“It’s a Shopping Mall for Alcoholics Out There”

When I was a kid thirty years ago, maybe 22 or 23, I got in an elevator to find myself moving upward with the folk singer Ed McCurdy. I was likely a bit worse for wear. He looked at me and proclaimed just that – it’s a shopping mall for alcoholics out there. Meaning downtown Halifax. My old hometown. Haven’t been here for 15 years, since playing in an alumni soccer game in 2002. He was right, too. It can be a blur out there.

I drove across a third of North America to get here. 1600 km of highway up along the St. Lawrence and then, once past Maine, south through the forests to the sea. All to be at the funeral for a friend, one of the best loved pals in my broad gang of undergrad pals. Gone far too young.  Kept in touch on the phone when I had a business question he could help with. We played on the law school team, too. Once made a sweet long looping pass from my spot in the rear at sweeper that he took off on, scoring on the breakaway. Told me with a grin as he ran back “hey, you don’t suck as much as I thought you did.”

We may well gather after the service to share stories. Friends flying in from across the country. Friends I haven’t seen for maybe 30 years. Halifax will still be ready. Ready aye ready. I was out with my brothers for a bit of dinner last night and then had a beer later with a newer pal who moved here a year ago from where I’ve lived in Ontario for that decade and a half. We walked around, me telling him what used to be in the empty store front or the bustling bar, him being somewhere between patient or interested.

Actually looks much the same. The pubs are still full. And are actual pubs. Lights higher, music lower. Big tables of people talking, shouting, laughing. I had New Ross cider at one place, Hell Bay oatmeal pale ale at another. Ate a good bit of haddock at the Henry House. Ate a big plate of Brussels sprouts and bacon later at a place on Argyle near where The Graduate used to sit. Cheery chatting waiters working at a busy clip.

Fog is starting to lift. Might go find some breakfast. Schooner Books is still there. So is Taz Records. Good old town.


The Business Case Study Of My Late 1980s

I do not often let out a squeal of giggly delight but I did last evening when I came across this university course business case study from 1995 entitled “Peddler’s Pub and JJ Rossy’s Ltd.” It was written by Professor Jeremy Hall of Saint Mary’s University for the Acadia Institute Of Case Studies and sets out a description of the downtown pub scene from my hometown of Halifax in the years when I was in my mid to later 20s. It lines up well with two early posts of mine for The Session but has masses of detail on the business side of the taverns and bars I knew as second homes. I came across the document when Norm, the Boston Beer Nut, and I were a’tweeting and I was making the case that there is a forgotten phenomenon from the early micro era – the “beers of the world” bar / pub / tavern. The Hall study mentions the principle establishment of this sort in Halifax, the still operating Maxwell’s Plum:

“Nobody is focusing as much as we are.” According to co-owner-operator Scott Little, Maxwell’s Plum had the largest selection of single malt scotch and imported beer in Metro: 21 single malts, three blends, one Irish whisky, five imported draft and dozens of imported bottled beer. Importing so much does have its drawbacks, especially cash drain, as payment was due before delivery for special orders through the NSLC.

The atmosphere of the bar could be best described as traditional – the focus was on a large, well stocked bar with dark hardwood fixtures. Most of the time management played low volume music from a selection of 200 CDs and live jazz on Sundays, without a cover charge. “We want people to be able to talk to each other and be comfortable” (S. Little).

I remember, vaguely, being in a beers of the world bar in Paris in early 1986 and also seem to recall a few years earlier that our undergrad bar having beers of the world nights where you had a passport that was ticked as you bought your syrupy black McEwan’s Export or a thin glassed bottle of Dortmunder Union. Chris Begley reports that there was a place like this in Vancouver called “Fogg n Sudds” about the same time. A version seems to still exist connected to an airport hotel. Calgary seems to have had its own Bottlescrew Bill’s since 1985.

