NANOBREWERIES – The Golden Age of Beer

By Grace Yek, February 28, 2013

Zy·mur·gy. If you think it is yet another grim economic forecast, don’t worry. It is ironically the impetus that is bringing on a new growth spurt of entrepreneurs. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines zymurgy as “a branch of applied chemistry that deals with fermentation processes (as in wine making or brewing).” For all the beer lovers out there, what a divine branch of applied chemistry it is.

So what is beer exactly? The connoisseur can sniff beer out from a mile away and carry on a 10-minute monologue about the intricacies of flavor and beer-making. The state of Ohio poetically tags beer as “all beverages brewed or fermented wholly or in part from malt products and containing one-half of one per cent or more, but not more than twelve per cent, of alcohol by volume.” Beer is fundamentally the fermented product of barley, water, hops and yeast. But it’s not a simple matter of adding the right amount of each ingredient – it is a complex series of biochemical reactions with each ingredient having its own complexity. Barley is first malted, a process that involves the germination and drying of the grain. Yeast can be top-fermenting (ale) or bottom-fermenting (lager). There are many varieties of hops (the flower of the hop vine) – which is incidentally related to the hemp family of which marijuana is a member– each with its own personality of bitterness, aroma and flavor. And then there is the fermentation time and temperature.

It is exactly this complexity in the making of beer that leaves room for creativity – an open invitation to culinary and entrepreneurial daredevils. How does jalapeno beer sound? That’s Dogfish Head Company’s El Diablo Verde craft beer, one of its popular sellers. How about throwing in unconventional ingredients like rhubarb, saffron, orange blossoms, seaweed, chocolate and coffee? Beer-brewing is rapidly becoming a mainstream hobby, thanks to the rising culinary curiosity and romance of small-batch artisanal products. Home garages and basements have become the latest laboratories for the budding brew master.

What if your adoring dinner guests and friends started paying for your one-of-a-kind beer? Maybe you could amass other paying customers if they could only try your beer. Enter the nanobrewery. The garage brewery story is often the starting point of nanobreweries, the hobbyist’s entry point into the commercial market. And yes, most of them keep their day jobs, at least in the beginning. This was how Hess Brewery, Trillium Brewery and Dogfish Head Company got their start.

But what is a nanobrewery? Think microbrewery but smaller. The equipment can be anywhere from a 0.5 barrel to 5 barrel brewing system (1 beer barrel = 31 gallons) and should fit in a small space, like the garage. The truth be told, there is no legal or strict definition of a nanobrewery. It is more of a cultural state of mind, with the general expectation that a nanobrewery makes exotic, high quality small batches of beer – “mom and pop” style. Not unlike microbreweries, nanobreweries market themselves through personal storytelling, blogging and participating in beer fests.

As far as the government is concerned, there is no distinction between nanobreweries (such as 508 Gastrobrewery and Bierkraft), microbreweries (such as MadTree, Christian Moerlein and Fifty West) and macrobreweries (the “big boys” such as Anheuser-Busch). In order to be in business, each has to obtain a permit to manufacture ale – in Ohio, that’s a $3960 permit from the Ohio Division of Liquor Control. Whenever beer is produced for sale, whether from the manufacturing plant floor or from your home, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) insists that you pay Federal excise tax. Other requirements include bond coverage, proper product labeling including government warning labels about alcohol. You will also need to get the approval of the Health Department since your garage is now a food processing facility. And then some.

Nanobreweries that gain commercial success face the inevitable challenge of staying small. Demand for their beer often pushes these nanobreweries to expand, and take the plunge from a five-figure to six-figure investment. This is the point where many entrepreneurs quit their day jobs and get serious about raising money. Paul Dlugokencky of Blind Bat Brewery, a Delaware-based brewery, started producing 1/3 barrel (10 gallon) batches in 2008 and has incrementally expanded over the years to meet demand. The brewery has stated that it will leave its nanobrewery status to join the league of larger brewers within a year.

Nanobrewers are not only getting the attention of the fans but also of the lawmakers. Lawmakers understand the potential economic impact of these operations –from creating jobs to supporting the local economy. Local brewers tend to buy from local farmers, thus supporting local agriculture.

Josh Treadway, the General Manager at the Senate Restaurant, observes that the current demand for locally crafted beer is “hot.” There is a collective awareness to buy local, and restaurants are doing their part to support the smaller local breweries by having a “rotating tap.” The rotating tap features various local beer, and at the Senate Restaurant, it has included products from MadTree Brewing and Blank Slate.

Small-batch craft beer has generated such a buzz that bigger brewery conglomerates are taking notice. Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione cautions consumers about bigger producers turning out faux craft beer like Shocktop, Blue Moon or Goose Island to mimic genuine craft beer from independent breweries.

The rapid emergence of nanobreweries has redefined the standards of craft beer. Good just doesn’t cut it anymore. It has to be bold, smoky, spicy, “hoppy,” citrusy, sour, fruity, one-of-a kind and more. If you just want to drink good beer, you are in for a treat. Are these many breweries sustainable in the long run? We may witness zymurgical Darwinism play out but the verdict is still out there.

Grace Yek is an Assistant Professor in Culinary Arts and Science at the University of Cincinnati. She is active in the OVIFT and enjoys writing in her free time.

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