January 1, 1999
By Canadian Consulting Engineer
If you ever try to convince anyone other than yourself that going out for a few beers is an integral part of your job--detailed research in fact--you are not likely to get very far. But for Newfoundla...
If you ever try to convince anyone other than yourself that going out for a few beers is an integral part of your job–detailed research in fact–you are not likely to get very far. But for Newfoundland consulting engineers David Fong, P.Eng. and David Rees, P.Eng., hoisting some cold ones around various ports of call in North America turned out to be exactly that.
Both were born on “the Rock,” educated at Memorial University, Fong in mechanical engineering and Rees in electrical, and both were lured to Alberta for substantial flings with the oil and gas industry in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But by 1985 they were back in St. John’s, setting up RDS Engineering and preparing for the future. That future meant the Hibernia project, and though it didn’t happen as quickly as they and many others thought it should, by the time things got rolling in 1990 they were ready and capable, with oil-industry experience and a good deal of marine-related work. They soon won several Hibernia contracts, one to design its large drilling modules.
As RDS expanded, peaking at about 155 employees in the early ’90s, Rees and Fong travelled far and wide securing work. As respectable members of their province and profession they had some training in the beer-drinking avocation, and were adventurous sorts who liked to try different brews, and particularly smaller brands, in different locales. With a little research of the paper sort, they made an interesting discovery. Micro breweries were proliferating across North America, experiencing double-digit growth. And Newfoundland didn’t have any.
“We were looking for an investment opportunity,” says Rees. “We had made a few dollars on the Hibernia project and we thought, well, maybe if we got into something else. (There are) ups and downs in the engineering business, why don’t we get something steady?”
It was their intention, as the first modern micro brewery in Newfoundland, to set the bar high for any who might follow. They decided they needed a distinctive taste, a distinctive place for their brewery and a realistic business plan. They purchased a fish plant on the harbour at the picturesque fishing village of Quidi Vidi, a sort of oasis inside St. John’s, “very, very tranquil, and quite old.” Using their engineering skills, they demolished the building and re-constructed it. Then the Quidi Vidi Brewing Company had to make beer.
That’s where all that arduous taste testing came in handy. Over the years they had realized that a heavy sort of ale was both what they liked and what seemed to fit with Newfoundland. Thus the “1892 Traditional Ale” became their first product in August 1996.
Though that product did well, helping them move 48,000 cases in the first year, they knew from research that nearly half of Newfoundland’s drinkers preferred light beer. So, they followed with “Northern Light,” a beer with a beautiful label by local artist Danielle Loranger, depicting the St. John’s harbour in 1892 just before a horrific fire essentially destroyed it. In their second year sales went up 78%. Their other labels, like a lager called “Hibernia,” and the seasonal Christmas beer called “Mummers,” are also doing well. The beers have captured more than 1% of the Newfoundland market and Rees and Fong plan to expand into the U.S., the Maritimes and central Canada. They also have the intriguing idea of creating an “iceberg” beer with water harvested from the floating ice of the northwest Atlantic.
Nowadays Fong spends the majority of his time on RDS business, but Rees is hard at work getting the ale out. He seems to enjoy it. “There are so many things involved,” he says, “from your label, to your carton, the bottle size, your energy source, your refrigeration type, warehousing and materials handling problems.”
And of course, all that taste testing.