Sizing Up

By Derek Pettie // Photograph by Cleary O’Farrell

What happens when Nanobrewers get too big for their barrels? And when are they no longer considered nanobreweries? Writer Derek PettiE profiles four expanding West Coast nanos and digs into the business side of running a tiny brewery

Mike Wright, owner of Portland’s The Commons Brewery, opens the door to his new, shiny walk-in cooler filled with kegs, test bottles, and a brite tank for aging beers. I acknowledge that his entire one-barrel nanobrewery could fit in the cooler—with room to spare. He nods and grins.

For Wright, and many other enterprising brewers, starting a brewery on a nano-scale is a low-risk way to enter into commercial brewing. “Nano reduced the risk and cost significantly, and I was able to do it in my garage. That was the deciding factor. If I’d had to go out and get a commercial space for a nanobrewery I don’t think I would have done it,” he says. Wright figures he spent about $5,000 putting his nano setup together, including reconstructing his garage.

The ease of entrance into the industry—starting a one- or two-barrel brewery—has caused the number of nanobreweries to skyrocket in the last two years. Hess Brewing’s Great Nanobrewery List counts 82 of these pint-sized breweries in operation nationally (nearly 30 more than a year ago) and 50 more in the planning stages.

Just how small is nano?

The widely accepted definition of a nanobrewery is a commercial brewery using a three-barrel (six kegs), or smaller, brewing system. But the definition isn’t official, as brewers using systems upwards of 10 barrels sometimes put themselves in the nano category.

For Eric Surface, owner and brewer of Mt. Tabor Brewing in Vancouver, Washington, “nanobrewery” is less of a designation and more of an ethos. He started production in March 2010 and upgraded from one to seven barrels in October 2011. “Anything under 10 barrels should be considered nano,” says Surface, “It’s more craft-style because it’s a lot more hands-on.”

Wright’s concept is also very hands-on, inspired by Belgian farmhouse breweries that are producing sessionable (generally under 5 percent ABV) beers. Though Wright has expanded from his garage to a warehouse location, he still abides by his original small-scale ideology. And while he doesn’t self-identify as nano any longer, that intention carries over to the new digs. He admits that on the surface everything seems dramatically larger, but seven barrels is still small for a production brewery. (Mega-nano, anyone?)

“I still feel like we have a lot of the spirit [from] the garage carrying forward,” says Wright.

The tepid afternoon light creeping in the industrial-sized windows magnifies the size difference of the new Commons brewery. Housed in a recently redeveloped section of the Oregon Roofers Supply warehouse built in 1946 in SE Portland, it’s a leviathan-like 1,500 square feet compared to the tiny garage nanobrewery. It’s filled with fresh-off-the-line custom and locally built fermenters, jacketed cooling tanks, and a mash tun and kettle. Their stark silver juxtaposes the mottled and cracked multicolored concrete floor inlaid with river rocks. The bourbon, wine, and gin casks in the center of room fit right in with the post WWII building.

The polished metal and aged brick walls make for a comfortable industrial setting in the tasting room. Visitors are free to wander around the brew house, and Wright has noticed that they enjoy being among the kettle, tanks, and casks. “You can walk over to a fermentation tank and look at a clipboard with the recipe and our notes,” he says.

The Common’s tasting room has been busier than Wright anticipated, which is helping boost the nascent company’s bottom line. “To be able to sell a few beers at retail price out of the tasting room [which is much cheaper than going through a distributor] is great,” says Wright, “but certainly the best part is being able to interact with people who are interested in the beer.”

Wright is also keeping more of the profit by self-distributing. No easy task, especially lugging kegs to and from accounts. But it gives him a chance to sell his beer directly to proprietors and tell his story. He relishes in his complete control of the beer—from receiving the grain to delivering and picking up kegs and getting instant feedback from retailers. “This early on in the business I think having that intimate relationship with our customers is really important,” says Wright.

When asked about further brewery expansion Wright says, “We need to sell a lot of beer.”

Ale Alchemy

Farther down the West Coast, Patrick Horn and Bryan Hermannsson, the mad scientists behind San Francisco’s Pacific Brewing Laboratories, built their loyal following by giving away their homebrew at bi-weekly tastings in their garage brewing space. The informal get-togethers, originally for friends and family, turned into gatherings of 180 people, complete with food carts slinging snacks. With continued positive reactions of complete strangers, the duo realized they had built a strong consumer base and decided to turn their dreams of brewing professionally into a reality.

“We also realized there was a niche in the bay area beer scene for brewing unique styles of beer, and that’s what our passion is,” says Horn. Their initial commercial offerings include a Squid Ink IPA and Hibiscus Saison and they are doing their part to capitalize on the experimental beer market. They also don lab coats and safety glasses during tastings to play up the kitschy lab theme.

Once they investigated the financials behind operating such a small commercial operation, they figured out, as Wright did, that the input did not justify the output. So they leaped from a stovetop to sharing a 20-barrel system on an alternating proprietorship with Devil’s Canyon Brewing, who not only produce award-winning beers, but have also worked with other small breweries like Mill Valley Brewing Company and Triple Voodoo Brewing.

The monumental jump from 10 gallons to 20 barrels has Horn and Hermannsson double checking everything. “Dumping 20 barrels of beer is a horrifying prospect,” says Horn. With so much on the line, collaborating with more experienced brewers is one tactic they use to prevent catastrophic mistakes. They typically talk to brewers who have been around less than five years, as the initial frenzy of starting from scratch is still fresh in their minds. Horn has found that most brewers are willing to share their knowledge.

The next step for Horn and Hermannsson is joining the flurry of craft brewers canning beer by contracting with a brand new Bay Area business, The Can Van.

