Rogues Roost brewmaster Lorne Romano leans over a serving tank, tucked away in the back of the Halifax brewpub. As he describes in detail what purpose each tank serves, I confess to him that I know absolutely nothing about brewing.
“Neither do I,” Romano says, stifling a laugh.
As it turns out, Romano does know what he’s doing when it comes to beer. In fact, Rogues Roost has been named “Best brew pub” in Halifax by The Coast a total of eight times since 2005 and Romano himself has won more than 30 brewing medals worldwide.
Originally from Toronto, Romano worked in real estate, the music industry, computer programming, and even owned a variety store before finding his calling in brewing. His affinity for the craft was kindled back home in Ontario, where he and a friend would often visit businesses that let customers brew their own beer.
Craig Pinhey, a writer who covers the beer scene in Atlantic Canada, has known Romano since the 1990s when they both served on the board of the Canadian Amateur Brewers Association (CABA). He says Romano’s homebrews were “better than most commercial beers.”
Romano also started brewing commercially around that time, working with Michael Hancock, a member of the Molson family who formerly ran Denison’s Brewing Company.
“That place made excellent beer,” recalls Pinhey.
One of the owners of that brewery, according to Romano, was Prince Leopold of Germany.
“I’ve worked for royalty,” Romano states, matter-of-factly.
One day, a friend of Romano’s called him from Halifax to tell him about a job opening at a new brewpub in the city. Garrison, Propeller, the Granite Brewery and the Henry House were the only microbreweries in Halifax at the time.
Romano was inbetween brewing jobs at the time, and shortly after coming to Halifax for an interview, he accepted the position at Rogues Roost.
In its early days in the late 1990s, Rogues Roost was always the first place Pinhey went when visiting Halifax. He’d always sit by the window with a newspaper and would often see Romano wearing his rubber boots around the brewery.
“He’s an odd duck and not much for the spotlight, but a great brewer,” Pinhey says.
After 17 years on the job, Romano estimates that he’s brewed around 20 styles of beer.
While going over the beers currently in his fermenting tanks, Romano pauses to explain the story behind one of the names: his Ukrainian Freedom Stout.
“Well, I’m Ukrainian, I can’t call it Russian Imperial Stout anymore,” he says, pointing to the beer menu above the bar. “They won’t put the word Ukrainian on there, so they just write ‘Freedom Stout…’ I figure if everyone else can come up with new beer styles, I’m allowed.”
Does he consider brewing to be a job or a hobby? Romano pauses before answering.
“It used to be a hobby,” he says with a sigh. “It’s more of a job these days since I don’t drink anymore.”
He doesn’t elaborate, but Breanna Lovett, who has worked with Romano for three years, says she believes he stopped drinking because of health concerns.
Romano says he considers stained glass making, gardening and landscaping to be his hobbies nowadays.
Dealing with competition
Romano is well aware of the recent boom of microbreweries in Nova Scotia. He initially proves hesitant to talk about it.
“I gotta watch what I say,” Romano says. “I’ll say things that a lot of people won’t be happy with. And they know I’ll say [those things]. It’s just [that] when they see it in print, they’ll be a little more upset.”
Besides, Romano says he isn’t interested in the opinions of his competition. He prefers to turn to his customers for input.
“I don’t really care what everyone else is doing,” he says. “[But] I know what our customers like to drink.”
Lovett agrees that Romano is certainly one for conversation, especially with customers.
“He likes to talk,” she says. “He’s a very interesting person with a lot of history.”
True to form, then, Romano eventually expressed his frustrations regarding the current state of affairs in the brewing industry.
According to Romano, a current trend in the microbrewing industry is for beers to be high in alcohol and contain lots of hops, much of the time coming at the expense of taste.
“I don’t get into these over-hopped beers,” he says. “Older guys like me, they’re still brewing traditional, well-balanced beers.”
‘I hate these growlers’
Two years ago, Rogues Roost decided to start selling growlers, large bottles of draught beer that customers can purchase and take home with them. Although Romano admits that growlers are popular in the microbrewing industry, he is disappointed at his brewpub’s decision to follow the trend.
“Personally, I hate these growlers. Terrible representation of beer,” Romano says. “They’re not getting the proper carbonation in the bottle. Someone takes home a two-litre growler, if they don’t drink it all that same night, it’s flat the next day.”
After talking with competing microbreweries, Romano says that he’s most concerned about the amount of beer that’s lost while filling up growlers. Romano says one brewery he talked to told him that they lose 15 litres of beer a day just filling them up.
“There’s so much spillage, it’s ridiculous,” he says. “But it’s a trend. I don’t understand it. I hate it.”
When asked what a good alternative would be to purchasing a growler, Romano predictably pointed out a classic: the six-pack.
“[With a six-pack,] you’re going to get a better representation of the product that the brewery produces, because it’ll be properly carbonated,” he says.
Or, as Romano suggests, one could simply sit down and enjoy a cold one at the brewpub, just as their product is intended to be consumed.
Romano believes that growlers have actually cost Rogues business.
“Why should we sell beer to take home? We’re a brewpub,” he says.
New owners, same job
Although the brewpub was recently acquired by the Murphy Hospitality Group of Charlottetown, which also owns the Gahan House on the Halifax waterfront, Romano maintains that Rogues Roost is still very much the same place today as it was when he started working there.
“This place needs a going-over,” Romano says, pointing out the faded paint on the walls. “Usually seven years is the rule, and then [most restaurants] will do a major renovation.”
Seventeen years after his career at Rogues began, Romano insists that he still enjoys going to work every day.
“I’ve pretty well enjoyed most of my jobs that I’ve ever had,” he says. “It’s nice to be in a profession you enjoy doing… Most people don’t do the job they enjoy doing.”
The familiar ease with which Romano goes about his business is proof enough that he knows exactly what he’s doing.