Stepping into the Church Brewing Co. in Wolfville, N.S., the former church still feels spiritual.
The pews have been replaced with tables, chairs and a bar. The altar is now an intimate concert stage.
The place hums under the ark-like roof, with the buzz of a full house — and it’s almost always full.
Since opening in January, the restaurant has had almost 60,000 people come through its wooden doors.
According to the owners, it is now the second biggest employer in Wolfville, with 91 staff hired from the community. Just this past week, the business began canning its beers to be sold across the province.
“I think it’s the most significant positive impact that’s happened to the Town of Wolfville in the last 35 years,” said Mayor Jeff Cantwell.
“It has single-handedly turned a closed church … into a productive, tax-paying employer.”
The business is bringing people from all walks of life: families, students and tourists are flocking to the stone building on Main Street.
“Well, we’re in a church, so I’d say we’re blessed that it’s so busy,” said co-owner Steve Haysom.
“We thought there was a good chance that we’d be busy because we think the community needed a place to congregate again, but this blew our minds. This is better than we could have imagined.”
Church built 1914
Haysom and his brother, Matthew Haysom, left their lives as geologists in Western Canada to return home to Nova Scotia and start a family business.
“We decided, why not come back to a community we felt very passionate about?,” Matthew Haysom said.
“We had watched the Valley grow with the wine industry, the culinary scene, the distillery, the rebirth of the agriculture. So we said, ‘What better place to come back to than Wolfville?'”
The brothers care deeply about preserving the history of the church. Designed in 1914 by architect Andrew Cobb — known best for designing the Dingle in Halifax — the building faced demolition.
It was the St. Andrew’s United Church when it was decommissioned in 2014.
The brewery’s logo is based on a stained-glass window that draws the eye upon entering the restaurant. The logo is stamped on the beer glasses and displayed on the front patio’s stone fire pit.
But arguably the most important thing for the Haysoms is to give back to the community.
“We want to have a positive social and economic impact,” Steve Haysom said.
All of their meats and produce come from local vendors. During construction, they hired local companies.
Scrutiny from neighbours
But narrow is the road that leads to opening a brewery next to a residential area.
Since the outset, the Church Brewing Co. has faced scrutiny from several neighbours in Wolfville — although many of them now express more frustration at the town than the business.
“We would like more transparency,” said Karen MacWilliam. “We would like more consultation with residents and, quite frankly, the town to comply with its own rules.”
She and her husband, Glenn Howe, initiated a judicial review.
“The reason that we were concerned about it was loss of quiet enjoyment of our property, loss of value of our property for several specific reasons: odour, safety, noise,” Howe said.
The church is on an area zoned for commercial use. But behind it, the land with the manse, or formerly the minister’s house, was zoned for residential use.
Last September, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court found that a brewery with the ability to produce beer that could also be sold at other retailers did not fit the land use.
So town council amended the land-use bylaw to give the project a green light.
The mayor said it seemed unfair to limit the business, when so many other microbreweries in Nova Scotia can sell their beers at other locations.
Steve Haysom said they did send letters to nearby neighbours, offering them to come in and speak to staff.
“I think there was a reluctance to do so and that’s within their rights,” he said. “We always have an open-door policy.”
But the Haysom brothers have had no trouble finding loyal parishioners.
The restaurant is breathing new life into Main Street and next month the business will open a retail space to sell its beer: Congregation and Sanctuary — still sticking closely to the building’s sacred beginnings.
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