When Size Matters: A Few Thoughts On Nano-brewing…

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Homebrewers call it “living the dream.” Newspapers herald “the next wave of craft brewing” in their food and beverage sections. From tiny garages to converted basement rec rooms and closet sized industrial spaces, a new trend is emerging in the world of American craft beer. And it worries me.

For the times that micro just isn’t small enough, I present for you, the nano-brewery. No solid definition exists as to exactly how small a brewery has to be to qualify as nano, but the practice has grown sufficiently popular as to attract the attention of federal regulators. The Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) recently issued a friendly reminder to homebrewers looking to go pro that their efforts lose tax exempt status after 100 gallons if production per year. Unofficial designations suggest systems of one-half to two barrels in size qualify as nano. Simply put, we’re talking about an infinitesimal amount of beer, basically a supped up home brewing operation.

But what the nanos lack in size, they’re more than making up for in numbers, with more than fifty opening in the last two years, and another several dozen in development around the country. Despite their professional appearances, these nano-brewers can’t afford to quit their day jobs but they are making some brewers concerned for theirs.

While the nanos produce beer only thirty or so gallons at a time, their beers command substantial premiums in the marketplace. One New England nano has released as few as three dozen bottles per batch, leading stores and consumers to clamor for the seemingly limited edition beers, with prices exceeding twenty bucks a bottle. With these beers increasingly populating store shelves, some brewers have concerns about the artificial inflation of prices that may follow in their wake.

Beyond pricing issues, I have to admit some personal wariness over the quality of the many nano beers that I have sampled over the last year. While our industry lives the maxim that small is beautiful, there may be such a thing as being too small. With size comes a need for consistency and solid processes, challenges that many nanos have never really addressed. To distinguish themselves from other craft brewers and in celebration of the freedom accompanying their diminutive stature, many nanos instead choose to brew beers whose assertiveness borders on the caustic. Often big, boozy or hop bomb in character, these Pollock-esque offerings provide not ready for prime-time players plenty of cover to hide brewing flaws that would otherwise smack consumers in the face.

But as craft beer drinkers become more savvy, poorly produced beers from any brewery can give craft beer everywhere a bad name. It’s like the mid-nineties all over again, just in reverse, where the threat comes from well-meaning homebrewers instead of cash hungry businessmen.

The nano brewing phenomenon has also fueled a certain level of craft beer fan boyism, preaching a love of the limited, a worship of rarity for its own sake, that I believe damages craft beer. With blinders on, these yes men encourage under-performing nanos to continue making poor beer. But with such small batch sizes and a built-in fan base, these bad breweries have no incentive to dump an off-beer.

With all of this said, many great breweries, including Dogfish Head, started on an extremely small scale and there are many nanos that make quality beers. But as with many homebrews, there is no replacing professionally brewed beers. The introduction of fresh, energized talent into the craft brewing scene is certainly exciting. I’m just not sold on the concept or products the nanos represent just yet. Getting into the craft brewing business should be hard and not every homebrewer has what it takes to go pro. It’s a good thing that dreams don’t always come true.

–Article appeared in Issue 46 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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