HALIFAX’S OFF-THE-CHAIN CIDERY
Celebrating their second anniversary this past May, Chain Yard Urban Cidery fast earned the loyalty of our city’s cider fans and converted many skeptics to the pleasures of the crisp and tasty booze made from Nova Scotia apples. With its large and friendly tasting room and delicious food provided by Unchained Kitchen, Chain Yard has become a destination for hanging with friends (even your kids) in the North End. Bonus: The people who own the place are rad folks with a passion for everything Halifax.
Plenty of people talk about setting up a business with their friends, and that’s how Chain Yard started, with friends—operations manager Mike Lim, his wife Susan Downey Lim, who handles sales and marketing, and sales manager Brian Kelly. Head cider maker Jay Hildybrant came onboard later. After initially being asked to consult and train the production team, when he heard what the friends were planning and saw the space, he wanted in and became their fourth partner. “When
I met Susan, Brian, and Mike they were honestly some of the most wonderful people I’d met in a long time, and we formed a friendship very, very quickly,” he says, “It had always been my dream to open up a cider taproom, so I asked to come in with them.”
Downey Lim and Lim were already entrepreneurs—having started Grape Escapes wine tours in 2011, then Taste Halifax Food and Beer Tours in 2016, but Kelly left a very comfortable government job to start Chain Yard—though he has a long history in the Halifax food and drink industry. “Almost 20 years ago, Mike and I started out as busboys at Pacifico Nightclub,” says Kelly, “Susan and I actually worked together at Thirsty Duck, so the three of us have all worked together in some capacity for the past 17 years.” Besides a professional background in the industry, the three loved craft beverages, especially cider, and it got to a point where they were ready to stop dreaming and start doing.
“We’ve been very much involved in the craft beverage industry for years, and wanted to be in on the production side,” says Lim, “We were cider fans and had seen the industry boom in other areas, so it felt the time was right to start something in Halifax.” So they came up with a plan and were confident it was a good one. They bounced the idea off their long-time friend and sort-of mentor Pete Luckett (of Luckett Vineyards), asking what he thought, and if he’d be interested in coming in with them.
“He thought our idea was great and we would probably be successful, so he wanted to help out, which was really cool. He asked Mike and Susan what their biggest stumbling block was, they said they wanted to buy this building on Agricola, and he came back and said that he didn’t want to be involved in the business, but he’d help them out by being their landlord,” explains Kelly. “To this day, we lean on him for advice on everything from pricing our product to getting it in stores and everything else. He is such an incredible businessman; we’re lucky to have his help.”
THAT LOCATION THO
As most people who’ve lived in Halifax a while know, the building that Chain Yard inhabits on the corner of Agricola and North Street had been a beloved North End fixture for more than a decade as FRED.—A hair salon/cafe/gallery space owned by champions and innovators of the ‘hood, Fred Connors and Joel Flewelling. The partners knew the space well and thought it would be perfect for their intent. Whatever business moved in had big shoes to fill.
When the building sold there was a lot of buzz about what the great space might become, and for a long time the only clue was, “Drink more apples” scrawled on chalkboards that lined the outside walls.
Once secured, the space needed major renos, including reinforcing the floors so that the fermentation tanks wouldn’t crack the concrete, waterproofing walls behind the tanks, and installing tank lines and fridges. The bar and tables they had made from 180-year-old barn wood, and there was a lot of painting and electrical work to get the space sorted.
Initially, the taproom wasn’t a big focus. “We thought it would be a bonus space where we could showcase our product and educate consumers, as our focus was on the production side of things,” explains Lim.
Before opening, the partners were approached by Lawry Deneau and Ryan Wolfe to open Unchained Kitchen, which operates as a separate business. Deneau was the head chef at the Bicycle Thief at the time, and Wolfe had a long history in the local foodservice industry. They fit right in and helped create the fantastic environment that everyone knows and loves today.
(We should add that during this time Chain Yard was being set up, and shortly after opening, two babies came into the mix—Kelly and his wife had a baby just before opening, and Downey Lim and Lim had theirs soon after. With an emphasis on family, the business welcomes kids, and hosts popular BYOB – Bring Your Own Baby—events that encourage kids at the bar.)
HOW’D YOU LIKE THEM APPLES?
Space secured, equipment in, all you need is the raw ingredients.
