John Allen’s journey from prop master to Propeller Brewing baron
Posted on January 17, 2022 | By Stephen Kimber | 3 Comments
It was three o’clock in the morning. It was raining. The rain wasn’t real, but even the fake stuff fell wet and cold. John Allen lit yet another fake cigarette for yet another person he didn’t know, standing in a not-real rainstorm, pretending to be someone he was not.
The year was 1997, and John Allen wasn’t just wet and cold, he was burned out. He was 40 years old. Was this really the way he wanted to be spending his life 10 years from now? Twenty?
He didn’t have to ponder as long as it took for the match to extinguish itself to answer his own question.
For the previous 15 years, Allen had carved out a successful career as a set decorator, props master and sometime set designer in Nova Scotia’s ever-expanding film and TV industry. He was good at what he did, but it was never the job of his dreams.
Between film projects, Allen — who’d made his first homebrew with some fellow students at Acadia University in the mid-1970s — had begun occupying his downtime brewing up ever better batches for himself and his friends, experimenting, perfecting.
Those who liked it, as they say, liked it a lot. And a lot did.
Allen’s dream wasn’t so much to build a bustling business as to create a small, comfortable niche for himself. He laughs. “I imagined myself brewing a beer, having that beer, playing darts, going home…”
Today, nearly 25 years later, he can laugh at his own naiveté. We are sitting in his spacious second-floor apartment in Halifax’s north end, which just happens to be located above the headquarters of Propeller Brewing Company, one of Atlantic Canada’s oldest and most successful craft breweries.
John’s official title is Propeller’s president, but “my role is a mystery to everyone here,” he jokes. “Wet blanket, signer of bank documents, weighing in and final arbiter on future direction of company, new locations, export markets, last word on financial decisions…”
“It’s worked out,” he deadpans, “better than I ever expected.”
Propeller actually began in the rented basement of this old brick building, whose previous tenants included a carpenters’ union hall, a strip joint called Cousin Brucie’s and a much-loved arthouse movie theatre known as Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Cinema.
As his business grew, Allen eventually bought the building — with help from his late father, who fronted the mortgage because the banks wouldn’t lend to a business in what was then a poor neighbourhood but is now a desirable location.
In 2006, Propeller opened its first retail store on the building’s main floor. It later added a tasting room and, even more recently, an arcade and bar back in the original basement brew house. That last became possible when, in 2013, Propeller moved much of its production from the original tanks and fermenters-filled basement to a modern new main brewing and cold beer facility in Dartmouth. Today there are three local Propeller tap rooms, including most recently in Halifax’s west end.
In 2021, Propeller’s 43 full and part-time employees brewed up more than 12,000 hectolitres of beer. If you’re counting — and you should be — that’s more than 2.5 million pints. And that doesn’t count the thousand or so hectolitres of ready-to-drink cocktails it produces. Over the past five years, revenue has grown an average of nine per cent a year.
All of which tells you something about where Propeller Brewing Company is today but not how it got there.
In the beginning, Allen’s basement brews — his own favourite Pale Ale and an Extra Special Bitter — were only intended to be sold on tap at the Economy Shoe Shop, a popular downtown bar. But the beer became so popular so fast there that Allen had to begin bottling it back in the basement on Gottingen Street, hand-capping and labelling bottles that went out the door almost faster than he could produce them.
He began offering growlers — refillable glass jugs holding the equivalent of a six-pack of beer — hoping to sell 25 a week, then had to scramble again when hot summer demand topped 150 a day.
In the early days, Allen himself personally delivered the heavy beer kegs to pubs in his family’s subcompact Toyota Tercel. When the suspension popped up into his back seat one day, he realized he needed a van. Renting a van hadn’t been in his “brewing-a-beer” business plan, which wasn’t so much a plan as a dream.
“I worked way harder than I ever had in the film business,” he acknowledges.
By the end of his first year, Allen was selling as much beer as he could produce. And losing more money than he had to lose.
One night, he recalls, he walked out to the gravel parking lot in the back of the Gottingen Street building, lay down on the ground and just stared up at the sky. “I was paralyzed.”
The biggest problem — one among many — was that there was no craft beer industry in Nova Scotia at the time, and little understanding or sympathy for craft brewing at the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission, which controlled all alcohol distribution in the province. There were not only no incentives to encourage homegrown breweries, but a plethora of taxes, fees, “retail-sales marketing allocations” and blah blah blah — some seemingly targeted at small operators — also conspired to make it difficult for the industry to exist, let alone grow.
Finally, Propeller and the province’s two other craft brewing pioneers — Garrison and Granite, which operated a micro brewpub in the city — hired a lawyer to make their case. The lawyer, Allen marvels now, “knew all the commissioners personally” and was soon able to convince them of the “reasonableness” of their requests.
Though many in the industry today argue there’s plenty government still needs to do to encourage the craft brewing industry, there is now a real industry — and even an industry association — to make that case. The Craft Brewers’ Association of Nova Scotia claims more than 50 member breweries “spread over every region of the province, each brewery an extension of the community where it resides.”
In 2020-21, according to the provincial liquor commission’s annual report, craft beer sales increased by almost 11 per cent in Nova Scotia with total sales topping $22 million.
The NSLC is now Propeller’s biggest customer, but it’s not an uncomplicated relationship. Thanks to rules that limit “craft breweries” to producing just 15,000 hectolitres of beer a year before their markup doubles, there are limits on the company’s — and the industry’s— growth.
Still, it’s all worked out far better than John Allen could have imagined back in 1997.
Allen, who is the first to admit there was never a “master plan,” says Propeller survived its early years, thanks in part to its “compassionate shareholders” — many of them old friends from Allen’s film days — who showed their faith by agreeing to increase their stakes even when that probably didn’t seem like a smart investment decision. They’ve since been very well rewarded for their faith.
Allen also credits his wife, Susan MacLeod, a veteran professional communications specialist whose income helped keep the family afloat during Propeller’s finding-its-feet years. But the company’s success eventually allowed Susan to follow her own dreams too, returning to school to earn her MFA in creative nonfiction and write her first book, Dying for Attention: A Graphic Memoir of Nursing Home Care, which earned a starred review in Booklist and was recently named a Best Comics of 2021 by the CBC.
And, as Propeller prepares to celebrate its 25th birthday in 2022, John’s son, Michael, who grew up in the family business, is Propeller’s general manager. John expects he’ll take over the company one day.
John Allen may finally be able sit back, have that beer, and play a game of darts.
Odd Jobs is a new online series dedicated to sharing the stories of Atlantic Canadians with unusual occupations. Suggestions welcome! Click here to send your ideas to Stephen Kimber.
3 responses to “John Allen’s journey from prop master to Propeller Brewing baron”
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Another great article by the master of eclectic non-fiction, Stephen Kimber. And kudos to John Allen and Propeller.
Doesn’t seem that long ago that I was walking into the back of your brewery in the summer of 1999 just as I was opening my little dream, Jamiesons Irish Pub, meeting you and talking shop and the industry. You’ve been an amazing pioneer and ambassador for the craft industry in NS and a mentor to many I’m sure. Now its time to wax up that longboard of yours and hit the surf more!.
Such a great article Stephen – Congrats to John, Susan, Michael and Grace – 25 years of propeller! Its been quite a journey for all of you I’m sure – here’s to 25 more!