Brewsters – Celebrating Halifax’s long tradition of women who brew beer

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Ask Jeremy White (no relation) what prompted him to launch Big Spruce Brewing and he’ll offer a response likely to surprise those who perceive the craft beer industry as the domain of bearded hipsters. “Her,” White said with a loving nod to his wife Melanie Bock-White with whom he was enjoying a rare night out (as parents of two young children) at a popular Halifax eatery.

Melanie Bock-White and Jeremy White of Big Spruce Brewing. Contributed.

Having first met in Costa Rica and later married, the couple were visiting Bock-White’s family in Vancouver when they savoured The Back Hand of God, a stout from Crannog Ales, an organic farm brewery in BC. Recalling the “aha” moment, White said he realized that a craft brewery aligned with the couple’s ambition to start a small business that reflected their socially conscious values.

“Melanie brought me to craft beer,” said White, a native of Ontario and former project manager for an international water treatment firm. “We built Big Spruce together. But the trip to Vancouver with her started it all.”  

Propelled by their vision, the couple, in 2008, purchased (sight unseen from an internet listing), a century-old farmhouse on a 75-acre property near Baddeck.“Wide open fields, a fresh brook that gives us the most remarkable water, sweeping views of the Bras D’Or Lake,” Bock-White  said. “Within a handful of years, we’d planted the hop-yard and broke ground for … the brewery.”

Today, Big Spruce stands as the only organic, farm brewery and hop-yard in Atlantic Canada. “After living and traveling in Latin America for so many years where evening mosquito fumigation trucks passed through, I became a bit militant about being covered in pesticides against my will,” Bock-White said. “When we moved to Cape Breton, it became a personal imperative to keep everything we created here as clean and untouched as possible. We feel a deep responsibility to live in a sustainable and thoughtful way.”

Fast-forward and on Saturday, Bock-White will join, at the inaugural Brewster Festival, a growing group of women who either own, brew or collaborate with women-identified staff members at craft breweries throughout the Atlantic region. Brewster is a historical term for women who brewed beer, noted Kelly Costello, an assistant brewer at Good Robot Brewing Company,  host of the event that will be held at the Mayflower Curling Club in Halifax.  

Costello is also the force behind FemmeBot, an internal brand of Good Robot that counters the  “bro image” of craft beer by celebrating women brewers. “It feels good to highlight the hard work of women in this industry,” she said.

A certified Beer Sommelier with extensive training in the history, ingredients, brewing techniques, varieties, and tasting profiles of beer, Bock-White agreed:  “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. The same folks who understand that [sports] are better when both genders participate now ‘get’ that this perception … spreads to all things. Beer is beer. There is no gender appropriation.”

To be sure, women have a long history with the libation that stands as the world’s most widely consumed alcoholic beverage and the third most popular drink overall, after water and tea. Just as women baked bread during the heyday of farming, women then routinely brewed beer. The common denominator? Yeast.

Consider Moosehead which traces its roots to 1867 when company founder Susannah Oland fermented a “Brown October Ale”  in the backyard of her Dartmouth home. “What started as a small one-woman craft brewery, grew with grit throughout time as the commitment to brewing quality beer passed on from generation to generation,” states the Moosehead website.

Memo to beer aficionados who revel at the gravesite of brewing magnate Alexander Keith at Halifax’s Camp Hill cemetery: Susannah Oland is buried just across the harbour at Christ Church Anglican Cemetery in Dartmouth.  

Buoyed by a “sisters are doing it for themselves” spirit, women such as Bock-White are reinvigorating a small batch beer tradition that waned when, after industrialization, brewing became a predominantly male, factory-based enterprise.   

“The festival is another way to normalise craft beer as a niche exclusive to no one,” she said. “If you’re curious about beer … this will be a perfect way to make the happy introduction.”

See also Evelyn C. White: Changing the ‘sea of white dudes’ dynamics at Halifax brewpubs

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  1. Melanie May Bock-White is my daughter,
    She and my son-in-law Jeremy have accomplished amazing progress in developing an organic craft beer which has been recognized by NS and soon by the rest of Canada (I hope??!!)

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