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Oakes Weekly - January 8th, 2003

Christmas Holiday Wrap, part one
Beer Travels January 8, 2004      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

I had a lot of different plans on the table for the holidays this year. First I was going to spend Christmas in Toronto and then head south to New Orleans for the following week. Then I was just going to kick back locally, maybe taking a retreat to Bruce Peninsula or some other quiet, out of the way spot. I toyed with Costa Rica as well, but in the end I was destined for Nova Scotia to spend quality time with the family. This would largely be different than my trip in August, as I would spend most of my time in Truro, a small town in the middle of the province, and a place, not to bag on it too much, distinctly lacking in the things people usually go to Nova Scotia for.

<P>You won’t find any spectacular coastlines of the type found on the Cabot Trail or South Shore. You won’t find local culinary specialties like lobsters or Digby scallops. Nor is there much Scottish heritage, urban vibrancy or anything else. It’s a town that exists pretty much because it’s smack in the middle of the province. A blanket of snow might have helped, but like everywhere else on the East Coast, I was destined for a brown Christmas.

<P>But for all that, it does have one thing that many more scenic places don’t have. As of mid-December, it has a brewery. Back in August, I’d been informed about this new operation, but told it wasn’t opening until the fall. Well, with just a couple of days left in that season, the Keltic Brewing Company started pouring.

<P>Keltic is located conveniently on Highway 102, the major thoroughfare for traffic heading to Halifax. A stretch of this highway passes through the Millbrook Indian Reserve, and the local band has decided to take full advantage of that fact by developing the area (it used to be a lonely “trading post” and gas station) with movie theatres, a hotel, restaurants, and a now a brewery.

<P>Attached to Keltic is Muggsy McCeol’s, the pub/restaurant that serves as the brewery’s tap. There is also a Muggsy’s in the Keith’s Brewery market in Halifax, though to my knowledge the two companies are unrelated. You can count on one hand how many hours I waited after my arrival in Truro to check the place out.

<P>The pub itself is nothing special to look at. You sit at booths or on barrels with seats and watch Monday Night Football on the television. There were a few people out for a pint when I popped in, but Muggsy's definitely had some extra staff kicking around. The staff were quite helpful and friendly, and interested in encouraging my curiosity about the beers.

<P>Ignore the cheese-o-rific “story of Muggsy McCeol” on the back of the menu. It’s 100% bullshit, but unfortunately it tries to pretend that it’s not, which is too bad. They could have had the guy brewing stout on the deck of the Bluenose while fighting off giant squids or something. That would have been worth reading. As it is, it comes off as being rather pathetic.

<P>They have a range that befits a brewery in a non-beer-savvy place like Truro. Small town Nova Scotia has never been fertile ground for micros, so they’re starting off easy, as you would expect. The Keltic brand is applied to the Lager and Light. Both are clean, well-constructed beers. Of course, the lightness is an issue but you can’t find fault with what is there.

<P>The McCeol’s brand is applied to the ales. The Irish Red is again light but well-crafted. The Honey Brown was the best of the bunch. In fact, it may be the best Honey Brown I’ve ever had – the first one good enough to be considered a proper brown ale. Now, I grant you that being the best honey brown is hardly the same thing as being the best Trappist ale, but it is a testament to the skills of the brewer. The overall quality level of the four brews is high, the interest level is low due to lightness, but I’d gladly have the Honey Brown again and enjoy the soft toffee flavours.
They intend to start seasonals in the spring and plan to distribute their beers to other outlets as well.

<P>This does of course raise another issue. What is the best way to approach a situation like this? I’ve mentioned before I have a bottom-up approach. Technically, these beers are very good. They would probably do well in a competition rated “homebrew-style”. But for the guy who’s tried over 4000 beers, they’re not exactly mind-blowing. I appreciate that they deliver all the goods they intend to, but I’d still take a run-of-the-mill English bitter over any of them, Honey Brown possibly excepted.

<P>In homebrew competitions, often the judges will be reluctant to give a score below 20 out of 50. The reason for this is because you don’t want to discourage the brewer, who may be entering his first-ever batch. And I certainly don’t want to discourage people from opening breweries in places like Truro. More likely than discouraging entrepreneurs though, is that a prospective customer does a search online to check up on Keltic Brewing and finds Ratebeer. If that person reads that the beers aren’t very good, will they bother taking the missus out there for dinner? Will they research enough to find that Keith’s, Blue and all the stuff at all the other restaurants in town actually scores lower? I don’t want word getting out that the stuff is bad because it doesn’t measure up to the world’s best and most unusual, because I’d be surprised if anyone in Truro has tasted the things I’ve tasted. By local standards, it's quite good beer.

