy with light body.