I saw my first iceberg within hours of arriving in Newfoundland. This isn't the way these things usually go: When you're doing a story that relies on spotting anything that could potentially not be there, you can usually count on an increasingly sweaty-palmed shitshow as the days tick past and your whales/northern lights/lesser spotted woodpecker fail to appear.
But not this time. Iceberg Alley, as the waters between Labrador and Newfoundland are known, was lousy with 'bergs.
They really are shockingly big; from a distance, they seemed the size of a cruise ship, brighter and whiter than I'd imagined. I tried to picture the other 90 percent of their mass hidden underwater, stacked dizzyingly high above the waves.
"You have to give them a lot of respect; they can sink you, they can kill you. A bunch of fellows drowned out here just a few years ago. They came to get a chunk to get in their drink, they chopped a little chip off and it rolled. The guy drowned." You don't want to hear a story like that as you motor close to the edge of a huge iceberg, its lower edge sliced clean away by the salt water, deep cracks in the ice swirled into incredible patterns and a slender vein of cobalt blue gleaming with an almost otherworldly light. But Ed Kean, Canada's only commercial iceberg harvester, knows what he's doing.
Each year for around six weeks during the season, Ed tracks icebergs and then heads out with his 180-foot barge to harvest the pristine, 10-20,000-year-old ice that takes three to four years to float down from the Petermann Glacier in Greenland before arriving off the shores of eastern Canada. This is ice that was formed before the Industrial Revolution, the purest water on earth, and it's what Newfoundland's Quidi Vidi Brewery uses to make its Iceberg Beer. I'd driven to the curiously named Random Island to join Ed and his crew on a sunny day in May. Some 15 minutes away from the shore, a massive 'berg hove into view; tall and flat, it was the size of a football pitch and the height of low-rise apartment block. Ed's barge and boat were dwarfed beside it.
I struggled to board the boat by way of a hooked ladder, which clanged alarmingly against the side of the vessel. Once on board, I perched on the prow to watch the high-vis vest-wearing crew in action. It was incredibly noisy; it sounded like a pneumatic drill, and black smoke billowed from the motor of the hydraulic claw as it reached out to scoop ice before dropping it into a hopper, where it was pulverised and sent rattling down into the vast tanks on the barge. Torrential water poured from the iceberg; Ed told me that an iceberg loses around 100 tons an hour just from salt water melt. Mist sprayed cinematically, catching rainbows in the light as the wind gusted between the hills in the protected bay of the cove.
This is hard, back-breaking work. The ocean around the boat began to look like a slushie from a hundred scattered ice chips, which the crew shovelled from the deck. Hypnotic to watch, the iceberg glinted in the sun as the claw swung into action, grabbing a full scoop of ice that hovered over the hopper before slowly opening and dropping its precious load. Once the digger was turned off I could hear the ice creak and sigh.
It was a good day's harvest. "The wind is right, the iceberg is in the right place, we've got the right height off the water, and we ain't getting no salt on the ice," beamed Ed. "We don't know now if there's certain people showing up bringing us good luck," he said with a wink in my direction, "or if the ice gods are just shining down on us."
Back on dry land again, after a drive at twilight dodging moose as they clattered into the road, I headed for Quidi Vidi village, a postcard-perfect historic fishing community located a short drive from St. John's. It's usually a lazy travel cliché, but there's no other word for it—the brewery is nestled in a peaceful cove, in the crook of a sloping green hill. It couldn't be more picturesque if it tried and it's home to a uniquely Canadian brew.
"No one else is doing this. It's just us," said brewer Les Perry. "We're the only ones who have access to icebergs. It's really hard to take one, melt it down, and then put it on a truck—the costs would be unreal!" It's the purity of the iceberg water that makes it so sought-after. Iceberg water has less than eight parts per million of impurities; to put that into context, in mainland Canada the minimum for tap water is 150 parts per million.
Les takes me on a tour of the small brewery as the latest batch of Iceberg is bottled in its distinctive blue glass. When the brewery made the switch to blue from the clear glass bottles they originally used, they anticipated that customers would maybe keep one or two bottles from a six-pack. Turns out, they wildly underestimated how popular the cobalt bottles would be.
"We had to make an appeal on the news," laughed Les. "We got to a crisis point where we had full tanks and no bottles to put the beer in." A double return policy offering 20 cents per bottle had the desired effect when locals realised that no bottles meant no beer. "I've seen everything made from our bottles," said Les. "People cut off the tops to make wind chimes and vases. There's one guy who breaks them down into shards of glass, puts them in a bag, and hangs them off his dock to turn into 'sea glass' because blue is incredibly rare."
The purity of the iceberg water lends itself perfectly to a clean, crisp refreshing North American-style lager. Quidi Vidi brews it with Canadian two-row malt from Calgary, which gets malted in Montreal.
Les sang the praises of the purity of the water: "This is what water should taste like. This could be anything up to 25,000 years old. This is part of an ice cap which broke off. By the time it gets to Newfoundland, it's shrunk in size, so we're getting closer to the core, made thousands of years ago, long before we had any contaminants."
Later, as I photographed the bottles on the wooden dock outside the brewery, the sunlight cast a cobalt blue shadow on the ground, with the same light that I saw dance in the heart of the iceberg that we harvested. I couldn't help myself: I took the bottle back home to Vancouver and now it sits on my window, its blue glow a reminder of the amazing white giants of Newfoundland.