<P>On the other hand, I have to be honest. I don’t want Ratebeerians going out of their way for beers that really aren’t going to excite them (unless they’re the rare type who really appreciates technical precision). I end up compromising. The numbers on the ratings reflect how these beers stack up to the rest of the beers I’ve had. But I have to make sure my ratings mention that these are really well-made. They’re just not to my particular, and yes, downright stingy standards of taste. Bottom line – if you’re coming through Truro do take the time to stop in. The brewery has some skill and I’m sure that if the customers demand bigger things, he’ll be able to deliver the goods. But right now I wouldn’t trade for these, unless you’re a big honey brown fan and want to try the best of style.

<P>The next day took me on a vintage Oakesian mission. I rented a car and planned to head 400 km south to Yarmouth. Why? Dumb question. It’s another “one that got away” story. The Queen Molly was a brewpub in Yarmouth back when I lived in Halifax. But I was a starving master’s student who scrimped and saved just to buy a couple bombers of Propeller ESB for Friday night. A road trip to Yarmouth just wasn’t in the cards.

<P>Well, the Queen Molly went out of business, but it became Rudder’s, a seafood restaurant with brewery. Since I had lacked for time in August to make the drive down there, I made the time on this trip. That didn’t stop fate from throwing at least one more obstacle my way. Twenty kilometres out of Truro I got a flat. I didn’t hit anything – the bloody tire just decided to call it a career. Fortunately, I was 500m from an exit and just walked up the gas station, got a tow truck to bring me a doughnut and hobbled to the Halifax Airport for a replacement rental.

<P>I had lost an hour and a half because of this, but that just meant less time taking the scenic coastal route down there. It’s a shame, because it’s such a brilliant drive, but I got some of it in, dipped my toes in the Atlantic at a roadside beach, and kept going. Rudder’s is a slightly upscale-looking place on the Yarmouth waterfront, about three minutes’ walk past the ferry terminal. That being the ferry terminal to Portland, Maine, which I mention because a lot of people use that route to travel between Nova Scotia and New England and knowing that there is a brewpub steps from the ferry terminal could be considered valuable information to travellers, New Englanders, and Maritimers alike.

<P>The beer is decent. The standard blonde was, well, standard. The Red was a decent example of the style. The Yarmouth Town Brown had balance issues. The star was the Winter Warmer, a creamy old ale. Most people passing through Yarmouth do so in the summer and will get the Raspberry Wheat, but winter visitors are well-rewarded with what might be the best winter brew in Nova Scotia (at time of writing I’ve got one or two more to try before making that statement official).

<P>From Yarmouth I headed up the other side of the peninsula to the Annapolis Valley. I’d been to Paddy’s Pub & Brewery in Kentville before, five years ago. They still had a couple of the same ales on – Raven Ale and Annapolis Valley Ale. Raven is a fine pint, and the best in the house on this particular visit. Five years ago it was billed as a Scottish-style mild and although I didn’t see anything to that effect printed on the beer list on this visit, I would still agree. It’s perhaps a bit strong, but it’s a fun “mildesque”. AVA is a pale ale, but I couldn’t get into it. The winter Frost Biter didn’t do much for me – I preferred the Cream Ale.

<P>A few years back, after I’d moved out of the province, Paddy’s opened up a second location in nearby Wolfville. Wolfville is a small university town (quick, PsychProf, name the university) and has a good number of beautiful buildings, especially giant old houses lining the main street. Since the town is much prettier than Kentville, it’s no surprise that the brewpub is, too. The warmth of wood, the spaciousness, and casual layout provides a much better atmosphere than the roadhouse/family restaurant vibe of the Kentville Paddy’s. The beers are the same, so if you’re in the neighbourhood, definitely stop at the Wolfville branch to have your session.

<P>Part 2 next week…



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start quote The next day took me on a vintage Oakesian mission. I rented a car and planned to head 400 km south to Yarmouth. Why? Dumb question. end quote