The Hall study has a number of other tidbits of information that frame the downtown scene, starting with this map. I kid myself that I could sketch this blind folded in a isolation tank but most of the locations pop back to mind immediately. The map also illustrates the general university student flow from southwest to north east, the march many evenings being from Your Father’s Mustache to the Lower Deck. And there is a concise description of what “draft” was:

Draft beer could be purchased from the two local breweries, Moosehead or Oland’s (a division of Labatts), and was generally the least expensive form of alcohol. Draft beer was allowed under all categories of licenses. Draft came from the same vats as bottled beer, but did not go through a pasteurization process, and therefore had a short shelf life.

When I started my Halifax pub life, this fresh tasty pale ale was ordered in pairs of eight ounce glasses but by the mid-80s that was being replaced by the 20 ounce imperial pint. I think this might have been started by the opening in 1986 of the Thirsty Duck which had the first keg Guinness in town. The days of the “draft wars” are also fondly recalled. I remember one place that had a horrible business plan based on Monday selling 29 cent draft, Tuesday 39 cent draft, etc. Lasted only a few glorious months.

One thing the report illustrates is how the narrative that micros changed everything is a bit of a fib. There was a bit of that. We certainly could buy New Brunswick’s Hans Haus lager in the stores or go have a Peculiar at the embryonic Granite Brewery, then housed in one half of the early rougher incarnation of Ginger’s on Hollis Street.  They did not, however, set the scene. While society generally has enjoyed a great diversification in all sorts of consumables over the last 30 or 40 years, the drinking experience was still laced with the perception of variety that included, well before micros became popular, a variety of imported beer choices. I’d be interested in learning how many other places like Maxwell’s Plum were out there in other communities but my inclination is to consider imports opened or at least eased the entry to the market for micros.

It’d Be Nice To Get More Actual Spruce Beer Brewed


How I Feel Now That I Have Nickelbrook’s Wet Hop Ale


That’s a new photo for me. It is from Halifax’s Victory in Europe Day parade in 1945 apparently before it became the VE Day Riot. Click for more of the photo. I have mentioned the Halifax riot of 1945 somewhere around here but can’t find the link. [Later: here it is.] If you don’t believe things got bad, here is an image of the spot later in the day when the jeweler had been hit by looters.

Why do I mention this? Because above is about 10,000 times how I felt when I saw Nickebrook’s Ontario Wet Hop Ale finally on my local LCBO shelves this morning. I say 10,000 times in the best sense as the guy is clearly ecstatic from the destruction of fascism, the coming years of peace along with the successful defense of freedom. I just found a beer in a store. It is, however, a very good beer. It pours a light greenish-gold. On the nose, a very attractive mix of spicy, bitter and sweet greens. Romaine lettuce, arugula and honey. In the mouth, a light crisp body. More honey with a nip of hoppy heat. Bitterness both on the roof of the mouth and under the tongue. A little lighter finish. Reminds me of one of those confident light white wines in the sense that it makes its case calmly.

Local in the sense of 100% Ontario grown ingredients. Ontario is rather big, however, so you will have to judge what local might mean accordingly. $7.95 for 750ml of 5.3% ale. Unduly tepid praise from the BAers. RBers have a little more sense. PS: a post I wrote in 2006 about wet hop beers.

