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SUMMER SUDS ‘It’s a labour of love’: Pioneering brewer reflects on success at Sea Level in Port Williams

Sea Level Brewing Company owner and brewmaster Randy Lawrence opened the first microbrewery in the Annapolis Valley in 2007 after devoting decades to mastering his craft.
Sea Level Brewing Company owner and brewmaster Randy Lawrence opened the first microbrewery in the Annapolis Valley in 2007 after devoting decades to mastering his craft. - Ashley Thompson

PORT WILLIAMS, NS - Randy Lawrence understands the technical qualities of beer better than most after decades in the brewing business, but he happily relies on the old-fashioned taste test when it’s time to judge a new batch.

“If I’m having a new beer, I always ask myself if I’d have a second one. That’s what I call approachable beer.”

Lawrence, owner and brewmaster of Sea Level Brewing Company in Port Williams, is all about making approachable beer.

“That’s how I perceive good beer to be,” he said.

“Everybody has an interpretation of what a pale ale should taste like, or a pilsner should taste like – every brewer. That’s what makes it fun and interesting for everybody.”

The eight-barrel Sea Level nano brewery, overlooking a picturesque, mud-lined section of the Cornwallis River in Port Williams.
The eight-barrel Sea Level nano brewery, overlooking a picturesque, mud-lined section of the Cornwallis River in Port Williams.

In fact, it was a beer that left Lawrence thirsty for more and inspired the veteran brewmaster - now recognized as one of Nova Scotia’s craft beer pioneers - to pick up his first home-brewing kit in the 1970s.

The Sheffield Mills resident fondly remembers when a friend he worked with back in his days on the oil rigs in Alberta returned from a trip to the United States with some Anchor Steam and Anchor Porter beers for Lawrence to try.

“I said, ‘Wow, that’s beer! That’s the way I want to make mine.”

The selection of home brewing supplies was limited at the time, so Lawrence opted for a small, canned kit he found at the drugstore. He laughs as he recalls the resulting beer turning out to be anything but what he would describe as approachable.

 “It was terrible,” he admits with a chuckle.

But he was far from deterred.

“If I’m having a new beer, I always ask myself if I’d have a second one. That’s what I call approachable beer,
“If I’m having a new beer, I always ask myself if I’d have a second one. That’s what I call approachable beer,

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Going pro

Lawrence started experimenting, growing his own hops and adapting recipes to suit his tastes. When he knew what he liked in his beers, he began sourcing his own ingredients. His goal was never to brew his own beer to save a few bucks.

“I didn’t care how much it cost, I wanted a good beer,” he said, adding that friends were happy to assess the final products.

“I like making beer. I like making people happy with good beer.”

Making handcrafted, micro-brewed beers steadily evolved from a basement hobby to a career as Lawrence fully committed to seeing his passion through.

“You get good at what you’re doing and then you get better,” he said.

“Consistency is the key.”

He mastered his craft working for such brewing companies as Propeller in Halifax, Paddy’s Pub in Kentville and Rudder’s Restaurant in Yarmouth, earning widespread industry recognition with award-winning recipes in the process.

The accolades continued to pour in after Lawrence opened Sea Level Brewing Company in a building shared with The Port Pub in 2007. On opening day, it was the first and only microbrewery in the Annapolis Valley.

“I jumped in head, hands and feet first, not knowing the depth of the water,” joked Lawrence.

He jumped after seeing an opportunity to provide Port Pub patrons with a new selection of local craft beers to choose from.

Randy Lawrence’s sense of humour can be as distinctive as the beer he brews at Sea Level.
Randy Lawrence’s sense of humour can be as distinctive as the beer he brews at Sea Level.

‘Labour of love’

The eight-barrel nano brewery, overlooking a picturesque, mud-lined section of the Cornwallis River, has grown to include a full-time retail employee for the in-house store, two part-timers and Lawrence, who is typically there seven days a week.

“You have to have a passion to do this kind of job,” he freely admits.

“It’s a labour of love.”

Sea Level’s regular selection of craft beers includes Planters Pale Ale (4.8 per cent), the award-winning Blue Heron Extra Special Bitter (5.2 per cent), Rojo Mojo Red Ale (5.2 per cent) and Blooberry Pail Ale (five per cent).

“We can’t keep up with the blueberry beer. We’ve created a bit of a monster with it,” he said.

“I use wild blueberries, not cultivated ones.”

Blue Heron beer from Sea Level Brewery in Port Williams.
Blue Heron beer from Sea Level Brewery in Port Williams.

For those craving some variety, Lawrence ensures Sea Level offers a mix of seasonal and speciality beers.

He cites Sea Level’s Indigenous Pale Ale - made entirely from ingredients produced in Nova Scotia - as a career highlight.

“I was the first one to make a totally, 100 per cent Nova Scotia beer three years ago,” he said, dating this accomplishment back to 2016.

An overview of the highlights in Lawrence’s career contains an extensive list of firsts within Nova Scotia and, in some cases, Atlantic Canada.

“I’m always experimenting,” he said.

On the hop production front, Lawrence was once one of two Canadians invited to participate in annual hop crop evaluation in Washington’s Yakima Valley.

The busy brewer is continually dreaming up recipes and thinking of new ways of doing things in an industry that has become increasingly competitive since he operated the lone microbrewery in the Annapolis Valley.

Sea Level Brewery overlooks the Cornwallis River in Port Williams.
Sea Level Brewery overlooks the Cornwallis River in Port Williams.


SUMMER SUDS SERIES: Craft beer in the Annapolis Valley

More competition, more demand

The Craft Brewers Association of Nova Scotia (CBANS) released an online statement June 20 indicating that the demand for craft beer produced within the province has increased substantially, according to a year-end report released by NSLC.

“Despite only modest increases in beer sales overall (less than one per cent), Nova Scotia craft beer sales in Nova Scotia ballooned by almost 50 per cent to $13 million overall,” the CBANS statement reads.

“Market demand for quality driven Nova Scotia craft beer is even more evident with the NSLC offering product to 20 Nova Scotia craft breweries, up from three only five years ago.”

Making handcrafted, micro-brewed beers steadily evolved from a basement hobby to a career as Sea Level brewmaster Randy Lawrence fully committed to seeing his passion through.
Making handcrafted, micro-brewed beers steadily evolved from a basement hobby to a career as Sea Level brewmaster Randy Lawrence fully committed to seeing his passion through.

Asked what he thinks led to rapid growth within the industry in recent years, Lawrence takes some time to collect his thoughts.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“I think everybody thinks that there’s a million dollars to be made in it but, honestly, for what you’re getting into and what you’re doing and what you’re making, it’s a labour of love.”

Lawrence, a long-time industry advocate, has warmly welcomed the increase in demand for craft beer that’s gone hand-in-hand with the influx of new microbreweries within the province.

“It’s been an awakening for a lot of people,” he said, noting that Sea Level alone sold about 50,000 litres of beer last year.

Outside of this business of brewing, Lawrence finds solace taking his rescue dog, Daisy the Lhasa Apso, for walks on the beach near his family’s cottage in Scott’s Bay.

He plans to work toward getting Sea Level’s beers on the shelves in some NSLC stores in the future, while continually expanding on what his labour of love has built thus far.

“I’m just plugging along day to day,” he said with a wide grin.

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