Nano-Breweries: Talk of the Craft Beer Nation

By John Holl

Samuel Johnson once said, “We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.”

There is a notion that professionally brewing beer can lead to big things. The general public thinks of breweries as hulking factories turning out millions of bottles a year. However, the overwhelming majority of the 1,600 U.S. craft breweries produce much less than 50,000 barrels a year. (One barrel equals about 31 gallons, or 248 16oz pints.)

Nano-breweries, a new and increasingly popular segment of the craft brewing world, are intentionally kept very small. These breweries usually don’t brew more than one batch at a time, or desire to see their beer served at bars across the country. They are taking producing and drinking craft beer locally to the next level.

Heck, if they can get on tap in at least one place in town, that’s success.

Nano-breweries, sometimes referred to as pico breweries, or bucket breweries, distribute to a limited area and only make beer in very small quantities.

How Small are Nano-Breweries?

“My working definition is three barrels or less, which essentially makes them large-scale homebrewers,” said Jeff Alworth, author of the Portland-based beer blog Beervana.

During a recent interview, Alworth could point to at least five nano-breweries that have recently opened in Portland and several brew far less than three barrels at a time.

Whether you call them nano or not, the fact is, the Brewers Association, the Colorado-based organization that represents craft breweries, does not have an official definition.

“It’s either a production brewery or a brewery-restaurant,” said Erin Glass the Brewer’s Association Membership Coordinator and Brewery Detective. “It’s a commonly understood term but not defined.”

There also seems to be a trend for larger established breweries to expand into a nano form. These expansions can serve as a pilot brewery, carve out an additional niche market, or help the bottom line.

Consider Indiana’s Upland Brewing Company, founded in the college town of Bloomington in 1998. The brewery recently expanded to a small tap room in Indianapolis, and is planning on opening a small ½ barrel brewery there in the coming months.

This seemingly small move for Upland, which produces upwards of 6,700 barrels per year, is actually good for business. First, Upland will be able to sell carry-out beer in the form of growlers on Sundays (something under state law is only allowed by breweries), and secondly, they will be able to test recipes for future beers without tying up a larger system.

Nano-Breweries Provide a Creative Outlet

Jeremy Cowan, the proprietor of Shmaltz Brewing Company, which produces the line of He’Brew beers at a contract brewery in upstate New York, decided he wanted a place of his own. In the summer of 2010, he opened what could be the tiniest of U.S. breweries, a 1/8 barrel brewhouse on Coney Island.

“It’s really a non-profit arts project,” said Cowan. “The idea is to show people how beer is made, and to get creative with what we make.” This included the creation of a funnel cake beer and candy apple ale. The small brewery will return to Coney Island again in the summer of 2011.

When a brewery gets that small, Jay R. Brooks, author of Brookston Beer Bulletin blog, feels the nano distinction is too big. He prefers the word pico, which he pointed out in an article several years ago, falls just under nano in math terms.

Nano-Brewery—Personal Project, or Full Time?

Whether nano, pico or bucket brewery, the small production usually means that the enterprise is not enough to mean full time employment.

“It’s got to be a side job,” said Mike Hess the brewer and president of San Diego’s Hess Brewing, which produces about 1.6 barrels of beer per batch. “Producing this low of a volume of beer wouldn’t support many lifestyles or raising a family.”

Hess, who works in the financial services industry, opened his nano-brewery in July 2010. He estimates that he spends about 20 hours a week brewing in an 800-square-foot garage that also serves as a tasting room.

“I guess it could be a full time job. It would be one of the lowest paying, but maybe the most fun,” he said.

The beers are on tap in a handful of locations around San Diego, and Hess is able to produce five year-round beers and a few seasonals.

Hess said he enjoys the nano niche because, “the homebrewers aren’t doing something this big and the big guys aren’t doing something this small.”

And so long as it’s tasty when served, size doesn’t matter.

Nano-Breweries to Watch

Here is a list of just a few of the nano breweries currently operating in the United States. Please add others in a comment below.

Ambacht Brewing | Hillsboro, Oregon

Bat Creek Brewery | Bowling Green, Missouri

Boxcar Brewing Company | West Chester, Pennsylvania

Cocoa Beach Brewing | Cocoa Beach, Florid

Epic Ales | Seattle, Washington

Lawsons Finest Liquids | Warren, Vermont

Oyster House Brewing Co | Asheville, North Carolina

Parish Brewing Co. | Lafayette, Louisiana.

Red Jacket Brewing Co. | Calumet, Michigan

Woody’s Nanobrewery | Reno, Nevada

John Holl is the editor of All About Beer Magazine and author of the American Craft Beer Cookbook. Follow him on Twitter @John_Holl.

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