What do you do if you are a carpenter living in a town of about 450 residents? If you are Jeff Allport, you open a brewery! The prairies’ newest brewery, Nokomis Craft Ales (note, this is just a placeholder site for the moment), is located in the non-metropolis of Nokomis, Saskatchewan. Allport, a former Vancouver resident tired of the bustle of the big city, moved to this tiny town mid-way between Saskatoon and Regina a couple of years ago with his girlfriend to hit the reset button on his life. As a carpenter he knew his skills were transportable, but it was his homebrewing and not his hammering that led to his next big project.
Allport has been a serious homebrewer for “quite a few years” and, like most homebrewers, he dreamed of one day starting up his own brewery. With recent changes to SLGA rules around capacity he realized maybe, just maybe it might work out. Partly appalled by the state of beer in Saskatchewan (he quickly excepted Paddock Wood and Bushwakker), and partly intrigued by the opportunities a small town afforded he decided to give it a shot. “Every homebrewer dreams of the idea of starting a brewery. I never would have considered in Vancouver – tight marketplace and much more expensive to get a business off the ground in urban centre”, he says.” Our cost of living is quite low here and affordable to get a business off the ground”.
After developing a business plan he approached the Nokomis town council and purchased three-quarters of an acre of land from them for $1 (try THAT in Vancouver), where he mostly by himself built a small building to house the brewery. He then scrounged and saved and borrowed and begged to self-finance the purchase of a small 7-barrel brewhouse with 2 fermenters and 1 bright tank. And then he started brewing.
He sold his first beer less than two weeks ago. The plan is to go exclusively with kegs and growlers, selling to select bars and at the Saskatoon and Regina Farmer’s Markets (the province recently allowed growler fills at farmers’ markets). “I don’t foresee ever getting to packaging, just kegs and growler sales”. Partly this is due to his limited capacity. At the moment he can only brew 800 litres a week, mostly due to the limited fermentation space. Although he hopes to double that capacity in the next year or so, the plan is to always remain small and local. “I just need enough to pay the bills and pay myself. I don’t want to compromise quality and freshness by stretching too far”.
What he gives up in volume, he will gain in flexibility and innovation. He plans on using the extra land around the brewery to plant hops and intends on getting into micro-malting to create truly local beer. “They grow great two- row barley right outside my back yard” he notes. “It is crazy to have to ship it somewhere and then buy it back”.
As for flexibility, when I ask him what his beer line-up will be, I get an unexpected answer. “None. Not packaging frees me from having a flagship beer”. Instead his plan, in true homebrewing tradition, is to constantly brew up new things and rotate through styles. However, he does admit that “I will likely always have an IPA available, but I might mix up the hop varieties and stuff like that” to keep the beer new and interesting. To give a sense of what his approach is he walked through his first few batches. “My first batch was a dry-hopped American wheat ale, the second an IPA, the third a brown Ale, there is an American pale ale in the tank, and today I brewed an oatmeal stout”.
For the moment Nokomis truly is a one-man show. He brews, he cleans, he delivers, he sits at the Farmers’ Markets and he does all the financials. His girlfriend helps out on market days. He is not sure how long that can last, however. At his first Saskatoon Farmers’ Market last weekend, he sold 150 litres in one day, plus the interest in the initial opening of the brewery in Nokomis surprised him. However, before you email him your resume, he is not thinking of a major growth in staff. “Maybe I need a person to help with the sales and marketing, I am a bit behind on that”.
Nokomis is part of a new family of small town craft breweries, where location both matters and doesn’t matter. These breweries care passionately about their connection to their community but also know that to make a go, they need that urban craft consumer base. Nokomis, if it is to make a go of it, will need to sell its beer in Saskatoon and Regina, with moral support from the nice folks of Nokomis.
And for the rest of us, it means if we want to try some of Nokomis Craft Ales’ fine beer, we need to know the right places to go. Or at least have an empty growler ready to go at the next Saskatchewan farmers’ market.