“Canada Eh: the Atlantic Edition” is the latest episode of One Pint at a Time.
Always looking for new beer adventures, we took the advantage of a trip to Maine to cross over into Maritime Canada to make a quick visit to Nova Scotia.
Over five days, we watched the tides on the Bay of Fundy, experienced Halifax via an Urban Beer Hike and fell in love with beauty and charms of Cape Breton. Most importantly, we discovered a thriving beer scene on Canada’s east coast.
So enjoy our first Maritime Canada beer adventure…
For all the episodes of One Pint at a Time go to beergeekTV.
The big decision in the planning of this trip was where to go after the beer fest in Bangor. Looking for something new to experience, we set our sights east. With its strong connection to Celtic music and natural beauty, Cape Breton, on the far end of Nova Scotia, had always been high on our list of travel destinations.
Almost four hours out of Halifax, Merideth and I crossed the Canso Causeway onto Cape Breton (it’s really an island, not a cape). Eager with anticipation of exploring an area for the first time, we expected the music and hiking to approach ‘EPIC’ on the vacation meter. The one unknown was beer. We had no idea what to expect. After a short stop at the visitor center, we turned up the Ceilidh Trail, the coastal route along the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The English/Gaelic dual language signs reminded us of our trips to Ireland. But we would quickly learn during our stay that the Gaelic heritage was Scottish not Irish. There were some Irish but the main influx came from the Scottish Highlands spurred by the social and economic upheavels of 18th and 19th centuries.
Our destination was Mabou (An Drochaid in Gaelic), a small rural village in the heart of the Celtic music country. We found our hotel on the edge of the village’s main drag just across the river. After checking in, we decided, despite the heat and humidity, to walk around and explore our base for the three day stay on Cape Breton.
A cute village with friendly people, Merideth and I finished the grand tour in only a few minutes. There were shops and stuff but it wasn’t the season yet so most were closed. And despite all the locals insisting it was a beautiful day, it was a tad humid for our dainty California dispositions. We needed to get indoors and a beer would be nice too.
We quickly found ourselves in the one pub in Mabou, the Red Shoe Pub. The bistro-like pub was adorned with all manner of music memorabilia. Little did we know that the Red Shoe was quite well known in the music community. Owned by the Rankin sisters, the pair were part of the dozen siblings who at one time or another comprised the award-winning Cape Breton band The Rankin Family.
We were introduced to Cape Breton beer at the Red Shoe. Looking over the menu, Merideth and I were pleasantly surprised to see some of the Halifax breweries we visited the prior day on the tap and bottle list. And better yet, they were pouring two beers from Big Spruce, the island’s brand new organic brewery.
Our Big Spruce choices were Cereal Killer Oatmeal Stout and Ready Yer Knot Regatta Red Ale. Not in the mood for a Stout, I went with the Red. Billed as their summer ale, the 5.0% ABV Regatta Red had an enticing deep copper color. Light on the hops, the brew had a pleasant maltiness and refreshing body that played well with the current weather conditions.
In our normal travel routine, we usually would bust out the scrabble board or go back to our room and watch a DVD. But I had a moment of inspiration.
It was finally cooling off and the evening was quite pleasant. We would go back to the room but only to pick up the beers we so wisely had chilling. With brews in hand and a couple of glasses scrounged, Merideth and I headed down to West Mabou beach.
It was one of my best travel decisions ever. An absolutely beautiful evening, Merideth and I drank a few beers, skipped a few rocks, watched the sun go down and maybe for the first during the trip just relaxed. We even chatted with a friendly local who was more than happy to tell a couple of Californians about his home. Only thing that would have made it a more perfect evening was if Porter and Stout were with us. A nice way to close our first day on Cape Breton.
The following foggy morning Merideth and I were on the road again heading east. Leaving the Ceilidh Trail, we crossed into the French speaking Acadian area (home to their own style of music, that will have to wait for another trip to Cape Breton to experience). Here we joined the Cabot Trail, a 185 mile long scenic highway loop. The plan for our day was to drive the loop, hike and visit Big Spruce Brewing.
The highway wraps around Cape Breton Highland National Park, a rugged landscape with spectacular ocean scenery. After a week of doing beer stuff, we looked forward to getting out on a trail. Our chosen trail was Skyline, an almost six mile loop to a headland that promised whales, eagles, moose and bears.
After consulting the signs instructing what to do if we encountered a bear or moose (and coyote as well), we were off across the scruffy landscape. Remembering what our hotel owner said a day earlier, I continually scanned the skies for any sign of clearing. She talked about the incredible views along the Cabot Trail but added “unless it’s foggy”.
Beginning as open country, we passed into a woodland. Despite the warnings, we hoped to see a moose but the closest we got was piles of scat dotting the trail every now and then. We did see a cute grouse family.
