New Brunswick is seeing a rapidly rising tide in the craft brewing industry, and a resurgence of the traditional public house in the form of the modern taproom. Craft breweries are finding homes in communities, and in turn have been giving communities a home. Their success shouldn’t come as a surprise: they are being embraced as an inherently local product, contributing to a local economy, and often tied to a local arts and culture scene, not to mention an excellent source of beer. As the demand increases we’re beginning to see craft breweries pop-up in some interesting places, including Off Grid Ales; their story is just as much about where they are as what they do.
Harvey Station is a quiet little village in the south-western part of New Brunswick. It hasn’t changed a whole lot from its picture postcards taken in the 1930s, and what changes there have been have all come at a pace befitting to rural life. If anything the village has become quieter as the days of rail service in the province have steadily ebbed, and the once steady stream of passengers travelling between Saint John and Montreal go by other means. These days the village is known mostly as a curious little outpost on the highway between Fredericton and St Andrew’s. It’s home to the oldest operating general store in the province, and formerly the title holder for having the world’s largest fiddle. The fiddle is still there, standing proudly at fourteen feet tall in honour of their most famous son, Don Messer, host of his namesake Jubilee, and the second most popular television show in the country throughout the 1960’s after Hockey Night In Canada. The village held that title for a whole five years before Cape Breton went and built a fiddle more than five times that size.
But Harvey Station is still very much cottage country. Every summer the population of the surrounding areas swell, and the lakes (of which there are no less than five: Yoho, Oromocto, George, Magaguadavic, with Harvey Lake being the most central) become something of a hub of activity. Or at least a hub of a determinedly relaxed atmosphere. Naturally, along with the seasonal swell there comes an exponential increase in the regional consumption of beer. It was only a matter of time before someone would think to show people there was another way, that they had a choice, that they could enjoy their summers free of Budweiser and Molson.
So the inevitable happened, but when Randy and Denise Rowe decided they were going to start a brewery, they didn’t just go looking for the nearest available commercial space. Instead they chose to embrace their surroundings in a big way. You won’t find Off Grid Ales in some converted warehouse or attached to a pub. Not even close. As their name suggests, they’re a few kilometers away from the nearest hydro pole.
Nestled into the northern tip of Harvey Lake, well away from any neighbours, the easiest way to reach Off Grid Ales might be by water. The only other way to reach the brewery is through a maze of dirt logging roads long enough to be considered an essential component to their carbonation process.
“It was about privacy and having some space around us,” explains owner and chief brewer Randy Rowe, and there’s no question that they’ve got both in abundance. “I’ve always loved the water. Typically everyone is jammed right together on the lake. We wanted lake front, but we didn’t want 50 feet of lake front. Here we’ve got 600 feet here of lake frontage. Our nearest neighbour is around the corner, and we can never hear him or see him unless we choose to.”
This is the third spot the Rowe’s have had in the area, whether leased or owned. This time, they’ve put down some roots though, or more accurately erected a massive tower. From the road, their home is barely discernable for all the trees, but coming around the driveway your eyes are drawn upward to the solar array above the roof of their equally panelled brewery, and the wind turbine above that.
The whole system is enough to generate 4000 watts over the course of a day, or enough to run their electronics, lights, and refrigerators. Their home still runs a water heater, a cook stove, a backup heater, and a dryer, but all with the use of propane. Electricity is reserved for all the things you just can’t do without electricity. The brewery’s kettles are propane fired, but there’s no getting around powering their walk-in cooler. They’ve done their best to take that into account as well, having redesigned their walk-in with insutlation to give them three times the r-value of what a typical walk-in would use. Using an air conditioner, they can keep their 8 x 10 space chilly for only a little more than your household fridge runs you.
Rowe says that their first starter system produced just 1200w at a installation price of over $10k, but with the cost of solar panels increasingly become cheaper its made adding to their system relatively inexpensive. “When we bought our first panels they were $6 a watt and now it’s around $1 a watt. If you can do the instillation yourself it’s pretty reasonable to increase the capacity. We’ll have a battery replacement at some point, but batteries are typically good for twenty years, and then they get recycled into new batteries.”
“A lot of the times you can’t produce solar power but that’s where the wind turbines come in. When the suns not shining quite often there’s a storm blowing through. We don’t make as much power with a wind turbine but it’s 24 hours a day, maybe two or three days in a row. The two systems work well together, especially in the winter. You get a lot of winter storms and you don’t see the sun for days, but then it’s windy.”
As far as brewing goes, they’re working on a three barrel system, and expect to be turning out six barrels (or 700 L) a week, bottling everything by hand, and shipping out kegs to places like the local Lougheed Pub in Harvey (if and when it reopens), and bars and restaurants around Fredericton.
For those eager to sample the beer, keep in mind that their strength is definitely all in the IPAs, a favourite of Randy’s. “We’ve been developing recipes over the last couple years, and trying to make something, maybe not for every case, but I’m an IPA fan and double IPA’s, so we had to have those. My wife and a lot of our friends like some of the malty-er beers, like red, and honey-browns, and porters, and stouts, stuff like that. So we came up with a couple recipes for each and we’ll start out with four beers: a porter, a red, an IPA, and a double IPA. There are hundreds of styles of beers and directions you can go, but we felt that was the minimum.”
“We won’t have a big supply of any one type, but we’ll be able to turn out one of our beers every second week. They probably won’t even notice us in Fredericton – it’s just going to be a drop in the bucket of the craft beer market. We feel that they’re really good beers, and we want people to enjoy them, and make our living where we live.”
Building on the theme of maintaining a low environmental impact, Randy says that going organic isn’t out of the question in the future, especially with organic hop farmers in the area. “We’ve thought about that and we might down the road. We’re thinking of having something along those lines that would be organic, and I think a lot of people do want that.”
Don’t make any plans for a brewery tour though.”We’re starting to get a little bit of attention,” says Randy. “Everybody is asking when they can come up and get beer, and we’ve got to tell them, ‘Well no, we’re going to bring it to you…'”
Off Grid Ales is opening this week with bottles of their Unplugged Porter, Sunny Day IPA, Campfire Red, and High Tower Double IPA appearing in ANBL locations around Fredericton.