Your sustainability model is inspiring and just looking at the photos on your website, I imagine that visitors to the farm immediately get why perfect preservation and responsible growth are at the forefront of your business plan. Can you please tell the readers how the model has evolved and about its successes?
AB: We are really just trying to minimize our environmental footprint by using and/or recycling what we can on the farm. As a result, we are able to save money by doing so. For example: feeding our livestock the spent grain from the brewing process reduces our feed costs; recycling the wastewater from the brewery for irrigation use ensures we don’t have a well water supply issue during the dry summer months, which seem to be becoming more prevalent.
CB: Yes, it started off with growing what we could to be self-sustainable – things like veggies and fruits – as one does when they move to a farm. The lavender is for both pleasure and products while the hops are for the craft brewing industry – and that came later.
We even involve the animals here: the pigs till, they fertilize as they go, and ultimately, they prepare the land for more crops. We return the favour to them with spent grain and excess veggies.
It’s successful for us because it’s not only practical and good for our environment, but it adds another dimension to the experience you get when you visit the farm. It also ensures that our products are truly unique and sustainably sourced.
The website couldn’t be more user-friendly. I particularly appreciate how your contact page includes links with directions from mainland Nova Scotia’s three main travel hubs: Truro, the Annapolis Valley, and Halifax. For any readers who haven’t visited Hants County and the Municipality of the District of West Hants where you’re located, can you please tell them about where you call home?
AB: I’d love to. West Hants is less than an hour drive from Halifax and Stanfield International Airport. The area is connected by a network of back roads with lots of interesting things to see and do, including restaurants, wineries, bakeries, a Provincial campground, nature hikes, high tides, u-picks, and beautiful scenery. The river that dissects the farm leads to one of the highest waterfalls in the county.
CB: I have to say that it’s the best kept secret in Nova Scotia because of all this. As we say in all our branding, ‘It’s an adventure, or a wrong turn, that leads you here.’ You don’t expect it so close to the city, and when you find yourself here, you’re amazed. In any direction you’re experiencing something new: the beautiful Bay of Fundy, the beginning of Nova Scotia wine country, amazing farm-to- table restaurants, and Nova Scotia craft breweries in a rural farm setting with so much more to offer than just a tasting room.
I understand that local folklore has it that the farm is over 200 years old and that a doctor, a miller, and even a bootlegger lived there in days gone by. The readers would love to hear the history of the farm.
AB: The actual farmhouse is over 200 years old and has a rich history of owners, for sure. It’s very representative of Nova Scotia’s history. My parents purchased it in the 1960s. I grew up here. So, two generations have been gradually breathing new life into the property for over 50 years by modernizing the home and now us, developing the business to support a family.
CB: I’m very proud that my grandparents renovated the home and worked the land from basically nothing. We moved to the farm when my grandparents moved to Comox, BC in 2004 to escape the Nova Scotian winters. They were both in their 80s and still working hard in the gardens every single day from sunup to sundown – they needed the break! I then saw my parents do the same. They created a beautiful home, bit by bit, working the land, planting crops and beginning this self-sustainable life, from sunup to sundown, again.
The brewery was built, and I see the future of the farm now, the community is together, and the possibilities of future ventures.
I’d like to discuss that community that Meander River Farm & Brewery is bringing together shortly here, Campbell, but first, Alan, leaving aside the role of providers you and your wife shared, what inspired you to open the brewery in 2013?
AB: Well, we had an interest in the brewing industry for many years – and have brewed beer and wine as a hobby since university days. That dream was rekindled when we started growing hops on the farm and subsequently spending more time with craft brewers – Garrison Brewery in particular – and marketing our crop to them. The industry was gaining momentum and the timing seemed right for it to happen. So, we went for it.
CB: The farm has always been a part of the family and the family brand really drives our business direction because we all have different experience and skills that we bring to the table. Now, working to improve and expand it has brought us closer together. Brenda is our master gardener, expanding on our outdoor, garden and all creative matters. Dad is our businessman and head brewer, keeping things running smoothly and creating good beer. Fraser, although living in Saskatchewan as a mechanic, brings a mechanical and practical perspective on all our projects. We have so many ideas that we see happening on the farm and everyone has a part to play.
Regardless of any ups and downs, at the end of the day, we get to relax and enjoy a product that we created together on this beautiful farm and that’s pretty amazing.
On that note, I’ve always believed that the brewery was a natural progression on the farm. We had all these resources, all these product ideas, and we needed a place to invite people to come and share in the experience of this beautiful farm – and to sell right here a finished product produced in every sense on-site. The brewery made sense for us. Having a store and tasting room to feature all of our products is a natural step for us.
We broke ground for the brewery in the summer of 2013, opening our doors in the spring of 2014. The building of the brewery was, like all things around here, done by hand. My mother’s father, my grandfather, Hugo, was a carpenter and taught my dad everything he knows about carpentry today.
