Something tasty brews at Newfoundland’s world-class crafty brewery Port Rexton Brew Co.
Those who love beer, like me, can attest that it is a love of deep passion – a primal love, that sinks into your bones. Am I dramatic? Perhaps, but love makes you say crazy things.
No, I don’t mean beer like you get at a corner store, although they would pass the sniff test on a hot enough day – I mean craft beer. The stuff of kings, from the hovels of Europe and the dark corners of Quebec.
But the craft beer mania that has swept Canada in recent years is not confined to one geographic location. No class system is exempt from savouring a hoppy wheat, a crisp lager, or the nippy pallet-knocker of an IPA.
Partners in beer and life, Sonja Mills and Alicia MacDonald have headed the wave of craft beer expansion here in Newfoundland and Labrador, opening the exceptional Port Rexton Brewing Co. in the summer of 2016.
No, they are not the first commercial craft brewery in Newfoundland and Labrador, but they just might be one of the finest.
“I grew up in Clarenville, grew up knowing the area pretty well,” shared Mills, who caught up with The Herald during a road trip to deliver precious kegs to St. John’s restaurant partners. “We used to spend a lot of time on the Bonavista Peninsula doing a lot of hiking and exploring and going to Rising Tide Theater and different things like that. I was living in Halifax three years ago and met my partner Alicia. Three years ago we got married at English Harbour, which is near Port Rexton, a few minutes past. We had sort of created a personal connection for the two of us with the area. Shortly after we got married we started to go down the path of wanting to start a craft brewery together.
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TRICKS OF THE TRADE
“We were both very much involved in our current careers – she’s a nurse practitioner and I’m a lawyer. We were really wanting to get into business together and we were finding ourselves really passionate about the craft beer industry. We were right in the middle of the explosion in Nova Scotia. We were getting to know the breweries and Alicia was home-brewing a bunch and making really good beer on a home brew level. She started volunteering at a couple of microbreweries near where we were living to get that feel of the commercial equipment. We decided to go for it.”
At the time designs of opening up a craft brewery in Nova Scotia would mean going head to head with no less than 30 competitors. When Sonja’s father fell ill back home in Clarenville, the pair made the mutual decision to move to Newfoundland. The seeds of what would become Port Rexton Brewing Co. began to sprout.
CRAFT BEER RENAISSANCE
“We started looking at things and everything fell into place,” shares Mills. “We knew to look in Port Rexton or that area because of the heavy tourism in the summer – the number of bodies that just pass through is phenomenal and it’s just gorgeous. We wanted to be somewhere where we wanted to live ourselves and we had that personal connection with English Harbour being nearby. It’s gorgeous there so why not? We saw the success of rural breweries in Nova Scotia and we thought back to these breweries in the 1700s in Belgium and France. They’re all in these small villages. Everything fit together and we looked.”
Mills and MacDonald experienced firsthand the craft beer renaissance in Nova Scotia. They knew it was only a matter of time before Newfoundland and Labrador followed suit in joining the craze, and they wanted to be on the ground floor of such a promising venture.
‘A NATURAL PROGRESSION’
“It’s happened everywhere else in North America and the world, so it’s a natural progression,” Mills explains. “It’s not a weird phenomenon where it’s like what is this? No, we saw it in Nova Scotia and experienced it and it happened there five years ago. It’s one of those things where it happens everywhere and it’s a one-direction sort of movement. Once people get into the flavours of beer and the different perspectives of what beer can be and where it can go you don’t just starting getting into it and say ‘ah, I think Ill go back to Coors Light.’
“Our beer pallets sort of denied the beauty of beers when we went through Prohibition and then the industrialization of beer where there were these massive brands producing light easy-drinking lagers and pushed the marketing side of partying and drinking lots of it and took away from the flavours. I can’t really describe it, but the beauty of beer and now coming back around and saying there’s a lot more to beer and there’s all these different flavours. There is a market for that and we’re changing more as a society in appreciating more of experiences, food and beverage, and more of these experiential experiences, and beer being one of those. You’re experiencing great flavours and a diversity of flavours and that is enjoyable in itself.”
From jumping head on into the business as a duo to employing a dedicated team and staff, Mills and MacDonald have seen the brewery and Port Rexton brand flourish. Their beers are served in six restaurants in St. John’s and the home base tap room serves hoards of thirsty visitors weekly.
As to the future?
The duo are content to move forward with baby steps, but you can guarantee that the product born of love and passion will stay true to its roots, and it goes without saying that each sip will be deemed delicious.
For more info. on Port Rexton Beer Brewing Co. visit portrextonbrewing.com