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Grain to glass

Two very different businesses share a slogan and an outlook on building community in Atlantic Canada

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Compass Distillers’ head distiller Ezra Edelstein. Photo by Aaron McKenzie Fraser.

Alan Stewart was looking over a field of healthy rye cover crops swaying in the breeze when he had one of his crazy ideas. Over 23 years of selling organic beef, fruit, berries, and vegetables at the Wolfville Farmers’ Market in Nova Scotia, he often experimented with new ways to keep his farm afloat. He brought ideas to his wife, Janice, who skeptically raised her eyebrows at the bad ones. “After a couple of weeks I’d usually drop it,” says Stewart. But this time, he felt he was really on to something.

“I said to myself, ‘Boy, what if I just grew rye?’” Stewart recalls the moment four years ago. He ruled out producing bread flour and animal feed as too niche to keep a business afloat, leaving one last idea: growing rye for beer and whiskey. “You don’t make beer and whiskey directly from the grain. It has to be malted first,” he says. “Nobody was doing that here, so I thought I could open a malt house.” And Janice, the “important member of the family”, agreed it was worth a shot.

About two years later, three boyhood friends decided to open a distillery. And it was at this moment the paths of Horton Ridge Malt and Grain and Compass Distillers began to converge.

On the surface, the two projects are different. Horton Ridge grows and malts grain, brews beer and sells locally pickled eggs and jerky from its rural headquarters. Compass is a brand-new urban distillery, and storefront located in North End Halifax. But they’re bound by a common vision: of craft, community-building, commitment to using local labour, skills and materials whenever possible, and passing something meaningful onto the next generation. For both businesses, that vision isn’t just a marketing shtick; it’s a reason for existing in the first place.

The story of grain transformed into alcohol is a history of human settlement. But how these two businesses started, grew, found each other and what the future holds for them still holds a unique story of how easy isn’t necessarily better. For Stewart in particular, that’s part of his vision for a healthier, more independent Atlantic Canadian economy.

Alan Stewart, farmer and owner of Horton Ridge Malt and Grain. Photo by Kim Hart Macneill

Stewart is a sixth-generation Nova Scotian whose ancestor, John MacNeill Stewart, was pressed into military service on a British man o’ war in the early 1800s. He escaped by jumping overboard at Pictou Harbour and made his way to Grand Pré on Nova Scotia’s verdant north coast. His son started farming, and agriculture has been the family business ever since.

His grandfather and father worked on a typically diverse family farm with cows, chickens, grains, and an orchard, but when that farm burned down in the 1960s his father was forced to start from scratch.

“At the time, government wisdom was to stream people towards a particular commodity. He decided to get into the hog business,” says Stewart. “That wasn’t a good thing.” Growing up, Stewart’s family was barely able to make ends meet in the business.

So Stewart studied engineering at Acadia University, where his father encouraged him to finish his degree and get a good job off the farm. But eventually, for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, he decided to buy into the family business. “The farm was dead when I got it. There were cattle on it but it wasn’t making any money,” says Stewart, who purchased the farm from his father in the 1980s. “As much as he didn’t want me to farm, deep down he was happy that I wanted to buy it. It was one of those bittersweet things.”

Dedicated to his new dream and with his family’s support, Stewart enrolled in the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre in Winnipeg in 2014. At the time it was the only course of its kind in North America. Stewart studied for an intensive two weeks, learning the science and process of malting and honing his business plan.

Then came the next hurdle: he needed a building. After all, craft-malting equipment isn’t something an aspiring malt-maker can simply buy online.

“That’s when the engineering degree, plus a lifetime of always having to do stuff on my own came in handy,” says Stewart. Sitting at his computer, he designed his own building and much of the equipment inside.

For funding, Stewart and his family raised $390,000, mostly from family and friends in the Wolfville area using a community investment fund program, and the first batch of rye went into the kiln April 2016. That same summer, Stewart got a call from Compass Distillers.

Grain spends four days on the malting floor at Horton Ridge, and is raked periodically to ensure oxygenation. Photo by Kim Hart Macneill.

The giant copper contraption arrived on St. Patrick’s Day 2017. A flatbed truck carried it, still in pieces, to its new home at Compass Distillers. Assembly was time-consuming, painstaking and required extreme attention to detail as head distiller Ezra Edelstein and his team fit the heavy and very expensive pieces together. At the end of the day Compass Distillers officially had its still.

The arrival of that critical piece of equipment had been a long time coming for Graham Collins, Josh Judah, and David LaGrand. The trio attended the same high school in Halifax in the 1970s and remained close. Judah became a lawyer, he works for the Halifax Regional Municipality, while Collins became an electrical engineer. LaGrand was born in Michigan and returned to that state for university, eventually becoming a lawyer, businessman, minister, and politician.

Despite their different paths, LaGrand still visited Halifax regularly and the trio spent many evenings drinking craft spirits. Which is one reason why, two years ago, they decided to open a distillery. “I’ve always had an interest in quality beer,” says Collins. “And I drink more single malt than I can afford.”

