From 'nanos' big breweries grow




Something is brewing in a nondescript white commercial building on the edge of Beaver Falls.

Something very small.

It's a nanobrewery.

You've heard of a microbrewery?

A nanobrewery makes a microbrewery seem huge.

This one, Beaver Brewing Co., has a top brewing capacity of 1.5 barrels of beer. That is, at one time, it can brew about one barrel -- 31 gallons.

"To my knowledge, it is by far the smallest in the state," says Dan Woodske, the man behind this classic nano -- one person, part-time -- operation. He believes his would qualify as the smallest brewery in the country last year: Licensed in December, he was able to do just one brew, for a 2010 production of one barrel.

But by the end of January, he was selling two brews to several area watering holes, and he's finding it hard to keep up with demand.

On March 9, he and his brews debut in the relative big time, as they star in a weekly 6 p.m. tasting at Bocktown Beer & Grill in North Fayette.

And Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., he's starting to sell gallon jugs, or growlers, right out of his little brewery, which he hopes to do once a month.

He had to make sure he'd made enough beer. He does everything himself and by hand, including delivering the sixtel kegs in his yellow Jeep. He even makes the tap handles, using unfinished chair legs.

But he doesn't have a lot of overhead: He's renting this former pizza shop from his father-in-law for $1 a month. "I kinda did it this way to figure out what the hell I'm doing," he says. "I call it my graduate degree."

Other little operations are brewing in basements and other spaces all around the country, as nanobreweries are popping up everywhere.

There are several other nanobreweries in Pennsylvania, including a couple at this end. Milkman Brewing (milkmanbrewing.com) is a collective of several brewers that was founded by Chris Momberger, who also co-founded the Pittsburgh Marshmallow Factory that sells its wares at the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District.

Milkman has brewed five brews especially for a pair of 6:30 p.m. beer dinners at the Evolution Grille in Sarver, on March 14 and 21. The five will be poured with five courses for $39 a person or $75 a couple (evolutiongrille.com and 724-294-2088).

"We met and gave them our menu, and from there they are creating beer from local ingredients," said the restaurant's Courtney Barbiaux, who's husband, Michael, is the chef.

Customers will be able to meet at least some of the Pittsburgh brewers -- Jamie Rice, Justin Waters and Kyle Branigan -- and perhaps Mr. Waters' wife, Praise, who helps out.

"We aspire to be a nanobrewery," says Mr. Waters, explaining that because it's not yet licensed, Milkman cannot sell its brews, so it's been giving them away, to build some buzz.

So far they've brewed -- mostly 5-gallon batches -- at various area restaurants and homes, but have been looking for a permanent location, including at an old dairy that inspired their name. That and the fact that breweries are allowed to distribute their own products.

In the meantime, they all have day jobs. Mr. Waters, 27, works Downtown as an engineer. So does Mr. Rice, who's 31. Both dream of having their own brewpubs. This is a low-risk way to start on that path -- "baby steps," as Mr. Waters puts it.

There are several other little operations brewing in the region. In Indiana Township, Matthew Gouwens is doing market research, finishing up a business plan and looking for investors in his Hop Yard Brewing Co. (hopyardbrewingcompany.com). His plan is to brew with hops he grows himself and to put most of the beer into cans. Meanwhile, he's got two children under age 3 and a day job as webmaster and content manager for a Downtown software company. Having been homebrewing for a decade and having studied and apprenticed as a brewer, he's now test brewing half-barrel batches, so he likes to call himself a "pico brewery" -- one even smaller than a nano. Once he gets his license, "We will definitely be nano for at least the first year."

In Mt. Pleasant, Westmoreland County, Helltown Brewing is said to be picking up steam (but I could not reach anyone there for this story).

Being so small, nanobreweries can be crazy creative. Milkman won the most attendee votes at December's Pittsburgh Rugby Club Brewfest with its Pitt City Peppermint Porter, which was served with a "dark and bitter porter" during a memorial show for punk rocker Bobby Porter at Polish Hill's Rock Room.

