Behind the Hops: A Peek at the World of Nanobrewing

nano behind the hops

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If you’re a hophead or craft beer lover, you undoubtedly know what a microbrewery is, and what the very word itself connotes. What is less familiar, however, is the concept of nanobrewing. It’s not as widespread of a term, but that’s partially by design; a construct that, in a way, defines what the movement is all about.

What is a Nanobrewery?

A nanobrewery is perhaps best defined as being a smaller version of a microbrewery. Nanobreweries will produce fewer batches of product than their microbrewery cousins, and will most likely have a smaller production capacity. A nanobrewery will also tend to adhere to the same tropes that microbrewers deploy, such as experimentation with different styles.

In fact, because a nanobrewery’s size and lack of national or even regional exposure may give them free reign to push the envelope in ways that even a microbrewery may not feel comfortable with doing. No ingredient is too esoteric in this regard – not even weird stuff like Chinese rock candy sugar.

Nanobreweries don’t necessarily have to stay a nanobrewery forever. Over time, they may accrue enough interest and profit margin to make the (relatively small) leap into the world of microbreweries. Some of the most recognizable craft beers on the market, such as Dogfish Head, started off as what we’d call a nanobrewery today.

In a sense, you can almost imagine a nanobrewery as being akin to a lower-tiered minor league in baseball. It’s a good place for a brewery concept to learn the basics of the brewing industry and grow interest. Once these metrics reach a specific level, your nanobrewery can get “promoted” to the microbrewery league. You could then even level up to craft beer status if a major distributor comes calling, but you may feel rising to the level of a microbrewery is the big leagues in and of itself.

The Metrics Behind Nanobrewing

A nanobrewery is technically defined by the batches of beer produced within a year. Typically, a brewery with nano status will have a batch output between 500 and 1,000 barrels per year. Anything above this will put the brewery in microbrewery status.

Believe it or not, being called a nanobrewery isn’t the smallest designation you can have. If your overall brewing input is less than 500 barrels in a calendar year, you are considered to be a picobrewery.

History of Nanobrewing

If you never heard of the term nanobrewing before, don’t feel you have to turn in your beer drinker’s card. The term is a relatively new one, but the concept has been around for decades. Some trace the origins of the modern-day nanobrewery to New Albion Brewing, a minuscule operation that opened in 1976.

The Sonoma, California-based nanobrewery didn’t last, but its legacy lives on through a new wave of small-batch breweries, a trend that started to hit its stride in the mid-2000s. As the concept of general artisan brewing continues to proliferate and cut into the market share of massive, corporate controlled breweries, there’s no reason to expect the rise of the nanobrewery will cease.

How Do You Start a Nanobrewery?

Nanobreweries are popping up all over the country, and there are no signs of this trend reversing. There are three basic ways that these tiny breweries come into existence:

  1. An add-on to an existing restaurant or pub – If you’ve ever dropped by a restaurant or gastropub that’s touting their own house-made brews on their menus, then you’ve encountered a nanobrewery. There is obvious value for a venue to offer this, as its presence could also help drive the demand for their food. It also is a bonus because the venue may not have the space to make more product.
  2. A proof of concept – Just because one dives into the nanobrewery game doesn’t mean they want to stay there. In this case, a nanobrewery may be started to demonstrate a market for their product. This demonstration could lead to them attracting the investment capital needed to produce a full-sized brewery.
  3. The evolution of a hobby – If you’re a homebrewer, your passion for beer-making may inspire you to take things to the next level, especially if your beer is received well beyond the friends-and-family bubble. A nanobrewery in this case presents a “small risk, big reward” scenario.

If you find yourself in the latter category, you may already know about the nanobreweries in your area, and may be looking to jump into the game on their level. If so, there are a few things you should know regarding how to start a nanobrewery if you want to do it properly.

The key to starting a nanobrewery is passion. If you’re looking to jump into the nanobrewery business to make a ton of money, you’re doing it wrong. While nanobrewery rags-to-national label riches stories like Dogfish Head exist, they are the exception rather than the norm.  If you truly love what you’re doing, though, this won’t matter much.

If you have passion in place, the next element you’ll need is capital. Granted, you won’t need nearly as much money to start up your nanobrewery as you would a larger brewery, but it’s needed nonetheless. It’s also worth noting that because you’re going to be working on a smaller scale, the potential profits you’ll make will also be much thinner than the big guys. Again, this is why passion is such an indispensable element to the process.

You’ll also need to decide what type of behind-the-scenes business you’ll be, other than the obvious. This is where terms like sole proprietorship, partnerships, corporations, and limited liability corporations come into play. These can be confusing to novices that have never attempted to start a business before. Your best bet here is to talk to a lawyer or tax professional to determine which business type suits your needs best.

Basic Tricks of the Trade

Once you’ve got the funds secured and the legalese determined, the next step in the process is to get the proper nanobrewery equipment. This could be intimidating at first, as there is an abundance of choices to make when you get to this point. However, there are a few things to consider making this process a little more streamlined.

Firstly, you may want to weigh the pros and cons about buying used equipment. The market for pre-owned materials is larger than ever, thanks to the unprecedented proliferation of the nanobrewery scene. If your budget is tight, this may be a good way to save on startup costs. In some cases, you may even be able to acquire the parts to make your own custom nanobrewing system. However, putting it together and making it work properly is often a very time-consuming process.

Regardless of whether you’re buying new or used gear, it’s also a wise option to research the product – more specifically, its manufacturer. This goes beyond the usual consumer stuff like product reliability or how their customer service team operates. It’s important that the equipment is a good fit for your specific brewing needs.

There are two brewing system that you’ll consider when you get to this point:

  • Direct fire systems
  • Electric systems

Direct fire systems are simple to set up and are typically cheaper, but it tends to be significantly less efficient than the other two systems. Electric systems are sophisticated and tend to lead to a greater sense of consistency, although these boosted abilities come at a cost. Steam systems could be a third option, but unless you have the necessary parts already in place, their cost is considered to be too cost-prohibitive for nanobrewers.

You’ll also need to consider ways to control temperatures for fermentation. Here, your budget will be the prime mover in your decision, arguably more so than the brewing system, since this will greatly aid in your beer’s consistency.

For instance, a jacketed fermenter or a tank with a glycol system are considered to be tremendous allies for temperature regulation. However, each cost a pretty penny. A more cost-effective method is to create a temperature controlled fermentation room. However, this often requires the brewing process to be spread out into two separate rooms, which may be an issue if you don’t have sufficient space.


Much like their bigger brewing cousins, running a nanobrewery is a laborious process, one that’s destined to take up a bunch of time and cost a bit of money to sustain. Unlike the other options, you won’t be seeing a substantial return of investment on your product, even as your beer begins to make waves within your community.

However, if the impetus behind making your nanobrewery is a love for brewing, the demands of time and the lack of funds hardly matter. What’s important is that by running a nanobrewery, you’re doing something that you love, and you’re actively sharing that love with the people that surround you. More often than not, these people are those who will have a deep appreciation for what you are delivering, even if there isn’t all that much product to deliver.

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