Nano Breweries: The Art (and Economics) of Brewing at Tiny Scales

Drink Features Breweries

From a consumer’s perspective, it’s tempting to romanticize art. Unless we bother to find out for ourselves (and truly, how many of us do?), we often remain blind to the bulk of the creative slog that exists between genesis and the finished product. It’s a problem of perception; we see something sprung full-formed from the head of the creator, and little of the nitty-gritty. A 10-line poem was likely pared down from 50, and from countless rewrites at that. Dance numbers are painstakingly built, one shoulder shrug or about-face at a time. Musicians are always scrapping complete songs in pursuit of the one that they’re actually trying, hoping, to write.

Brewing, too, sits at something of a meeting point between art and craft, and it’s not overwrought or overzealous to say so. Just like other artists, brewers operate within a preexisting framework, within a matrix of tradition and reference, and are compelled to create something that pays lip service to that history, yet also reflects their own personality and preferences. Often, that dichotomy is a difficult one to navigate; pushing boundaries is well and good, but brewing is a business, and the lights need to be kept on. Art, then—in more ways than one—requires illumination.

It would be disingenuous to say, or to think, that the situation is any different for nano breweries. It’s a loosely defined term, so suffice to say that the designation describes any brewery that 1) makes very, very little beer (say, between one and three barrels, or roughly ninety gallons at a time), and/or 2) boasts an ultra-limited distribution footprint. For these breweries, their owners, and employees, their diminutive commercial stature amplifies such difficult choices, as well as the ensuing fallout and boon.

This is a long-winded way of saying that, sometimes, it’s good to have a plan.

“I think [brewers] are beginning to understand that it’s not enough to just brew good beer anymore,” says Bissell Brothers co-founder and business director Peter Bissell. “I’ll say it: making great beer is not enough. It’s just a given at this point. If you want to enter the market, great beer has to be a given.”

Indeed, good beer is where it starts, even if there’s not much of it to go around at first. Bissell Brothers, for example, churned out roughly 1200 barrels of beer in 2014, their first full year of production. Since adding more tanks and taking over a third unit in the industrial park they currently occupy—along with fellow breweries Foundation and Austin Street—across the street from Allagash in Portland, Maine, Bissell is on track to produce 3200 barrels in 2015. That’s more than double last year’s, but still miniscule. For comparison, Ballast Point Brewing’s new additional facility alone will produce about 350,000 barrels this year.

Austin Street Brewing operates on an even smaller scale, one that required a bit of ingenuity and elbow grease to kickstart. “We’re brewing on a 1-bbl Blichmann (a manufacturer of fairly high-end homebrewing setups) system, and we have four two-bbl fermenters,” says co-founder and brewer Jake Austin. “But a lot of that stuff is custom made by us and some friends in the industry. We’ve taken over the unit next to us in the industrial park, and hopefully by September or October, we’ll be on our 10-bbl system.”

I visited Austin Street in late 2014, and can attest to the DIY elements: the conical fermentation tanks are custom-made, and several brewing vessels had enjoyed a previous life as sixtel kegs, now with their tops knocked off. Still, the brewery is producing a surprisingly wide range of top-quality beers, even given their limited capacity…or perhaps because of it.

Joel Mahaffey of Foundation Brewing has a similar outlook. “One of the advantages is that you’re not limited. Everything is on a small scale, so you’re not locked into one style of brewing,” he says. “I think that’s always going to be a struggle for us, actually, to make sure that we don’t wander too far off the path, because we really love trying different things. As a brewery, that’s something we really love doing in the tasting room—doing smaller batches of stuff. That’s one thing that keeps our customers coming back. They love our regular beers of course, but they like to see what we’ve been up to in the last few weeks, and the tasting room is a good venue for that.”

bissell bros.jpeg
Bissell Brothers

Indeed, it’s wise to have a niche, even if your muse is taken with a perpetual case of creative wanderlust. Foundation, for example—though they just made their canning debut with Epiphany, a mega-juicy IPA—specializes in saisons. Bissell Brothers is making a name for themselves with a variety of hop-forward beers like Substance and Swish. Austin Street, somewhat ironically, has one of the more varied portfolios (which includes a few pale ales a milk stout, a barleywine, a IIPA, a saison, and a brown ale, among others) but is quickly gaining particular notoriety for its “Brett Loves Hops” series, in which the brewers experiment with different combinations of brettnomyces strains and hop varieties. Batch 1 of the series featured a combination of Nelson Sauvin, Galaxy, and Simcoe, while Batch 2 solely utilized Nelson Sauvin. Bier 2 Cellar, an unofficial offshoot of the project released in conjunction with Portland’s fantastic Bier Cellar bottle shop, highlighted Azacca hops. That beer is soft, tropical, and musky, with hints of lime and brie.

As Peter Bissell said, some 600 words ago, “Good beer has to be a given.” True enough. Some small-batch brewers, though, are taking that baseline and jumping far left of center, making some truly out-there beers. To them, the product that fills their kegs, bottles, cans, or growlers can’t just be good—it has to be downright idiosyncratic.

Take Long Island’s Blind Bat Brewery, for example. Brewer and co-owner Paul Dlugokencky brews several mass-appeal products—Hellgate Golden Ale, Harborfields Hefeweizen, Tasmanian Angel pale ale—but he specializes, and is most well-regarded for, his series of old world-inspired, usually smoky styles: Vlad the Inhaler, a grodziskie, is a mild, oak-smoked wheat ale. Tasters have reported hints of lemon, orange juice, and bacon. Long Island Potato Stout and Long Island Oyster Stout are exactly what their monikers proclaim. Thai-PA and Thai-IPA are hoppy ales brewed with Citra, lemon basil, Thai basil, lemongrass, and ginger.

