Some of the Best, Most Inventive Beers in America Are Brewed in Garages and Backyard Sheds

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Dec. 12 2012 5:19 PM

Pint Sized

How nanobreweries—fledgling operations in garages and backyard sheds—are revolutionizing the American beer industry.

Beer.
Nanobreweries are popping up around the country, boosted by America’s growing thirst for craft beer and evolving regulatory attitudes toward brewing

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.

That’s the path Dlugokencky chose and it appears to be working for him. He says he has far more demand for his beer than he can fulfill. In addition to the local bars and stores he supplies, Whole Foods has expressed interest. Now he is working on getting financing to fund an expansion that will cost around $450,000. He has warned his boss that he plans to eventually leave his day job in publishing.

Nanobreweries can succeed in today’s beer market in a way that would not have been possible just a few years ago because there was inadequate demand for the kind of beer nanobrewers tend to make. But as Americans have developed a taste for craft beer (and, generally, for locally-made products), restaurants and bars are looking for ever more original—and more local—offerings to keep their customers satisfied.

In this sense, nanobrewing is nourished by people like Jimmy Carbone, owner of Jimmy’s No. 43 in New York’s East Village. His beer menu is a constantly changing array of interesting offerings from around the world. And he has been an early supporter of many local nanobrewers.

On a recent night, his bartenders were pouring a tasty pale ale from Rockaway Brewing Company. When he can get his hands on it, his customers drain it quickly. Sipping a glass from the freshly tapped keg, he predicted it would be empty by the next day. A fan of the nanobrewing scene who always welcomes promising newcomers to his taps, Carbone is patient and understanding of their occasional difficulties meeting demand.

Nanobrewers are also benefiting from an increased awareness of small brewing’s economic potential. In addition to creating jobs, many craft brewers also stress the importance of using ingredients from local farmers, which can help regional agriculture. Long in the business of wooing wine tourists, more and more states are putting promotional effort behind encouraging brewery tourism.

To support small brewers, lawmakers are allowing self-distribution, direct sales to consumers, beer-tasting rooms, and approving other measures that make success more attainable at the nanobrewing scale. Many of the New York brewers I interviewed spoke enthusiastically about the efforts of the offices of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sen. Chuck Schumer. Government bureaucracies are not known for keeping on top of emerging trends, but even the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau addresses nanobrewing on its website.

Rockaway’s brewery is housed in a tiny slice of an industrial building in Queens. (It is not in the Rockaways, an area hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. The co-owners chose the name because of their connection to that waterfront community, where they spend a lot of time and brewed some of their first beers together.) Customers file in to get growlers—64-ounce glass jugs for taking draft beer home—filled with the latest offerings. In addition to the pale ale Carbone was pouring, a just-tapped stout is making its debut.

It only takes a few customers at a time to fill the diminutive space. But nobody seems to mind the cramped quarters. The beer is good and owners Ethan Long and Marcus Burnett are friendly. A turntable spins, scoring the mellow scene with Jimmy Cliff’s "You Can Get It If You Really Want." Burnett sings along, remarking that the perseverance celebrated in the lyrics is mandatory for nanobrewing success.

Long slides a heavy door open to show a couple visiting for the first time around the brewery equipment. A knee-high cauldron bubbles in a corner, a test batch. If all goes as planned, it will eventually become a scotch ale, a dark and hearty style of beer known for sweet malt flavor. The couple has never heard of nanobrewing, but they are quickly won over. Both speak glowingly about the beer and the intimate experience of buying a fresh product poured by the brewers themselves. They live around the corner and promise to return soon.

The growing number of potential customers like them is fueling the growth of nanobreweries nationwide. The Brewers Assocation, the trade group for small breweries, knows of about 300, though keeping up with them is not easy. Many fly under their radar or are in the planning stages. The Association has also declined to provide an official definition of what constitutes a nanobrewery. (Nano is the term that has stuck, but a few brewers well-versed in metric prefixes style themselves as picobrewers or bucket brewers.) A widely, though not universally, accepted definition is a brewery utilizing a three-barrel brewing system or smaller. And as anyone who has winced through a friend’s icky homebrew while struggling to generate a compliment knows, not everyone has what it takes to be a great brewmaster. Some nanobreweries don’t last long.

Though only a handful of these small businesses will rise to greater heights, nanobreweries are making an important contribution to the beer world. Nanobrewers work on the frontiers of brewing, and as such provide new ideas and inspiration to larger brewers. For all his success with Dogfish Head, Calagione hasn’t forgotten his nano roots. His company still brews nano-scale experimental batches and puts them on tap at the Dogfish brewpub in Rehoboth Beach to see how drinkers respond. Those that do well are made in quantity.

Lacking a marketing budget, nanobreweries rely on word of mouth and supportive beer sellers to find their audience. Hess Brewing, a nanobrewery in the craft beer hotbed of San Diego, has tried to help connect drinkers with nanobreweries by listing the ones it knows about. The guide is understandably uncomprehensive, but is well worth a look. It takes extra effort and some patience to find and patronize a nanobrewery, but the search pays off with the opportunity to taste pioneering beer from innovative brewers who now have a way to bring their beers to a wider audience.

Mark Garrison also reported on nanobrewing for the public radio program Marketplace. Listen to the audio companion story here:

Mark Garrison is a reporter for the public radio program Marketplace. Follow him on Twitter @GarrisonMark.