Breaking out of the trees, we headed out a board-walked path to what was the culmination of our hike, the coastal views where we would see whales and lobsters frolicking in the ocean.
And it was FOGGY. Not able to see anything, we could only imagine what this vista was like on a clear day. It didn’t help either that a park worker told us that the previous day there was a moose, easily visible, grazing on a nearby hill.
Hiking done, we continued along the Cabot Trail. In retrospect, I am not sure this was the best decision. Maybe I should have checked my ‘can’t go back the same way’ tendencies and returned the short third. With the fog turning to rain and Big Spruce closing in a few hours, the final two thirds of the loop became more of a sprint than a scenic drive.
Located on a 30 hectare farm near the town of Baddeck, Big Spruce Brewing opened in April of this year. In the heaviest rain of the day, we arrived about an half hour before closing time. Merideth and I hurried into the tiny tasting room and brewery.
Big Spruce presently brews three beers, the two available at the Red Shoe plus Kitchen Party Pale Ale which they were out of. Not wanting to try the Oatmeal Stout in the heat and humidity of the prior day, I was now eager for a sample of the dark brew in the current dreary, damp, Ireland-like conditions. Cereal Killer was just as good as the Red Ale. On the drier side, the brew had a nice roast/chocolate character plus an easy drinkability important in a Stout.
The hillside farm overlooking Bras d’Or Lake would have nice to explore especially the hop field. But with the rain still falling and muddy conditions, our visit to Big Spruce was short and sweet. For not knowing what to expect from Cape Breton beer, the island’s one brewery turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip. Unfortunately, we left empty-handed except for the logo pint glass. Big Spruce doesn’t bottle.
Finally back in Mabou in the early evening, our day was still not done. After a short rest, we were of to the Celtic Music Interpretative Centre in nearby Judique for the first Ceilidh of the summer season.
Opened in 2007, the mission of the Centre is to “collect, preserve and promote the traditional Celtic music of Cape Breton Island…” A beautiful building, the Centre was part museum, part gift shop and, most important, a performance venue.
Joining a mix of locals and fellow tourists, Merideth and I enjoyed an evening listening to Cape Breton fiddlers. Bonus points to the locals dancing for us and to the Centre for having an inexpensive lobster sandwich.
Our last day on Cape Breton dawned glorious. The fog and humidity of the previous days disappeared and pleasant temperatures boded well for one more Cape Breton hike. Several of the locals had enthusiastically recommended hiking around the nearby Cape Mabou Highlands.
Maintained by the local trail club, the network of trails follows roads as well as settlers’ original cart tracks. Our friendly hotel proprietor recommended that we hike one of these cart tracks, Bein Alasdair Bhain (Fair Allistair’s Mountain) for its stunning ocean views.
We set out from the car park for what was a four plus mile loop. While the hiking was more challenging than the previous day, it was still pretty moderate. After a fairly easy ascent through a forested area, we came out into a meadow with breathtaking sea views that spread out before us. As we crossed the field into the descent back down the hill, we marveled at the shimmering waters and brilliant blue sky as a lobster boat lazily plied its trade.
After that ‘WOW!’ moment, the return part of hike was less awe-inspiring. But as we walked along the tree-shaded access road back to our car, Merideth and I ranked the ocean views we had just seen in our Hiking Hall of Fame. I had it pretty high up there.
We celebrated our great day hiking back at the Red Shoe Pub with a late lunch and a few pints of Big Spruce Cereal Killer Oatmeal Stout. And a big slab of Carrot Cake.
Our time on Cape Breton was winding down. The following morning, we would retrace our steps back into New Brunswick and eventually Maine. With only three days on the island, Merideth and I only scratched the surface of things to do and see. But from what we experienced, the friendly locals, the music, the great hiking with stunning vistas and good local beer, we can only hope we make it back someday soon.
Not all Urban Beer Hikes are created equal. Some include numerous breweries, making great contributions to The List. Others offer length, contributing much to our health. Our recent Halifax Urban Beer Hike added a little bit of everything, including six breweries to The List, a pinch of exercise, and a great way to see the city.
We started our UBH with a warm up from our hotel to Propeller Brewing. Well, it wasn’t so much a “warm up” as it was a very hot and humid 15-minute walk. I was so looking forward to an air-conditioned tasting room and a pint, but alas, that was not to be. Sweating away, we tried Propeller’s standard line up of beers (Pale Ale, Bitter, Porter, Honey Wheat, Pilsner, IPA) plus a special seasonal Double IPA. All of the beers were cleanly brewed and tasted great. In a rare moment of beer agreement, Chris and I both especially liked the Bitter. Having the classic malt backbone of the style and a bit of hop kick, the beer was refreshing. As the brewery likes to say, “Our most popular brew is not really a bitter beer, it’s a better Bitter!”
