By Andrew Macdonald
This story was first published in The Notebook last year.
Denis Ryan, retired advisor to a $4 billion pension fund, former stockbroker, still talented crooner and tin whistler, was 30-years ahead of today’s micro-brewery trend when he launched the Highland Classic brewery in Sydney.
Today, there are 503 craft brewers spread across the province and even Oland Brewery is paying attention to the immense popularity of small batch breweries with a small Keith’s Brewery starting up at the Brewery Market in downtown Halifax.
Ryan began brewing suds in 1989 in a venture with three partners, including the late Moose Mercer, and the brewery operated for two years before going into bankruptcy.
Highland Classic popped up when the UK and the US were seeing craft brewery upstarts, decades before the trend developed in Nova Scotia.
I use to take cases of Highland Classic to my college buddies in Belleville, Ont., where I studied journalism, in 1987-89. That was a magical period of my life, a time when David Peterson, a young yuppie led government in Ontario with sunshine policies, defeating the four-decade Tory rule in Canada’s largest province, known as The Big Blue Machine.
Made in a Sydney industrial park, Ryan says legendary beer brewer Bob Mussett Sr. came up with the recipe for Highland Classic. Mussett also invented the modern day version of Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale, when at Oland Brewery.
The late Bob Mussett is the father of prominent commercial broker Bob Mussett of brokerage biz CBRE.
“At that time, I could see the movement of craft breweries start,” Ryan tells The Macdonald Notebook. “There are 4,000 breweries in Germany. There was a big movement in the 1980s. In England, for micro breweries, non-pasteurized beer, that is still growing in Europe“, he says.
“I think in the long term it is going to be a real threat to the big breweries. Two or three companies in the world control the market, including AB InBev, which bought out Corona, and which owns Oland Brewery,” he says.
“The first craft brewery in contemporary times in Atlantic Canada popped up in PEI by the late Billy Rix. I knew him and he gave me the idea to have a brewery in Nova Scotia, in Cape Breton.”
Ryan teamed up with Moose Mercer, who in the late 1960s and early 1970s was in a partnership with Joe Shannon to truck Gulf Oil from the Point Tupper Gulf refinery. Shannon later bought out Mercer, saying if Mercer didn’t sell to him, he’d start a new company and compete against Mercer.
Danny Ellis, who owns four or five taverns in Sydney, was also a partner in Highland Classic.
“Lo and behold, we decided to start this micro-brewery in Sydney, and Charlottetown Metal Products built the brewery, a company owned by Rix.
“The late great Bob Mussett created our recipe. What a lovely man. He retired from Oland and created Highland Classic,” says Ryan.
“The design of the bottle was designed in a stubby bottle with the map of Cape Breton and we had grey and black signifying coal and steel.
“The design of the bottle was tough and strong, the nature of Cape Bretoners, with a fiddle imposed over the Bras d’Or Lakes,” Ryan recalls.
“How times have changed. The only thing 30-years later that survived from the bottle label is the fiddle. Coal is gone, steel is gone.”
The word Highland signified the Scottish Highlands, once home to many settlers of Cape Breton, and ‘Classic” signified a non-pasteurized beer.
“I raised money from my friends, and we got tax breaks,” remembers Ryan, who was working as a stockbroker.
“We were just ahead of our time. We had only one customer, the NSLC. Unlike craft brewers today, we could not sell direct to our customers.”
Ryan bowed out of the company before it went into bankruptcy, saying it was too hard to manage the company from his Halifax home.
“We should have gone on to make draft (beer) and we discussed it at the board level. Danny Ellis wanted draft, but the discussion among ourselves, including Billy didn’t want to do the draft. It would have taken two days out of production and would have been well received in Sydney. I was in favour of doing draft,” says Ryan.
“I said, ‘Boys we don’t tend to agree on too many things, so I got out of it.”
Rix and Moose also left the company. They are now deceased.
“I loved the beer. I was just excited to make the product,” Ryan says, agreeing there is an aspect of romanticism with brewing beer. “I just loved the product. We had a fantastic beer.
“Today, it would have survived. People are more receptive today to small craft breweries and fresh beer, good beer.
“We had the best of everything, but the timing was totally off. We were ahead of the trend. If we were 15 to 20 years later we would have been supported.
“Today, all these little breweries are surviving, and I went down to the Bistro (in Halifax) the other day and they have a collection of local beer. I am delighted for all of these breweries.
“You could see the start of a trend. Back during Highland Classic’s launch, Labatt and Molson controlled the beer market.
“Who would ever have thought 23 breweries would be doing business in Nova Scotia, who would have guessed that 25 years ago? If you said that then, I would have thought you were drinking or smoking.”
At the time, Ryan would take cases of Highland Classic and lobster for a feed for his Toronto friends. It was the perfect Maritime treat.
“We had no YouTube or social media back then. If we had that support we could have made a go of it.
“It was great fun, though, one of the funnest things I ever did in my life”.