The town of Hanwell, New Brunswick, is just a few minutes southwest of the province’s capital city, Fredericton. A small community of fewer than 5000 residents, with many working in town, in Fredericton, or in other nearby communities, it can now also boast that it is home to the province’s newest brewery, Niche Brewing. Founded by two award-winning longtime homebrewers, Rob Coombs and Shawn Meek, Niche aims to expand the palate of the local community and the province at large. The brewery itself is located on Millennium Drive, but there is currently no retail location for growlers or pints; they’re opting instead to sell kegs direct to licensees for the time being. We managed to chat with Rob and Shawn to learn more about how they got into beer, their brewery’s ethos, and plans for the future of Niche Brewing.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?
Shawn – I’m originally from PEI, and moved to New Brunswick after meeting Jill (now my wife) when I moved to Ottawa after graduating from pharmacy school. I’ve been living in Fredericton and working here as a pharmacist since the summer of 2005. We have a 5-year-old daughter, love to travel, and love beer (Jill and I, not Zoe… yet).
Rob – I was born and grew up in Labrador City. I moved to New Brunswick for school and was planning to relocate afterwards but work kept me in Saint John as an X-Ray technologist. I met my wife there and we moved to Fredericton nearly 10 years ago where I’ve been working as an MRI Technologist ever since. We have two young boys, Cameron and Oliver, ages 5 and 2, respectively. They share our love of travel and tolerate my love of photography.
How did you get into the world of beer?
Shawn – I was never a beer person until a trip to Belgium in the winter of 2009. I had no idea that beer was available in so many styles, and when I returned home… I wasn’t able to find many of them. Keep in mind this is over 8 years ago, long before there were many breweries in the area. I started reading about beer online, and quickly discovered that it was possible to brew these styles at home. Rather than just jumping into the hobby of homebrewing, I bought John Palmer’s How to Brew and did a lot of reading; eventually, I bought a simple homebrewing setup and brewed my first batch on November 29th, 2009 (yep, I still remember the date). Like a lot of people, I was immediately hooked, and have been brewing regularly since then (I think I’m at 155 or so brews now). My love of beer and brewing lead to me writing a homebrewing blog in 2011, and a couple of years later I started co-writing the Atlantic Canada Beer Blog.
Rob – About six years ago I was introduced to quality craft beer by a friend on a trip to Portland, Maine. He told me about Dogfish Head and Stone and my love for beer grew from there. When I returned from that trip I did some research online about those breweries and found that Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione had a mini-series on Discovery called Brew Masters. Sam’s explanation of the brewing process conveyed the simplicity of making beer and also his passion about the creative and intuitive aspects of the process. I found this very inspiring, so much so that I started home brewing that same week. A couple of years later I joined the NBCBA which was a great resource for the practical aspects of brewing as well as feedback on beers I had brewed. That club helped me progress and I eventually started a homebrew blog a couple of years ago. This gave me an excuse to brew more interesting beer such as 100% Brett, mixed fermentations, sours and New England styles which I could subsequently post about.
What made you decide to take the step into opening a brewery?
We met about four years ago – our kids were going to the same daycare – and got into your typical homebrewing relationship soon after that: sharing recipes and ideas, trading homebrew, etc. Looking back, it’s really hard to actually pinpoint when we started discussing opening a brewery, but it was about a year ago that the idea was sparked. Neither of us were looking to open a brewery for any reason other than because we love to brew. It wasn’t because friends were saying they loved our beer, it wasn’t because the beer scene has improved so much the last few years… it’s because we’re both passionate about beer, about brewing it, and sharing this passion with others.
What is the culture of the brewery?
Really, this can be found in our brewery name, as well as our tagline “Find Your Niche” (which, as intended, can be interpreted in two ways!). The idea behind starting this brewery stems from a belief we share regarding finding a passion that speaks to you and fully immersing yourself in it. We believe this can apply to everyone within their own context and interests. Find something that you love to do more than anything and focus on applying your own creative character to it. It’s also important not to take any hobby, job, or even yourself too seriously, and to have fun in what you do! Even when it involves writing business plans, securing loans, and dealing with the 1001 things that will inevitably go wrong when opening a business. Wait, where were we going with this again?
Can you tell us about the beers you are offering initially?
We have three flagship beers that we’re launching with, and will keep these in rotation if demand (and ingredient availability) allows. All three of these beers have been homebrewed by both of us, and tweaked over many attempts for each:
Single Origin – a Coffee Sweet Stout, we took a Sweet Stout recipe that we’ve liked in the past (featuring lots of roast character, with a healthy amount of lactose added to boost the mouthfeel and provide a bit of residual sweetness), and added local coffee. The coffee presence is pretty apparent, and those who aren’t big on Stouts shouldn’t shy away from giving it a try.