You’d think being based in Nova Scotia would be any cider maker’s dream, and it is, sort of. There’s no lack of availability of apples, but the varieties traditionally cultivated here don’t lend themselves naturally to the traditional dry ciders Hildybrant wanted to make. “Dessert or culinary varieties such as Macintosh and honey crisp don’t have the the phenolics [chemical compounds] to really make cider pop and enhance those complex flavors that we see in ciders coming from Somerset (UK) or Brittany (France),” Hildybrant explains, “We had to use fermentation kinetics to enhance aromatics, to pull out unique flavours, and to use apple varieties here such as Northern Spy and Cox’s Orange Pippin, that have a little bit of complexity to make our base cider.”
As a consultant who works across North America, and in India, Hildybrant initially moved to the east coast to work with Bulwark Craft Cider. He had the skills to create something unique with what he could access—even if they weren’t quite the right apples.
Downey Lim remembers when they tested the cider that they knew was right for their core product, Foundation. “We knew how we wanted it to taste—nice, clean, and crisp. We wanted it around between six and seven percent alcohol, and we did lots of tastings to get it how we wanted—though being pregnant I’d taste and spit every time, making lots of notes” she says. “We were all standing in the production area, we didn’t have all of our equipment at that time, and none of the taproom was complete, so we’re all this standing back there, and we all agreed that we’d found the one. It was balanced; it had good acidity, a little bit of sweetness—just enough to call it off-dry.”
Chain Yard produces a line of core ciders you’ll find on tap across Nova Scotia and in stores, but it is the unique products Hildybrant dreams up that are sold almost exclusively in the taproom that have truly put Chain Yard on the map for cider connoisseurs. “We’re coming up with new products all the time. We’ve been open just over two years, and we’ve done 52 ciders so far,” he says, adding that these products use different yeasts and blends to create exciting recipes you won’t find anywhere else. “We also like to do wild ferments or spontaneous ferments, and these allow us to really highlight the terroir of that apple,” he says. The ciders they make are created the same way wines are made, with complexity and art to get them just right.
Hildybrant’s favourite creation to date was a wild fermented drink called Kings are Wild. “We managed to track down some very rare pumpkin king apple juice that we allowed to go through a spontaneous ferment. That’s one of those unique products that we can probably never make again, and that’s what excites me, and some of our customers,” he says. Working with growers means that Hildybrant is closer to getting the apple varieties he covets most grown here, which will help him push towards more of the ciders he wants to make and a larger scale.
THE SWEET, CRISP SMELL OF SUCCESS
Chain Yard was busy from the start. Before opening they’d secured placement in the NSLC for their core product, Foundation, as well as several private liquor stores, and bars and restaurants were getting in touch because they wanted to carry such a hyper-local product. “We started the business right when the cider boom was just hitting Nova Scotia. A lot of places already had a cider tap, some places were looking to open up another line for a second side tap, and in the beginning a lot of people were just contacting us which was a big help, there was a lot of interest,” explains Kelly. “I wouldn’t say it was an easy sell, but it wasn’t a hard sell.”
There were, of course, teething problems as with any new business, but the partners say that they were never big enough to cause serious concerns. Their plan was sound, and their product in demand. Lim describes a funny moment when he truly knew they were going to be successful: “We’d only been open for a few months, but one evening my wife and I were walking by someone’s house, they’d put their recycling out and our cans were in their blue bags. I looked at Susan and said, “We did it.” He says knowing that people love their cider has been the biggest reward in all of this.
That said, Chain Yard has been recognized with actual awards, too: “We won a few golds last year for some of our specialty ciders, and we picked up a silver and a bronze at the Canadian winemaking awards just after we started,” says Lim, “This year’s awards were just announced and we picked up more silvers and bronzes. We’ve won Atlantic Canadian Cider House of the Year for two years running. That recognition is definitely meaningful, but seeing our cider being purchased and people enjoying it is our biggest achievement.”
The business is a roaring success, but Kelly’s goal is to get more Chain Yard products into more NSLC stores in Nova Scotia, and beyond our provincial borders. “We’re in talks right now with a group in Newfoundland, we have applied to sell in PEI and we’re in a couple of bars in New Brunswick,” he says, adding that this would require increasing production. He’s enthusiastic and very glad he took the chance on starting the business with his friends. “I’m not missing my government job. It was a great job, but it’s nice to do something you’re passionate about,” he says, “There’s nothing like being your own boss and getting to work with amazing people every day. It’s just a joy to come to work here.”