I can remember turning nineteen, the legal drinking age here, in the autumn of [date redacted]. My family and I were making a Thanksgiving trip to King’s Landing, something that has become a bit of a tradition. The leaves were at the height of their colour, the days were still warm enough to comfortably stand outside without a coat, provided one remained in direct sunlight, and in a moment suitable for a Norman Rockwell painting, or perhaps a Garrison Keiller story, my dad bought me my first beer. It was a Simeon Jones River Valley Ale from Picaroons, brewed specially for the King’s Head Inn in honour of the former Saint John mayor and brewer. It was the first of many that have followed in the years since, but there’s always something to be said for firsts, even in something so inconsequential as a beer. I’m glad that my memory of that experience will forever be tied to a place that I have always cherished, a beer more flavourful and unique than most, and from my father in a celebration of my (somewhat debateable) adulthood.
We have a long tradition as beer drinkers here in the Maritimes, and a history of beer brewing that’s almost as long. Picaroons is a relatively new addition in a recent wave of smaller crafter breweries, but Sean Dunbar, owner and brewer at the Fredericton based business, tells me they are determined to make their contribution to the province, “We are a four ‘P’ company: people, planet, product, and province, […] We put helping the province into our strategic planning, making sure that it’s an element we consider all the time. We’re trying to play a role in whatever New Brunswick is going to be. It’s a big part of why we’re here, and maybe the best way for us to be part of the bigger world is to keep on making good beer.”
Sean has slowly eschewed the mantel of a full time brewer, and adopted the many responsibilities required in a growing business, parcelling off duties as the load increases. His office is no longer the back room of the north side brewery, but a comfortable room above the Queen street brewtique complete with a pair of small dogs; one of which seems to have made his way onto the label of their Man’s Best Friend Porter. He describes his current position as ‘Other’, which no doubt means tackling anything and everything imaginable and more, but his focus manages to encompass both beer and the well-being of the province, “My theory has been that a rising tide floats all boats, so the more craft beer, the more variety of craft beer we get into the province, the more the whole sector is going to develop. I want to bring as many people into the sector as possible and I’m willing to do different things. I’ve sat down and said ‘Alright, what do I do?’ How can I build New Brunswick?’ You build the growth of the sector through product, we can’t make enough product to go that fast, so let’s bring in everybody else’s product. I’m so proud of the NB liquor store specialty beer shelves at the moment. It’s incredible.”
“In ten years, I’d like all of Canada to say, ‘Oh, it’s the beer place: lots of breweries, lots of beers, the best liquor stores, the best varieties of beer, the best beer festivals. I don’t know if we’d be the new Germany or Belgium, but within Canada maybe we could be that place. Moosehead’s given us that 200 year start; they created an entity, a grade, that fits New Brunswick, that is really authentic in New Brunswick.” At this point I begin to wonder if this is a feasible political platform and imagine campaign signs proclaiming ‘An ale in every hand, and a case in every fridge’.
Picaroons began as an idea conceived amongst friends in 1995, while Sean was still attending law school, “We wanted to open a brew-pub first. I had worked in the hotel-restaurant business before I went to law school and they thought I would know something,
“I think my only input, at that point, was don’t get involved in restaurants.”
We developed the first business plan for the brewery while we were in bar admission course; we were admitted to the bar in June and the brewery opened in October. I can’t say that I ever seriously practiced law.” Since then, Picaroons has seen both boom and bust: periods of rapid expansion, bankruptcy, a fresh start, and a measured growth that Sean is very much keeping cool about, “If anybody had told me ten years ago that we would have 1% of New Brunswick’s beer market, I would have said, ‘I don’t even want that. That’s ruined everything! We’re accountable! I don’t even want to be accountable. I just want to make as much beer as I can make myself in one day and sell it.’ […] Maybe it’s the authenticity of the people that attracts them and we’ve tried being an authentic company; we try to really not lie to people. I don’t mean that in a bad way. We’re just trying to be authentic to what we are, we are what we are, and maybe that’s what resonates with people.”
“The big guys are always saying, ‘Well, we started as a craft brewery.’”
Their product leaves little wonder as to why it has become so popular; from blondes to stouts there’s a flavour for everyone. Some, like their use of heather tips in Plaid to the Bone, incorporate somewhat off-the-beaten-path herbs and spices to push our palates, “There’s only so many beer styles that we can make, We have one yeast strain for all of our beers, so in some ways it cramps your artistic style, but it also makes it easier. We use the same process for pretty much everything, with slight deviations or variations throughout. The water is always going to be the same for us, so you’ve got grain and hops to play with. Sometimes we say, ‘Okay we’ve got a name for a beer, let’s make a beer to make the name’, sometimes you have a title, sometimes you have a word, sometimes you have music, and you fit the rest of it around whichever lick you happen to have in your head. Then we bring the rest of the band in, and say ‘What do you guys think?’ I want to do another series where all of our people who work in all the company brew a beer of their own to reinforce that it’s all about the beer. It means we have to come up with 32 different beers out of those four ingredients; two of which are always the same.”
Aside from becoming the Baskin Robbins of beer, Picaroons has plans to rejuvenate the former Gibson Roundhouse on Union Street, a historic property that will become home to their new brewery and permanent community space. There’s been no word yet as to whether Mr. Dunbar will be running for public office in the next election.
For more information on Picaroons, check out their webpage, spend some time at your local liquor store, or wait for the complete twenty-six page transcript of this interview to be published in my book due out in [date redacted].
“The goals we’ve set are usually based on volume, but the first one is always ‘Will anybody drink my beer?’, ‘Will people like my beer?’ That’s the whole thing. I can stand in a liquor store line-up and if there’s somebody in front of me buying a Picaroons beer, I’m still resisting the urge to buy it for them, or thank them. It’s still a big kick.”