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

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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12 thoughts on “When Size Matters: A Few Thoughts On Nano-brewing…

  1. This article screams pretentious.
    You think that a particular nano has quality issues? Don’t drink it! And what about full scale “professional” micro breweries that crank out beer that I don’t like. Should we degrade them as well?
    If so called “fan boys” want to spend their money on beer from a nano, so what? Maybe micros should get on board with craft drinkers desire to try new things, lots of new things.
    You aren’t sold on the concept? Who cares? Relax, don’t worry– have a nano brew.

    1. Hi Adam-

      Yours is a pretty typical response by a craft beer enthusiast, which suggests that if you don’t like something, just keep quiet and don’t buy it again. As you’re undoubtedly aware, however, I’m not just a craft beer enthusiast but a professional commenter and columnist covering the beer industry. It’s part of my job to spot and comment on trends. According to your logic, if someone is willing to pay me for my views, so what? If you don’t like reading them, don’t. Of course, I think this viewpoint is maddeningly simple but that’s my opinion.



      1. I support your right to an opinion and a right to comment.
        Your problem with nano seems to be two-fold; Nano will negatively affect market prices. Nano may produce off beer(which will turn would be craft fans off).
        Both of these arguments can be said of Microbrews. Look at Bottles like Infintium(sp?) from BBC or even Tactical Nuclear Polar Bear or whatever the hell it is.
        Yes, nano makes it easier for the novice to get knee deep in it. My point is, that is a marvelous thing. We couldn’t have asked for more.

  2. Andy,
    I wrote out a lengthy comment which I lost when I tried to submit it so I’ll just share my final sentence.

    If these nanos are so damaging to the industry how do (artificial) barriers to entry HELP the industry?

  3. When things are small, have an immature and yet to be proven business model, break the price curve, make you wary, are not consistent to your liking, and are niche driven… this worries you to the point of it maybe wrecking the brewing establishment? And you attribute this to a homebrewer pedigree?

    That sounds like every great brewer in the late 70’s to 80’s that began the movement.

  4. and no. I’m not making any nano brewers candidates for the next Mount Beermore. But you must admit that they are responding to a perception about the market, one most beer writers haven’t been able to figure out yet.

      1. You are not thick. It was a lazy comment on my part.

        I don’t think that the rise in nano breweries can simply be attributed to homebrewers living the dream or fanbois seeking some exclusive level of hipsterism. I think brewers and enthusiasts are looking for something different in the market, something more local, tangible and personal.

        I’m going to walk a fine line here with some purists that feel that the beer’s flavor is the end-all and dabble in a little market-speak but here goes.

        Yes. The beer has to be good. Sierra Nevada is good. Stone is good. You may argue great. But some people want good and great in their neighborhood. They want to know more about the brewery and the brewer than what’s on a website. They want to be in a place where they feel more of a connection to the process, the culture and the beer. The product isn’t just the beer, the entire experience is the beer. That’s not how you or Alan may look at it, but a growing number do.

        To the nanoist (hey Stan invented decoctionist) Dogfish and Stone are large, impersonal and industrial. Nano represents something simple, transparent and do-able in the diy punk aesthetic.

        Where do I fall on this? Somewhere in between what you said and what I just described.

        Haven’t been able to figure it out but I am drawn by it’s passion.

  5. I think more important than the personal/impersonal nature of local breweries is the issue of freshness.

    I’ve been out to Stone in San Diego and their beer is absolutely tremendous. But here in CT, the Stone IPA we get is, more often than not, flabby and a little bland. The best beers we consistently get in CT come from our local micros, namely New England Brew Co and Captain Lawrence. A little bigger, and a little father away, Southern Tier, Ithaca, and Blue Point all do a nice job of putting fresh beer in the local bars and packies. This is extremely important to me. I would much rather have a fresh, perfectly cared for “A-” Blue Point Hoptical Illusion than a 4 month old “A+” Stone IPA. The difference in taste cannot be overstated.

    And this is even more important for the session ales that are the antithesis of the “big boozy hop bomb” that this article chastises.

    Imagine- you go to a bar, and on tap are two 4% ABV dry hopped English style bitters. Which is the perfect pint? The one that comes from a guy down the street brewing 10 bbl a year, or the one from Stone/Sierra/Rogue from the other side of the country?

  6. None of your “worries” are specific to nano-breweries.

    1) nano-brewed beer can be expensive
    So can certain bottles of Mikkeller or Sam Adams.

    2) nano-brewed beer may have quality and consistency issues
    I’ve had bad craft beer plenty of times. And my favorite beer in the world, Avery’s Maharaja, is wildly different from batch to batch.

    3) nano-breweeries will make “huge” beers to mask the quality issues
    There are plenty of “big” craft beers that, while I can’t be certain that they’re masking something, are still not very enjoyable.

    4) poorly made nano-brew will reflect poorly on the industry
    Really? Will it do as much damage as the macros do?

    Anyway. I’m not saying that nano-brewing is or should be above criticism. I’m saying that you haven’t presented any compelling arguments to support your nano-specific worries.

  7. Andy, glad you posted this article with a chance to comment. I’ve been in two minds about this since reading it in BA Mag #46.

    I think “When Size Matters” would work better as “When Investment Matters”. Most home brewers make OK beer, some make terrible beer, and a rare few, rarely make world class beer. No matter how well Marie Callender churns out meat pies, there will always be a home cooked version that turns out better (but not always). The problem with Nanos is not necessarily the size (or skill set) but the impossible shoe string budget that these things are typically launched on. I agree that this is a problem and will impact the quality of the end product.

    I think the suggestion that a “professional” can make better beer than an “impassioned amateur” is what really raises the heckles. There are plenty of professionals that make lousy beer. The truly successful brewers are always impassioned, and they always start as armatures and then become professional. Is there an exception?

    Nano is a phenomenon today because large home brew systems and tiny commercial systems are starting to cross over. What was once considered an impossible jump now appears to be in reach. But, there is still a way to go. Nanos forgo temperature controlled fermentation for specialized yeast strains. These have limited scope and lead to inconsistent results (given the typically ambitious style agenda). Add in some wild yeast experiments and soon the “house yeast” is the kind of disaster you may find at the bottom of a “Mr Beer” kit.

    Perhaps the biggest culprit to the validation by the clueless consumer. Unmoderated beer rating websites propagate the kind of enthusiasm that made bean bag toy worth thousands. Scarcity will drive any collector to appreciate the rare, irrelevant of quality. The value is in not opening the bottle!

    I am optimistic about Nanos. A new era of horrendous beer is here, but with it will come a rare and welcomed success. I doubt three dozen bottles will concern a regional craft brewer would can drown it in 3+ million more per year. Sometimes dreams do come true (but not always).

  8. Andy many Nano’s have become Micros like White Birch in New Hampshire that recently upgraded to a 7 Barrel system and some exist just to serve a local market like Lawsons Finest (the small New England brewery that runs out ).

    Nano breweries are a good way for brewers to start a small bussiness without a huge initial investment and can be run as a family business or second job . Microbreweries need at least a 1/4 of a million dollars just for startup costs with a Nonobrewery you can invest about $30,000 for startup costs this makes it easier for the industry to grow and makes investors and banks more likley to invest is the startup costs are low .

    Sure many Nanobreweries will fail but so have microbreweries and many people have lost money with them .

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