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The Battle to Bring Booze to Sober Island

A young woman’s plan to start a brewing company on a rural Nova Scotian island is drawing fire from locals

When Rebecca Atkinson walked up to a wooden bar in Wales two years ago, she was surprised by one of the beers on tap — the Arbor Oyster Stout. The pump clip said it was “brewed with oysters,” and the bartender told her it had a “really roasty” flavor. Atkinson, a Nova Scotian and seafood fan, was intrigued.

It was the only stout she’d ever seen that was made by adding whole oysters into the brew boil of malt, hops, yeast and water. She took a sip of the molasses-colored beer and inhaled the chocolate and coffee aromas emanating from its foamy head. Atkinson, now 27, was expecting to taste “brininess or minerality,” but to her disappointment, any oyster flavor was masked by roasted malt. Atkinson thought she could do better. She turned to her best friend, who was sitting beside her, and said: “We need this beer in Nova Scotia.”

Atkinson helped manage her mother’s pub back in the province during the May–December tourist season and had been focused on the study of wine, but after she tasted the Arbor Oyster Stout, her interest shifted to beer. “I kept calling my mom and saying, ‘I have to open this brewery when I come home,’” she explains. “[It was] so ingrained in my head after that [first sip].”

She also had the perfect Nova Scotia community to name her beer after: Sober Island. The island, which is less than 20 minutes from her hometown of Sheet Harbour, has such a small population that it’s never even had a liquor store or bar on its rugged shores. But it does have amazing ocean views and great hiking trails for tourists in the nearby woods. Even better? It had a ton of oysters and the opportunity for impeccable branding. “It’s a name people [would] get attracted to and interested in,” Atkinson says. “It’s Sober Island, and we’re making beer. So it’s ironic.”

It seemed like the quintessential small-town entrepreneurial tale: Local woman brings unique British beer to remote Canadian island, finds riches and provides everyone else with a boozy good time.

Unfortunately, her story hasn’t exactly played out that way.

Sober Island is so small and remote that many Nova Scotians haven’t even heard of it. On Google Maps you have to zoom in four times before the coast appears. Legend has it the area got its name from the early-20th-century rum runners who once docked their boats on its shore and got wasted. As one captain was departing, he supposedly said the only thing sober in the area was the island. It’s a good story. But according to 63-year-old Randy Levy, who’s spent his whole life on the island and has researched its history, it’s probably apocryphal—the island had its name long before Prohibition. Levy’s father always told him British soldiers gave the island its name in the 1700s when they arrived with no liquor, though he hasn’t found any historical support for this anecdote.

Most of the residents live on oceanside plots the size of multiple football fields, surrounded by dense forest and rocky beaches. They emphasize their “r”s like pirates — e.g., harbor becomes harrbor and stars are starrs. And yes, they say “aboot.”

While the island has a rugged beauty and brisk saltwater air, it doesn’t have many young people or a thriving economy. Most of the 50 or so year-round residents are over 50; there are only six locals under 15 years of age. Most of the Sober Islanders who still work fish for lobster, the island’s only real industry. The nearest school, grocery store, post office and restaurants are across the bridge in Atkinson’s hometown of Sheet Harbour.

The nearest liquor store and bars are also across the bridge, and locals party in the exact way you might expect — they drink cheap booze at each other’s houses or around bonfires, gatherings that usually end with someone playing the guitar, harmonica or spoons.

In other words, Sober Island is the kind of place where every kid loves growing up and every teenager can’t wait to leave. It’s the kind of place that could probably benefit from a brewery.

When Atkinson returned to Nova Scotia from Wales in April 2015, she immediately got to work on a business plan. Despite her cherubic face and soft voice, she’s extremely driven, the kind of person who clashed with her first brewmaster because he didn’t put enough “energy” into his work. She applied for a microbrewery license and funding from the government and nonprofit organizations alike. She had a potential site for the brewery in mind, and a handful of locals were invested in making the plan a reality.

She was so excited about the business that she didn’t immediately stop to figure out her finances. “When I first started, I was like, ‘I’m going to start a brewery and throw millions into this [business] on Sober Island — [even though] I have no money,’” she says. “[I had] this sort of can-do attitude.” Her vision involves a building that would use geothermal heating and a big patio with an Irish moss-covered roof that would overlook the entire island.

But when Atkinson crunched the numbers six months later, she realized her plan would cost $2 million — far short of the CAD $70,000 she’d raised. It was also going to take a lot longer — between three to five years — than she wanted to wait. “If I didn’t launch the company and start brewing the beer, I don’t want to say I would’ve lost interest, but I was so eager,” she says. “I had to do something right away.” So Atkinson decided to build an addition onto her mom’s restaurant in Sheet Harbor where she could brew her oyster stout as well as a golden rye ale and an English pale ale while saving up for the eventual move to Sober Island.

One of the locals most excited about her plan was her friend Trevor Munroe. He and his wife run an oyster farm on Sober Island, and the 43-year-old thought the brewery would be great for the community. Not to mention, it was to be a mutually beneficial relationship: Munroe wanted to help Atkinson find land; she wanted to use his oysters in her beer. Better yet, they planned to team up to attract tourists to the island with tours that would end with cold beer and fresh oysters.

