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The Freedoms of Nanobrewing

Nanobreweries tend to be opened by brewers transitioning from homebrewing as a hobby to brewing as a profession. While this is still the trend with most new craft breweries, there are more large companies and investment groups investing in the general business of craft brewing. Somehow I don’t envision corporate buyouts and consolidation of businesses in the future of nanobrewing. Right or wrong, this is my view, and along with this view are some thoughts about what I would do if I were to have a nanobrewery. Oh, to retire and open a nanobrewery to serve just a small handful of beer loving friends, that would be cool! The following article is about brewing, so if you are hoping for a great short story about great beer, famous musicians stopping by for unannounced jams, and crazy food truck creations, this is not your story!

So here is the basic premise of my thinking. Most breweries these days are striving for efficiency in every facet of the business, because brewing is business. And the US beer scene has arguably been the world’s most vibrant for the better part of 30 years. Along the way, we have seen massive improvements in the technology of brewing, yet, some of these tremendous advances potentially, and quite unintentionally, dampen beer diversity. A nanobrewery should differentiate itself from other breweries because without a point of real difference, a nano may just be a smaller version of another brewery doing the same thing. So here are my views on how ingredients can help lend beer diversity. Oh, and a note about diversity; the modern brewery needs to be bilingual, so I will use the metric system for units in this article without conversions!

It’s the Water!

Water tanks are great for water and energy storage in larger breweries. Go to any brewery brewing more than about 1,000 hectoliters (852 barrels) annually, and you will likely see an ambient or cold water tank to store water prior to wort cooling, and a hot water tank to store hot water generated from the wort cooling process. This system just makes sense, and it’s how things are done. One of the convenient things that can be done to a system like this is to treat the water going into the ambient/cold water tank so that the brewing water is consistent. Consistent water used to cool wort, leads to consistent water in the hot water tank, and that leads to the perfect water for brewing! Right? Perhaps it is right if all of the beers brewed benefits from the same water. Need something different, simply add brewing salts and this problem is solved.

But does a small brewery really benefit from storing hot water after wort cooling? Let’s assume that a 3 hL nanobrewery produces 360 liters of hot water when wort is cooled; this is a good ratio that produces a nice balance of water that can be totally used in the next brew. If the water is heated from 20 ˚C to 80 ˚C (70 °F to 175 °F) during wort cooling, this system captures 90 megajoules of energy, which equates to about $3 (USD) based on the average price of electricity in the US ($0.12/kilowatt-hour). The hot water is now stored in a hot water tank and used in the next brew. What’s not to love about this?

The water generated from wort cooling needs to stay hot, so hot water tanks are well-insulated and equipped with heaters to offset heat loss to the environment. That hot water just required investment in equipment and energy to prevent it from cooling. You can complete the financial analysis of this problem or simply take my word that hot water recovery in a nanobrewery is not a great investment if the goal is to save energy. I am not suggesting that water should be wasted; the hot water from wort cooling can be recovered and used for cleaning or other uses, but the energy value is minimal. A much better fit for many nanos with limited space in the brewery is the use of instant hot water heaters. If you go this route, make sure the heaters are properly sized and installed to permit acid de-scaling; this means that you need to have stainless water lines before and after the heater because acid cleaning will corrode copper water pipes.

Now that we have eliminated the hot water tank, the water used to cool our Cookie Monster Pastry Stout wort does not need to be compatible with that Brutally Dry Pilsner that is scheduled as the next brew. My suggestion here is to uncuff yourself from worrying about the next brew when it comes to water. Take advantage of the small size of the brewery and treat water as a specialty ingredient. Eliminating the “traditional” type of hot water will really help in this pursuit. It also reduces equipment cost and saves space.

Base Malt ≠ Blank Canvas

I have heard other brewers describe base malt as a blank canvas for so many years that I sometimes forget how wrong that analogy really is. There are so many exceptional beers brewed from limited grist bills that clearly demonstrate the fallacy with this argument. What is true, however, is that changing base malts can indeed have a very profound effect on beer flavor, yet many larger breweries only use one, sometimes two, because of the cost and logistics required to use multiple base malts. And because malt stored in silos represents a huge cost savings for breweries brewing enough beer to justify the investment in equipment and inventory cost, there is a real motivation to choose a base malt that can be used for most beers. Nanobrewers, by definition, do not use enough malt to make this an option, and should not restrict themselves to only a few base malts.

