From full coolers on beach days and bonfires to multi-day festivals with thousands in attendance, craft beer and the culture surrounding it have become significant parts of everyday Island life. Breweries and taprooms have become major hubs for the communities they reside in, creating these warm and inviting gathering places filled with chatter, music, and laughter over rounds of cold pints.

While Prince Edward Island used to be home to over a dozen breweries  in the 1800s, it wasn’t until 1997, when Kevin Murphy opened the Lone Star Cafe, that PEI’s craft beer industry really began taking shape. The brewery moved into the basement of The Gahan House in 2000 and The PEI Brewing Company was eventually established in 2013.

Venturing into something new isn’t without its risks, and it was especially so for the only brewery to launch in years, much less the first brewery dedicated to craft beer, within a province still feeling the lingering effects of prohibition. But great things happen when you stop playing it safe. For Trent Hayes, the original Gahan House brewmaster and now the Gahan Breweries Operations Manager, his journey into craft brewing began by taking a chance on himself.

“Kevin had just recently opened the Lone Star Café and Brewery and was looking for a new brewer. Brewing beer is something that requires some patience and a lot of attention to detail. I believe Kevin saw those attributes in me and asked if I’d be interested.” With no prior experience, Trent turned down the offer but after several weeks had passed, he couldn’t shake off the nagging feeling that he was missing out on a great opportunity. When Kevin came back with a new offer, he decided to dive right in. “It’s been 24 years and I’ve never looked back. Take a chance, people!”

Diving into the world of craft beer came with both fear and excitement, with the learning being non-stop. “I felt I needed to make sure every time I brewed it had to be perfect, I put a lot of pressure on myself,” says Trent. “It was quite evident that Islanders knew more about beer than most let on. Home brewing was relatively big on PEI, so I had a lot of home brewers that would come to the brewery and chat and that certainly made me feel special.”  With craft beer being new to PEI, Trent made it a goal to create a beer that was approachable to the domestic beer drinker. “That beer was our Honey Wheat Ale, made with local honey. I also added a Stout and a Cream Ale before we moved the brewery to Gahan in 2000.” Today, there are 10 different brews in the current Gahan rotation, with at least 9 others in the archives.

While there weren’t a lot of craft beer drinkers on the Island in those early years, the curiosity for something new was evident. While it may have taken a while for craft beer to replace domestic beer as the Islander’s choice of ale, the craft beer boom eventually took hold. Chris Long, former Brewer’s Assistant at The Gahan House and now Head Brewmaster at the PEI Brewing Company, explains the movement as a reaction against macro brewing. “It was against having one kind of beer for every occasion or for every meal. If you think about beer back in the day, it was sort of a desert. There was one kind of beer made by a thousand different breweries and that’s all you got. Now there’s a hundred thousand different breweries making all different kinds of beer.”

Their seasonal program is set up to allow brewers to be creative and try out some trendy styles like IPAs or Sours or styles that are making a comeback, like Pilsners and Lagers.When asked what the most complicated brew in the line-up is, Chris points to their Snowbird Juicy IPA. “We use our equipment differently than it was designed to be used. We climb around on top of the tanks dropping hops inside. There’s a lot that goes on with that particular beer.”

From a small brewery with 3 beers to an award-winning brewery and distribution facility, the company has seen significant growth over the last two decades. The PEI Brewing Company has at least 20 plus drinks brewing at any given time, including their coolers and seasonal beers. The Gahan has also expanded to 6 brewpubs throughout the Maritime Provinces: 3 in New Brunswick, 1 in Nova Scotia, and 1 in Newfoundland. All their products can now be found at PEILCC stores and fine establishments across the province, with some making their way to select locations across the country.

“To this day I still find it hard to believe where we were in 1998 and where it is today,” Trent reminisces. “I’m generally a keep to myself kinda guy, but honestly, it feels pretty cool. In 2010 we had the opportunity to have two of our beer at the Atlantic House at the Vancouver Olympics, sold out in a short time, so people from all over the had an opportunity to try it. But truly, none of this would be possible if we didn’t have qualified and dedicated people working alongside me over the years.” Chris echoes those sentiments, shedding light on the hardworking team on PEI who make all the magic happen. “I wish people knew the scale we work on. We’re a small team of really dedicated people who live and work on PEI, making a lot of product for Atlantic Canada.”

Want to tap into the world of craft brewing even further? The PEI Brewing Company offers guided tours, complete with your choice of cooler or beer to take along with you.

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