Hilary Beaumont

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Inside Halifax’s underground bars and speakeasies

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Published April 16, 2012. Read the original story on OpenFile.

main photo singers

Names of bootleggers, speakeasies and organizers have been changed. Faces have been censored by request.

The air in The Cave is thick with the smoke of cigarettes and weed. Nearly 40 people sit comfortably on benches made of scavenged wood, sipping tall-boys as a young guy with wild hair and a lip ring strums a banjo and sings from a tiny stage near the bar. A potato-sack banner above his head proclaims: THIS NEVER HAPPENED.

Last fall, this basement was little more than a dark pit with the stench of a coal mine that sometimes hosted house shows for up-and-coming local bands like Long Long Long. Patrons brought their own booze. Now a closet near the stairs houses liquor and, during shows, a bartender. The top half of the door swings out to reveal a stool, crates of bottles and cans, a dim lamp and little else. Officially, booze is available by donation only.

The organizers—nine 20-somethings who live upstairs—say the money goes back into maintaining and growing the bar. They’ve hosted several successful fundraisers for local non-profits, too, grossing about $1,000 since they opened last October. The Cave even raised money for another organization that hosts the odd speakeasy. The man on stage with the banjo—his name’s Cud—has ambitions of eventually opening an underground restaurant in this space. Some of his roommates brew their own beer for the bar.

(Video after the jump.)

A meaningful space

Cud and Devon, another major organizer, moved into the house last October. The first open mic was three weeks later. It was packed.

“When I saw the basement I really wanted to have shows down here,” Devon says. “So in my mind, we were getting ready to have shows, and then it turned into a weekly thing. I was coming at it from the point of trying to make it a meaningful space.”

“When you told me about the space, you were like, ‘the basement is awesome, we should have shows,’” Cud says to her. “I feel like it started with this table.”

“It started with that table,” Devon says, pointing to an adjacent table that similarly swings from ropes too thick to wrap your hand around.

“The rope? A friend had scavenged it from an abandoned building,” Cud says. “I remembered seeing it in his room, and was like, ‘you’re not using that rope, I want it.’”

The second table they built from a pallet found behind Canadian Tire. The wood, furniture and decor in The Cave is scavenged from dumpsters. Cud built a wall separating the entranceway and the bottom of the stairs from the booths, and each week as the open mics grew, so did the number of surfaces and benches and chairs and lights until the space resembled, in Devon’s words, “a dingy pirate ship.”

“Everyone just started building things. Come up with ideas and it grows from there,” Cud says.

‘By donation’

The by-donation booze started mostly as a convenience. As the nights grew colder, a couple people would do one big liquor run for the group.

“We were just picking up alcohol for our friends, in a sense.”

Next a few roommates began brewing beer and selling it at the bar.

“Everyone benefits because people get local alcohol, almost at cost, but the people who make it can sustain themselves,” Cud explains. “And we could buy extension cords and more lighting.”

“Any profits we do make go back to the space, in terms of building supplies, unless otherwise noted, which would be fundraisers for different stuff in town,” Devon adds.

“It’s still a work in progress. I mean, we build shit regularly and fix shit regularly. It’s never finished, I don’t think.”

From time to time people ride the tables during shows, Cud says, increasing the demand for repairs. But as the drinks drain, it’s clear some nights aren’t so rowdy. Starved for space, young people sit arm in arm, cross-legged on the floor. They know how this next song goes, and they sing along.

The bootlegger

The Cave is part of a bigger underground culture in Halifax that includes beer brewers, moonshine makers and even unlicensed chefs cooking out of their own kitchens.

One of Halifax’s many bootleggers—we’ll call him Chris—has sold his beer at underground restaurants and private parties in Halifax. More recently he’s started delivering a selection of brews by bike to the doors of customers who pay into his beer co-op: the North Common Brewers Union.

Chris brewed beer for the first time more than two years ago with five buddies. They learned how to brew over six or seven months, and decided to sell their eighth or ninth batch. They split the costs and labour so it seemed appropriate to call themselves a union. They calculated that each bottle of beer took 10 to 15 minutes to make so they made $8 per hour—minimum wage at the time. They collected bottles from friends and from the side of the road on recycling day. Each batch took about three weeks to mature.

Halifax being Halifax, members of the brewers union moved away leaving Chris with his own prosperous, and illegal, business. Since then he’s honed his recipes and produced a selection that could rival many of the city’s microbreweries. To him, brewing and selling is a craft.

For example, this is how the former bartender describes his 4.5 percent “Rye P.A.:”

”Complex and spicy malt flavours owing to the large amount of rye. Piny/citrusy hop notes, with a smooth, dry finish. Fermented with a hybrid California lager yeast for a crisp, unassuming yeast character.”

Like the Cave organizers, Chris says to his knowledge he hasn’t sold to minors. His clientele is a 20-something demographic. He and the speakeasy organizers were blissfully unaware of the specifics of Nova Scotia’s liquor laws, but knew enough to call them restrictive compared to other provinces.

Chris used to worry more about selling booze on what you could call the black market, but he hasn’t been busted yet: “I don’t feel that I’m doing anything wrong, so I don’t worry about it that much.”

Soon, he hopes to set up a backyard keg from which co-op subscribers can fill growlers.

Popularity is the problem

Without proper taxation, permits and regard for fire regulations, The Cave could be mistaken for a well-organized party space where friends gather to drunkenly egg each other into singing a tune. People come for the novelty, for the freedom to smoke inside, for the comfortable environment and to see their friends play music.

The Cave will shut down this summer, but may resume in the fall. Cud says as much as possible they have to keep the crowds to a minimum. Popularity and the line of the law are a fine balance to keep.


Written by hilarybeaumont

January 9, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Posted in Culture

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