Most businesses thrive — or die — in the tough world of competition.
But the burgeoning craft beer industry in Nova Scotia is working on a different model: they see co-operation as the key to their success.
There are currently 38 craft breweries in the province but like the product, the number is fluid and constantly changing as new licences are issued.
The breweries range from the tiny — one-person operations — to the large, like Propeller and Garrison. In between, there is a huge range of breweries and brew pubs spread around the province and working together, to build an industry that barely existed 20 years ago.
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“The level of co-operation is amazing,” said Emily Tipton, president of the Craft Brewers Association of Nova Scotia and one of the founders of Boxing Rock Brewing Company in Shelburne.
With 15 full- and part-time employees, it’s the largest of the new batch of brewers who’ve opened up in the last five years, when interest in craft brewing really began to take off.
Co-operation means better beer for everyone
She said co-operation is in everyone’s interest.
“We’re working together to create a brand and part of that means none of us should make bad beer.”
That level of co-operation ranges from offering advice to new brewers to working together, to create unique beers — even collecting each other’s bottles and kegs.
Right now, it’s in all their interests to co-operate and expand the market and that market is growing at an extraordinary rate.
Beer is big business
The Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation reports that Nova Scotia craft beer sales grew by more than 25 per cent last year. It’s an impressive increase, but total liquor store sales were just $7.6 million. That’s out of almost $280 million in beer sold in the province last year.
“We are still just a drop in the bucket,” admitted Tipton. But she pointed out the NSLC numbers don’t tell the whole story: most craft beer sales don’t happen through the liquor store.
In fact, many breweries don’t even sell beer in bottles or cans. It’s only available direct from the brewery in growlers — typically 1.89-litre glass jugs — or sold in a small number of local pubs and restaurants.
Tipton estimates those sales are worth around $10 million. That’s the case for Big Spruce Brewing in Nyanza, near Baddeck, N.S.
Jeremy White opened the brewery three years ago. He’s in the middle of an expansion, but is frustrated at the way government regulations are holding him back.
He’s written an open letter to the province, listing some of the problems he believes are slowing the growth of the industry.
A case in point: breweries are allowed to have tasting rooms, where visitors can sample the beer. But only in four-ounce glasses.
White wants to see that changed, so that people can have pint glasses, instead of five small ones.
‘They are having an impact’
The vision that White, Tipton and other brewers have for their industry is one of growth. And as long as growth continues, they expect co-operation to continue.
“We all still find it fairly easy to avoid competing with one another. That may change as more of us grow,” said White. And it looks like there is still plenty of room for growth.
Local craft beers have around six per cent of the market. Tipton is optimistic that can double in just a few years. By comparison, craft beers have 18 per cent of British Columbia’s beer market.
‘They are having an impact’
That increase in market will come at the expense of the big players, which in Nova Scotia, means Olands. It claims about 66 per cent of the province’s beer market, with almost all of that beer brewed locally. But despite its dominance, the company isn’t ignoring the growing craft beer market.
“They are having an impact. We probably wouldn’t have opened the small-batch Keith’s brewery if it wasn’t,” said Olands spokesman Wade Keller.
Keith’s has started to produce small runs of different beers, to tap into the growing taste for craft beers.
Rural breweries strengthen local connections
Right now, craft brewing in Nova Scotia is still mostly small scale. The brewers’ association claims to have up to 400 people working in the industry, but that number includes many part-time employees and also workers at brew pubs and restaurants who are not directly involved in brewing.
Many of the breweries are very new, very small and still struggling to create their business plans. That can lead to some innovative ways of raising funds.
One of the newcomers is Sober Island Brewing in Sheet Harbour, which has turned to crowdfunding to help pay for its expansion.
Founder Rebecca Atkinson is one of two people working for the company, which right now produces batches of just 40 litres at a time, making it the smallest brewery in the province. She wants to vastly increase that output — by 14 times. She’s deeply grateful for the help she’s received from other brewers.
“We haven’t come across anyone who is not willing to help,” she said. Atkinson is also passionate about how craft beer can help create opportunities.
“We want more awareness of craft beer in our province and how it can help our economy, especially in rural areas, like here in Sheet Harbour.”
Local connection is key
Many of Nova Scotia’s breweries are in rural areas — and likely to stay there.
Tipton sees that small, local connection as a key part of the craft beer industry.
“Beer is best when it’s fresh,” she said. “We don’t see craft beer expansion as a drive for exports — but as a way of creating a destination for craft beer lovers.”