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Rozina Darvesh walks the walk

From tiny nano-brewery to whimsical community gathering place, at the centre of North Brewing Company’s colourful evolution is the local brewing industry’s bright light.

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Rozina Darvesh is the good witch of the North. - RILEY SMITH
  • Riley Smith
  • Rozina Darvesh is the good witch of the North.

The happy ending of The Wizard of Oz happens when Dorothy Gale realizes that as many wonders as there are over the rainbow, you don't actually have to look that far to find your joy. She famously says, "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with." There is no place like home.

Rozina Darvesh has rarely had to look past her own backyard to find the amazing things in her life. One example: Peter Burbridge. "We both grew up on Duncan Street," she says. "It was very Dawson's Creek. I was the Joey to his Dawson." He's actually the Pacey. "And we didn't really meet until university," she admits and the analogy falls apart with a laugh.

Darvesh and Burbridge, now married for more than a decade, are two of North Brewing Company's three owners. There will be four owners in the new year, but we'll get to that later.

While she was attending university in the early aughts, Darvesh studied food science. She worked in several laboratories at Dalhousie, including their fermentation lab. What a pat little origin story for this craft brewery, you are no doubt thinking—but no. It's not quite that simple.

After graduation, Darvesh and Burbridge briefly moved to Korea to teach English. When they returned to Halifax, she decided to study speech-language pathology while he pursued an MBA with plans to get into the coffee industry. By the time Burbridge graduated, though, his interest changed to beer. And, subsequently, by the time he started down the path of writing the business plan and setting track, "I was kind of like, count me in, sign me up," says Darvesh. And so it was back to fermentation.

Darvesh remembers the nascent days of North in what she calls "my new-mom-hadn't-slept-in-days-fog," as she had just given birth to her son, Noah, in December of 2011. There are months, she says, where she basically remembers nothing. So, to make it sound romantic, let's say that their third business partner, North's operations manager Josh Herbin, simply appeared from the fog.

"I guess Josh was in our backyard and I met him briefly and Peter came in the house and was like, 'What did you think of that guy?' and I was like, 'Yeah, he's good' and he was like, 'How would you feel if he hangs out and helps us and works with us?' and I was like, 'Great, sure.'" At this point Rozina laughs at the hazy memory. "Josh is now like family," she says.

In 2013, Darvesh and Burbridge, with Herbin in tow, ended up a stone's throw from their old backyards opening Bridge Brewing on Agricola Street, just a handful of blocks away from Duncan Street.

The new North Brewing is a 7,500-square foot industrial space that feels homey, almost cozy. - RILEY SMITH
  • Riley Smith
  • The new North Brewing is a 7,500-square foot industrial space that feels homey, almost cozy.

"It was exciting," Darvesh says. "We definitely saw that there was an interest in beer and it was kind of, like, the hubris of youth. We were brewing in big lobster pots—and when I say 'we' I mean Peter and Josh, it's the Royal We—and it was all super DIY, just like, we hope this experiment works!"

It did. But while the small space ended up being a great proof of concept, there was not really room to grow. Changes were quickly on the horizon.

First of all, after a year in business, in 2014, they changed the company name from Bridge Brewing (a brewery in BC had a similar name) to North Brewing. Then, in 2015, North grew up the same way half of Halifax does: by moving to Dartmouth. Brad Wilkinson, who now oversees brewing with Herbin and who next year will become the fourth partner in the company, also joined the team at the retail store.

The Dartmouth expansion came with help from the team at Brooklyn Warehouse. The restaurant's owners were long-time supporters of North—Brooklyn Warehouse was actually the brewery's first commercial account—and when Burbridge approached George Christakos about a potential partnership in a cold beer store and food-focused craft beer bar in Dartmouth, he found they couldn't say no. Thus, Battery Park BeerBar & Eatery.

As their partner in Battery Park, Christakos has had a unique view of not only North's evolution, but Darvesh's growing and changing role in the company. "As their business grew and as their kids became older and less dependent as really small dudes"—Burbridge and Darvesh had a second son, Gabe, in the summer of 2014—"Rozina has stepped up more in the business and it's been really interesting to see that. Peter is a really pragmatic businessman, he's awesome to deal with, but Rozina brings a little more scientific focus to their business. She's super into creating the flavour profiles of their beer, really digging into what yeast—what hop strain—will create the desired effect and I think a lot of experimentation. It's been really cool to see her bring the scientific method to things."