“I brew what I’m interested in drinking, as well as what I think might be interesting to brew,” says Dlugokencky. “At my size, I can afford to take a chance on what might be considered to be an odd or weird beer. Commercial appeal [hasn’t] been a factor in anything I’ve brewed.” Dlugokencky has taken full advantage of his situation, making the most out of the three-barrel setup that he has, up to now, operated out of his 340 square-foot garage. More impressively/ridiculously, is that system was actually a sizable upgrade; until 2010, he was brewing solely in ten-gallon batches.

Encouragingly—perhaps counter-intuitively—Blind Bat’s lessened concern with broad commercial appeal has led the brewery to increased commercial success. Very soon, Dlugokencky will not only be opening a 1,700 square-foot taproom in nearby Smithtown (in northern Long Island), but will be leaving his day job at a publisher of physics journals to concentrate full-time on Blind Bat. With the additional space, fermenters, and “a much-needed brite tank for carbonation,” he’s projecting a roughly 280-barrel output for 2015. Indeed, in the craft beer business, success is contextual.

And yet, the spirit—one that simultaneously celebrates raw creativity, unreal work ethic, and the almighty Business Plan—is shared by brewers of every size, at least where origin stories are concerned. Ken Grossman, 37 years after founding Sierra Nevada Brewing, recently reached billionaire status, but this is a brewery that started out on repurposed dairy farm equipment, jury-rigged and held together by welding, moxy, chance, and obsession. New Glarus Brewing, currently one of the fifteen largest craft producers in the nation, began life as a thirty-barrel system on similar equipment. Alan Sprints’ Hair of the Dog Brewing—one of the world’s very best, and borderline nano in its own right—to this day utilizes old food industry equipment mixed with traditional brewing tools and methods.

Above nearly all other elements, the craft beer community values taste and creativity. It’s something of which Trevor Wirtanen and Matt Wallace of Oliphant Brewing in Somerset, Wisconsin are well aware, and something that they appreciate. Both young men started their commercial brewing tenures in apprenticeships at Dave’s Brewfarm, a sort of mad scientist farm brewery in northern Wisconsin. If Krieger from “Archer” was given a yeast bank, bizarre hops, and complete creative control, it might approach the mission and output of the Brewfarm.

The pair opened up Oliphant over Labor Day weekend of 2014, and immediately set about applying similar principles in both their beer and branding (which, incidentally, is based on parallel elephant-related nightmares that Trevor and Matt had). They brew on a three-barrel setup, but that limited production hasn’t stifled their penchant for experimentation one iota.

“With those three barrels, we do have some variety,” says Trevor. “At the taproom right now, we have ten different beers on. With that variety, we do get more of a customer reaction, and we use that to figure out what’s working out and what’s not.”

Oliphant pic 2.jpg
Do not fear the Elephant

Figuring out what’s working and what’s not is a puzzle that many breweries continue to work at—even five, 10, or 20 years after their inception. Perhaps most recently, and most notably, Stone Brewing Company made the decision to discontinue two of their longest-tenured beers: session amber Levitation and the black IPA Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale. Consumer tastes, it seems, are blind to barrel output and market ubiquity.

Right now, for Oliphant, this is an advantage. “A smaller system is obviously more cost-effective, so that’s an advantage when you’re starting out,” Trevor says. “But it’s very manual; we have to set it up and tear it down every time we use it. Things don’t stay in place, but it’s practical and it works.”

What more could you ask for?

Trick question. You could ask for a lot more, and you’d need it, too. Fortunately, the community is a tightly knit one and, as cliché as it sounds, everyone is in this together. Peter Bissell knows firsthand the importance of the community mindset, having received invaluable technical and legal help from the likes of Dustin Johnson at Gneiss Brewing, Rising Tide’s Heather Sanborn, and others.

“It’s funny when people talk about the industry, they try and pretend that it’s not competitive,” Bissell says. “It certainly is, but it’s not X vs Y. We’re not gunning for someone else’s business, we’re just trying to do the best we can. I’m really competitive and I enjoy the recognition, but all of this is with the best intentions. We’re not trying to take business away from anyone else. We’re all going for the gold.”

Joel Mahaffey from Foundation can vouch for that sentiment. “When I go to Allagash, I’m usually asking them to do lab analysis on my beer, to make sure that their more sophisticated equipment is jiving with the readings I’m getting,” he says when asked about Foundation’s relationship with the more established Maine breweries. “And they’re happy to do that; it certainly doesn’t hurt them in any way.”

At the risk of undermining the very existence of this piece, perhaps the nano-brewery spirit—community, creativity, personal expression—is what embodies the spirit of American craft as a whole. One of the points that every brewer featured here brought up is that the more top-quality beer there is in a given region, the better that’s going to be for every brewery involved. What Foundation, Austin Street, and Bissell Brothers are doing in Maine, Plan Bee and Blind Bat are doing in New York, Lickinghole Creek is doing in Virginia, Oliphant is doing in Wisconsin, Lawson’s Finest is doing in Vermont, and so on, and so on. Breweries of this size are elevating and complementing what the likes of Stone, Sierra Nevada, Ballast Point, New Belgium, and Allagash have started and continued. The quality and state of craft beer in America is being improved from the ground up, top down, and from within. It is pervasive, and we are all reaping the benefits.
austin st randy williams.jpeg
Austin Street Brewing, photo by Randy Williams

Share Tweet Submit Pin