- Meghan Tansey Whitton
If someone had told me this time last year that a beer bar would open where I'd want to spend nearly every waking moment, I would have cry-laughed into my tiny bottle of Duchesse De Bourgogne, daydreaming of a place where Lambics and Saisons, smoked porters and cask ales all lived in perfect harmony. Last November, Stillwell stepped out of my wet-hopped dreams and into my life.
Helmed by Laura MacDonald, partner Andrew Connell and half-brother Chris Reynolds, the former Captain Sub location in Barrington Street's Wright Building is now the local bastion for the craft beer renaissance. The intimate beer bar (capacity 80) features 12 rotating taps, dozens of premium bottles, up to three casks and a vicious snack menu. It's also begun a showcase series of Tap Takeovers, the second of which takes place this weekend.
But there's more going on behind this bar than the pulling of pints. Stillwell has altered the expectations of the local craft industry and of drinkers across the Maritimes.
After touring the space just over a year ago, MacDonald and Connell jumped on it. "It was really hard to imagine what we walked into being this space, but we went for it," admits MacDonald. Construction and straight-up destruction began last May, but the new design highlights the original character of the building. "It has nice bones," adds Reynolds, referring to the original 1896 brick wall and Chicago-style architecture, including large windows that look out onto one of Halifax's first streets.
As for how to transform the spot, numerous recommendations came in for Breakhouse, the architects behind the retail spaces at Garrison and Propeller. "We went in with a lot of words and thoughts and feelings and they kind of milled that into an actual thing," MacDonald explains. "This bar is definitely not where I thought we were going to go, but I think it's great. ... I think I pictured it being a little bit freakier," she admits. "The early design stuff for this bar was like Coney Island. We were going to be a circus bar." The initial influence of Brooklyn's casual craft beer bar scene is obvious in Stillwell's lower level, where you'll find an arcade and subway-style seating.
As for the rest of the bar, many words come to mind: industrial, minimalist, modern. It's not about smoke and mirrors here, there's no need to hide behind over-the-top design. Stillwell is simply self-aware: it's about the beer, and the space is designed to enhance its wares, not compete with them.
But how does a bar like this come to be? Like many couples, Laura MacDonald and Andrew Connell met in a pub: working at The Whitehorse on Parson's Green, the number-one rated beer pub in the UK. In the new Michael Jackson documentary, Beerhunter–(which Ladies' Beer League is screening at Lion and Bright on March 25)–all UK segments were shot there.
"That pub really focused around employee education," explains MacDonald. "They took us to Belgium and beer reps took us around to their accounts and [we] sampled their wares; we toured Cantillon,"a traditional Lambic brewery in Belgium. "I went to Oktoberfest. They would have brewers come to the bar and do tastings with us–things that, at the time, I don't think I appreciated as I would now."
MacDonald and Connell moved back to Canada in 2009 and 2010 respectively, settling in Toronto. Connell used his ale chops and delightfully authoritative British accent to land a job at barVolo on Yonge Street.
"I think Volo is where everything escalated," says MacDonald. "You can't work there or be associated with that place and not completely immerse yourself in that scene. They're just leading the way. ... They've got an outrageous selection and great relationships with everyone they deal with. You just take it in."
Although Reynolds, a journalist at the time, only knew Volo from the inside of his pint glass, he too felt the shift in perspective after volunteering at the bar's Cask Days festival 18 months ago. "That was the first time I thought to myself: 'Holy shit, I really enjoy this interaction with these people and the pouring of this beer,'" he explains. "I had such a good time. I actually said to [my girlfriend] when I got home, 'I want a part-time job as a bartender.'" The festival is now the largest of its kind in North America.
"Volo really just changed everything for all of us," adds Reynolds. "It really is the centre of activity for Ontario. I mean they're a big reason why the craft beer scene has improved there." On top of Cask Days, Volo also had a hand in producing some of the best IPAs in Ontario, Reynolds explains. "The owner was displeased with the IPAs that were available in Ontario at the time, so he hosted an IPA challenge. Some of the best IPAs in Ontario were invented literally to show up the other breweries at Volo."
It was with this spirit of becoming a real part–and not a product–of the local craft beer scene that the Stillwell crew approached the NSLC when they first arrived in Halifax just over a year ago, explains Reynolds. "That was one thing that we talked about. Basically how inspiring it was to watch Volo contribute to the scene, to celebrate it and to challenge it. And we didn't want to be presumptuous enough to say that we were gonna challenge the scene here because we didn't know how people were gonna react to us–especially the brewers. We didn't wanna arrive and be quoted saying we're gonna challenge things."