My Recollection Of Pizzaria Tomaso, 1984


So, this was dessert. We made a stack of pizzas tonight. This was the last one. I even have the blister on the back of my wrist where I brushed the hot oven wall to prove it. But apple pizza? Thirty years ago in the north end of Halifax, Nova Scotia there was Pizzeria Tomaso with Mr. Tomaso still holding sway before he sold the business to a local family who promised to keep up his standards, brought from Sicily. It was only open Thursdays and Fridays from 4 to 7 pm. He was about 80 and had 15 high school kids working behind him. I remember going in once and among the stacks and stacks of pizzas seeing, among those destined for law firms head offices and nearby neighbourhood families, boxes marked “the Cabinet” meaning the five or six extra larges were destined for the cabinet room of the government of the province. I remember asking for anchovies on my ‘za and he came past the clerk taking the order to slap my face saying “You want anchovies? You a good boy.” He used to cook pizzas 90% of the way and offer then tax free as “cook at home” pizzas because he was really mad that there was tax on pizzas. The CBC Halifax evening TV news was presented live from his pizzeria counter once a year when Frank Cameron and Doug Saunders hosted the show in the ’70s and early 80’s. He used to give away wine when you were waiting for your order because he was so mad that he was not allowed to sell it. And they still make an apple pizza.

What I Watched The First Saturday Of Grade Eight

God love the nerds who load information into the internet:

Saturday, Sept. 11, 1976 TV listings
CHSJ (CBAT) Channel 4 Saint John / Channel 7 Moncton (CBC)
12:30 Circle Square
1:00 Onedin Line
2:00 Space: 1999
3:00 Saturday Sports
5:00 Water Skiing
6:00 Klahanie
6:30 Pop! Goes the Country
7:00 Hawaii Five-O
8:00 Baseball – Montreal @ Pittsburgh
10:30 Horse Race – B.C. Derby
11:00 CBC News
11:15 News
11:25 Movie – Viva Maria (1965; Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot)

Space: 1999 and an Expos game!

Our Collective Family Record Of Slavery

I have the TV on in the mornings. It drones on and if I am lucky and the kids sleep in past 4:45 am, I get to pay half-attention to the CBS Morning Show to learn about all the real news. And this morning there was a short piece about the genealogy of Michelle Obama which told about the five generations from slavery to the White House:

She began working on Michelle Obama’s roots at the behest of the Times before President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Smolenyak said her mother, like Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, carried the surname Shields, and an “instant affinity” pushed her interest. The first lady’s ancestors lived across the South and Midwest, and many were part of the Great Migration that saw blacks leave the South for the industrialized North. It was the 6-year-old slave Melvinia Shields, bequeathed in her master’s will and later sold for $475, who tugged at the genealogist’s heartstrings. “It’s still jarring to see dollar signs associated with human beings,” said Smolenyak.

In my work I am bumping into history more and more and find the specifics of personal history and who was related to who the most interesting stuff. A few months ago, I asked myself who was the last slave in my town. I didn’t really answer the question but found some information – especially the story of the man who seemingly incongruously fought at Sackets in red during the War of 1812 even as had also been brought to Ontario at the end of the American Revolution as a slave to Loyalists. Makes me wonder if any were on the ships from New York City in 1783-84. There were plenty of possibilities in those days… possibly. I still need to find the 1812 soldier’s name but it also reminded me of the prof who taught slavery in first year property class to illustrate the principles in a way that stuck in the mind. Nothing like a children listed in a slave sale advertisement to bring a point home. Now I wonder who the last slave sold in my town might have been. And where was the sale held? I had no idea they were curious about the same questions in Largs.

Pre-Drinking: What Is Old Is New Again

I am not sure what it is about journalists these days but they seem to have entirely forgotten what life was like in the 1980s. People seem to think that, you know, the special friends relationship of hooking up was invented by those with a Blackberry and that facing economic tough times is something that no one has coped with before. Odder, however, than forgetting the lax ways of amore and getting together with pals over a pot of weak tea is the idea that “pre-drinking” as described by the Toronto Star this morning is new:

Young people are engaging in a “new culture of intoxication” that even has its own buzzwords – “pre-drinking” or “pre-gaming.” If you’re a confused parent looking for a simple definition, just click on YouTube, or on urbandictionary.com, where it’s described as the “act of drinking alcohol before you go out to the club to maximize your fun at the club while spending the least amount on extremely overpriced alcoholic beverages.” This new form of binge drinking goes far beyond a warm-up to a night out with friends, says a new report by Centre for Addiction and Mental Health researcher Samantha Wells and two colleagues at the University of Toronto and University of Western Ontario. It’s an “intense, ritualized and unsupervised” drinkfest, in many cases perfectly timed so that the booze hits the bloodstream within minutes of stepping inside the bar, Wells said in a telephone interview from London, Ont.

