Home in the harbour
WITH HIS NEW VENTURE IN MUSQUODOBOIT HARBOUR, CHRIS DOWNEY ISN’T JUST BREWING; HE’S MAKING NEW CRAFT-BEER CONVERTS
When Chris Downey opened The Harbour Brewing Company in Musquodoboit Harbour, about a 30-minute drive east of downtown Dartmouth, he didn’t realize he’d do as much beer education as brewing.
“So how can I take a few pints of this home with me?” asks a customer looking around the small brewery. He’s not what you’d picture as the typical Halifax craft-beer drinker: white haired wearing a crisp short-sleeved dress shirt, and a hearing aid. Before today, he didn’t care where his beer was brewed; he’s here because he wants to support a new business in his community.
Andrew Young, Downey’s friend and righthand man, is working the taps and doesn’t miss a beat. Within seconds he has a growler in each hand, explaining that you buy the growler, fill it, drink the beer, rinse it, and fill it again. The man smiles when Young tells him he can fill the growler at other breweries. “I could get used to this craft-beer thing,” he says, leaving with his first growler.
Downey opened the brewery on August 1. “I’d say the area’s been supportive,” he says. “But it’s way beyond that. People are really excited that there’s a brewery here, and they’re showing it.” As he says that, another three locals wander in, introducing themselves as “the neighbours” and asking what this brewery thing is all about.
Downey says opening day was much the same with steady foot traffic in and out all day as curious locals wanted to see the new space. Not everyone left with a growler, but most tried a few samples. That’s not including those who slowed down on the road out front to take a good long look before continuing on their way.
“People here are extremely interested in local products,” says Downey. “That’s why I’m trying as much as I can to focus on local producers and suppliers.”
Downey’s name is familiar to local beer fans. In 2015, he left Montreal’s Brutopia Brew Pub after 18 years to be the head brewer at Nine Locks Brewing in Dartmouth, and later brewed at Spindrift Brewing Co. in Burnside. Downey says he was let go from both jobs.
“All the past history is past history,” he says. “I have no interest in reviewing any of it. When I left Nine Locks I wrote a business plan, then Spindrift drifted into the picture, so to speak, so I shelved it. When Spindrift let me go I dusted it off. I was going to do it before so why not do it now.”
The Harbour Brewing is different from Downey’s prior jobs at breweries tasked with keeping store shelves stocked with cans. This one has a one-barrel production system, enough to make about 55 U.S. gallons of beer per brew.
The system is small enough for Downey to experiment and play with styles, but he’s focusing on classics first. “Some people would class that as boring or non-adventurous, but they are styles that will appeal to a lot of people and you can concentrate on doing them well.”
Out of the Gate (blond weizen, 5% ABV) is a traditional wheat beer, light and crisp with slight fruit flavours. Eastern Shore IPA (6% ABV) is dry and hoppy with a mid-range bitterness that lets the aroma and flavour hops shine, perfect for those coming to craft beer for the first time. The Fly Fisherman (porter, 4.5% ABV) is a dark beer with big molasses flavours and a hint of chocolate malts.
The tap list is small by necessity. The entire brewery is about 800 square feet, including tap station and brewing area all in one spartan, shiplap clad room.
You can’t miss the place as you drive the Harbour’s main drag. It’s past the low-key Harbour Fish and Fries takeout and the Railway Museum (which now boasts a food truck), just past the turnoff for Martinique Beach.
A mural on the side of the bright yellow shed depicts boats and sea birds, making it impossible to miss. A wood patio with several tables and camping canopies offers locals the only spot in the village to grab a pint. The patio offers a view of surrounding neighbours’ lawns, with a wild looking garden bed in one. It feels more like sipping a pint on a friend’s deck than a taproom patio.
That’s what customer Samantha Baker likes about it. “We’ve been driving back and forth preparing for our wedding and the side of it is so eye-catching and it feels like a local, seaside craft-beer place,” says Baker, originally from Dartmouth but now living in Edmonton. “It’s so homey and casual,” says her friend Sanatha Viney on the patio. “The beer is delicious too. I got the Out of the Gate. It’s light and delicious.”
As the only brewery between Sober Island Brewing on the Eastern Shore and Dartmouth’s many breweries, Downey is ready to corner and cater to the local market. For the foreseeable future, he’s focusing on growler sales out of the brewery.
“You can come into [brewing] saying I want to make millions of dollars, or I want to make the best beer in the world,” says Downey. “Or you can come into it saying I want to do things my way and want to have a little fun while doing it.”
CORRECTION: Due to a fact-checking error, an earlier version of this story gave incorrect driving directions to The Harbour Brewing Company. The text above has been corrected. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.