Brewing from field to glass

Randy Lawrence and his Sea Level Brewery isn't just tied to The Port Pub in Port Williams, it's tied to the land and all the ingredients used in beer making.

In England, they refer to a pub that has an exclusivity agreement with a brewery as a tied house. Although many breweries would dream of deals like this, it's illegal in Nova Scotia to tie a bar to a brand of taps.

The Port, a gastropub---a pub that serves high-quality food---on the red banks of the Cornwallis River in bucolic Port Williams, went a step further. To get fresh, local beer, they built a brewery right into their pub.

Here's the twist: The brewer, Randy Lawrence, doesn't want to tie his Sea Level brewing operation just to The Port. He's tied it to his farm as well. He aims to be the first self-sufficient "farm brewery" in Nova Scotia in the next two years and if he's successful, he might change the way we think about the beer industry.

Lawrence grows seven hop varieties on a quarter acre of his farm. Hops grow well in the Annapolis Valley, he says. "You can watch them grow a foot on a hot July day and plants can grow up to 30 feet." He's been growing them for more than 20 years.

As well, two farms successfullly test-planted brewer's barley for him last summer.

His hops give flavour and depth to his beer and the barley helps wean him off western grains, but he still needs to import hops for the first kettle stage of beer making.

While he's well on his way to being self-sufficent, reaching crop capacity is difficult to achieve. He's had farmers call and ask to grow hops for him, thinking it would be an easy secondary crop, but Lawrence says many shy away once they realize the huge amount of labour required to properly harvest and process hops.

A regional shortage of ingredients is only part of the reason why Lawrence wants to grow everything himself. He has a larger political motivation. If he manages to become a self-sufficient brewer, he plans to apply to the Department of Agriculture for status as a farm brewery.

"I'll be the first to do it. I don't know if I'm opening a Pandora's box or not," he says. Why? Because Lawrence wants to grow a field-to-bottle brewing industry. He really wants microbrewers to achieve industry parity with the wine industry in terms of the tax and regulatory breaks wineries have been given by the government.

If he grows the ingredients and brews, bottles and sells the beer, "it's the same cat's kittens," he argues, as a functioning winery. Currently, he says, he and other microbrewers sit on a committee that is preparing a proposal document, solicited by the NSLC, with ideas on how to change the current system to encourage more local breweries.

As of last December, Lawrence started selling Sea Level beers in quart bottles from the brewery in The Port Pub. He plans to get bottles into selected liquor stores by late spring.

As for the taste, the Sea Level Brewing Company's best beers tend to be quite dark, hoppy and/or strong, such as the Port in a Storm Porter. Lawrence also does a light, sweet Planter's Pale Ale and a well-balanced Rojo Mojo Red. If you go to The Port for the draught, lager lovers will really enjoy Randy's Moondance Organic Lager or his seasonal Scottish ales.

"In a word," Lawrence says, "I call my beers approachable."

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Andy Murdoch

Andy Murdoch is an awesome guy.

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