For the upcoming dinners, Mr. Waters and Mr. Rice say, they plan to serve an imperial IPA aged on oak chips soaked in Jameson Irish Whiskey, an imperial red ale, a spiced cream ale, a wheat beer brewed with pear and honey, and a dry stout paired with stout ice cream.

Mr. Woodske at Beaver Brewing started out with "I.Porter.A," which is his dark take on a typically hoppy IPA. His other main beer: Chamomile Wheat, brewed with chamomile flowers and cracked wheat. His latest is brewed with basil leaves (it's amber, not green, and very subtly basil-y).

He's experimented with even wilder brews, including a banana split porter. "I've had flavors from black olives to, like, beef. Old beef."

But like the folks at Milkman, he figures the last thing the world needs is another straight amber ale or pale ale. "I want to make people say, 'I can't get this anywhere else.'"

Mr. Woodske, who's 30, married and lives in nearby Chippewa, has a "9-to-5" job doing sales and marketing for a construction firm in Mercer County. He's done everything from communications for former state representative Mike Veon to a stint as Mt. Lebanon's commercial districts manager. He only started homebrewing last year, with an eye towards starting this side business, which he dreams of growing into a much bigger, full-time one.

Many share that dream.

The Colorado-based Brewers Association cited nanobreweries as a big trend last year, and as a way that some homebrewers were going pro. The trade group doesn't define a nanobrewer as making only up to a certain amount of beer. In the glossary section of his recent fourth edition of "Pennsylvania Breweries," Lew Bryson defines one as "a really tiny production brewery... I've set my own arbitrary top limit of a 100-gallon brew size, about 3 barrels. Almost all nanobreweries are one- or two-person operations that are not their owner's primary employment." He adds: "A small brew size in a brewpub is just a small brewpub."

By comparison, a "microbrewer" traditionally was defined as producing fewer than 15,000 barrels per year.

In an article just published on the Brewers Association's craftbeer.com site, John Holl notes that nanobreweries, "sometimes referred to as pico breweries, or bucket breweries," don't even aim to grow big in size and distribution range. Some established brewers are starting nano operations as ways to carefully expand into other markets, try different things, and/or just have fun. He cites the Coney Island brewhouse of Jeremy Cowan, the proprietor of Shmaltz Brewing Co., whose He'Brew beers are contract brewed. The Coney Island spot, which opened last summer (making funnel cake beer and candy apple ale) and will reopen this summer, brews just one-eighth of a barrel at a time.

Among "nano-breweries to watch" at the end of the article is Boxcar Brewing Co., started by two cousins in 2008 in West Chester, Pa. (boxcarbrewingcompany.com).

Michael Skubic, of Hess Brewing Co., "San Diego's first licensed nano-brewery," keeps a list of other nanos on its blog, hessbrewing.blogspot.com. As of the end of February, he was tracking 54 in operation and 39 in planning (including Saint Benjamin Brewing Co. in Philadelphia).

"It does appear to be a trend with no clear end in sight," he says, noting that "there are probably dozens more of active 'nano' breweries that I have not found yet."

Of course some little breweries don't stay little for long. Since Mr. Skubic started "The Great Nanobrewery List: From CA to MA" a year and a half ago, he's seen numerous ones outgrow his three-barrel definition of a nano.

Up in Erie, little Lavery Brewing Co. was started by homebrewer Jason Lavery in an even more unusual way. He started brewing last year using the equipment at the Brewerie brewpub there on Sundays, when it was closed, and an "alternating proprietorship" license, which he found out about from Brewers Association. He and partner Jason Lynch just took over an 80-year-old building and bought a Belgian brewhouse and hope to be brewing and open there by June, and selling beer in Pittsburgh this summer, too (laverybrewing.com). Lavery is probably bigger than a nano, in that it brews about 400 gallons a month (around 180 cases). Beaver Brewing Co. would have to brew 13 times every month to match that.

But, e-mails Mr. Lavery, "I do love nanos and I say the more the merrier. We have plans and invitations to help other guys who want to start breweries. We have some excess space and if someone wants to brew some really innovative ales, we'll def help them out, the same way people helped us."


Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930. First Published March 3, 2011 5:00 AM




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