Only two days into a trip home to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the tell-tale signs of an emerging craft beer scene are unmistakable. This city, whose metropolitan area boasts a population of under 400,000 and an urban centre focused around the second largest natural harbour in the world, was historically a significant trading hub for privateers. Today, it’s home to several large university campuses, making it the hub of university education in Eastern Canada. Given its rich maritime history and the marked contribution of a constant flow of university students to the vivacity and energy of the city, it’s a prime breeding ground for independent breweries to thrive.
The past two years have seen a dramatic upheaval in Halifax’s drinking scene and everything is in a whirlwind of transformation. When I was a student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, we happily cradled sloshing pitchers of Alexander Keith’s IPA without a thought of hop characteristics in our heads. Founded in 1820, the Alexander Keith’s brewery is one of the oldest commercial breweries in North America and is famed for its flagship IPA. In Halifax, you can’t go far without having a Keith’s thrust upon you- it’s the province’s favourite sup and was heavily marketed under the slogan “those who like it, like it a lot” throughout the summit of its popularity in the 90s.
The IPA itself- which is substantially less hoppy and lacks any bracing bitterness- is more congruous of a benign pale ale, lacking any real juicy aromas or anything remarkable on the palate. I can attest that based on my observations this week, its popularity has not waned with locals. It’s incontestably synonymous with Nova Scotia and every Nova Scotian will have a nostalgic affection for the beer and the branding.
Keith’s was bought out by Labatt, a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch InBev in 1971. Despite this, the brewery has made efforts to remain relevant to the evolving tastes of the province’s customers. In June 2016, the original brewing site was opened again after being mothballed since 2006. After ten years, the lights were turned on to accommodate a small-batch operation. The range encompasses a perennial Cornerstone Edinburgh Pale Ale and a series of seasonals, including a Lunenburg Coffee Cacao Stout and the Fundy Low Tide White IPA.
Although some will lambast these new attempts and label them as incisive marketing to profit from the rising popularity of craft beer, the range demonstrates some commendable characteristics- especially when contrasted to some pilot batches that I’ve come across from big breweries in the UK. I’ve been underwhelmed by beers that promised an abundance of flavour notes and infusion of audacious ingredients in the past. It’s imperative that breweries demonstrate a grasp of contemporary drinking habits and keep their finger on the pulse.
The Cornerstone pale is a fine rendition- it surpasses expectations with a pleasant caramel and citrus nose. The flavour delivers a rounded balance of sweet maltiness with a citrus tang, finishing with enough of a bitter edge to satiate. The Low Tide, however, really struck me as an apt middle ground between the legacy of the Keith’s brewery and the modern drinker- a white IPA using dulce and sea lettuce from the Bay of Fundy, the beer’s namesake. The bay has the highest tidal range in the world and is a site of phenomenal beauty that is equally beloved by tourists and locals alike. The incorporation of these marine ingredients appeals to the sentiments of Nova Scotians while imparting a savoury profile to their beer, harmonising with the citrus flavours of the hops to result in a satisfying and easily relished brew.
Although Keith’s sits under the AB InBev umbrella, it plays a seminal role in the evolution of Nova Scotia’s beer culture and continues to actively participate in the impassioned discussion. Still ubiquitous on tap across the province, it’s the beer that prominently featured throughout my university years. So much so that Greg Nash, head brewer at Unfiltered Brewing, an independent brewery established in 2015 in Halifax’s north end, discovered the original recipe for Alexander Keith’s IPA and recreated the beer. And, according to their co-founder, Andrew Murphy, it was hop-heavy and dank, demonstrating the characteristics of any noteworthy IPA by today’s astute and shrewd standards.
No journey across Halifax’s emerging craft beer industry can overlook Keith’s, which is a beer that is emblazoned in the memories of many Nova Scotians. Today, Haligonians might reach for the oily, resinous and explosive IPAs from Unfiltered or the crisp Belgian styles from North Brewing Co, but we all need to start somewhere.