Stuart Forster chats with New Brunswick brewmaster Wendy Papadopoulos at the Bigtide Brewing Company in Saint John.
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New Brunswick brewmaster Wendy Papadopoulos
Wendy Papadopoulos is the brewmaster and part-owner of Bigtide Brewing Co., a micro-brewery and brewpub 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 after 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.
Bigtide 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.
Craft brewing in Canada
“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 wants 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…and I was hired as assistant brewmaster. I stayed there for 10 years. I took over the role of brewmaster 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.
New Brunswick breweries
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.
There was one other brewpub on King Street and they were looking for a brewer. I thought ‘isn’t that perfect, I could do that part-time’ and got back into the brewing industry. My partner and owner here, Chris, he was the bartender…we sat around and designed the concept for Big Tide. It was a back-of-the-napkin concept and here we are,” she adds.
Wendy learnt a lot from the people with whom she worked.
“I had a fantastic mentor, Bernd Peiper, the original brewmaster 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.
Saint John’s Bigtide Brewing Co.
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.
“For the most part everything we make here stays here, we don’t package all of the beer we make 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.
Saint John pubs
“Beer styles are forever changing. When we opened eight years ago, if we’d poured a beer that was cloudy people would have thought ‘yuk, what are you doing!’ We did a hefeweizen and people had no idea what to think about it,” she admits.
“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 as 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 styles of beer, whose names reflect the cultural history of Saint John.
Saint John Beer Fest
“Every year there is a Saint John Beer Fest. 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 and 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. At seven years old it 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 on 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.
Women brewers in Canada
“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 a 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, is 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.
Hotels in Saint John, New Brunswick
Search for hotels in Saint John via Booking.com:
Books about Canadian Beer
Planning on visiting Saint John and appreciate good beer? You can buy the following books via Amazon by clicking on the links or cover photos:
East Coast Crafted: The Essential Guide to the Beers, Breweries, and Brewpubs of Atlantic Canada by Whitney Moran and Christopher Reynolds:
Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook by David Ort:
Bigtide Brewing Company (47 Princes Street, Saint John; tel. +1 506 214 3311) is based in the port city of Saint John, New Brunswick.
See the Discover Saint John website for information about things to do in the city. Follow the social media hashtag #SaintAwesome for updates about the city.
Tourism New Brunswick’s 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.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, received the 2017 British Annual Canada Travel Award for Best Online Content. He is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers.
Thank you for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this post about New Brunswick brewmaster Wendy Papadopoulos. Saint John things to do and see points out key attractions in the city. Saint John is a lovely place to pause along the Fundy Coastal Drive in New Brunswick, Canada.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography. Why Eye Photography is available for travel photography commissions and offers photography training in the UK and beyond.
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A version of this post was originally published on 8 March 2018 to coincide with International Women’s Day.