Picaroons & the Tao of Brew

Don’t Push, Pull

Picaroons was an early player in the growing Maritime craft beer movement. Ask founder Sean Dunbar about the secret of his success and you get an answer that’s deceptively simple: be a really good local brewery.

Other than that?

“I suppose you would say it’s ‘pull’ instead of ‘push’,” Dunbar concludes, adding that authenticity is also important.

Given their recent win of a Best IPA Award at the Northern Lands Craft Beer Awards Competition in Edmonton, it seems Picaroons has nailed that goal.

Image: Picaroons

Image: Picaroons

The popular craft beer was launched in 1995 in Fredericton by Dunbar and three associates, shortly after Dunbar finished studying law at UNB. Despite a great reception, the business got into financial trouble and folded in 1999, going into receivership and losing all of their equipment in the process.

While many would have given up, Dunbar believed in the beer he’d been making and tried again.

Let the Path Surprise You

It’s now 15 years after the re-launch and the company is in the midst of some serious expansion.

A new brewery is set to open in an old railway roundhouse – the Gibson Roundhouse – in Fredericton, and in addition to the brewery itself there will be community facilities and an historic interpretation center. Down the river, Saint John is set to get its own Picaroons retail store complete with on-site brewing in Historica Developments’ new Canterbury Carpark Development.

“Both projects sort of took their own timeline and they just happen to be sort of merging together, in a good way,” Dunbar said.

Speaking with Dunbar, what emerges is a picture of a man who’s comfortable in his own skin. The same thing comes across in Picaroons’ brand identity.

“We often do things that might be counter to the usual way of doing things,” he says.

“We don’t always do it on purpose. It’s more that we let ourselves make mistakes and see where that takes us. We use our ‘gut’ on decisions more than our ‘head’. We admit that, a lot of the time, we don’t know what we’re doing and we try to figure it out…We don’t always need to have all the facts before we make decisions.”

And sometimes, Dunbar says, not knowing is actually important to succeeding.

“I’m not sure I would have started a brewery if all the difficulties were laid out in advance. You’ve got to develop a love for what you do first. That’s what’s going to get you through all the hard parts.”

Lead by Example

Craft beer didn’t always have the strong presence on New Brunswick taps that it enjoys today. When Picaroons came out with their Best Bitter in 1995, Dunbar says it was seen as a pretty radical departure from what New Brunswickers were used to drinking. Back then, he says, people saw beer in a different light.

“Society tolerated it but didn’t exactly embrace it. A lot of things have changed in society and beer has been there for those changes.”

Image: Picaroons

Image: Picaroons Growler

“Consumers are so much further ahead of the beer market than those who try to control the market. The shelves of private beer stores look much different than the shelves of public ones. That’s because private business needs to be externally focused to succeed. That doesn’t tend to happen in public sector retail.”

Picaroons is adept at finding ways to engage with their community, starting with a great social media strategy. Search ‘picaroons.ca’ and you’re automatically redirected to their Facebook page, where short chatty posts keep their followers up to date on the latest brews and Picaroons’ activity while regularly inviting followers to go have a beer.

The page also features a regularly updated stream of photos from the Gibson Roundhouse site, behind-the-scenes shots from the brewery and a steady drip of product shots that look spontaneous and fun while still being professional.

Focus Outward

Outside the digital realm, they maintain a strong presence at festivals across the region, and they even crafted a special brew for Pride Week in Fredericton – Pride Sally Pride.

So is community involvement part of the culture of craft brewing? Or are the folks at Picaroons just really nice?

“It seems that lots of people who get into craft brewing just naturally engage with their communities. Our people are compelled to make a difference and to be part of their community.   We seem to attract great people.”

Asked what’s next for the company, Dunbar stays true to form.

“I’m pretty sure I can’t see the Picaroons of the future. And that’s a good thing. I would not want to be locked in to a particular direction. We’ll go where our people take us.”

Dunbar may be resolved against pushing a particular vision of the future on Picaroons, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have opinions about where his industry – and beer drinkers – should be heading.

“I wish the world would embrace plain old cask conditioned ales. Simple, but complex, letting the flavour of the beer take center stage instead of marketing, extreme hops, or the latest flavour gimmick. Give me a simple cask-conditioned pale ale any day.”

So does it take a renegade spirit to set up a brewery in New Brunswick?

“There’s renegade spirit in most breweries. Or distorted reality, maybe. Something that makes brewers think that they want to make a business of beer. Most breweries are operated by people who’ve chosen brewing as a lifestyle and stepped away from something more stable but less fulfilling.”

In Dunbar’s case, there are a lot of people who are glad that he made the move he did – no doubt a few lawyers among them.