Wow. They are “unsupervised” when they do this?!?!? Imagine that.

Did anyone involved with these studies ask a Maritimer who was in university a quarter century ago? Frankly, I still find it odd to be in a pub before ten in the evening given that the Halifax social scene required picking up a case (Nova Scotian for 12 beer) on the way home, having something for supper like K-D or oven fries and then landing at one house or another to, frankly, pound them back until it was time to get the taxi downtown. But these days I get all snoozy well too early for this sort of thing. I hardly make it to the end Num-Three-Ers on Friday night at eleven now. Yet somewhere some part of me is happy that gangs of the young are still being safely dumb in fun packs within reasonable parametres, singing at the tops of their lungs, turning into bags of seat as they slam-dance or whatever the kids are up to today.

Session 15: How Did It All Start For You?

I want to say one thing. Where the heck did the days of whatchure fayvrit bock go? All these questions like who’s your beer friend, what’s your best beer place? I wish we’d get back to beer and a lot less about me…or you if you are another beer blogger. But at least this one is about me and beer.

There. Done. Off chest.

So, I was trying to thing of auspicious moments on my early years with good beer. I am a lucky guy who, at 45, started in my university years interest in beer in early 80’s Halifax, a seaport town, that was interested in beer and drink and donairs and whether Keith’s or Moosehead was better house draught. A place where one could say “it’s a drinker” on a lovely day and know by midnight you;d be amongst 50 pals in the taverns, pubs and beverage rooms of our fair city’s waterfront. I’ve written about the 1980s Halifax pub scene then in an earlier edition of The Session, but here are some notes:

In frosh week of 1982, my second year of undergrad, I decided unfortunately to drink a large amount of MacEwans Scotch Ale much to my later distress. Twice that night I noticed that it went down with the consistency of HP sauce and was quite different from the local Nova Scotian lagale I had been drinking.

The next year, 1983, the college bar had a “beers of world” weekend and we all drank Dortmunder Union which came in in very thin glassed bottles with light grey labels. Not too long after, Maxwell’s Plum, an imports bar opened in Halifax.

Soon after that on Christmas Eve 1985, I ran into my high school pal, Pete, at his new gig bartending at The Thirsty Duck put on a new keg of the recent novelty arrival Guinness. We went through a fair bit of that at that pub, too.

In 1986, the Halifax scene takes another jump with the Granite Brewery (now also of Toronto) at the old Gingers location on Lower Barrington, started up its experimental brewing with a variety of levels of success. About that time, the New Brunswick micro Hans Haus or Hanshaus started in Moncton and, according to Brewed in Canada, lasted five years. They brewed a lighter lager but also a beer that I recall as being like a marzen, darker and flavourful.

In 1985 I am in Holland working and traveling in France and the UK will college pals and, again at the end of 1986, I am to be found backpacking in the UK, in the pubs trying what’s ever going. The latter time I visit the Pitfield Beer Shop which Knut visited in 2005 and buy two homebrewing books, one by Dave Line and the other by Tayleur as well as some basic equipment I expect I can’t get back in Canada like polypins. I still use some of that stuff as well as those authors’ more basic brewing techniques.

But I think the real break came when I got the November 1987 issue of The Atlantic and read the article “A Glass of Handmade” – an article that gave me a sense there was something happening in North American outside of Halifax, that was maybe like the UK, that was maybe something to look forward to. I wrote about that back here and even sorted a copy of the article for posterity in my bloggy archives. Go read it again – it’s a great snapshot of where craft brewing was in 21 years ago and reminds me of what I was thinking about when I was first learning about what beer could be.

