I had the opportunity to visit Half Pints and speak with the president and head brewer David Rudge. I had been curious about the brewery itself, their plans for this upcoming year as well as how the growler bar and his appointment to the provincial “Craft Breweries Initiative” were going. He was kind enough to give me his time and for the entire visit I did not feel rushed or as if he had somewhere else to be – quite nice from someone who has grown such a successful brewery, not what I expected.
About the Brewery
I have already given a rundown of the history of Half Pints in my review of the Doc Emmett Brown Ale. I won’t go over all that again. Rather, I was able to learn about where the brewery stands today.
At present Half Pints has a brewing capacity of about 6,000 Hectalitres. They have a number of fermenting drums and numerous storage ones as well and are able to produce a variety of beers at any given time. Typically their 4 main beers on the go (Little Scrapper, Bulldog Amber, St. James Pale Ale, and Stir Stick Stout.) As well, they tend to have at least one seasonal in progress with another in the pipe to come up shortly. On top of that, their growler brews for the growler bar and any test batches that they may be working on could be bubbling away. All in all there are around 8 or 9 different beers on the go in the brewery at any given time.
This year David told me he plans to switch things up a bit. He doesn’t like doing the same thing over and over again and so this year of the 15 beers that will be produced, 9 will be new beers. He wants to bring back some of the beers they brewed in their first year (2007) as well as some new ones.
Half Pints is made up of 12 full time staff members who do a variety of tasks from brewing to filling/bottling to repairs and technical work on the equipment. David told me their bottling technician had souped up their Meenans bottler to be not only fill industry standard bottles, but also to be able to fill the 650ml bottles they use for seasonal beers.
What’s really interesting about their staffing is that in the summer, David will hire a brewing student. The only requirement is that the student be a Manitoban. It’s a move that’s really important to David and something he has been doing for a while. In fact, one of the brewers at Half Pints is a former student who was introduced to the brewery in this way. David told me that you “don’t go to school to learn what to do right, you go to school to learn what to do when everything goes wrong”. Giving people the opportunity to work alongside experienced brewers is a great way to build capacity and allow for internal creative growth. He told me the crew at Half Pints are like a family. I can see from his supportive attitude where this stems from.
Growler Bars and Creativity
One of the main reasons I wanted to sit down with David was because of the introduction of growler bars to Manitoba. I wanted to find out what sort of impact this had on his ability to be creative with the beers they brew and what overarching impact he felt it might have on brewing in Manitoba.
The implementation of the growler bars has allowed for a different group of people to access the beers from Half Pints. He told me “It’s a different set of people” who seem to be coming in for the growlers. It’s giving Half Pints the opportunity to hit a different market than they would hit with their bottled beer. What David had noticed was that there are a lot of younger people coming in to buy growlers. It is likely a university and young professional crowd who are seeking to get a better bang for their craft beer buck.
The growler bars have also seemed to have had an impact on distribution. Since the opening of the growler bars, Half Pints has pulled a lot of its export back. They recently stopped shipping beer to Alberta which, according to David, was a big deal given they had been shipping beer there quite a while. What was interesting was that the decision wasn’t due to lack of popularity but more due to the fact they don’t have enough extra beer to send.
Along with this ability to reach a different customer group, the growler bars have also allowed Half Pints to venture into more creative territory. “Before, we would have to be ordering labels 6 months in advance for beers.” Now, beers do not need to be labelled if they will be sold at growler bars. Instead, Half Pints just needs to indicate the value of the ingredients to MLCC and then, using a formula, MLCC gives them the price at which they need to sell the beer. This allows for them to come up with new beer ideas on the fly and gives the opportunity to really let the creative juices flow.
I asked David whether they would be doing things like Test Batch Tuesday or experimenting with beers if the growler bars did not exist. His response was a resounding “No.” This creativity is really important to David and the Half Pints crew. He told me he doesn’t really understand why some breweries will see a beer made somewhere else and try to emulate it. He thinks that the creativity of a brewery and the ability to come up with their own ideas is really important.