Propeller is a tasting room and bottle shop, no full pints for sale. So, if you aren’t lucky enough to attend one of their special catered events in the banquet room, plan on tasting and picking up your favorite bottles to go. Which is exactly what we did.
A short distance away (if you don’t get lost) on the touristy Waterfront Boardwalk, we found Hart & Thistle Gastropub & Brewery. We sat outside on the patio shaded by a brightly colored Budweiser Lime-a-Rita umbrella. The weather had yet to break, so while we were happy to be in the shade, we continued to sweat bullets. Once again, I was looking forward to a refreshing brew to cool off with. Unfortunately, my choices were Columbus Double IPA (9.1%) and Ironhead Smoked Porter (7.2%). They don’t offer tastes, so we both went for the DIPA. Yes, even I did.
I admit that between the touristy location and the forest of lime green Bud umbrellas on the patio, I wasn’t holding out much hope. We were pleasantly surprised, however, and the DIPA was very nice. More specifically, it was nice for Chris. I enjoyed one bitter sip, enough to appreciate it as a well-brewed beer. Chris was very happy, indeed, but a 9.1% beer was not exactly what he planned on for only the second stop on our UBH.
The service was friendly and attentive, the view was nice and the beer done well. We also enjoyed our lobster salad and 3-dip plate.
Hart & Thistle’s limited beer choice left me a bit deflated. So, with the recommendation from a friend, we hit Cow’s Ice Cream. So cool and creamy, it really hit the spot! I was now ready for our next brewery–-Alexander Keith’s, North America’s oldest brewery and now part of the Anheuser–Busch InBev dynasty.
You may be asking why we bothered visiting a macro-brewery. Well, there are several reasons. 1) We’re completists and it would be hard to know the brewery was there and not visit. 2) This was the original brewery and therefore historic. (We’ve also been to Coors in Golden, CO). And 3) Several people told us we HAD to do the brewery tour; that we’d love it!
Chris blames me for making him go on the tour, but the fact is, we were both a little curious. Here’s why: the tour is conducted by actors in period costumes and takes place in the year 1863. Luckily they stuck to the script and didn’t really expect too much audience participation as we learned the brewing process, played period pub games, listened to singing and watched dancing. I’m thinking of two particular friends who would totally love working this gig! (Let me know if you think I’m talking about you. I would love to see if you can guess…)
The tour lasted about 45 minutes and also included two small beers. I enjoyed (as much as one can) the Dark and Chris the Cascade Ale. Not sure it was worth the $19.95 each we paid for it, but as Chris says, at least we supported a few local actors.
Walking further down Lower Water Street, we struggled to wrap our heads around what we had just witnessed. A beer was definitely in order. Fortunately, we were heading in the direction of Garrison Brewing.
The longest leg of our UBH, our journey to Garrison Brewing gave us an opportunity to walk along the water and enjoy the view. The brewery was located at the end port where a cruise ship was docked.
We relaxed at an outside table while drinking our taster set and watching people return to the boat. We tried 7 beers at Garrison, including all of their year-round brews (Wheat, Amber, Pale Ale, Irish Red, Nut Brown, American Red, and Imperial IPA).
All of the beers were well-brewed, but of course, Chris liked the citrusy Imperial IPA (7% ABV, 81 ABV) best. I actually don’t remember which beer I liked best, but we did buy a few bottles of the Irish Red and the Hop Yard Pale Ale, so I imagine it was one of those.
Walking all the way back to where we started earlier in the day, our next stop was Rock Bottom Brewing, right around the corner from our hotel. And no. Not that Rock Bottom.
The cellar-level pub was a little dark and we weren’t sure what to expect from Rock Bottom’s beer. We sat at a cool booth-style table at the end of the bar. The first thing I liked was the logo, a mermaid with a pint. So much so that I think it may be my next tattoo. Then they had a Happy Hour boneless chicken wing special ($4 for 10 Thai chili wings). So far so good. Next came our 6-beer sample set…all I can say is that the beer was great!
We tried the Wheat, Stout, IPA, and Brown, plus two seasonals: The Rookie and Broken Down SOB (Special Old Bitter). The Rookie was a hoppy American-style mild. Chris went wild for this Citra/Simcoe hop bomb, especially since it came in at a sessionable 3.3% ABV! I enjoyed the malty, biscuity SOB with our boneless wings.
After 2 baskets of wings and a few beers, it was time for us to move on. We had one last stop to complete our halifax UBH.
