Sitting down at a table in the Propeller tasting room on Gottingen Street, Propeller Brewing’s president John Allen introduces himself as the company’s spiritual leader.
Chuckling, he describes the genesis of his company as a pivotal moment, a midlife crisis when he changed careers, “it was this or a Miata,” he laughs.
Allen worked in film as a property master for about 15 years before he chose to escape the industry where he felt he’d peaked and brew beer full-time instead.
“People assume I chose the name ‘Propeller’ because I was a prop guy in film production but that’s coincidence,” Allen explains, “the truth is, one time I was drinking in the old Seahorse and the room started to spin…I had a few ideas for a company logo, all nautical, all mechanical, no romantic billowing sails or anything like that, and ‘Propeller’ was the best choice.”
The iconic logo is now an epithet of the North End since the brewery opened on Gottingen Street 20 years ago.
In that time, the company has expanded and upgraded in ways Allen never dreamed.
“We used to just be downstairs in this building next to a dirt parking lot, “Allen says, “at first we thought it might be too big.”
Ten years later Propeller took over the ground floor as well and bought the building, where Allen lives on the top floor. Now it’s not big enough, so they’ve opened a new store on Windmill Road in Dartmouth.
Whereas Allen was a pioneer at the time, it’s no secret that today, Halifax’s North End has become saturated with local craft breweries in recent years.
“Propeller is the original North End craft brewery,” Allen says, “but all these new breweries are a sign of a very vibrant industry and exciting times ahead for the craft industry.”
Allen claims he knew craft was coming, he saw it in Europe and the States, and was able to establish it here because “we’re a bit behind the times here.”
“Now craft breweries are popping up like mushrooms in the North End,” he says, “but the environment isn’t ugly competition, it’s a very collegial community.”
With recent new hires at Propeller and plans to revamp the Gottingen Street tasting room, Allen says he hopes to ensure they don’t go from ‘the original brewery’ to ‘that old brewery’.
For years Propeller has been a supporter of the North End community, and now, to celebrate their twenty years, the company will be hosting anniversary events and fundraisers focussing on the North End later this year.
While Allen didn’t reveal many details about what’s in store, something we can always expect from Propeller are special beers for special events like Nocturne, many one-hit wonders from various inspirations, and of course the seasonal beers many customers look forward to all year round.
From pumpkin Ale in October to Hefeweizen Wheat Ale in the summertime, Propeller is known for their seasonal favourites.
“Beer is a seasonal food,” says Allen, “Why did we start making seasonal beers? Because we could!”
Allen speaks of the advantage of flexibility he’s had as a small business when he started out in the North End.
“The North End was affordable, it’s central, and I was familiar with it from living there,” he says, but it took some convincing for his investors when he was starting out.
Allen didn’t give up even when the first four years didn’t show much profit because of what he calls “relentless pressure” to persevere. All his friends and family believed in the business and he himself believed that “failure is not an option”.
In the end, he attributes his success to the beer that he’s most proud of: the IPA.
“As I was starting out and wondering what’s going to make people come in, I thought the IPA will only appeal to a few people,” he muses, “but we’ll sell refundable, recyclable, growlers producing no waste.”
Expecting to use only 25 growlers per week, he was surprised to go through 160 growlers per day at peak.
“We have twice the national average per capita of breweries here,” Allen explains, “but culturally people are starting to drink less. So when they do, they are interested in quality flavour, and less concerned with cost since they aren’t buying for quantity.”
Like many, Allen thinks that big companies producing industrial beer often taste very similar to each other, another reason to support the local craft beer industry.
“We’re told what to buy by advertizing some sexy lifestyle, but those beers all taste the same. Craft beer on the other hand, is all about flavour!”
Allen says what sets Propeller apart is always taking the beer very seriously.
“It’s never about marketing,” Allen says, “it’s the beer that’s important; we have a lot of focus on quality control at our breweries.”
John Allen believes that’s the secret which has kept Propeller successful for this long, but find out for yourself; Propeller stores are open every single day of the year in any weather except December 25th. So sit down in the tasting room and try a glass during the next snowstorm if you’re not a North Ender who loves it already.