Halifax, they reasoned, is big enough to support a craft distillery, and LaGrand already had experience running a distillery and bakery in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. They hired award-winning American master distiller Jeffrey Alexander as a consultant, and started hunting for a building that would turn heads. They talked to a variety of local builders but nothing blew them away: that is, until EcoGreen Homes’ distinctive round tower design. “When we saw the diagrams and preliminary sketches we thought, yeah, get me some of that,” says Collins.

“We wanted to make a round building,” says company owner Ed Edelstein, who, along with architecture grad Nicole LeBlanc, based the circular concept around a brewing vat or grain silo, as well as a compass. The concept was challenging, he says, because not only did the owners want a distillery, but also a retail store and tasting bar plus a small rentable residential unit where LaGrand will stay when visiting with his family.

The outcome is an ingeniously nestled tower with sly details throughout, including a main entryway oriented towards true north and 12 engraved diamond-shaped copper plates marking points of the compass, or rhumb lines, on the building’s outer plinth. The building is clad in dark natural slate from Vermont, and its interior wooden beams and details are Douglas fir from British Columbia.

The view from above at Compass Distillers Agricola Street, Halifax location. Photo by Aaron McKenzie Fraser.

When the Compass partners started their search for a head distiller, they conveniently already had a willing candidate in the building. Edelstein’s son and employee at the time, Ezra, holds a chemistry degree from Dalhousie and is a “bourbon and whiskey fanatic,” says Collins. Before EcoHouse was hired, the father and son considered opening their own distillery. The younger Edelstein trained under Alexander, and according to Collins, had both the palate and the personality to take on the job.

The project is certainly a “cosmic coincidence,” from almost every angle, says Ed Edelstein. He says hard work, supporting regional businesses and talent, and putting out top-grade product is a mindset uniting all their businesses.

“It’s not just about making a buck,” agrees Collins. Although he does say Compass is aiming high, and eventually wants to sell top-shelf gin, spiced rum, vodka, and whiskey into both local and international markets.

“We have great local sourcing from Alan and many other suppliers. We have great people, we have the capacity to do it,” says Collins. “We don’t want to settle for something little.”

In Stewart’s business, the work it takes to produce smaller-scale malt, that involves hand-raking sprouting rye daily, means a higher-quality but ultimately pricier product. That means many local breweries, touting the “local” vibe of their own products, have been sluggish to get on board. Still, Nova Scotia brewers Big Spruce Brewing and Tatamagouche Brewing are big supporters of the business and used Stewart’s organic malts since Horton Ridge opened, which Stewart credits for keeping his business afloat.

Grain-to-glass might seem like a buzzy catchphrase, but Stewart says, at its core, the efficiency and beauty of keeping production and labour close to home is the spirit of farming. To supply his storefront with pickled eggs, he trades spent grain and waste from the malting process with another farmer, a former high school classmate, who feeds it to the hens. It’s that kind of circular economy, like his relationship with Compass, that portends a possible optimistic future for Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada, says Stewart.

And while his own dream of making whiskey was thwarted by a fire marshal, if Stewart wanted to distill he would have needed millions of dollars-worth of fire suppression equipment, selling to Compass lets him live it vicariously. Meanwhile, his son Connor, 26, works in the business and helps brew beer, which they keep on tap alongside three rotating taps of breweries who use their malts. Stewart hopes his youngest son, 23-year-old Will, might eventually join this new, and old, family business.

Meanwhile, Collins, an avid sailor who flies a Nova Scotia flag, says that same kind of regional pride and bootstrapping is integral to his partners’ vision for Compass. “This is an opportunity to build something that will hopefully last past my lifetime and be good for the community,” he says. “There may be easier ways to make money, and less stressful, but this is a project I look forward to looking at and thinking, ‘I built that.’”

Kitchen Party pale ale
Big Spruce Brewing
Nyanza, N.S.
Jeremy White, owner and brewer at Big Spruce is one of Stewart’s biggest customers. This hoppy pale ale features hints of citrus and pine. It’s on the bitter side of the pale ale family, which means it will pair well with strong flavours like curry or fish dishes.

North Shore Lager
Tatamagouche Brewing Co.
Tatamagouche, N.S.
This German-style beer is light, approachable and easy drinking. It’s a perfect place to start for those who want to cultivate a taste for craft beer. Not too hoppy, but with a clean refreshing taste. Pair it with grilled chicken or seafood, sushi, or light pasta dishes.

Rye’s Up Pale Ale
Horton Ridge Malt and Grain
Hortonville, N.S.
Many beers rely on hops for their most noticeable flavours, but Horton Ridge’s beers understandably rely on the malts. For Stewart, it’s a great way to highlight his wares for brewery customers, but for beer drinkers it’s a great way to learn what flavours malt brings to the table. This one offers a spicy rye flavour, and a rich, sweet finish.

East Coast Living