So, what about Test Batch Tuesdays?
For those who don’t know, this year Half Pints has started a more regular test batch tasting opportunity. Tuesday mornings a 50L keg (about 25 growlers) will be tapped. Inside it will contain a test recipe a staff member wanted to try out. They tweet out when they tap the keg, so if this interests you make sure to follow @halfpintsbrewco and @halfpintsbrucru on twitter.
The idea came from just wanting to try out different things. Using 50L batches they will either use a Magic Brew System to brew something totally unique from scratch or pull some of an existing beer out during different stages of brewing so they can experiment with it. The idea behind this is not only to give some creative freedom to the brewers but also to actually test out different recipes to see if they might want to take it further to a larger batch in the future to sell at the growler bars or perhaps even bottle.
They started out doing these on Saturdays but ended up with too many people lining up for a taste and being disappointed when the batch ran out. The shift was made to Tuesday morning’s but a similar issue has arisen. I asked David if he might try alternating times and he said that in the future they might look at shifting the times to allow for different groups of people to get out and grab some of the test brew.
What was nice to hear is the test batch might not be the last chance to try the beer. It might show up in a larger batch in the future.
The amount of respect and trust David has for the crew at Half Pints is really admirable. He has really let them go with the creative aspect and opened the door to trying new things. He told me that when Half Pints opened, the expectations for beer was so low people were fine with the status quo. Since opening and pushing the creative boundaries, other breweries in the MB market are needing to step up their game and start considering some creative options. I think we can really see this in action with Fort Garry starting to expand outside their main brews.
Craft Breweries Initiative
As well as all the work that David does at Half Pints to keep the beer flowing, he has also recently been appointed to the Manitoba Governments Craft Breweries Strategy. As the only brewer on the committee he brings a really unique perspective to the table. We had a really good conversation around the recent changes to the laws here in Manitoba and how it has opened the doors for new breweries to start up. In fact, David was one of the people who fought with the MLCC to allow for growlers to be sold. He didn’t do this just so that he could benefit from them but also so the next person in Manitoba who opens up a brewery doesn’t have to be beholden to bars and contracts for selling beer.
With the laws as they stand today, a small guy could open a brewery tomorrow and not have to worry about bottling, canning, or selling his beer to bars. He can sell 100% of his beer to growler bars and still be profitable. He told me the amount of equipment and labour required to run a small brewery requires about 2 people and that given the laws today it can still be profitable.
David hopes in the near future the laws can be further expanded to allow for taprooms to be opened in Manitoba. For those who don’t know, taprooms would allow for pints of beer to be sold in the same location as growlers. This would allow for small breweries to essentially sell 100% of their beer at the brewery and not be reliant on any other party for the sale of their beer. According to David this opportunity for growth is necessary to the survival of the local craft beer industry.
I was curious whether David was concerned about the creation of competition within the province. His response really told me a lot about his character: he doesn’t consider it competition. He doesn’t even consider Fort Garry competition. If he had the choice between getting Fort Garry’s tap at a bar or no tap at all, he’d prefer no tap. He wants to be taking Molson’s tap or Labatt’s tap and wants to see local craft beer grow and prosper. Given the growth in demand for craft beer and the government’s willingness to support and grow the industry, I can see this type of shift happening.
Will they ever go to Investor’s Group Field or the MTS centre? I asked David and he told me that it likely won’t happen in the near future. Labatt’s and Bud sign contracts with these venues and typically take a hit on cost so that they can advertise at the games. Given the fact people are willing to pay $9 a beer, he doesn’t think there will be any quick movement on behalf of these venues to swap out brews.
Overall, I’m really excited about the conversation I had with David. Not only is he a really down to earth guy who loves beer, he has some really solid ideas and a really good plan for the next year. I’m excited to see what he and the folks at Half Pints come up with this next year and I am going to do my darndest to try as much of the new brew they put out. Overall, Half Pints is a brewery that makes buying beer in Manitoba not just about the quality but also about the people who brew it. I for one am proud to support Manitoba craft beer.