The stately lady in the above photo is my great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Susannah Woodhouse (Culverwell) Oland. If you are a beer geek, you may just recognize her as the grand matriarch of Canadian brewing. If not, you still might recognize her name from having seen it on a wall inside a pub...
There are some inconsistencies in the stories about her, details blurred by the passing of time, but she was, by all reports, a woman of indomitable spirit. A person of grit and pluck who carried her family through thick and thin. Her husband, John, along with his three male partners, may have been given the public credit for the founding of their first brewery, (The Army and Navy Brewery, named in honor of the breweries best, most thirsty customers.) but the family has always held that Susannah was the true driving force behind it all. The beer they first brewed was Susannah's, her personal recipe for a brown "October Ale", and when John died suddenly in 1870 during a riding accident, she founded her own brewery: S. Oland, Sons and Co.
John's untimely death left Susannah with 6 children to care for and in considerable financial distress. She was forced out of their company, selling the families shares in The Army and Navy Brewery. But ever unsinkable, she came roaring back into the brewing world seven years later, buying the brewery back from the remaining partners and founding her own damn company, using an inheritance she had received.
S. Oland, Sons and Co. may not have had her name on it exactly, but it did have the next best thing: her initial. This was either an acquiescence to the social pressures of the time, or a strategic move to sell more beer to late 1800's male chauvinists. It's said that it was her choice to use only her initial, a decision made as canny business move, and that would certainly fit in with what we know of her character.
Either way, we do know that Susannah found her success as an unlikely female entrepreneur of the age, and guided S. Oland, Sons and Co. into prosperity- though it didn't come easily. Fire, a major (and constant) threat to breweries of the era, struck twice over the first 8 years of operation. But both times that the brewery burnt, Susannah rebuilt. She survived, grew, and taught her sons what she had learned of both brewing and business. In 1886 Susannah Oland died, and the company fell to her sons; George and Conrad.
I can't say why, but perhaps eager to get out from under the shadow of their legendary Mother, George and Conrad renamed the company to The Maritime Brewing & Malting Co.
It would seem that business for the two brothers was mostly good- until the morning of December 6th, 1917.
The Halifax explosion was catastrophic. The blast was the greatest that the world had ever known, and it remained that way -the most powerful explosion that the world had ever seen- right up until the development of nuclear weapons. It still holds the gruesome record for the most powerful blast ever created by conventional explosives.
Nearly all structures within an 800-metre (2,600 ft) radius, including the entire community of Richmond, were obliterated. A pressure wave snapped trees, bent iron rails, demolished buildings, grounded vessels, and scattered fragments of the Mont-Blanc for kilometres. Hardly a window in the city proper survived the blast. Across the harbour, in Dartmouth, there was also widespread damage. A tsunami created by the blast wiped out the community of Mi'kmaq First Nations people who had lived in the Tuft's Cove area for generations.
As for the Olands, the disaster demolished their brewery, killed Conrad, and ultimately split the family apart. After the explosion, the family rebuilt in two places: atop the original Nova Scotia address in Halifax, and in a new location in Saint John, New Brunswick. By the 1930's, two distinct and separately controlled companies had emerged: Oland Breweries in Halifax and what will eventually come to be known as Moosehead Brewery in Saint John New Brunswick. Divided, Susannahs descendants fought bitterly over the Maritime beer market. This lasted until 1971, when Oland's Breweries was acquired by Labatt, which was itself consumed by Interbrew, which merged with Anheuser-Busch to become now AB InBev, and which will soon become Coorbrew-Global-Hyper-Mega-Corp I suppose.
In 1993 Derek Oland made the strategic decision to shutter Moosehead’s Nova Scotia brewery (Which was established in Dartmouth to compete with the cousins) in favour of focusing their efforts on their New Brunswick home. This marked the end of the family's Nova Scotian brewing tradition, begun by Susannah just over 125 years prior- but it was far from the end of the Oland family brewing tradition: Moosehead remains proudly independent and family-run to this day.
Still, somewhat sadly, the Oland name- or at least, the Oland Brands- are now owned and brewed by Inbev. Brands like Schooner Lager :
You may recognize that schooner from such currencies as: our own, and such denominations as: the flippin' dime. And well, if you don't, then it's time for another heritage minute:
What the heritage minute doesn't mention, and what many do not realize about the Bluenose, is that she wasn't just a pleasure craft. She was built to work and race, and when she reached the end of her useful working life, she was sold- just like you would do with a used work truck.
She was no mere racing ship, but also a general fishing craft that was worked hard throughout her lifetime. She fished cod and other kinds of groundfish, and at least once won competitions for largest catches of the season and similar awards.
Fishing schooners became obsolete during the 1930s, displaced by motor schooners and trawlers. Despite efforts to keep her in Nova Scotia led by Capt. Walters, Bluenose was sold to work as a freighter in the West Indies. Laden with bananas, she struck a coral reef off Île à Vache, Haiti on January 28, 1946. Wrecked beyond repair, with no loss of life, she was abandoned on the reef.
