The world of beer is a fairly vast playground for the hairsplitter—rife with rules and well-defined classifications of what is and isn’t acceptable per the prescribed. With any art, there comes the inevitable critic. And with the introduction of the critic, marginalization, categorization, and occasional deification blossom like bloodstained thorn bushes between beer and beer drinker. I could go into rankings that influence market decisions and alcoholic bloggers celebrating unbalanced beers that get you drunk quick, but the world of definition certainly has its place and benefits.
Stepping out of style and into the brewery itself, a lot of work has been taken by state governments to classify what is and isn’t a microbrewery. Within the last decade, there’s also been another push: to define the nanobrewery.
Nanobreweries are small…very small…nanoscopic in comparison to macrobreweries. I bet that’s where they get their name. You may have heard of the differences between a craft brewery and a microbrewery and a nanobrewery and a picobrewery. For most applications, I don’t see the need for so many distinctions, so I’m essentially grouping microbrewery and craft brewery as one item and nanobrewery and picobrewery as another. These categories may have credence in the brewer’s world, but to the beer drinker, pedants gonna pedant.
Microbreweries distinguish themselves from macrobreweries in several ways, the most notable being overall volume produced annually. Typically, no more than 15,000 barrels, though some bigger facilities do much, much more—New Glarus Brewing Company generally pushing 200,000.
To the beer enthusiast, do you experience any difference in purchasing and tasting Two Women from New Glarus Brewing Company versus Lost Camper from Door County Brewing? To me, they’re both excellent iterations of a Helles Lager. Now consider buying a Helles Lager from a facility that maybe has a bomber available at the local liquor store or a guest tap at a nearby bar, but does most of its distribution in house from pint to mouth. This is the distinction I think matters more to the drinker—one with a genuine thrill of discovery and an intimacy fundamental to overall satisfaction.
A nanobrewery tends to be limited to around 2,000 barrels a year, but oftentimes doesn’t break a couple hundred. I tend to think of nanobrewing as being one step above homebrewing and several steps below microbrewing. In fact, most homebrewers can walk into a nanobrewery and feel at home with the equipment and process.
But the differences aren’t just apparent to the homebrewer. The overall feel of the brewing side of the establishment is often barebones, like being in a farm-to-table restaurant. There’s nothing superimposing itself to awe patrons and split focus between the beer and the facility. To be clear, I’m not saying it’s better, just different.
Martin McNally of Right Bauer Brewing discusses the perks from the brewing side of running a nanobrewery. “The reason I did it is to do a lot more experimentation and then adjust our recipes. Selling it by the pint in a taphouse, we get that instant feedback.” It’s true that a lot of bigger breweries run small experimental batches, but there’s an expectation of perfection from the drinker right off the bat. With a nanobrewery, you almost feel like you’re in on the discussion about tweaks to try next time. You’re tasting a more unadulterated process.
Any brewer will agree that brewing the same thing twice is one of the hardest aspects of brewing. Scale aside, consistency is always important, but to drink a beer five years ago and have it taste exactly the same today as it did back then is something consumers expect from the macros. This dead horse I’ve dragged into many of my articles manages to take a breath in the world of nanobrewing because, here, there’s an expectation of evolution.
“Eventually I’d like to get there,” says Martin, “where my recipes are dialed in exactly how I want them, but this allows me to keep brewing them over and over and making adjustments.” There’s a practical component too. “I’m not sitting on 90 barrels of what I brewed, I’m sitting on maybe a few weeks of it. And then it’s gone, and I’m on to the next thing.” Which is probably the one thing beer drinkers want from a nanobrewery: variety.
A nanobrewery that just focuses on one or two beers might not do too well in an environment like the Greater Madison area, filled with everything the world of beer has to offer. If I want something true to style, I tend to favor those who’ve proven themselves time and time again. That said, I’m writing this during Oktoberfest season, and Right Bauer has a fantastic interpretation. But then they also have their Peanut Butter Porter and a Blackberry Sour. Being a nanobrewery, Martin says, “You’re just a little more agile, and you can change things up completely.” You’re also a bit of a local favorite and define the block you’re on.
For the brewer, a nanobrewery also provides many logical advantages. The upfront cost is lower, and if the time comes where you’re ready to expand, you have a degree of freedom in making the decision based on what you’ve learned because you’re not beholden to a space and a system, let alone a mountain of debt.
For the beer drinker, a nanobrewery is an opportunity to directly influence the creation and development of probably the closest thing there is to a grassroots brewery. Just being a regular patron at something smaller in scale amplifies your voice. Every purchase you make is a declaration of value, and the impact is immediate. If you live near a nanobrewery and you dig what they’re doing, frequenting their establishment gives them the opportunity to grow and become something of a staple in your community.
I believe many beer drinkers go out of their way to find and support the breweries that speak to them. But, beer drinker or not, if you like what a nanobrewery brings to your area, remember that they live and die by your continued patronage.
To those bold enough to take a leap; may us fools always be in abundance to prop them up.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.