Unique process makes name for Halifax microbrewery

North End brewery in Halifax finds success in Belgian style beers.

Story and photos by Jillian Morgan

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It is 12 p.m. and the closed sign on the door of the North Brewing Company flips to open. An aroma of beer hangs in the air, an unusual scent for so early in the day.  For the staff at North Brewing Company, this scent is as common as the scent of fresh coffee in the morning.

Black, white and silver dominate the colour scheme inside and outside the brewery. Behind the front desk on a wood-panelled wall hangs a black and white beer print shirt complete with the company’s logo. Situated to the right is a bright red swinging door leading to the machinery that crafts the brewery’s variety of Belgian inspired beers.

North Brewing Company, which celebrated its one year anniversary in January, has already become a staple in the North End of Halifax, a location which President Peter Burbridge says was critical to the business’ success.

Unlike most other mass produced beers, all of North Brewing Company’s beers are unpasteurized, meaning that all harmful bacteria are destroyed during the brewing process through heat. This process does not alter the taste of the beer.

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“It’s more so if you’re worried about your beer lasting eight months on a shelf. Right now we just sell everything out of our store and on tap, so it’s really fresh. There’s no real concern or need to pasteurize,” says Burbridge.

The brewery has built their identity on creating unpasteurized, unfiltered, preservative-free and naturally carbonated beers. They are running on full capacity due to the popularity of their zero emissions product.

Step One

The three-week process of brewing one of North Brewery’s craft beers begins with acquiring Canadian grains. The brewery also receives speciality grains from France and other European locations. The malted (dried) barley and wheat are taken from large, white bags stored in the brewery and are then crushed in a closet-sized mill room.  Burbridge says this exposes the starch in the grain, which is what the yeast uses as sugar during its fermentation. This process creates alcohol.

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Burbridge says they decided to craft Belgian style beers as they were nearly nonexistent in the local market.

“We thought if we were starting really small we could try to start with a unique offering for the city and grow with the demand,” says Burbridge. “It seems that more and more people are looking for those styles.”

Burbridge explains that in Belgian beers, the flavour is yeast driven. In America or the west coast of Canada, the beer flavour is primarily hop driven, while English style beer is malt driven.

“There’s a lot of spicy, fruity or citrusy notes,” says Burbridge of Belgian style beers.

Step Two

Once the barley and wheat have been crushed, they are placed in steel mash tuns, a large metal device similar to a cooler.

Mash tuns hold the wheat at a consistent and elevated temperature. Beside the two mash tuns are two kettles, working in a side-by-side system. To the left of the smaller vessels are two large tins that produce 1200 litres of beer. This is an upgrade from the 300 litres the company was brewing when they first opened.

Held here are some of the brewery’s most popular beers, a Belgian IPA (India Pale Ale) and Bridge Saison, a traditional Belgian style beer.

The crushed grain is then placed in hot water and steeped for an hour at a constant temperature. This allows for the enzymes, that are naturally present in the malted barley and wheat, to convert the starches to sugar. At the end of this process, what’s left is “sugary water” called wort.

Step Three

The brewer then begins running off the bottom of the mash tun into the kettles. Hot water is added on top in a process called sparging, which rinses out the sugars in an effort to “get as much [of the sugar] as you can out of the grain,” says Burbridge.

After all the sugars have been rinsed out of the beer and another hour has passed, the wort is then boiled anywhere from an hour to two hours. In this time, the brewer will add hops “for bittering and aroma” and then any spices to add flavour.

Hops were originally grown for preservation but craft brewers have taken advantage of these small plants to add flavour during the brewing process.  The brewery has also added orange peels in the past for a summer seasonal, which they stored in small bags that where then placed in the kettle at the end of the boil.

The next step is to put yeast into one of the larger tins along with the wort to ferment.

Burbridge says that, if they complete this process all in one day, it can take up to 12 or 13 hours. The fermentation process can vary depending on the beer. For the brewery’s “Strong Dark Belgian,” it can take up to ten days. For their lighter beers around five per cent alcohol, it can take only four or five days.

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Step Four

At the end of the process, the beer is “capped” in an effort to trap as much of the natural carbonation as possible and to “let the natural pressure build up,” says Burbridge. The beer is then cooled down and “cleared out,” or settled, for three or four days depending on the beer and when the brewery wants to package it.

“From there, we just put it directly into Kegs,” says Burbridge.

Along with brewing the beer, cleaning is a big part of the job. While most of the equipment is self-cleaning, a lot of the machinery needs to be washed by hand, especially the cleaning of the kegs.

The well-received result

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Burbridge says the increasing interest towards craft beer is thanks to a demand for more local and artisan products.

“When you go away from mass produced stuff it’s pretty hard to go back,” says Burbridge. “It’s part of that whole trend to support local economies because there’s more variety.”

Burbridge says the atmosphere among other small breweries in the city and province has been supportive and collaborative.

“The industry is really growing. Right now, everyone is in support of each other and understands that the more breweries that open up the more people are going to be introduced to craft beer and the more customers we’ll all have in the end,” said Burbridge.