Something Different – a “Brett Table Beer”, this one is a pale-coloured, low-alcohol brew hopped lightly with Hallertau Blanc and fermented with Amalgamation (a blend of six Brettanomyces strains); dry-hopped with Amarillo, we wanted to showcase Brett in an easy-drinking package, complemented by some light hop character.
Orange Creamsicle IPA – a Milkshake IPA featuring the addition of lactose, vanilla bean, orange zest, and hopped with plenty of Citra, El Dorado, and Ekuanot. Probably pretty obvious what flavour/aroma characteristics we’re going for here, and I guess the name gives it a way a bit as well! This is a beer we started brewing over a year ago, and have played with it a little bit to get it where we really wanted.
We’ll definitely be experimenting with one-offs (while at the same time focusing on keeping the flagships in rotation), and have a Grisette hopped with Hallertau Blanc and Nelson Sauvin; that one should be available very soon.
What are your plans for distribution?
We’ll definitely be keg sales to licensees only… at least for a while. Growlers or packaged beer may come in the future, but we’re in no hurry.
Do you have some initial accounts in the area lined up to serve your beers?
We have at least two locations in Fredericton who have agreed to serve our beer – the James Joyce and King Street Ale House – as well as Moncton’s Tide & Boar and Saint John’s Cask and Kettle. We hope to be at least occasionally on tap at other great beer bars/restaurants in Saint John, Halifax, and Charlottetown at some point!
Have you had any assistance from other breweries/people in Atlantic Canada?
We’ve had lots of help from plenty of people in the brewing industry, and we’re extremely grateful to all of them. During the months of business plan writing, equipment selection, dealings with licensing, etc., we had lots of help from Shane at Hammond River, Marc at Flying Boats, and Scott at Think Brewing. When we announced the brewery in late September, several people were quick to provide support, advice, and equipment when needed, including Jeremy at 2 Crows, Mark McGraw at Loyalist City, Paul at Maybee Brewing, and Dan and Jake at TrailWay. Ken at Beer Tech has been beyond generous with helping us get our CO2 and kegging equipment set up, and Chris McDonald (of some blog, forget which) has been more than a lifesaver with too many things to mention, least of all muling equipment from Halifax on his work trips to New Brunswick (which didn’t necessarily include Fredericton!), as well as setting up/building various pieces of brewery equipment.
Do you have favourite beer styles you enjoy drinking?
Shawn – I enjoy a wide range of beer styles, but tend to focus most on hoppy ones, as well as funky, sour beers. I love a well-brewed Saison, and really do have a soft spot in my heart for a lot of other Belgian styles (since they’re kind of what got me here to begin with).
Rob – Like most beer geeks I enjoy a variety of styles. I love the current NE hoppy beer available from breweries like Bissell Brothers. Mixed fermentation beers really interest me, as well as those time-honoured Flanders and spontaneous sour styles. Finally, I enjoy some styles that tend to be harder to find, such as Grisette and Gose.
How about a favourite style or ingredient to brew with?
We’re both very like-minded when it comes to brewing (luckily). We love hops. We love Brett. We love brewing sour beers, whether it be kettle sours with a fast turnover, or barrel-aged brews that take 1-2 years (or more) to be ready. We recognize that those aged beers will be difficult to brew on our system, but we hope to get access to at least a few vessels in the near future to make this a reality, so that we can get started on at least a couple Flanders Reds, Oud Bruins, etc.
Tell us about the brewery: What type of system are you be brewing on?
We have a 2 BBL (240 L) brewhouse from Stout Tanks and Kettles: three vessel system (HLT, mash tun, and boil kettle), with four 2 BBL fermenters and a brite tank. Since both of us are keeping our day jobs, full-time, we can’t say for sure what our output will be, especially launching during the slow beer season; probably somewhere in the 1000-1200 L range monthly to start.
Where do you hope to see your brewery in the next few years?
It’s probably safe to say we really aren’t sure where we’ll be… hopefully still open and brewing beer that people really enjoy. At some point we’ll obviously have to sit back and take stock about where we are and where we ultimately want to go; for right now, we want to focus on brewing good beer and continually improving in that regard.
Congratulations to Rob and Shawn on their launch, and having their first beer out in the wild! Single Origin is available now at Moncton’s Tide & Boar, Saint John’s Cask and Kettle, and Fredericton’s James Joyce Pub. Keep on eye on Niche’s social media on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the latest news on their releases, with the Grisette expected in the first week of January.