The Nanobrewery Movement

Posted on Mar 31, 2010 in Special Events

So, to preface this post let’s get to the announcement first: TONIGHT!
7pm – E. Warren School House Market/Rootswork – I’m giving a talk entitled “On Brewing Excellence: Beer Hobbyist to Entrepreneur” and we’ll be sampling up some Liquids. The store will also be open and stock up (briefly!) on two varieties of Lawson’s for sale in bottles.

I’ve read a lot lately on the web and blogs about “Nanobreweries”. Heck, I didn’t even know *we* are a nanobrewery or that the term existed until about six months after we opened and people started calling us just that. At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was an insult or a compliment. Now I know that there is real movement out there, all across the US, of very small community-based breweries that make beer in tiny batches for their very local customers. What is ‘Nano’?Most people think the range is generally 10 gallons to 3 barrels – a barrel is an old English measure of beer and is 31 gallons, but its the industry standard for volume.

There are at least 35 nanobreweries in existence that have been listed on various websites, but I’d be willing to bet that there are more we don’t even know about. Here are a few lists on blogs and some nifty writing about them:
Hess Brewing Odessy
Trillium Brewing
What have other folks been saying? Well try any one of the gazillion blogs out there for some reading. Erik over at his blog wrote an intriguing piece on the movement and is interested in opening his own (nano?) brewery some day. To sum it up, he is fascinated by the idea, but daunted by the seemingly crazy idea of a potentially not-so-sound business model (a tiny brewery). He thinks that to succeed we must either be 1) independently wealthy or supported by a well-off partner; 2)”batshit crazy insane”; and/or 3) headed for a bankrupt future…us nano-brewers, that is. He raises some really good issues, and I can see that he really wants the idea to work. I agree with him on the ‘crazy’ part 🙂 – you’ve got to be a bit mad to quit a good full-time job to start your own business….*any* business. Nano-brewing can be a risky venture, and every “industry expert” will tell you NOT to start a production brewery that is smaller than 15 bbl (a brewery that packages and sells beer – no on-site brewpub). In the face of these challenges and odds, though there are now dozens of these tiny breweries making a go for it. Time will tell how successful we are, just like any business venture, lots will start and many will likely fail too. Fortunately the risks are much smaller with a nano-brewery than a full-scale production brewery, and your not going to rack up six or seven figures of debt in the process.
So, Erik’s post got me thinking in the right direction for the talk I have tonight. My response/comment to his post (below) sums up what I plan to talk about tonight (along with some background on my own history, the basics of the brewing process, and of course some banter about each of the styles of beer that I present.) So….please….read on! And thanks for visiting.
Hey Erik,
I’m fascinated with your fascination and enjoyed reading your post. We started our ‘nano’ in Vermont over two years ago, and it was big success right from the get-go. I think you’ve got it now, and had most of it in the first place. The people behind nano or really small breweries start out because they have the passion and desire to follow their dreams, with a mix of many of the reasons you listed. You’ve got to have some money to start, many of us keep some income stream on the side (part-time for me), we have spouses/partners/friends that help pull off the work or support the household, lots of us have little kids and brewing small close to home means more family time. We’re a little (or a lot) mad like crazy, we probably sleep less than your average person, and we work some wizardy AKA magic everytime we put together a mere collection of barely, hops, water and seasonings with that crafty little critter Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast cell, and turn it into this beautiful beverage we call beer. OK, so I’m romanticizing here. But, for me, it really is an act of creation, and people in small (and big) communities are very attracted to food/beverage/goods that are crafted locally by people they know.
Yes, there are the logistics and they are what will make or break your business. Like licensing, debt, cost of goods, sales price, volume of production and all that necessary but essential business work like marketing, sales, distribution, taxes, and so on. But I digress. The point is that if you make a quality beer it will sell itself. Nano or community-based breweries have a very engaging and local story that connects them to their customers and to retail and draft accounts. Our experience has been that people are willing to pay a lot more for a quality ‘local’ beer, one you have to come here to central Vermont to try or buy, and that they are willing to travel from all over to find us!
I brew two 1bbl batches each week and bottle about 1/3 and the rest goes into 5 gallon kegs for our draft accounts. We have five draft locations, one retail store (where 8+ cases sells out every week), plus I crank out a bit more into bottles for special events and farmers markets (where in VT you can sample and sell wine and beer directly as a manufacturer). In VT, you can self-distribute through a separate, licensed wholesaler (read: costs more but well worth it). Its just enough that I can manage the brewing and distribution all myself, with support (especially on the family front) from my amazing wife. We’re having a blast along with way, have garnered a really great following, and are poised to grow with a long list of accounts waiting to order the beer once we do. The lesson for me is to follow your dreams with a well thought-out, researched (and slightly crazy) plan AND make sure you put your quality of life measures first (how do you want to spend your time?). As my great friend Jeff “Sparks” Bercuvitz puts it – create yourself a “good life index” where you list, categorize, and prioritize all the “INGS” of your life (being with family, brewing, sleeping, etc.). If you can plan your life around those priorities AND open a nano brewery at the same time…, you’ve made it to beer nirvana!
Cheers! – Sean Lawson, Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Vermont

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