Session 9: When Beer And Music Shaped My Life

sessionlogosmA bit like Greg, when I thought about the topic for this month’s edition of “The Session”, hosted and proposed by Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey, I was initially disappointed as this one’s generality seems to be taking us another notch farther and farther away from the beer and nearer and nearer to a free for all, allowing for a drift towards that glaring lack of attention to detail that any good beer blogger should fear.

Yet the posts so far today have dispelled my fear as has just wallowing in a bit of recollecting. I have to go quite a ways back to a time when music and beer were more closely associated for me. Not as background music either – when one older brother came back from a trip to family in the early ’80’s, his most telling remark was that the British pubs he had visited all seems to have jukeboxes compared to our last trip, the summer of punk in 1977. And they were all playing “Born in the USA”. That’s not music. That’s music in a can.

hfx1-1Stephen Beaumont’s post for the session – or one of them – makes a very good point about the music in a bar being a huge part of the
experience but it is also important to note that canned music is a fairly recent introduction into a lot of bars – a reality of only the last 35-25 years. Even in my youth of the early 80s many Halifax taverns were still only either loud with conversation or had live music. And it was that live music we sought out because we sang, too. Maritime Canadians like me have a capacity for shout-singing a good shanty with the best of them and we sang them in the taverns like the Lower Deck with certain songs being somewhat obligatory like “Barrett’s Privateers” by Stan Rogers and, of course, the cultural anthem “Farewell to Nova Scotia” which usually brought the house down in pubs like the Lower Deck with the long tables being hammered and dimpled by beer glasses keeping the beat, students and guys in the navy sharing their benches and trying to out do each other on the chorus:

God damn them all
I was told we’d cruise the seas for American gold
We’d fire no guns, shed no tears
Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier,
The last of Barrett’s Privateers

hfx2The music was real and I was making it, the tavern was on a Halifax pier and the beer was then, for the most part, locally brewered draft by regionals Keiths and Moosehead even if a few imports were popping up like Newcastle Brown and the oddly present but welcomed Frydenlund lager from Norway – both also coastal brews. Stephen shares a bit of the flavour of Halifax that from that time, too, in his post:

Then there are times when beer trumps music, as it does in this story told to me many years ago by Kevin Keefe, founder of eastern Canada’s first brewpub, the Granite Brewery in Halifax. Winning Maritimers over to British-style ales wasn’t the easiest of tasks for Kevin, but in doing so he recognized that he would create for himself a sort of captive audience. And so, one by one, he convinced the locals to switch from the regional lagers and bland, blonde ales to his unique dark ales and best bitters, including, eventually, one long-time hold-out we’ll call Alan. Alan was for many months skeptical about the appeal of the Granite’s ales, Kevin told me, but after numerous tastes and talks, finally came around and began to drink the Best Bitter on a regular basis. This continued for some time, up to and including the evening when a hugely popular band was playing in a rival bar, attracting away the bulk of Kevin’s clientele.

Funny. The Alan I knew in the mid-80s of Halifax (me), the one hunting out the best place to belt out the best song at closing time, was starting to enjoy craft beer in a Halifax brewpub that actually pre-dated the one that came to be called the Granite Brewery. As I went on about back here, their equipment was originally at a sort of down at the heels place called Ginger’s which was a few blocks, a few rougher blocks nearer the train station and the docks, south of where the places now called the Granite and Ginger’s sits today. We’d also another source for early craft beer from a southern New Brunswick brewery, Hans House, that I do not think made it into the 90s.

But Kevin Keefe is right. It was the place as much as anything that made learning about his early efforts at craft beer so attractive and so different – whether that first harbour town tavern or later, at the Henry House, the new sort of upscale pub that he introduced into the scene that made for the setting. And those places of his had, for much of the time, something hard to find these day of mainly canned tunes or those days of table thumping massed messed choirage – the peace of no music at all.