Propeller Brewing Company
John Allen, the founder and president of Propeller Brewing Company in Halifax, recalls the defining moment that led to his transformation from prop master to brewmaster.
"I was standing in an artificial rainstorm in the middle of the night trying to light actors' cigarettes," he says. "And I was cold, and I kept thinking, 'I don't want to be doing this in 10 years' time,' and that's when I had my epiphany — I had to go for it."
And he has. The microbrewery, which opened in 1997, has received international recognition for its products and earned a loyal following. Creativity, resourcefulness and a commitment to quality have all played a part in Propeller's success.
Propeller makes five types of beer year-round -- extra special bitter, pale ale, London-style porter, honey wheat ale and India pale ale (IPA). The microbrewery also produces a selection of seasonal ales such as its Revolution Russian Imperial Stout, a new Czech-style Pilsner and Propeller Pumpkin Ale.
Propeller also makes all-natural, preservative-free sodas in the flavours of root beer, ginger beer, orange soda and vanilla cream soda. Honey from the Annapolis Valley's Cosman and Whidden Honey Limited is an ingredient in the vanilla cream soda and in honey wheat ale.
"Our two original brands were pale ale and bitter -- two of my favourites," Allen says. "After that, as we increased our capacity, it became beer styles and flavours of sodas that interested us."
In addition to its own retail store, which fronts the microbrewery in downtown Halifax, Propeller's beer can be found in Nova Scotia liquor stores and is on tap in about 80 restaurants and bars throughout the province. Its soda is available in 80 to 100 Nova Scotia bars, restaurants, corner stores, delis, markets and health food stores.
While it ships to other provinces, including New Brunswick, Ontario and British Columbia, Propeller's focus has always been Nova Scotia.
"We've been averaging a 20 to 22 per cent increase in revenues year over year for three years," Allen says. "Ninety-five per cent of that is Nova Scotia growth, which is good because this is where we're from and this is where we do business."
That is not to say its reputation hasn't spread beyond provincial borders. In 2006 and 2007, Propeller's IPA and Extra Special Bitter struck gold at the World Beer Championships in Chicago. Closer to home, the microbrewery's pale ale won a silver medal at the 2006 Canadian Brewing Awards, and its London-style porter won silver at the 2007 competition.
Propeller's growth from a two-person to an 18-person operation, and its significant increase in production, have required creativity and resourcefulness. In fact, the microbrewery has added five fermenters in the last 12 months, essentially doubling its capacity.
"I was a very naive entrepreneur and was quite prepared for Propeller to remain a very, very small keg-only operation," says Allen. "When we had to keep expanding, we had to be resourceful -- bottling, labelling, distribution, all that kind of stuff, with very limited funds to operate with was quite challenging."
Allen says creativity comes into play from the beer-making process itself through to coming up with seasonal offerings and label design. It is also evident in his decision to adopt a concept used by others in the brewing industry -- the growler. The most popular item in Propeller's retail store, the growler holds roughly the equivalent of a six-pack of beer. Customers put down an $8 deposit on the glass bottle and pay $8 for it to be filled with beer. The customer can swap an empty bottle for a clean one and refill it as desired, or get the original deposit back.
"People like it -- there's no wasted packaging, no boxes, just the one bottle, and it's a big deposit, so they always bring them back," Allen says. "I anticipated doing 25 a week ... We average about 90 per day through the summer."
While Propeller can now brew the equivalent of 600 cases of beer a day, keeping up with demand remains a challenge. Allen says the microbrewery is trying to avoid having to expand into a bigger building. Fittingly for the former film industry worker, the microbrewery is on the site previously occupied by Wormwoods Cinema, and Propeller's bottling line and packaging area are where Critic's Choice Video used to be.
While the microbrewery has experienced substantial growth, quality -- the priority for Propeller since its beginning -- has not been sacrificed.
"We say we only make beer that we want to drink ourselves, so we don't make any compromises on that," Allen says.
Jenny Osburn owns the Union Street Café and The Wick Pub in Berwick. She first encountered Propeller's extra special bitter when she was working at a downtown Halifax pub, and she says it became "my beer of choice." Today, she has the bitter on tap and a second tap that offers a rotating selection of Propeller products.
"I'm definitely a loyal fan," she says. "Essentially their product is very consistent but still manages to have a real small-batch flavour, which is kind of a delicate balance. It's award winning and it tastes great."
Allen attributes that success to the climate in the province he's happy to call home.
He says, "Halifax is a very nice size city, big enough to support a pretty wide range of businesses, including ours. Plus, we're half an hour from our little house on the sea."
"There are a lot of things possible here, and I think I experienced that to some degree in the film business," he says. "That business grew from almost nothing to a pretty vibrant industry over the 12 or 13 years that I worked in it. And why not? Why not Nova Scotia? There is a very good quality of life here."
Feature story written by Marie Weeren