Wendy Papadopoulos is the brew master and part-owner of Big Tide Brewing Company, a micro-brewery based in Saint John, New Brunswick.
The brewery’s name reflects that the Bay of Fundy, which the port of Saint John opens into, is the location of the world’s highest tides.
Before we sit down to chat, Wendy asks if I’d like a beer. It’s Friday and already gone five in the afternoon: I nod. To be fair I probably would have done at noon or nine in the morning too. She smiles and pours a pint of her award-winning Chocolate Amaretto Porter.
Big Tide Brewing Company was founded in August 2009 but Wendy started brewing more than two decades ago. Fate played a hand in how she entered the industry.
On the train to Jasper
“I got my start in the brewing industry about 24 years ago. I did an undergraduate degree in Microbiology and Immunology at McGill and I was heading towards Victoria to do a master’s degree in Epidemiology. We took the train across the country. We were intending to head to Jasper, Alberta, to work for the summer. By some twist of fate there was an accident on the tracks and the train couldn’t go to Jasper. It stopped at Banff.
So we got off the train in Banff. They said they’d put anybody who want to go on to Jasper on a bus. We said ‘no — we’ve been on a train long enough’. We checked into a hostel and proceeded to attempt to find employment and a place to live. I did a number of different things in Banff, ultimately meeting a group of people raising money to build a brewery.
That was in the days when Big Rock was really the only big craft brewery around. The craft brewing industry has gone in waves: this was the very beginning of an early wave,” explains Wendy.
“We raised a million-and-a-half bucks to build a brewery from the ground up…I was hired as assistant brew master. I stayed there for 10 years. I took over the role of brew master and did a couple of different things: I picked up a power engineering certificate and started coursework towards a master’s degree in Brewing and Malting Science from UC Davis. Some changes in the brewery meant I didn’t have time and never finished that.
Brewing in New Brunswick
The industry took a change and we merged with a brewery that had assets further west. I’m from Saint John: family connections meant I wanted to come home. At that point the craft brewing industry in New Brunswick was absent. At that time in New Brunswick we had Moosehead and Molson. Picaroons may have just started,” says Wendy.
“I ended up working in economic development for around 10 years. My job was to attract businesses to Saint John and grow the community. I also did a placement at the University of New Brunswick, as an instructor teaching people how to start their own businesses. With that business and economic development knowledge I started having children and went on maternity leave.
Wendy learnt a lot from the people she worked with.
“I had a fantastic mentor, Bernd Peiper, the original brew master at Big Rock in Calgary. The people we worked with to start the business had extensive knowledge of the brewing industry. I picked up a lot of skills and knowledge on the way. I tended to do everything from quality control to brewing and packaging,” that meant a good all-round knowledge of the industry and its processes.
On tap at Big Tide
Looking over towards the bar I ask what is typically on tap. Big Tide Brewing Company uses a five-barrel system and has an annual production of around 500 hectolitres — 50,000 litres of beer.
“We don’t package all of the beer we make here…for the most part everything we make here stays here. We’re not bound by needing to fulfil orders on a regular basis. We have our core brands, the ones that are always in rotation, and then I get an opportunity to be creative,” answers Wendy as we look along the pumps. The company’s Seaworthy IPA is a popular brew.
“The very first beers we started brewing? We made an Irish red, an extra special bitter, an IPA and a pale ale. Those ones are generally available,” says Wendy, who believes that working with a variety of different brewers and suppliers has been a factor in her ongoing learning.
“The interest in craft beer and the growth of the industry, particularly in New Brunswick, has exploded exponentially. When we opened the doors there were four breweries in New Brunswick. Now there are 36. Customer expectations are always changing. People want something different. Particularly from a craft brewer,” says Wendy.
Craft brewers now have about six per cent of the market share of beers sold in the province. Based on the markets elsewhere in North America that could grow to 20 per cent of the total market over the years ahead. Wendy discusses how there’s a positive, collaborative spirit among the province’s craft brewers, who regularly help each other out in times of need.
Seasonal ales, such an autumnal pumpkin beer and a Christmas chocolate porter go down well. A blueberry ale comes on tap in late summer. During 2017 Wendy brewed 31 different style of beer, whose names reflect the cultural history of Saint John.
Saint John Beer Festival
“Every year there is a Saint John Beer Festival. We are the only brewer that has been there all five years. Last year we won the people’s choice award for a really fun beer. I’m always looking at trends: I want to be ahead of the game.
I wanted to do something different. One of the up-and-coming drinks in the North American market is the concept of hard sodas: hard root beer, hard cream soda and so on. But I wanted to make a beer. I looked at the traditional way of brewing root beer, which, at seven-years-old was the first thing I ever brewed, with my dad, in an aluminium washtub.
I worked closely with the guy who grows hops for us, working how to get the original flavour into root beer. We came up with a concept the day before brew day: it was about ten o’clock at night. We cut down a birch tree, stripped the bark, brought it in and used it.
Root beer is complex. It has a wintergreen element and a vanilla element. About six weeks before I took Madagascar vanilla beans and soaked them to get the extract. We used the birch bark as the wintergreen and we had sassafras, sarsaparilla and star anise and brewed a root porter. It was really good! Labour intensive but fun. That kind of creativity inspires me to do what I do. I love brewing. Coming up with something like that keeps me going,” says Wendy.
A woman in beer
“When I first started in the industry I was 24-years-old and there were, I think, six other female brewers in North America. I’d get mistaken for the marketing person and whatever. Now that I’m in my niche, in my province and home, I know all of the brewers: I’m just another one of the guys. It’s changed a lot but I’ve really established myself. I’m part of community that takes me as a brewer and not as a woman,” says Wendy.
“I do feel a bit out of place when I go to industry events, as pretty much everybody else who is there is a young man with a beard,” jokes Wendy.
“There’s an excellent cider maker, Nicola Mason from Red Rover Craft Cider, over in Fredricton, and Kellye Robertson, from Spin Drift Brewing in Halifax in Nova Scotia. There are three women in Atlantic Canada. But beer is becoming a lot more accessible,” adds Wendy, mentioning that women are now drinking craft beers rather than sticking to wine.
Wendy believes there’s huge potential for New Brunswick’s craft beer industry to grow over the years ahead. Time will tell how many more women become part of the revolution.
Big Tide Brewing Company (47 Princes Street, Saint John; tel. +1 506 214 3311) is based the downtown of the Bay of Fundy port city.
See the Discover Saint John website for information about things to do in city, whose social media hashtag is #SaintAwesome. The Tourism New Brunswick website also has information about Saint John and the surrounding region.
For more information about the craft beers of Canada, and things to do and see in the country, take a look at the Explore Canada website.
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Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster of Why Eye Photography. Why Eye Photography is available for travel photography commissions and photography training in the UK and beyond.
Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links to ‘The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook‘ and ‘East Coast Crafted: The Essential Guide to the Beers, Breweries, and Brewpubs of Atlantic Canada‘, which are available via Amazon.