Owner of Picaroon’s says it takes dedication to live, thrive and be… in this place
Sean Dunbar gently grasps his pint of best bitter, but he doesn’t raise it right away. A few moments pass before its fizzing and foaming eases, and he seems to almost savor that sound, before taking a long sip.
“Brewing beer is pretty much one of the foundations of every civilization,” he says with a satisfied sigh, almost as an afterthought. “Beer has been a major part of settlement, of civilized society as far back as we know history. That’s what makes it one of the noblest of occupations.”
He said that it was a safe drink, being boiled during the brewing process, back in the ages when water purity was questionable at best and the black plague was sweeping the lands.
“Water is one of the deepest foundations- you can’t really have life without water or something to drink, so you can’t really have life without beer.”
Dunbar said it’s crucial that local small businesses maintain that foundation, especially when so many of those locals are troubled by the times. As the owner of Picaroon’s, a British style brewery housed on Fredericton’s north side, he and his employees have worked tirelessly to deepen their ale’s roots and offer New Brunswickers a truly unique flavour, even when the province’s taste is almost too bitter to swallow.
“We have such a small population, with a weird geography where so many people live around the outside edge of our province,” he said, adding that New Brunswick’s lack of a major population center can be a challenge for businesses. “We don’t even have a Halifax, where you can actually lump two thirds of the people in one city. The big thing is there just aren’t enough people here.”
Shaun Fraser, founder and owner of the Pump House Brewery in Moncton, agreed that New Brunswick’s thinned populations can be a challenge for any business.
“To get bigger and better, we have to go further afield,” he said, adding that most of the ingredients and raw materials for their product- from oats and barley to bottles and labels- have to be shipped her from outside, raising costs.
Dunbar said these are big challenge in this province, even at the best of times. But he added New Brunswickers shouldn’t despair, because he feels these days are far from our worst.
“I’m old enough to have been through this before, the press is making a big deal about the economy to worry people,” he said. He added that, through that ‘big deal,’ businesses can scramble to think too far outside the box and loose touch with their customers.
“I think what you have to do is concentrate on thinking inside the box, and not getting too fancy,” he said. “You have to realize exactly where your strengths are and why you do what you do, and why people like what you do. I think we only get in trouble when a falseness sets in and people start believing things they shouldn’t be believing, buying inflated stocks or mortgages that they shouldn’t be buying, or drinking what they shouldn’t be drinking. If it’s not real, someday reality is going to set back in.”
He said that Picaroon’s authenticity is so thick customers can literally taste it. For Dunbar, the key to that lies in their open fermentation technique- where the cylinder in which the beer is brewed is left lidless, and left to breathe. The process is done at room temperature, just like in the old days before most brewers moved towards colder fermentation in the German fashion.
Picaroon’s traditional technique gives the ale a rough, unpolished texture that is all its own. Dunbar said that flavour is what his brewers savour, rather than spending millions in marketing to draw drinkers in.
“You just can’t consume Picaroons the way you drink other beers, I think ours can’t help but be appreciated,” he said.
He said Picaroon’s is crafted in the old English tradition partly because it fits the province’s immigration patterns and climate.
“When it’s a little cold and damp out these ales are a perfect fit, because they’re sweeter heavier and richer.”
The brewery’s first inklings were sparked back in 1995, when Dunar and a few fellow law students began to shift their focus from passing the bar to providing a new flavour behind it.
“We were supposed to be listening and learning how to become lawyers, but instead we began planning a brewery,” he said. “It’s more fun, and far more important.”
The title was the last thing the crew came up with- derived from a hook-like log driving tool, they felt it was a name fit to suit New Brunswick history and it’s drinkers without being hokey.
In September Picaroon’s best bitter (which is their highest selling drink) won the Canadian brewing awards’ gold medal, the judges declaring it the best English style pale ale or bitter in the country.
But many drinkers love what’s on the bottles almost as much as what’s inside- picaresque write ups that try to speak volumes about the taste. Dunbar said the most apt of all these are plastered on their bottles of Yipee IPA or Timber Hog, where they admit the suds inside are an experiment. Or as they put it on the label, “Deviations may occur form batch to batch, as we improvisationally wander through variations on the theme.”
“We appreciate people willing to put up with us playing around with the batches, and not eexpecting it to taste the same each and every time,” he said. “Consistency is boring for us, of course there’s gotta be a certain measure of it, but if you can’t appreciate the subtle differences in your life each and everyday than I can’t imagine living like that.”
He said purists may get haughty and demand that Picaroon’s should only be drunk from a glass to take advantage of all the aromas, or it should be sipped slowly and not chugged, or that it shouldn’t be drunk too cold. But he added that they don’t have to breath a word.
“If people drink our beer, they’re going to get more of an experience out of it than if they’re chugging back on some domestic light lager. It’s an innate part of our product that they are going to have to slow down, that there’s going to be so much more flavour, that it’s going to be fuller.”
Dunbar said an even deeper innate part of their brewing is to craft something that fits New Brunswick through and through- that way they can better connect with their drinkers and avoid the trappings of what he calls the ‘generic big time’ lagers.
“You just keep your eyes firmly focused on what is, the harsh reality that we’re living in a province of 750 thousand people,” he said. “Don’t get all worldly, and make big plans like you’re ever going to have a population of 5 million people. You realize where you are, be happy with it, and deal with the reality of the place you’re operating in. Because business models that work elsewhere just don’t work here.”
Fraser said he had that realization long ago, and that it’s more a benefit than a burden.
“You should think global and drink local,” he said. “I think the bilingual population helps New Brunswickers become more avant garde, more open to newer and richer experiences.”
He added that the success of micro breweries across the province, like the Pump House garnering Canadian brewery of the year award in 2005, is proof that New Brunswick can easily craft world class products.
Dunbar said he and his fellow brewers end up feeling like they know all their customers personally, from Fredericton to Saint John to Saint Andrews.
“It’s like operating in one huge really spread out city. People used to talk about this best and brightest leaving. It’s nonsense, and frankly that’s never been proven. I think those that live in New Brunswick are best adapted to it, and once you realize that it’s a sweet market.”
He said that when businesses lend that kind of favor to New Brunswickers, more often than not they are happy to return it in spades.
“You become part of that culture. I don’t mean that’s easy to do, but it can’t be done other places like it can be done here.”