Nano Nano Pico Femto

I think the last time I owned a TV was when Mork and Mindy was still in its first run. Those shows first aired before home brewing and microbreweries were legalized. Shazbot! Really?

What, pray tell, does Mork from the planet Ork have to do with brewing? Nothing, I hope, except the current term for ultra-small microbreweries is nanobrewery and that sent me back to Mork’s interplanetary greeting “Nanu nanu.” Now I’m remembering those horrible rainbow suspenders. Yikes, I even owned a pair. TMI!

How small is small? (Source: http://www.thefoodsection.com)

The nano label grew out of the oft-heard microbrewery term, micro meaning one millionth and nano, the next more diminutive term, meaning one billionth. I guess that makes a homebrewer making 5-gallon batches on the stove a picobrewery, unless that homebrewer is a woman, in which case it’s a femtobrewery. Can you tell I was a chemist in a former life?

Labels aside, there is a discernible uptick in the number of very, very small breweries these days. I’ve had the chance to visit several lately and have quite a few more on my radar. What surprises me isn’t so much the beer they’re making. Beer can be great, good, or so-so, no matter the size of the brewery. I’m interested by the simple fact that these operations, producing barely more than a prodigious homebrewer, have chosen to clear all the legal and fiscal hurdles necessary to sell their beer. Licensing, zoning, financing, and distribution is challenge enough for professional brewers and restaurateurs, but these folks have done it. And why? And how!

What is a Nanobrewery?

Defining the nanobrewery is like trying to typify the Belgian bière de la saison. It doesn’t lend itself to a singular profile. At this point there is no legal definition and that makes the taxonomists among us fidget. There have already been cases of larger breweries cashing in on the media buzz, supplying beer to festivals that were supposed to showcase only nanobrews. And there are the major breweries that started out as what we would today call a nanobrewery: Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione on his 10-gallon system or Jeff Lebesch brewing those first batches of Fat Tire in his basement and delivering them from the truck of his car. When did they cease being a nanobrewery?

Here are just a few of the definitions currently being given:

  • One one-thousandth the size of a microbrewery, that is producing fewer than 15 barrels, or 465 gallons, per year. (OldGrowth)
  • A brewery with a batch size of 10 to 75 gallons. (Michael Skubic)
  • A brewery with a batch size no more than 3 bbl (91 gal) and no pub attached.
  • A brewery whose brewer keeps his/her day job. (attributed to MSN)
  • The embodiment of “mom & pop” brewing. (Ian McGuinness)

I like the “mom & pop” notion. These are beers from a cottage industry sold only in the immediate vicinity. One must truly seek them out. When you stop in to have your growler filled you comfortably discuss the weather or the fender bender you just avoided down the street. You are not surprised to find out that the brewer’s mother was friends with your aunt and that the pumpkins in the latest beer were grown by your neighbor. Nano isn’t so much about size as it is about proximity.

Element Brewing produces hand-bottled strong specialty ales presented with cork and cage closures and a tissue label.

Perhaps more interesting than definitions is the fact that many of these operations seem to be a result of a poor economy or re-evaluation of one’s career. Bill “Lefty” Goldfarb resigned from the roofing trade and started Lefty’s Brewing Co. Founder of Great South Bay Brewery, Rick Sobotka, is a board-certified anesthesiologist (I think he’s kept his day job). Steve Howe, founder of Las Vegas’ Plan 9 Brewing started with Mr. Beer kits, suffered a failed Internet business, and took on the financial risk of starting a 2-bbl system.

Scores of others claim to be simply homebrewers bringing their beer to a larger circle. Some nanos, like White Birch Brewing near Manchester, NH, have quickly grown into larger systems and seem to be making a real go of it. Element Brewing is run by two experienced professional brewers, not newbies at all. After just a year of operation they have maxed out capacity on their 4-bbl system.

The individual business models of the nanos seems to fall into one of two classes: 1) you are a glorified homebrewer trying to recoup some of the costs associated with providing your family and friends with beer, or 2) you plan to grow and starting this small is a way to limit financial risk and initial capital requirements.

Cave Mountain Brewing in the Catskills. Hey, that looks a lot like my homebrew system!

Northeast Nanos

Current estimates suggest there are about 50 nanos nationwide, but numbers could go upwards of 100 depending on how one defines the nanobrewery. There seems to be a concentration of nanobreweries in New England and New York. The Pacific Northwest is the other regional concentration. This may indicate that local and state authorities in these regions are not hellbent against new brewing businesses. I venture that it might be more difficult in the bible belt.

To date I’ve visited these Northeast operations.

And here are some I hope to visit soon.

And three more on Long Island…

I won’t be surprised if someone says, “Hey, what about XYZ Brewery?” That’s the nature of the beast, nanos are low on the radar and may not be well known outside of their very limited distribution area. Half the fun of sniffing out new beers is in finding the brewery in the first place!

Cheers! TPJ

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. palatejack
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 15:15:06

    This just off the newswire…

    Another nano gets airtime. This time Baying Hound Aleworks, Rockville, MD. Written by my old friend Greg Kitsock for none less than the Washington Post.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/26/AR2010102604467.html

    Thirsty now… TPJ

    Reply

  2. Trackback: A Pat on the Back for the Palate Jack « The Palate Jack®
  3. jaymaslar
    Feb 17, 2011 @ 16:22:58

    Hello sir,
    Nice writeup. I am a big fan of nanobreweries; actually, I co-own one. It is called Black Heart Brewery, and is located in Binghamton, NY. We are going to be open for business within a year – we are finishing an upgrade to our brew system and are in the process of sourcing 55 gallon drums to increase our production capacity to 1.5 bbl. We would love to have you come by some time later this year. We will be back to producing beer again from our upgrade within the next month.

    Another nanobrewery in the North East, is Breaker Brewing Co. They are out of Plains, PA, near Wilkes Barre. I just did a write up on them:

    http://downthepieratehole.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/breaker-brewing-co-a-growing-nanobrewery-in-plains-pa/

    They are great guys and I am sure would be open to having you tour.
    Keep up the good writing; look forward to more on the nanobreweries of the NE.

    Reply

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