Finding their road
THE PEOPLE BEHIND BEDFORD’S FIRST BREWERY HAVE FACED ONE UNEXPECTED TWIST AFTER ANOTHER
Bedford’s first craft brewery, Off Track Brewing, was supposed to open on December 22, but when the date arrived, things weren’t looking good.
“The day of the opening we found out we were basically pouring 30% foam,” says co-owner and head brewer Allan MacKay. “It was really frustrating. We’d planned to open at 3 p.m. and I think it was 1:45 p.m., I asked if we should put up a Facebook post saying we’re not opening. We were freaking out.”
It wasn’t the first trouble the team of MacKay, Jon Saunders, and Matt Scott faced opening their brewery.
The drip tray was on back-order, so they used buckets to dump the excess. They’d been so busy prepping the beer and taproom that they didn’t install a sound system. “Our music was a tiny Bose speaker on the counter next to the cash register so people come up to order and you’d have to turn the music down and say, ‘Sorry what was that?’ And then turn it back up again. That didn’t work.”
The idea for the brewery took root in 2016. Saunders and Scott were home from Saskatchewan and Manitoba for Christmas. They were university friends, and MacKay is married to Scott’s sister.
“We were sitting around trying Allan’s beer and I said I’d be happy to pay for this,” says Saunders. “Then we just kept the conversation going on into the night.” The next day they drove around Bedford, pondering where a hypothetical brewery could go.
Soon Scott and Saunders were back in the Prairies, but distance didn’t dull their interest. Hours-long Skype conversations planning the brewery ensued, with numerous interruptions to talk about Seinfeld, baseball, or just about anything but the brewery.
“We went through a number of names, but they were all taken,” says Saunders. “Then one night when we were talking about Indiana Jones again and someone said, ‘We’re getting off track again!’ and we all just stopped for a second. That’s not a bad name.”
MacKay found the location in an unassuming strip mall tenanted by industrial suppliers and a CrossFit gym. They took possession in August. It looked a lot different then. Part of a wall was missing, wires dangled from the ceiling, and the space housed surplus hotel furniture packed floor to ceiling. “Absolute shit hole,” says MacKay, showing pictures on his phone of what looks like a bomb site.
The team thought they had more time to prepare, the brewing tanks were arriving in January, but then a Twitter rumour spread about a new brewery opening in Bedford. “If someone else was starting a brewery in Bedford and they got a jump on us then we’re not Bedford’s first brewery,” says MacKay.
They continued work with new urgency. Months of ripping out and replacing electrical, painting “every square inch,” and 17-hour brew days finally came to a head in December.
They tweaked the tap system to reduce the beer-wasting foam and opened as scheduled. Soon there was a line out the door and 15 growlers lined up on the bar waiting to be filled. “We were really overwhelmed with the response,” says Saunders. “It wasn’t just our friends and family that showed up, it was the community at large.” By January 2, Off Track had to close for a couple weeks to brew and refill.
All three say they love the brewery, but it’s not work for the faint of heart. Saunders and Scott moved back to Bedford in the fall to prepare for the opening. Neither draws pay for their 80-hour weeks. MacKay works a full-time job and puts in his pro-bono hours at the brewery afterward.
Business is steady. On Good Friday the first customers were sitting in their cars in the parking lot waiting for the door to open at noon. Norm Legault and his girlfriend came from Dartmouth for a flight.
The couple seeks out new breweries. “You never know what you’re going to find, and I like talking to the people who brew the beer and hearing their stories.” His favourite of the day was the Damn Skippy peanut butter stout: “It’s not super heavy, and you can really taste the peanut butter.”
The brewery is moving from its half-barrel pilot system to a new five-barrel system. To put that in perspective, a half barrel is about a keg of beer, and the trio has been pulling back-to-back brew days to keep up supply.
“It was a hard lesson for us to learn to not go off the best-case scenario, always plan for the worst and hope for the best,” says Scott.
There are lots of other new beers and breweries to explore during Nova Scotia Craft Beer Week; check out our guide: halifaxmag.com/cover/the-nova-scotia-craft-beer-guide-2018/
OFF TRACK FACTS
Hours: Friday to Saturday from noon until 10 p.m., Sunday until 6 p.m.
Taps: 9 (6 house, 3 guest)
Core beers: Good Grief Charlie (brown ale)
Alias (pale ale)
Not About You (ESB)
Damn Skippy (peanut butter stout)
Crash Course (IPA)
Samplers, flights, growlers
Food: Free popcorn, potato chips for sales, and delivery from Rocky Lake Pizza across the street
Kids: Not welcome due to licensing laws
Coordinates: 275 Rocky Lake Dr., Bedford
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.