"She's super smart," Renée Lavallée says of Darvesh. The two became acquainted through the brewery, and got to know one another even better when Battery Park opened practically in the backyard of the old Ochterloney Street location of Lavallée's restaurant, The Canteen. "I think she's just one of those exceptional people who gets it and gets shit done."

"Rozina is a bright light of Nova Scotia's brewing industry, a friend to all, and incredibly knowledgeable," says Christiane Jost, who runs one of the province's most successful craft beer companies, Tatamagouche Brewery. "She is a joy to work with in the industry and collaboratively. We often bounce ideas back and forth, we value her opinion and knowledge in business and production."

Darvesh says that everybody at North has learned a lot over the years as their roles have grown and evolved. At one point, she says, it felt like throwing a bunch of pieces in the air and seeing where they landed, but now, having left the peninsula behind with their latest expansion into Cole Harbour, it feels like the dust has settled.

"Beer is such a fun canvas…a touch of whimsy never hurt anybody,” says North co-founder Rozina Darvesh. - RILEY SMITH
  • Riley Smith
  • "Beer is such a fun canvas…a touch of whimsy never hurt anybody,” says North co-founder Rozina Darvesh.

Let's rewind to those watercolour memories from Darvesh's backyard for a second. Around the same time Herbin appeared in that fog, a couple of other folks ended up in the Darvesh-Burbridge backyard, too: Brent Darbyson and Kathy Jollimore. "I don't remember a lot about this," Darvesh says with a laugh, "but there was some talk about collaborating with them back then. It didn't work out."

She jokes that when they thought about adding the taproom to North that she just asked herself, who was in the backyard during that three month period that I don't remember anything? Then, with all seriousness, she talks about what a perfect fit Darbyson and Jollimore have been. "We've only been doing it for a couple of months but it feels like a lifetime in the best way possible."

Darbyson and Jollimore had met Burbridge while they were all enrolled in the Self Employment Program through Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development. They were aspiring restaurateurs at that point. Last year, when Darvesh and Burbridge approached them about the taproom, Jollimore was the one with a newborn.

"It's been a wild ride thus far but it's been wonderful," Jollimore says. "It's a great thing when you can love what you do, when you can support others in doing what they love, when you can truly love going to work."

The new North is a 7,500-square foot industrial space with a vastness that could have ended up feeling like an abandoned airplane hangar. Go ahead: Imagine it with the plyboard-and-aluminum aesthetic that tends to dominate beer bar decor and shudder your despair. Instead, Maia LaPierre, the designer who worked with them to bring the space to life, helped to make sure that even with soaring ceilings and ballroom dimensions, it ends up feeling homey, almost cozy.

The room is bright and cheery with joyful pops of sky-blue and goldenrod. There are charming tchotchkes on shelves and playful artwork climbing up the tall walls. There is a spate of different seating zones—couches with coffee tables, four tops and banquette seating, lots of high community tables and a sprawling bar with comfortable stools—there are magazines and toys, an invitation to breast and bottle feed your babies. Side Hustle, the taproom run by Jollimore and Darbyson offers a wine list, cocktails and coffee in addition to the beer program, and a small menu that even in its brevity manages to welcome eaters both adventurous and picky. It's truly a space for everybody.

North started with Belgian-inspired beers, but has evolved to create different styles and try different processes. - RILEY SMITH
  • Riley Smith
  • North started with Belgian-inspired beers, but has evolved to create different styles and try different processes.

More than perhaps any other craft brewery in Halifax, North Brewing has consciously cultivated a sense of community and welcome. They value playfulness above coolness, naturally curbing that sense of snobbery or edginess that the craft brewing scene can be known to nurture. Instead of talking a talk, North Brewing has simply chosen to walk a walk that invites people to stroll along with them.

"Our industry is really plagued by a new generation that does not understand the fundamentals of hospitality. Whether they are baristas or sommeliers, there can be a pretentiousness or elitism of 'I know more than you and you should feel privileged to be at my bar,'" Christakos says. "North Brewing is so far away from that, from being ego-driven. It's a very community-oriented ethos and I can tell you with conviction it's just because of the people there. That's what makes them happy and one of their major objectives is to make their community super happy. And it's kind of Field of Dreams: If you build that, it will come."

