WINDSOR, NS - Walking into a liquor store and seeing a product on the shelves that he's nurtured from Day 1 fills Leigh Davison's chest with pride.
The Ellershouse man is the head brewmaster at Schoolhouse Brewery in Windsor.
When he started brewing, he didn't realize Schoolhouse would become such a household name in the province, but he's sure glad it did.
“It's kind of cool to be able to say 'oh yeah, I brewed that one,'” said Davison, smiling.
Davison comes off as quiet and fairly laid back. But ask him about his role at the popular craft brewery and he lights up, rattling off more information than one can process.
It's a job that suits him perfectly.
“Leigh doesn't have formal training, but Leigh's like a super smart guy and he's really motivated and inspired to find stuff out. He's a researcher,” says Cam Hartley, the founder of Schoolhouse Brewery.
Hartley first started brewing beer in the basement of his renovated homestead, which once was Falmouth School No. 9. The hobby soon became a passion and, in 2008, he trademarked the name Schoolhouse Brewery. He launched in the commercial market in 2014.
As the beers gained in popularity, Hartley took a chance and moved the business to downtown Windsor, where Schoolhouse now produces, on average, just shy of 2,000 litres per week.
“Whoever is brewing needs to have 100 per cent of their attention on the beer, and as the business owner, there are so many other things that come up. If I tried to brew, I'd be distracted by other things,” said Hartley, explaining why he stepped back from the brewing side of the blossoming business.
Where it all began
Before entering the craft beer business, Davison, who grew up in Hants County, started out making his own wines. He even won two bronze medals from the Nova Scotia Amateur Wine Association.
“I have my own little vineyard. I do a lot of fruit wines and L'Acadie-style blends. I really liked making wine, it was a passion that I had, but now it's primarily the beer world,” said Davison.
“The thing with beer is in 30 days, you know how it's going to be. With wine, it's sometimes three years before you get to see if you hit the target or not. It's more gratifying doing beer but it's also more physical. It's a lot more hands on.”
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Davison became involved with Schoolhouse Brewery early on and is now the longest-standing employee and a partial business owner.
“I started out just volunteering for Cam, just wanting to know how his old brew system worked and washing kegs and filling growlers in his old schoolhouse,” said Davison, adding, with a laugh, that pretty soon, Hartley had to start paying him.
“It didn't take me very long to realize that Leigh had an exceptional attention to detail,” said Hartley of the young protegé.
And when an opening for a new brewer came up, Davison asked if he could take the reins. Since then, he's been perfecting the brews and experimenting with new flavours to tempt the taste buds.
Some of the beers he's brought to the table to complement the signature Principal Pale Ale include Staffroom Stout, Scratch Plaskett (which was made in collaboration with Good Robot), Vice Principal Pale Ale, Summer Break Witbier and Recess Pilsner.
“I like to play around a little bit. I enjoy just a really balanced pale ale that's not overly hoppy; I'm also a sucker for dry stouts — like more of a European-style, Irish dry stout,” said Davison.
“I also like playing around with some non-hop derived ingredients for bitterness and for character. I like some of the more ancient brewing styles.”
On a double brew day, it's not unusual for Davison to put in 15 to 17 hours, with single brew days being about nine. It takes, on average, 30 days for most of Schoolhouse's beers to be ready for packaging.
Davison spends a lot of his days cleaning and sanitizing equipment — something both Hartley and Davison said is essential for a good brew.
“The one thing people don't totally realize about brewing is that so much is just keeping everything clean,” said Hartley, praising Davison for his attention to detail and quality control.
“I like to come in early, spend my alone time with all my beers and make sure that they're getting my undivided attention and then through the rest of the day I divide my attention between my other tasks, which sometimes include talking with the retail staff, making sure they're properly packaging the growlers and some quality control,” said Davison.
“I feel like proud and responsible at the same time for the product that we provide our customers. It gives you something to be proud of at the end of the day."
Looking towards the future
Davison and Hartley agree they want to continue focusing on quality over quantity when it comes to making beer.
“We only used all-grain brewing from Day 1 and I hope to always use all-grain brewing until the end,” said Davison.
“We're not compromising on our ingredients; we're not trying to be a big macro-brewery. We're just trying to stay craft."
Hartley has revived his old fermentation equipment and brought it to the Water Street location. Once the summer rush of beer-making subsides, it will be used for recipe development. Hartley said because it only holds about five kegs, it offers an ideal way to experiment with small batches as they continue to develop fresh, new beers for people to try. The “one-offs” will be available exclusively at the brewery's on-site taproom.
While both Hartley and Davison get excited over the development of new beers, they appreciate the regular, sought-after drinks that have brought the company this far.
“There's not one formula that will work with every brewery,” said Hartley. “I think we've really worked on developing a line-up of beers that creates a spectrum of the beer tastes but is also palatable to small-town Nova Scotia.”