Craft Beer for Craft Business

In Vista, California, near San Diego, Mother Earth Brewing’s Dan Love and Kamron Khannakhjavani started with a one-barrel system. For 18 months they experimented with brewing and tested recipes with Lee Chase, Stone Brewing’s original head brewer. Soon, they had graduated to a three-barrel system. Three months later they knew it was too small. The demand for their beer spurred interest from Khannakhjavani’s father-in-law to invest, which helped them establish their current 10-barrel brewery and homebrew supply shop.

Having Chase as a consultant propelled their learning curve, as he imparted everything he possibly could from his fermentation education at UC Davis and near decade brewing at Stone. Now, Mother Earth beers are staples at San Diego’s bustling beer mecca Blind Lady Ale House, where Chase is a co-owner. “My gold medal is when [Blind Lady] orders six kegs a week from me and I get a text saying ‘I’m really enjoying your beer,’” says Love.

Letting the beer sell itself and creating demand through exclusivity have been Mother Earth’s primary marketing tools. Despite the expansion to a 10-barrel system, trying to maintain a balance of enough beer for their tasting room has forced them to cut back on wholesale accounts. Love and Khannakhjavani only sell their beer to bars that pour craft beer and if an establishment is pouring one of the big three (Coors, Miller, Bud), it’s a definite no-go. “As snobby as it sounds we decided we’re in a craft industry and we think we should just the support craft beer places,” says Love.

To help build demand and create anticipation they never brew a beer back to back. Digging into their 150-count recipe book—there are 20–30 beers they regularly brew—ensures the tasting room board changes constantly, creating a cult-like following for beers like their Cali Creamin’, a light cream ale brewed with Madagascar vanilla beans. “I’d like to say the anticipation of a release is like it is for Pliny the Younger, but it’s not. We don’t have people lining up,” says Love in reference to Russian River Brewing’s mania-inducing triple IPA.

But Mother Earth has more than just beer to offer. What started as the kid brother to the brewery—the onsite homebrew supply shop—is now a booming source of capital. According to Love, a pair of tasting room visitors might only have a couple tasters, but the average homebrew store sale is between $40 and $50. Perhaps this is because Mother Earth carries San Diego’s largest selection of hops, yeasts, and grains. “We haven’t even scratched the surface,” says Love of the store’s potential.

He and Khannakhjavani are moving the homebrew store to a downtown Vista storefront with a second taproom. This will free up room in the current location for a trio of 20-barrel fermenters. “It’s not about how big your brewhouse is, it’s about storage. If you have enough storage you can brew around the clock,” says Love.

They have also been in talks with a popular brewpub (Love couldn’t divulge the name) about a joint venture featuring all Mother Earth brews.

The Gastronome

Cody Morris, brewer, foodie, and self-proclaimed madman of Seattle’s Epic Ales is still nano, only upgrading from one to three and half barrels over the course of two years. Morris has built his reputation by churning out small batches of unconventional beers including the Otto-Optimizer, brewed with a powerhouse blend of Arabic style coffee and cardamom, and the Beatrice, which deftly pairs the pop of Szechuan peppercorn and cinnamon. Even his flagship witbier, Solar Trans Amplifier, is non-traditional—made with rice and ginger instead of wheat and coriander.

The reason for these off-the-wall concoctions? Food. Morris has a long history of tinkering with beer so it was only natural that he would question how barley brews paired with food. An experimenter since his early days of homebrewing in college and later working in a homebrew shop, Morris wasn’t content to stick with the standard stable of IPA, porter, pale ale, and stout to build his catalog. This notion led Morris to his discovery for making beers that are exceptionally food-friendly: yeast.

He uses a variety of yeast called Fuji which is traditionally used for sake brewing in northern Japan. “It really dries the [beer] out and adds a complex fruitiness along with cool umami earthy notes, and more importantly it lowers the pH a little more than the typical ale strains,” says Morris. Like wine, the higher acid content (lower pH) helps cleanse the palate and amplify the food flavors. Beer with more sugar demands attention from the brain, coats the palate, and makes it difficult to taste other flavors.

“A lot of people who aren’t super into beer don’t realize how much of a determining factor yeast is in flavor,” says Morris.

To implement his plan for pairing beer with food, Morris enlisted chef Travis Kukull to create dishes to complement his brews. In fact, the duo rolls out a new pairing every Saturday. On those days, Morris transports Epic from its cozy tasting room to an upstairs event space that’s equipped with a bar. And not just any bar, but a vintage faux sailing ship from the long defunct Pier 51 in Spokane, Washington, that curves stern to bow as a real one would.

The food and beer combinations allow for a real appreciation of the artistry and collaboration that goes into making the small-batch beers and plates. Morris knows these Saturday visitors tasting his beer in the context he intends are only a fraction of the people buying it. “It’s like watching a 3D movie without the glasses,” he says.

His solution to introducing more consumers to his foodie-minded beer is his new endeavor, Gastropod. Morris has moved his brewing equipment to a larger area in the back of the building, and has turned the current tasting room and former brewing space into a restaurant that features his beers alongside Kukull’s inspired dishes.

From Vagary to Vocation

For all of these nanobreweries, growth has been a matter of working smarter not harder. It takes the same amount of time to brew seven, 10, or 20 barrels as it does to brew a half-, one-, or three-barrel batch. Nanobrewing can easily be a self-sustaining hobby, but to turn it into a business capable of earning more than just covering costs, expansion is inevitable.

Brewing is also an artistic venture. Nanobreweries are able to experiment at will because of the low stakes and freedom to, well, brew whatever they want. And fervency has also driven these micro-magnates to success. Love puts it best, “You have to be passionate. It’s your business; you’re the one who’s going to clean the toilets, mop the floors, make the popcorn, and clean glasses. It’s not just about standing up on a [brew] system and pounding your chest and having awards pinned to you.”

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