For Darvesh it's important that everybody feels welcome at the table, and that if they are at the table there is something to offer them. "I think it takes a really great constellation of different people to make a space feel great, to make a brand feel great and welcoming. Ultimately it is about service. Right? That's what it is. It's welcoming people into your space." 

And you also have to keep them coming back to the table. "Cheers your neighbour" is one of the main slogans, mottos and even goals of North Brewing. "Community is the first core value of our business. It's community behind the walls of the business and then the community that we work and live in. I feel like the idea of having a space where people can meet and enjoy good food and beer and wine or whatever, I think that's what we want. We want to be a part of the fabric of the community that we are in."

"I think all of us recognize that yeah, sure, there is marketability and goodwill being associated with being a community participant. Cool, that's fine, that's standard, but they truly live it and breathe it," Christakos says. "They are family-oriented, they are not interested necessarily in tons of accolades, they are more interested in having a good family business and they know that the way to get there is by making a meaningful impact to the community they are in whether it is Dartmouth or going to Cole Harbour and providing meaningful amenities for real communities. That resonates with me."

The evolution of North hasn't just been business-oriented, the beer has undergone some changes over the years, evolving from its original Belgian-inspired focus.

"Now we kind of try to make a lot of different styles that we are interested in, we try to have fun with it. We love a dash of whimsy," says Darvesh. She says it's fun to create different styles, to use different ingredients to try different processes.

"I always really loved the Belgian style of beer so that's what made me gravitate towards them in the first place," says Christakos. "But they were always carving their own path. I think that while they started with a core idea it's been interesting to see them as a company grow into other styles and do it with grace. It's not just pandering to the flavour of the day. It informs me as a business person to how you can tap into what the market wants but keep your brand and business integrity."

North Brewing cultivates a sense of community and welcome, putting playfulness above coolness. - RILEY SMITH
  • Riley Smith
  • North Brewing cultivates a sense of community and welcome, putting playfulness above coolness.

Twinkle Pony is a pastry stout layered with flavours like chocolate, vanilla, coffee and coconut. Malternate Reality is a hazy, foamy, juicy American IPA. Midnight is a barrel-aged, whiskey-tinged dark Belgian with caramel notes, a beer North has thoughts of expanding into a Midnight Snack series with the brew conditioned on a series of things, like famous Belgian speculoos biscuits or Christmas figgy pudding. And then there are the IPAs, the pale ales and of course the Belgian blondes.

"Beer is such a fun canvas," Darvesh says. "And I feel like that's what I hope people see: That we can have fun, that we can do funky, fun, interesting styles that are maybe a little more technical, that we can do super-clean styles, that a touch of whimsy never hurt anybody."

"North Brewing is not afraid to take risks," says Jost. "And it shows. They are reaping the rewards: numerous Canadian Brewing Awards, the new brewery and taproom, the list goes on."

It's more than risks and returns, though. What makes Darvesh and the team at North Brewing truly great is their investment in seeing their peers in the craft brewing and restaurant industries reap their own rewards. "Peter and Rozina are the people we will sit down with, that we like to talk things out with," Lavallée says. "When they were opening on Portland Street they asked for our thoughts, and Doug and I are working on our next project, and we sat down with them and were like, 'What are your thoughts? Do you think this is going to work?' We respect them. I love those guys."

"Working with Rozina, North and our whole staff both back and front of house is nothing short of awesome," says Jollimore. "We get to go to work every day with great people: People with the same values as us, people who appreciate the challenges that come with balancing family and work, people with passion. We chat beer, we eat great food, we support each other's ideas. And most importantly we laugh. A lot." 

The happy ending of this story is that North Brewing is a company with courage, heart and brains. And it's had them all along. Now close your eyes, tap your beer cans together three times and think to yourself: There's no place like North.

"Sometimes you hear people say, 'It's just beer, it's just this, it's just—'" Darvesh says. "No. There's a lot more to it: People are coming in to the space that we've created, they're giving us a chance. We want them to have a good time, to feel welcome, to come back. We want them to feel like they are a part of this space because ultimately they are. Without them we are a big, empty Cost-U-Less." She pauses. "With no helium." 

Melissa Buote is a contributing editor at The Coast who, in this last piece she has written in 2019, would like to tell all the editors she worked with who eased on down the road this year that they are the best.

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