I keep running across references to nanobreweries, but up  until now I never gave them much thought. My mind kept going back to this old article on MSN last year, “Something’s Brewing Close to Home” in which they note (or quote actually):

The nanobrewer isn’t going to quit his day job. They are brewing because they love the process and want to share the results with the people in their neighborhoods…

That sounds crazy to me, so I wrote it off. But I keep seeing the concept pop up, so I started doing a little research, and I think I just didn’t get the correct characterization off of said MSN article (an MSN article being unclear? Shocking!). It just kinda ends after introducing the concept. From what it looks like, you homebrew, and then you drop the thousands upon thousands of dollars you need for the necessary permits and licenses to sell your product, and then for some bizarre reason you keep your day job.

See? It is crazy. Totally batshit insane.

But! There are other operating nanobreweries around. The Hess Brewing Odyssey, a nanobrewery in San Diego, recently compiled a list of operating nanobreweries in the U.S., some of which are making the step up to being small craft breweries, though in reality a small craft brewery is all a nanobrewery really is. Sorta.

Curve Street Brewing

There’s no good definition, but what seems to be settled upon is that you’re making an amount of beer, per batch, that is considerably less than one would expect from a production brewery: half-barrel or one-barrel systems are common and sometimes even less. If you think about it, in that respect, Dogfish Head can be said to have started as a nanobrewery.

There are only a handful in the country, but it’s been enough for the TTB to put together some guidelines. They are basically a reminder of what constitutes the amount of beer that you can legally make in your home every year and that if you sell it, you need a license.

Michael, the person behind the Hess Brewing Odyssey, has compiled an absolute wealth of good documentation about how to open a brewery, nano or not. He covers all of the forms and hoops you have to jump through quite well (in fact, I’ve already bookmarked it to use as a reference), but the associated cost is still there.

So, I ask: If you don’t have a sizable bankroll at your disposal (Hi, I’m looking for investors, interested? Let’s talk!), is starting a nanobrewery financially feasible as a startup option? In other words, if this isn’t going to be a hobby – you’re not going to keep your day job – is that type of investment worth making 1 – 2 kegs at a time? A 7bbl brewday isn’t going to be much different in time vs. a 1bbl brewday, but at the end of it all you have 14 kegs to sell instead of 2 in return for your 8 hours of janitorial work. Will a 7bbl brewery cost more? Certainly. At least the brew system. Any sort of packaging and packaging system will cost exactly the same, and you’re going to use it a lot more frequently. If you’re making a go at starting a business,and you start that small, I feel like you’re going to be spending all of your time making your product, rather than selling it, and the latter is really important if you want to make a profit.

On the other hand, I’m a proponent of slow growth in the craft beer industry. Every single book I read about startup businesses in craft beer, every single time I hear an industry veteran talk about their startup experience, the number one thing I hear (though mostly in subtext) is, “We grew too fast, and had a hard time keeping up with production demands, so we went into a ton of debt.” I mean, I hear about companies that are now successful quote things like 7 – 10 years to cash-flow positive. I’m not convinced it has to be like that. Maybe starting super small and selling deep into a market is a way to avoid that. The path to cash-flow-positive growth is to not grow until/unless you can afford it and bust your ass in the meantime. It’s a theory.

I just can’t get by the fact that you have to brew 5 days a week to sell a half-barrel keg to 10 accounts. That’s a lot of time – and it’s a lot of fermentation space! I have a hard time imagining it.

Maybe the purveyor of a fine nanobrewery will stop by here and set me straight. They’ll let me know that, actually, they put together their operation with $5,000 and a box of coat hangers and they only brew on weekends, but I’m going to guess that’s not the case. I’m going to guess that they all meet at least one of the following conditions:

– they are rich
– they are in an enormous amount of debt
– they are making a go and hoping against odds that this venture doesn’t make them bankrupt
– they are still employed at a full-time job elsewhere
– they have an anonymous benefactor
– they are homeless and sleep under their lauter tun
– they have a really-well-employed spouse or partner
– they employ magical elves to make beer while we sleep
– they are, in fact, wizards

What do you think? Starting that small is an undeniably cool (and even romantic) concept, but I wonder at how sustainable the businesses are. It’s great to see that some of the ones listed in the link above are making a step up in growth, but how many will successfully make that step, and how many will make that step at all? Are these merely extended hobbyists or is this a viable entrance strategy to the craft beer industry?

I’d love to hear from others.

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Categories: industry, startup
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 06 Jan 2010 @ 09 02 AM

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