Draught dodging

Fighting city politics and the smoking ban, the Granite brewery chooses to expand without Halifax.

Smoke and mirrors Kevin Keefe longs for the cloudy days of Ginger’s. photo Julé Malet-Veale

The Granite Brewery/Ginger's, a fixture in Halifax and a Canadian brewery worthy of pioneer status, purveyors of fine locally made ales since 1984, is expanding. But not in Halifax.

Owner Kevin Keefe, struggling under post-smoking ban business conditions, decided to open a new microbrewery in the old Nova Scotia Textiles building in Windsor, where he has exciting plans: Granite will become part of the Mill Island development, which includes two floors of high-end condos, a new pub (The Green Man) and a larger brew house—complete with a canning line so he can sell his brands anywhere he wants.

Keefe, an avid smoker and constant opponent of the increasing restrictions that culminated in a complete ban December 1, 2006, has had enough. When the city enacted the 100 percent ban last year after many bars, including Ginger's, had invested in smoke-free rooms and ventilation systems, Kevin was more bitter than his Dry Hopped Best. He insists the ban made operating practically unprofitable.

"Smoking bans have radically altered the licence trade," claims Keefe. "It's a different business."

Keefe speculates people now stay home to drink and smoke with their friends, and go out at 11pm or midnight. Adding to this is the penchant for sneaking in mini-bottles of booze—we've all found them wedged between bar seat cushions.

Others have different theories: stiffer drinking and driving laws; the decline (disappearance, really) of the "three martini lunch," owing to corporate crackdowns on employee drinking; a temperance revival.

Look at the facts though, says Keefe: "Licensee sales are way down, while sales at the NSLC are flying high."

Keefe's business decision was also heavily influenced by last year's changes in the excise tax, which greatly benefited small brewers. Selling beer from a brewery is financially attractive compared to running a pub. This growth creates jobs and should result in new craft breweries across Canada. Nova Scotia is already seeing this, with the recent opening of the Sea Level brewery in Port Williams in the Annapolis Valley.

As for choosing Windsor over Halifax, the answer lies in city bureaucracy. "It would have taken four years versus four months to get permission to develop in Halifax," quips Keefe. Then there are the higher prices and taxes.

Haligonian lovers of Ringwood and Dry Hop should not fret. Besides the planned canned Granite brews (Peculiar and Green Man Organic), Keefe will keep the Barrington Street location open, brewing smaller volume brands. His sons run the bar and don't want to leave the city—Joe's the manager and Brian brews.

They'll also supply The Henry House, Lion's Head and Spitfire Arms in Windsor, but the long-term plan is to focus on NSLC sales, where there's growth. "We're more interested in selling beer through the NSLC, not chasing new licensees," Keefe says.

As for the effects of the smoking ban, it appears Ginger's was harder hit due to their lower bar area, which was 100 percent smoking. Halifax's other brewpub, Rogue's Roost, has noticed a slight impact because of the ban on sales, but Lorne Romano is still brewing regularly. He figures he may have brewed five percent less than the previous year, but happily proclaims "July and August 2007 were two of our biggest months, ever."

Craig Pinhey is a Certified Beer Judge and Sommelier. Visit him at frogspad.ca.

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