When my parents were first married, they bought old fixer upper homes to renovate and my grandpa would be there most days to help. When they bought the farm, he would come out and help build cabinets and renovate the house here too. Unfortunately, he passed away before we built the brewery, but my dad built that brewery from the ground up, with help from our community, and used everything he learned over the years, and more, to build it. It wouldn’t have been possible without that relationship they began to build 30-some years ago. We even dedicated our first brew to him, my grandpa Hugo. We called it Lunch Box, because he brought his lunch box with him every day he came.
That’s very touching, Campbell. I suppose that’s where your family gets their collective will to work together from, right?
AB: We work closely as a family and we work closely with other businesses in our area. It’s important to come together. It’s important to tell them of things to see and do and eat and drink in our area so they can make the most of their time here. There is a lot going on in West Hants and it is such an easy strike from the HRM. You have a sense of being in the middle of nowhere, as it were. It’s a real treasure.
CB: One of the things in our area we love to boast about is the ‘Trio of Taste’: it’s ourselves, Avondale Sky Winery, and the Flying Apron Cookery. Together we promote and collaborate. We’re all within 20 minutes or less of each other in the rural West Hants area. It makes a great day trip for anyone visiting us.
So, what is a day trip to Meander River Farm & Brewery like for visitors? And I have to ask, how does the four-season climate – that’s not exactly evenly divided, I might add – affect and change your business on the farm?
AB: I think the best way to sum up what MRF offers its customers is an experience. The experience includes education about the brewing process, about hops – where they come from, how they are grown, harvested and processed, about livestock, about gardening and growing crops, about nature, and a chance to meet the producers and owners directly – and get a sense for the passion and commitment that entrepreneurs have for their business. But mostly we want people to feel at home and comfortable when they visit MRF and a desire to share their experience with others.
To answer your second question, each season offers a different experience at MRF – but each has its own beauty and benefits. The summertime has its gardens and mature crops; the patio is warm and relaxing. The fall is obviously the harvest, the changing colours, the fresh crisp air, and still warm sun on the patio. The winter here is perfect for outdoors enthusiasts and snow lovers and the warm and cozy nature of the retail and tasting area really compliments it all. Spring is obviously when everything is coming back to life, so there’s something different in each season.
CB: The experience is definitely what we offer. That’s really why we made our brewery such a destination; because we believe it’s beautiful and fun and wanted to share it all with others. It’s one thing to buy our product at an expo or at an event, but I don’t think you can fully appreciate it until you come out to the farm and see it. It’s worth coming out to see how we’ve made this incredible property into something beautiful and sustainable. How everything is handmade, hand-labeled, and hand- bottled; everything comes together when you see it for yourself.
And like Dad said, when the seasons change, our products change. We go from fresh lavender to dried lavender, fresh veggies to pickled veggies, light crisp brews like session IPAs to dark, smoky brews like porters and stouts. Our products change with the seasons to reflect the changes on the farm and the processes you need to go through to be sustainable all year round.
Speaking of changes on the farm, I understand that you offer cider. What inspired you to brew cider and, more importantly, what does it taste like?
AB: Living in the Annapolis Valley it seemed totally natural that apple cider should be a prominent product of this region – and it ties in nicely with the craft brewing scene. There is a resurgence of interest in cider in Nova Scotia – and the world for that matter – and again it just seemed to align perfectly with what we were doing and, as I’m sure Campbell will tell you, the timing was right.
CB: Well, we first started making cider in the dead of the dreadful 2015 winter we had here in Nova Scotia. Our first batch was called Shack Wacky, and maybe that’s what we were; going crazy from all the beer and needed a change. Our first batch went so quickly, and we haven’t been able to keep up with the demand since.
Our cider is very crisp and dry. No sugar is added, leaving the cider to become a true expression of the local apples. We like the apples from different seasons and blends to express themselves, which gives us a slightly different product with an expression of terroir each time.
You both spoke to this briefly earlier, but could you say a few words about how the community in the Municipality of the District of West Hants has embraced Meander River Farm & Brewery?
AB: The brewery has created a real sense of community in a community that’s already close and we try to share that sense with visitors. Locals often meet their neighbours at the brewery and reconnect, or they’re introduced if they don’t already know each other. Our local community has supported us through our CSB shares [Community Supported Brewery], which allows them to purchase beer in advance, like a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] program.
They share the experience by bringing out of town friends and family to the brewery when they are visiting from out of town. It’s simply relaxing and fun. We like to talk to our customers, engage them, ask them where they are from, where they live, and make them feel part of an extended community.
CB: Yes, our local community are our biggest supporters and customers. It’s important that the brewery and all that we do here is a sense of pride for them as well.
With the businesses now in the full swing it is well worth the drive to experience all that Meander River Farm and Brewery has to offer. In addition to their expansion into cider, they also have lots of Small Lot styles released throughout the year with farm fresh or hyper-local ingredients. With the holidays just around the corner they have a lot to offer in the lead up to Christmas, not only with exciting small lot beers and ciders, but also gifts, woodcrafts and their lavender home and body products so that you can get something unique for everyone on your shopping list.
by Jamie Barrie