Still, the people of Nova Scotia mourned the loss of the Bluenose, and in 1963 Oland's Breweries had a replica built of the celebrated vessel; the Bluenose II. It was built using the original Bluenose plans, at the original shipyard, even with many of the same shipwrights. The Bluenose II was primarily a promotional tool, but she was also used as a pleasure yacht for the Oland family, right up until 1971, the year of the Labatt's buyout, when the family sold the Bluenose II to the government of Nova Scotia- for one dollar... or 10 dimes.
"Wait" I can almost hear you thinking, "Victor, if you're a part of this yacht-owning family, this national beer dynasty, why did you start a tiny contract brewery, instead of, you know, anything else??" Well, the simple answer is: I'm not. I'm a North. (and very proud to be one!) But we Norths have no particular claim to brewing. Remember how I mentioned that Susannah is my great-great-great-great-great grandparent? Well, we all have a lot of those. Mathematically speaking, we ought to have around one-hundred and twenty-eight, in fact. Look hard enough into that crowd, and there ought to be at least one or two exceptional people in the mix. Wait but Why has an excellent post that explains genealogy (which can be found here) and in it is an illustration which explains my situation within the Oland family almost perfectly:
I've always thought that what we choose to be is so much more important that what our ancestors were anyway. I am a brewer because I chose to become one, and that is what counts at the end of the day, no? As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: "We are what we pretend to be".
Still, I do draw inspiration from my Great5 Grandmother Susannah, her determination and her resilience, and the resilience shown by her descendants. I take a measure of pride that beer runs in my blood (increasingly more so, after several beers!) It's a source of reassurance to reflect upon when the going gets tough... which it has. I'm afraid that this brings me, at long last, to the point of this story. I have some sad news: I'm sorry to tell you that we've run out of runway, and we're going to have to stop brewing for the foreseeable future.
It's no secret that contract brewing is a difficult way to start a brewery. Local beer writer, Jordan St. John recently wrote that "Contract brewing has proved to be a grueling, merciless, low margin, joyless and difficult way to make your way in the beer industry." which was such a remarkably pointed and insightful comment, it made me wonder when Jordan ran a contract brewery!? The low margins he mentions are key: the margins are very thin indeed, so unless you are contract brewing on a rather large scale, these small margins mean that you are unlikely to break even, and making money becomes an unrealistic goal.
The true goal with contract brewing is typically to build a brand, develop some brand equity, or prove a concept. The entire exercise could be thought of as a marketing expense; the money you lose bringing your product to market, attending beer festivals, and operating your company is essentially money invested towards building up the idea of your brewery into a real and respectable thing. This is done in the hopes that you might be better able to access funds that perhaps would not have been available to you otherwise, say, if you were simply a dreamer with a well-thumbed business plan. That was our thought anyway, of course I can't speak for every contract brewer. There are lots of folks out there taking the same route as us, and many seem to be doing rather well! Perhaps we have simply been doing it wrong. (That seems quite likely actually, given the circumstances!)
Regardless, we simply didn't have the money to chase this dream but we wanted to chase it anyway, so contract brewing was the method we picked to jam our foot into the door. It's not something that is sustainable for very long. You either open the door, or it gets painful pretty darn fast! The idea, typically, is to move past contract brewing -and do so quickly- before you lose your shirt! (or foot!)
There is a simple reason why most contract brewers have either a part-time or full-time job in addition to their business. But that job presents a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem familiar to any entrepreneur: you don't want to quit your job and go all-in until your business is actually no longer losing money, but that is unlikely to ever happen if you don't commit your full time and attention to the project. Once I left my position teaching at the College to focus on Garden Brewers, I was making that commitment and taking that chance- and I set the clock ticking. We began to really focus on growing into a bricks-and-mortar company, but we also began to really lose money. I genuinely thought that we would beat the clock -and the odds- but we now find ourselves in a position where we are unable to continue.
Don't worry about us though. I've already been offered, and accepted, a job. I've been brewing for a little while now at Black Oak, and I'm happy to be in such good company while we figure out what comes next! In the coming weeks and months, Garden Brewers will be winding down and selling our remaining kegs of beer. We will then be collecting the empties, and selling the kegs themselves as well. Unfortunately, we'll have to sell any physical assets of the company that we can, in order to help cover some of our start-up loans. From there, it's harder to say. I would like to say "We'll be back!", that this is simply a temporary setback and we will still open our brewery someday, but the reality is that we don't see any way forward at this time.
Still, Hamilton's bylaws are changing, the industry is growing, and the rules around beer and alcohol are slowly being liberalized and modernized in this province. There may be a way for us to make this work yet. After all -if Susannah and her descendants could overcome deaths in the family, brewery fires, and utterly devastating explosions- maybe we can find a way to deal with our little problems, eh?
Until then, we wish you well. We hope that you have also enjoyed our beers, and the time we spent together at bars, beer festivals, and at our special events- however brief it was. May you always have a clean shirt, a clear conscience, and enough coins in your pocket to buy a pint!
I can certainly drink to that,
-The Garden Brewers