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Illustration of Derek Oland, executive chairman and owner of Moosehead Breweries Ltd. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Derek Oland, executive chairman and owner of Moosehead Breweries Ltd. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

Derek Oland: Raising a glass to 50 years with the family brewery Add to ...

Fifty years ago, when the 23-year-old Derek Oland went to work at his father’s brewery, he could have been arrested for quaffing a cold glass of beer at a downtown restaurant in Saint John.

But on this day in 2012, Mr. Oland can savour his lunchtime Moosehead Light without fear of breaking the law.

It is testimony to the distance travelled by Mr. Oland, his company Moosehead Breweries Ltd., and his home province, during his half-century in the beer trade.

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In 1962, New Brunswick was shackled by Prohibition-style laws, which meant you couldn’t order a glass of beer unless you were a member of a private club or the local Legion branch – although you could try a discreet nod in the direction of a bartender in one of those places.

For civilized drinkers, it was an abomination, but for Mr. Oland, “it was a big opportunity,” he recalls.

Knowing the drinking laws were about to be liberalized, the young Mr. Oland earned his stripes as a Moosehead salesman by unleashing draft beer on the province. That pre-emptive strike allowed Moosehead to dominate the draft market for decades.

It was the first coup in a career built on opportunistic marketing and a determination to survive. Now, at almost 73, Mr. Oland is executive chairman and owner of the private company that is Canada’s oldest independent brewer.

“I have a saying – I don’t want to be the largest, I just want to be around the longest,” says Mr. Oland, whose family has brewed beer in the Maritimes for 150 years, surviving not just arcane rules but fire and explosions, interfamily rivalry, and more personal grief than any family should have to endure.

Today, that grief hangs over what would normally be a pleasant lunch at Saint John’s Opera Bistro to mark Mr. Oland’s 50 years in brewing. But just a block away, on the morning of July 7, 2011, Derek’s younger brother, Dick Oland, was found dead in his office, the victim of an apparent homicide. More than a year later, no charges have been laid in his death.

“Dick was my only brother and what happened to him is a family tragedy,” Derek says quietly, indicating he cannot say anything more than that.

Beyond the personal loss, it has exposed the very private Oland family to intense public attention, and the nightmare never seems to end. On the day of our lunch, newspapers are reporting the release of previously sealed search warrants indicating that police believed Dick was murdered by someone he likely knew.

As disturbing reports about the death and investigation trickle out, the Oland family has continued to run a very challenging business. While Moosehead is a small company in the global brewing universe, it is one of the essential pillars of the New Brunswick economy, providing about 350 jobs – almost twice as many as in 1962.

At lunch, Derek Oland describes the delicate task of keeping afloat in a brewing sector buffeted by contrary trends – on the one end, the domination of huge multinationals in the mass market, and, on the other, the plethora of craft beers in the premium category.

Moosehead has sailed down the middle – as a purveyor of draft and light beer, but also craft brews with catchy labels like Barking Squirrel and Lawn Chair. Its mainstay product remains Moosehead lager, which straddles the centre of the taste spectrum but, on the strength of a rustic brand, has a cult following in cities in the U.S. Northeast.

“We’re still producing beer the same way we did, but we are much more focused on branding and packaging than ever before,” says Mr. Oland, who, in addition to Moosehead Light, claims a personal weakness for a light lager called Cracked Canoe.

Moosehead is no longer just the local New Brunswick brewery, but a nimble niche player in North America. With an import business and craft brewery called Hop City in the Toronto area, Mr. Oland sells more beer in Ontario than in New Brunswick.

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