Halifax’s Good Robot Brewing

In the craft beer world, building the identity of a craft brewery is more than a logo or a catchy name. Perhaps given the current landscape of the beer market, it’s never been a more apropos statement, as big breweries seek to capitalize on the success of local brews with brands and packaging designed to appeal to the craft consumer. Sitting with Breakhouse’s Peter Wunsch and Tyon Hynes, they described it as ‘craft washing.’

Classic examples on store shelves now include brands such as Molson’s Belgian Moon or InBev’s Shock Top that clearly are attempts to appeal to craft beer drinkers, while not obviously disclosing they are made by big brewers.

Both Belgian Moon and Shock Top have a facade that seemingly fits in the craft beer landscape in a retail environment. But Wunsch, Hynes and Good Robot co-owner Joshua Counsil agree that crafting a beer identity is much more than a logo or bottle design. Counsil actually doesn’t mind that the big brewers play in the space, noting that big brewers produce good, technically sound beer because they have the money and resources to do so. Whether they use the methods and ingredients to product beers that are appealing to a craft consumer is a different story. Counsil seems happy enough to leave the judgement of any beer to “the taste buds of the consumer.”

Another notable difference between big breweries and small breweries are the people. Perhaps fundamentally, that is the difference in crafting a brand and identity of a small brewer versus a big brewer seeking to create a brand that appears to be craft-like. The people making and selling the beer are intimately connected to the brand. A word that kept creeping into my conversation with Hynes about the branding of a craft brewery was authenticity. Tyson noted that “authentic brands need to connect to people. If you are simply trying to appeal to consumers, without being authentic, people will smell it.”

In the case of Halifax’s Good Robot, the brand developed by Breakhouse is intrinsically linked to the spirit of its three owners: Josh Counsil, Doug Kehoe and Angus Campbell. The trio of engineers met at Queen’s University. Only Cape Breton born and raised Campbell had Nova Scotia roots. So when the group decided to give up their engineer careers for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to open a brewery, there was little reason to suggest Nova Scotia. But when Campbell proposed opening in Halifax, Counsil says it made sense as “the city was small enough to appeal to Doug, who is from rural Ontario, and was eclectic enough to appease my big city tastes.”

The trio moved to Halifax in summer 2014 with the express goal of opening a brewery. Their new brewery was to be named Wrought Iron Brewing. Pre-opening the group had acquired quite a bit of buzz for their soon-to-be-opened North End brewery. But there was something not quite right. As Counsil says: “sometimes people know you better than you know yourselves. For some reason the name and brand didn’t reflect us. Everything else, such as our blog we were doing at the time, did.”

Enter Breakhouse, a ground-breaking local design firm, that notably has been behind the designs of Stillwell Beer Bar and Edna Restaurant. Breakhouse had been contracted by the Trio to design their tap room. As Hynes explains: “they came to us saying we are starting a brewery, and we want to sell via a retail shop and tasting bar. We’ve got our name and identity. All we need are space designers.”

During the discovery process, Hynes says: “the Wrought Iron branding they were using felt too traditional. It’s not them at all. They are best buddies from college that are doing something they love. We felt like these were three guys who are serious about what they do, but don’t take themselves too seriously. We kept coming back to them being like Mr. Bean. (Rowan Atkinson, the actor that plays Mr. Bean, is a trained engineer.) They are kind of like drunk robots.”

The team loved the idea, and despite being at the 23rd hour, were willing to rebrand, but had some reservations about using drunk in their name. As Counsil says of one of the group’s reaction to the name, “I can’t tell mom the business is going to be called Drunk Robot.”

They eventually landed on Good Robot which Counsil says encompasses “their naïve optimism, love of good times and their background as engineers. We didn’t have reservations about the change. We were almost immediately on board with the new concept. When looking back on the decision, when we settled on it, it was like sure, let’s go. It really is more fun to have a character representing your company than an object. We aren’t from here. It didn’t feel right to have a symbol of the city, or something military or nautical.”

The robot, known affectionately as Robie, has a boom box for a head, reflecting the trio’s love of music, something that brought the three together during their university days. Of Robie, Counsil says “the company is injected with its (Robie’s) personality.” Robie is not only on their packaging, but Breakhouse incorporated the robot throughout the interior of their brewery’s retail and tasting room space. Of the job, Hynes notes that “from a business point of view we probably put in too many hours in the project, but we saw this as a portfolio piece. When you are working with people like Josh, Doug and Angus, you see how much energy they are putting in their end to make the business succeed we wanted to support with the same level of effort.”

Since opening in 2014, Good Robot has become an integral part of Nova Scotia’s craft beer scene and Robie a recognizable symbol of the brewery, which itself has become a valued part of the North End food and drink community.

by CBANS