Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Fifteen years ago, Brian Titus’ frustration reached a crescendo. As a Nova Scotian with a palate for specialty beers, Titus was growing increasingly dismayed by the region’s lack of microbrewed options. A resurgence of craft brewing across North America had failed to reach his native province, leaving local beer enthusiasts with little choice beyond the region’s staples. “It drove me crazy that I had to leave Nova Scotia to try something other than a Keith’s or a Moosehead,” says Titus.
So Titus decided to launch his own brewery, despite having no business knowledge and only home-brewing experience. In 1997 he opened the Garrison Brewing Company in Halifax’s North End. For nearly a decade it grew slowly, one six-pack and one keg at a time, with only a small staff to multi-task as needed and get the job done.
By 2006 the brewery had outgrown its North End home, and Titus moved it downtown to a 1920s-era wood-and-brick building in the city’s South End Seaport area, near Pier 21. It’s here that Garrison has blossomed; the move immediately invigorated sales, thanks to increased visibility and a flow of tourists from visiting cruise ships docked nearby. Over the past five years, the brewery has sustained average annual growth of 25%, and Titus expects growth approaching 45% in 2011.
“It’s a little staggering,” says the former navy diver, sitting in his cramped office above the brewery floor. “And it’s exciting because in the beginning, not everyone got what we were doing. Nobody knew who we were, and few people thought we had a chance of surviving even a couple of years.”
Far from merely surviving, today Garrison is thriving. Revenue is expected to total $2.5 million this year, up from less than $200,000 in 1997. This year the brewery will produce 600,000 litres of beer, including nearly two million bottles—that’s more than a tenfold increase over its initial year of production.
Brewing at Garrison started with a single batch of Irish Red Ale, which remains the company’s most popular pick. But Garrison’s variety of suds has grown along with its volume. Last year the company produced 20 different types of beer, including Jalapeño Ale, a spicy brew made from an assortment of hot peppers. Garrison’s Imperial I.P.A. is made with 12 times the hops of a typical beer, making it both extra bitter and worthy of awards (Imperial I.P.A. was named Beer of the Year at the Canadian Brewing Awards in 2007 and 2008).
Titus admits that many of the brews “push boundaries,” but that’s the point. He’s willing to sacrifice business from the Bud Light crowd in exchange for customers keen on varied flavours and styles. “For us, anything goes—anything except something really regular and mainstream. That’s the one thing we won’t do,” says Titus of his all-natural brews, which are increasingly being made with locally grown malted barley and hops.
“We’re also blessed with a great brew team,” says Titus. “Our brewmaster, Daniel Girard, came onboard three years ago and has instilled passion into what we brew.”
Yet even Titus experiences hesitation for certain recipe pitches. For 18 months, Girard pressed Titus for permission to make Spruce Beer. Brewed since the founding of Halifax as a British garrison town, Spruce Beer is made using the tips of spruce and fir boughs, blackstrap molasses, and dates. Titus eventually agreed to the proposal after Girard promised the beer would taste good and sell well. Released before Christmas last year, Spruce Beer sold out in two days.
The company’s popularity is spreading beyond its traditional Nova Scotia and New Brunswick markets. Garrison started shipping beer to Ontario in 2010, with deliveries to that province expected to triple in 2011. Earlier this year the company began sending beer to Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, while British Columbia is “knocking on the door.”
But such growth brings serious challenges, says Titus. Most notably, Garrison has run out of space yet again. Each year, larger brewing tanks are added, restricting the room available for brewery tours, receptions, and retail sales.
So, Titus must expand his business. A second location will be built within a year, primarily for production, packaging, and warehousing. Garrison’s pier-side location will continue to house events and beer sales, as well as seasonal brewing, so visitors can still watch the brewmaster stir the mash, see steam rising from beer in the kettle, and smell the sweetness of malt in the air.
“I have no interest in trying to become one of the biggest breweries in Canada. I’m not prepared to make the compromises needed to get to that higher level,” says Titus of the company he launched with two other investors. “We’re selling everything we can make, and then some. And we’re one of a number of breweries trying to put this region on the brewing map. What more could we ask for?”