But the relationship began to sour when Atkinson delayed the construction of the brewery and started brewing beer at her mom’s place instead. The change in location — at least for the time being — didn’t sit well with Munroe, and he began to believe the Sober Island brewery was a “long shot.”

“To uproot [the business] in five years and bring it to the island? I don’t know,” he tells me. “In our minds, we don’t see the brewery coming to Sober Island.”

Munroe was most upset, however, by how aggressively he thought Atkinson was promoting the Sober Island name. She plastered hoodies, baseball caps, pint glasses and bars of soap with her logo — “Sober Island” in a huge font and “Brewing Co.” in tiny letters. She also made T-shirts that read, “Drink Sober.” Since the merchandise looks like tourist swag for the area, many people assume the beer is sold on Sober Island. This summer, Munroe says, more than 50 people showed up on his property looking for a brewery that doesn’t exist.

His anger stems from a mix of business principles and pride. The only reason some people in Nova Scotia’s capital city, Halifax, know about Sober Island is Munroe’s oyster business. “We kind of put Sober Island on the map,” he says. Munroe, whose family has lived on the island for three generations, is a huge promoter of the area. He invites staff from the restaurants that buy his oysters to visit his farm and tells stories about the island at events. He’s a down-to-earth dude with a country twang who spends most of his time in rubber boots, hauling mesh bags full of oysters out of the ocean with his wiry frame and grooming his 11-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter to take over the family business.

While Munroe admits he doesn’t own the name of the island, he says he would never call his oysters “French” unless he lived in France. “If you got the beer can sent to you as a gift you would assume [the brewery was] on Sober Island. I don’t understand how you can build a business misleading people.”

Photo via Sober Island Brewing Company / Facebook

By June, after a few tense exchanges with Munroe, Atkinson decided to buy oysters from another farm. She also started to call her beer an “oyster stout” rather than a “Sober Island Oyster Stout” to avoid further conflict. Some businesses, however, continued to advertise the brew by its original name. This pissed off Munroe. “‘What’s the story behind their name?’” he asks. “‘Oh it’s an island 20 minutes away, that’s our story. And we don’t use the oysters on Sober Island.’” Earlier this month he told two restaurants that carry his and Atkinson’s products that he wasn’t comfortable having his oysters promoted alongside her oyster stout.

For her part, Atkinson has little patience for Munroe’s criticism. “Not every Boston Pizza is in Boston,” she says. “If people ask, ‘Are you on Sober Island?’ I tell them no.”

She thinks Munroe’s main issue is jealousy. “When we gained traction [on social media] he felt like we were riding on his last 10 years of promotions of the place,” she says. “I don’t know why we both can’t ride each other’s waves.”

Their conflict has become so intense — and the Sober Island name so valuable — that both companies have applied for trademarks to protect their brands.

On a small island, feuds are never kept secret. Most locals I called knew about the tension between Munroe and Atkinson and didn’t want to publicly take sides. But Munroe says some have shown their allegiance on social media where there’s “sort of a cut-and-dried road: Be with her or with us.”

Those on Munroe’s side pretty much parrot his argument: “Those people aren’t even from Sober Island and they’re calling it the Sober Island Brewing Company,” says Gary Levy, the 55-year-old nephew of Randy Levy. “It would mean a lot more if it was someone from the island using the name.”

Atkinson’s supporters do the same with her rationale: “In the country [there’s] often a lot of jealousy between people who don’t want to necessarily see their neighbors succeed,” says George Child, who lived on the island for 10 years and now lives just minutes away. “If I want to make stockings up here in Nova Scotia and call it ‘New York hose’ I could do that, couldn’t I?”

That said, it’s hard to find a resident who’s overly passionate about the issue. Most Sober Islanders would rather drink Bud Light at home than sip craft beer at a modern brewery. That means the bulk of Atkinson’s customers would be tourists and other out-of-towners—which would come with its own drawbacks.

“I don’t like it, to be honest with you,” says Gary Levy, who lives across the road from the proposed brewery site. “It’s a quiet place here, and I take pride sitting and watching the wildlife.” He says the brewery is “surely going to interrupt” his view of deer, coyotes, porcupines, rabbits and pheasants.

Atkinson and Munroe haven’t talked much since June. Munroe says he’s been too busy with the oyster farm to speak with Atkinson, and that anyway, “[There’s] no need for us to talk. We’re not in it to fight with [her]. We’d rather not even mention another word about that place, but we’ve been asked so many times.”

Not that he’s over it. “…For 10 years we’ve been trying to brand and market [our] oysters a certain way,” he tells me. “We’re not going to give that away to someone [to] do whatever they want with it.”

Photo via Sober Island Brewing Company / Facebook

Atkinson, of course, is far from a carpetbagger. Her hometown is connected to Sober Island by a bridge, she knows many of the locals and she’s adamant that she’s going to eventually build a brewery on Sober Island, which is why she has no qualms about using its name in the meantime.

But for now, Atkinson’s mostly disappointed — the turf war for Sober Island has left her with some sore feelings. “I feel like the end result of what Sober Island Oysters wants is our failure,” she says. “[The only] word to describe the situation is just ‘sad.’”

“There’s been a lot that’s been done and said that’s really hurt me — on a personal and business level,” she continues. “I want us to just try and not hurt each other.”