For our final stop of the day, we went a few blocks further from our hotel to Rogue’s Roost. A bit drained from the heat and humidity of the day, we decided to have a quick taster set and call it a night. It included their five regulars: Red, Brown, Raspberry Wheat, Cream Ale, and IPA. The nautical themed atmosphere was pleasant and the other customers mellow, making it the perfect ending to a long day.
In spite of the humidity, our Halifax Urban Beer Hike was exactly what a UBH should be. We experienced the breadth of Halifax breweries, saw different parts of the beautiful city, exercised a bit, and added breweries to The List. All in all, another great beer travel adventure.
Sometimes our beer travels and visiting the Earth’s cool quirks mesh just perfectly. In mapping out our first ever trip to Nova Scotia, I found two breweries on the northwest shore of the peninsula along the Bay of Fundy. Two breweries AND the opportunity to see the world’s highest tides was too much to pass up.
We left Bangor very early on Sunday morning geared up for a long drive to Nova Scotia. We pride ourselves on being seasoned travelers but sometimes even Merideth and I can act like rookies. Crossing into New Brunswick, we saw a sign that said entering the Atlantic Time Zone. Merideth and I looked at each other puzzled. We had never heard of such an animal. I figured that it was just the goofy Canadian way of saying the Eastern Time Zone.
After what seemed like an eternity of driving (it had been years since we did such a long haul in one shot) we finally saw a sign saying that our destination, Wolfville, was 20 kilometers away. But we were confused, our GPS gave us an arrival time of 3:30pm but the clock displayed just past 2:00. At that point, I had the epiphany. That sign at the border was trying to tell us we lost an hour!
We pretty much laughed at ourselves for that final 20 kilometers. Arriving at our B&B we sorted ourselves out. A long walk to our first ever Nova Scotian brewery was scrapped due to the heavy rain in the area. Reluctantly, we hopped back in the car and drove over to Port Williams.
Nestled along one of the many finger-like channels that dot the coast, the Port Pub in Port Williams was a beacon of hospitality for the weary beer travelers. More important, it was also the home of Sea Level Brewing. Despite the recent downpour that sent other customers scrambling inside, Merideth and I chose to sit outside on the covered patio. Not only for the view but after eight plus hours in the car, we needed the fresh air.
Parched and famished, we quickly ordered a sample flight and some food. With the important stuff taken care of, we could now stare at the water. We had missed the afternoon’s high tide – we would have had to leave Bangor in the middle of the night to see that – so we were about halfway to the next low tide. Being a day with a full moon, it was an extra special tide with a 36 foot difference between the previous high and the next low. It was fascinating watching the water drain out of the channel somewhat akin to watching a large bathtub emptying.
If we don’t count way too many Alexander Keith’s IPAs on Canada Day 2000 in Victoria, the Sea Level beers were our very first brews from Nova Scotia (those Keith’s IPAs in Victoria probably weren’t brewed in Nova Scotia anyway). There were six beers in the flight ranging from a Summer Blonde and Raspberry Wheat on the lighter end to a roasty Porter with a big creamy head on the dark side. All were very welcome as our first real introduction to Nova Scotian brews with the aforementioned Blonde and Porter being Merideth’s favorites. Mine was Sea Level’s self-proclaimed hop head brew, Blue Heron ESB, a beer that put a smile on this hop head’s face.
The food was excellent. Being both lunch and dinner for us, we treated ourselves to an appetizer of local scallops wrapped in bacon. That was followed up with each of us getting a lobster roll. The non-traditional bun threw us off at first, but the Nova Scotian lobster was sweet and delicious.
Driving back towards Wolfville I rued our bad weather luck. I had conceived a cool little two brewery walk that would have culminated in Wolfville’s quaint downtown. Driving instead of walking down the quiet Main Street (it wasn’t tourist season yet), we found Paddy’s Brew Pub.
Originally, I envisioned a long evening playing scrabble and drinking beer but we were too wiped out from our exertions of the weekend. Our Paddy’s stop morphed into a sample flight and a few pints while chatting with the friendly staff and fellow customers.
The flight ranged from the light Acadian Cream Ale and ubiquitous Blueberry Ale to a dark, dark, smoky Chimney Swift Stout. The star for me was the Annapolis Valley Ale, the most hop forward of Paddy’s brews.
After Paddy’s we went back along the causeway that joined Wolfville and Port Williams to a vantage point to see the low tide in full effect. Seeing the channel completely empty that had been half full a few hours before was pretty impressive. Being kind of a geek, it reminded me of the Doctor Who episode The Runaway Bride where the Doctor drained the Thames.
We frequently came back to one theme on this trip… it’s just amazing some of the places beer travel brings us. Adding our first Nova Scotian breweries to The List was great. Seeing the tides along the Bay of Fundy was a great bonus.