How nanobreweries—fledgling operations in garages and backyard sheds—are revolutionizing the American beer industry.
Photograph by Ron Chapple/Comstock.
Brewery tours are often pretty brief. Guides know the audience will only wait so long before the promised beer tasting at the end. But I have never taken a brewery tour quite as short as the one brewmaster Paul Dlugokencky gave me of Blind Bat Brewery. It took about 30 seconds.
His brewery is in a cramped garage behind his Long Island home; it’s about 70 square feet, though it feels even smaller, packed as it is with tall steel brewing equipment, kegs, and sacks of grain Dlugokencky will use to make the beers that are building his reputation as a brewer.
Blind Bat is a nanobrewery, commercial beer making in its most compact form. Similar operations are popping up around the country, their emergence boosted by America’s growing thirst for craft beer and evolving regulatory attitudes toward brewing. Nanobrewing provides an opportunity for skilled homebrewers to dip a toe into the commercial market, without having to find investors or take on crushing debt to secure the kind of funding required to start a microbrewery or brew pub.
Nanobrewing is great for drinkers, too. The brewers’ small scale affords them an unusual degree of freedom to experiment. Smaller batches mean less risk; a high-concept beer that turns out badly is still a disappointment, but doesn’t blow a hole in a business plan. As a result, nanobrewers create some of the most intriguing and original beers on the market.
Dlugokencky’s story is typical. Brewing beer begins as a hobby. Friends praise the homebrews and clamor for more. The idea of going pro and quitting the day job tempts. But launching a microbrewery requires a mid-six-figure sum. Without independent wealth or deep-pocketed backers, the entrepreneurial fantasy ends there.
But a nanobrewery can get off the ground with a five-figure outlay. That’s real money and real risk, but it’s attainable for someone with passion and modest resources. In Dlugokencky’s case, he took a loan against his retirement for about $40,000 to upgrade his homebrewing kit into a system capable of producing three barrels of beer at a time. (A barrel is 31 gallons, or two kegs.) He handles the distribution—to bars, restaurants, and stores—himself.
At a time when some craft brewers seem locked in a race toward ultimate bitterness through massive doses of hops, Dlugokencky focuses on the malt side of brewing. He personally smokes the ingredients of some of his beers, giving them a robust, savory flavor. The honey basil beer he originally made as an experiment sounds gimmicky, but it proved such a hit that he put it into production. Dlugokencky also makes a mostly forgotten style of beer called Grodziskie, a smoked wheat ale with roots in Poland. It’s a nod to the brewmaster’s heritage, evident in all the sturdy consonants of his surname (pronounced duh-LOO-go-KEN-skee).
Despite the unusual ingredients, Blind Bat is finding an audience. When I visited his brewery recently, he had just sold every last bottle in stock on an especially busy day at a nearby farmers market. Nanobreweries typically lack reserve capacity, so meeting demand can be a challenge once their beers start to get attention.
Asked about their biggest dreams, many nanobrewers point to Dogfish Head, the Delaware-based craft brewer that is on pace to make more than 200,000 barrels of beer in 2013. The company has found commercial and critical success, but its roots are modest. Founder Sam Calagione likes to say Dogfish was “nano before nano was cool.” The term was not widely used at the time, but the 10-gallon brewing system Calagione used in 1995 would meet any contemporary definition of nanobrewing. He kept a mattress near his brewing setup so he could tend the kettles around the clock when needed.
Calagione often meets nanobrewers and has mentored those seeking to grow. He sees their products as “liquid business cards,” proof that they can make great beer and a tool to get the kind of investment backing they will need to scale up. In this way, nanobrewing provides brewmasters the same kind of opportunity that YouTube provides filmmakers: a chance to skip the established hierarchy and take their creation directly to the audience. Instead of slogging away for a year begging banks and potential investors for money, nanobrewers can proceed directly to making beer and sharing it, which in turn allows them to build a following. When they establish demand, they’re in a much stronger position to access investors.