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Everlasting Hype: The Enduring Appeal of Nano Breweries

In 2019, I had to trek out to Red Hook, Brooklyn, to get my hands on a can of beer from the coveted Other Half brewery. There was a vague sense of adventure, but it was expensive, ate up a lot of time, and was essentially a royal pain in the ass. Fast forward to 2022, and I’m buying a 4-pack of Other Half’s latest hazy at a grocery store in Austin, Texas. What the hell happened?

Well, the pandemic did. 2020 saw most craft breweries, like Other Half, start to distribute the beers that they once held near and dear to their taprooms. It was a crucial business decision, and it saved many breweries from going belly up. It also had another effect: crushing some of the hype and line culture that those producers thrived on.

However, for the breweries small enough to fit the description of “nano brewery,” the pandemic didn’t pose as many hurdles. While big breweries moved like aircraft carriers through Covid’s high seas, nano breweries were the jet skis, navigating the changing tides with relative ease. Whether this was thanks to unconventional marketing tactics, minimal overheads, or the lack of reliance on taprooms, nanos have remained more or less unscathed — even in the most trying modern period for craft beer.

The Beer Has to Be Really F*cking Good

As the name suggests, a nano brewery is a small microbrewery, but no two nano breweries have identical business models. The Brewers Association, the United States’ authority on beer, doesn’t even recognize nanos as an official category. “We don’t have a specific definition,” says Bart Watson, the organization’s chief economist. “Some people define it by total production output. Some go by brewhouse size, and most nanos self-distribute their beer. Some don’t even have a taproom.” In other words, nanos are basically one step up from a homebrewing operation and are the smallest examples of businesses that can legally produce beer for sale.

When a brewery produces small batches of beer, it has the freedom to be less conventional, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the nano landscape. “Small batches mean we can experiment a lot more and have the freedom to dump batches if things don’t go as planned, which happens all the time,” says Tim Crook, co-founder of Nebuleus, a nano brewery in Portland, Ore.

Dumping beer that doesn’t meet expectations allows these producers to hone in on quality and avoid harming their outsized reputations. And it’s not hyperbolic to frame their reputations as such. Consider that the top 10 breweries in the world, according to the quasi-reliable beer rating app Untappd, are all meaderies, nano breweries, or contract breweries. However, their profiles can’t survive on small batch allure alone. “The importance of quality has gone up over the years because there’s just more beer out there,” Watson says.

Granted, this is true for practically every brewer beyond those cranking out macro light lagers. But in the case of nano breweries, this factor takes on heightened importance because they’re often run by people who wear every single hat in the business.

Take brewer Kyle Harrop, for example. He’s got a wife and kids, a 60-hour per week gig as an aerospace consultant, and a nano brewery, Horus Aged Ales in Oceanside, Calif., that he runs entirely by himself. “It’s just me,” Harrop says. “There’s a few guys that help me wax bottles and label stuff, but as far as brewing, I’m a solo operation.”

Given his busy schedule, Harrop simply doesn’t have the time to focus on marketing. So when he releases beers, he promotes each one with nothing more than a coy Instagram post. His beer’s reputation — and, ideally, continued quality — keeps the beer nerds flocking over to his facility every week to snatch up his releases, which are more often than not barrel-aged stouts.

 

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Oregon’s Nebuleus takes a slightly different, often humorous approach to marketing. Its website has almost no information and looks like it was built in a few minutes and then abandoned. The “About Us” page simply reads “Saison” in small text on a white blank page, a nod to Nebuleus’s preferred style of brew. Head over to the brewery’s Instagram page, and you’ll encounter a bio that reads “not nearly as nuanced as Hill Farmstead,” which is a quote taken from a negative Untappd review.

Evidently, Crook and his sole business partner, Rachel Olen, don’t take themselves too seriously, and the sparse, untelling website only adds to the brewery’s allure. “We take the beer very seriously but we’re just regular people having a good time,” Crook says. It’s the rare case where no marketing is the marketing.

Distribution and the Lack Thereof

In 2020, wholesale distribution kicked into overdrive and destination breweries like Other Half began sending cans to different states throughout the country. While it was able to move product, this undeniably took a toll on its reputation as a destination brewery. Other Half isn’t alone — the pandemic forced this scenario upon countless breweries.

The nano breweries, though? Not so much.

Unlike larger-scale producers, nanos rarely work with wholesale distributors. Not only that, but many of them don’t have their own taprooms or canning equipment, so bottling and crowler sales represent the majority of their income. With that in mind, nanos didn’t have to worry about losing out on tasting room sales in the pandemic, and they were able to continue selling beer out of their facilities as long as they set up social distancing protocols. People were still drinking — and still lining up to get small-batch beer. They just had to wear a mask.

“I’ve always had pickups outside the door, and I just asked people to mask up like the rest of the world,” Horus’s Harrop says. Even before the pandemic, he had a subscription-based system of selling beer that segued into the new reality seamlessly. For a flat rate, Harrop sends club members a dozen beers when they sign up, and then gives them the opportunity to purchase anything he releases over the next 12 months. It’s the only way Harrop sells his beer and he’s not alone.

Private Press Brewing in Santa Cruz, Calif., and the Eighth State Brewing Company in Greenville, S.C., also run subscription-based beer clubs. (Talk about exclusivity!) Other nanos kept releasing beers at random during the pandemic, announcing drops on social media and watching their fans line up.

Whatever the method, almost no nanos made the jump to wholesale distro, allowing them to pocket all of their earnings and stay afloat.

Viability Through the Pandemic and Beyond

When Harrop started Horus Aged Ales, he made sure that his business model would allow him to keep working his full-time job, and everything else just fell into place.

For others, like Nebuleus, the pandemic hit right when commercial sale success arrived. “We happened to have a bunch of time on our hands and decided to scale up and sell beer commercially. I’m not sure if we ever would have gone commercial if not for the pandemic,” Crook says. It’s tough to make generalizations given each brewery’s unique situation, but it seems that whether a nano brewery was in its infancy or celebrating its fifth anniversary in March 2020, its small scale helped it tremendously.

It comes as bad news for any brewery that the future of the craft beer world is, frankly, pretty murky. As more large-scale craft breweries struggle with new ideas and originality, many see consolidation as the only way to survive. After all, if you have 50-plus employees who rely on you for health insurance and a living wage, your beer isn’t selling like it used to. And if a larger business offers to buy you out, it’s hard to say “no.” It’s an “If you can’t beat ’em,’ join ’em’” kind of attitude, and it’s become the uninspiring reality for a staggering number of breweries.

For nano breweries, however, innovation is still very much possible, and merging with a larger brand would only put barriers on their creative freedom — the very reason many started in the first place. It would defy all ethos, and the die-hard beer nerds would inevitably sniff out the BS. There’s no telling exactly what the future of craft beer holds, but odds are, the nanos will be ready for it, inadvertently or not.

The article Everlasting Hype: The Enduring Appeal of Nano Breweries appeared first on VinePair.

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