But the scene began to change before Stillwell even set up shop and has continued to grow around it, at breakneck speed.
"It's such a great scene here," says Rey-nolds. "It far surpasses my hopes in terms of the personalities and beers and breweries." Since Stillwell's conception a handful of new breweries have shaken up the provincial craft beer scene, gaining a strong following –including Boxing Rock, North Brewing Co. (formerly Bridge), Uncle Leo's, Bad Apple and Big Spruce–with more slated to open later this year.
"It's interesting though," continues Reynolds, "when we were envisioning this bar I think we thought our tap list would be at least half imports, and currently behind me there are maybe two. We didn't know there were going to be this many breweries with this many great beers. Because of the stage the scene is at right now it's the perfect time for us to be able to help it along."
Not only does Stillwell celebrate and promote local, but their selection of Quebec craft beer, including regular kegs from Trou du Diable, Dieu du Ciel and Unibroue, is unrivaled. Impressive for a bar that's had little time to prove itself.
"This is something interesting about the cream of the crop in terms of craft beer bars," explains Reynolds. "You get on the map, and then the best shit goes to those places. We make no qualms about the fact that we want to be that."
MacDonald nods. "We want to be the east coast beacon for craft beer."
The three can already call themselves brewers as well. In reaction to the relative lack of really hoppy IPAs (although you can find a few great ones in Halifax), the crew just teamed up with Jeff Saunders of Somerset microbrewery Bad Apple to brew a collaboration house IPA, That's Falcon Teamwork. At 6.8 percent and well over 100 IBUS, this Northwest American-style IPA will only be available on tap at Stillwell. The brew is what's known as a SMaSH–single malt and single hop–ale. As Saunders explains, "It's all about the hops–there's nothing else in there to detract from them."
For Saunders, who turns down about one restaurant a week looking for his beer, the collaboration was just what he was looking for. "I don't want to mass market my beers, so it was a great opportunity to team up with a business that feels the same way," he says.
As Connell explains, "I feel like in the way we're able to meet brewers and are able to tell in like five minutes whether they are legitimate fans of beer and have a passion for it, same way they can tell within 10 minutes of meeting us that we're doing it because we love it."
And while Stillwell's customers are always looking for the newest, shiniest thing, like craft beer in general it's about choice more than competition. "There's never any beer that lasts that long," says Reynolds. "People are interested in drinking from across the board."
But for anyone who thinks that Stillwell is for beer lovers only, don't be fooled. This bar is the ideal tasting ground for newbies, too. And even if the booze can't change your mind, TRY THE FOOD.
"Our focus is beer and that's what we spend most of our day thinking about...but Graeme [Ruppel] is the bomb. It's like the library back there," says Reynolds, describing Ruppel's two-week foray into tater-tot research and development. "I have tried like 12 different kinds of tater tots," he says. "I'm just really impressed with that. I don't think you can have a serious beer bar without having a serious kitchen." Ruppel, whose resume includes Brooklyn Warehouse and Nomad Gourmet, has taken bar snacks to a new level. While it changes often, menu items include the mouthwatering Diner Burger, made with Oulton's ground beef, bocconcini and rosemary mushroom duxelle ($6) and the Tokyo Fries, featuring Ruppel's own "Atari" mayo ($5). Portions are generous, service is dynamite and the food is on par with Halifax's finest restaurants.
So if you're hankering for a pint picnic at this point, don't despair. If the crew from Stillwell could clear up any misconception brewing about the place, it's that it's always busy. "One thing I wish people would understand is that you can come here and sit down and have a conversation and eat a meal," says Macdonald. "It's only certain times of the week that it's full to the brim." Adds Reynolds, Stillwell "is like five different bars. It's a crazy party place, or an afternoon chat and drink, or it's an after-work suits situation...it just depends when you come."
The bar also features DJ nights, providing Halifax's vinyl junkies a space to pump out everything from punk to reggae to jazz. "This is a tiny bar...we should not have a DJ booth here," jokes Reynolds, "but we do, because we care enough about music." And just like the breweries are starting to take notice of Stillwell's reputation, so are the DJs. "A lot of guys who used to DJ like 15 years ago or have a show on CKDU come here and they're like 'I'm just gonna play some records and drink some beers.'"
"I think that's why this place is pretty sincere," adds MacDonald. "I hope it comes off as sincere because it legitimately is just the bar we want. We didn't come here to try to optimize on a trend. We came here because it's something that we care about, and we wanted to bring it to our hometown. And that's something I hope people do understand."
Stillwell Beer Bar
1672 Barrington Street
Mon-Fri, 4pm-2am; Sat, 12pm-2am; Sun 12pm-12am