Experimenting with base malts is fun because there are so many options. If a brewery decided to brew rotating helles lagers with different pilsner malts from around the globe, several years of experiments could be brewed. Add ale malts, more highly kilned lager malts, like Vienna and Munich, and heritage varietals to the mix and a brewer could make a career specializing in this type of brewing. Larger breweries simply cannot resist the temptation to settle on a base malt or two and to seek other malt colors and flavors from specialty malts. Take advantage of being small!

Consumers love stories, and great base malts often have great stories. Tell the story of the barley field, the climate of that field, and ultimately how your beer flavor is influenced by these environmental factors. Also tell the story of the maltster; who converted that great barley into the malt used for your brews? Those are all very real connections that consumers enjoy having with their products, so explain the source of your base malts to get people interested in tasting your special beers.

Hop Like a Chef

The cool chefs with their own TV shows are often seen shopping for food before cooking. They don their Crocs and smocks, go to the market, choose what is fresh and available, and get down to business. In contrast, many brewers make decisions about hops well before brewing, sometimes years, because of the relationship between brewer and hop farmer. Few hop farmers are real keen on planting hop varieties that may not sell, so hop contracting is the way that most brewers secure their hops for the future.

While hop contracts are good for both brewer and hop farmer, the thought of having to choose what hop variety you will want to use next year or the year after is daunting for nanobrewers who are more interested in going with the flow than building a rigid brand portfolio. Add to the equation the relatively small amount of hops required for the typical nanobrew batch, and hop contracting becomes even less attractive. So hop like a chef and design your beers around what hops you can find in the market. One of the really great things about modern hop processing is shelf life; pelletized hops that are properly processed, packaged, and stored have the ability to retain their brewing value (bitterness and aroma) for several years (up to 5 years based on research by the German Hop Growers (HVG) group).

So where are some good places to look for hops? Hop growers, cooperatives, and merchants sell hops in two basic ways; through hop contracts and on the “spot market.” The spot market is where brewers without contracts go looking for hops, and most hop merchants these days have spot hops posted on a website. If you live near hop growers, the spot market may be the hop farm. Another place to shop for hops is through the Lupulin Exchange website. This exchange allows brewers, hop growers, hop merchants, and others who want to buy and/or sell hops to make connections. The Lupulin Exchange was started in 2014 by John Bryce, Shane Kunkle, Jesse Pappas, and Darren Kopp and is a great contribution to the commercial brewing world.

Although Lupulin Exchange is an awesome trading space, some breweries don’t want to mess around with selling boxes of hops to other breweries when shipping is required, but are happy to sell excess inventory, usually as a result of over-contracting, to local brewers who will pick up the hops. Brewers don’t normally have issues becoming friends with fellow brewers, and there are many times when having brewer friends just makes good sense. Searching for hops on the open market is a great example. So be nice to your neighbor, you may benefit too!

The Invisible Army

You got it; the last section of this focus on ingredients is about the invisible troops that convert wort to beer. Just like a brewery could choose to riff on base malts, a brewery could easily do the same thing with yeast strains. And if the strains are different enough, the same wort could be used for dozens of different beers that may be fun to rotate through a handle or two. Although throwing caution to the wind is a relatively low risk proposition when experimenting with water, malt, and hops, it is not so with yeast and bacteria. Indeed, brewers using new equipment and selling beer for the first time are best advised to take a conservative approach with yeast and bacteria until the kinks are worked out of a new system.

. . . having to choose what hop variety you will want to use next year or the year after is daunting for nanobrewers who are more interested in going with the flow than building a rigid brand portfolio.

The great thing about brewing today is the excellent selection of yeast strains from yeast suppliers all around the globe. For the majority of the readers of BYO in the US, we have liquid yeast labs in all major regions of the country, as well as diverse and high-quality options for dried yeast. The bottom line is that there is no reason for a brewery to feel restricted by the lack of selection when it comes to yeast. And the nice thing about nanobrewing is that buying enough yeast to pitch a full batch of wort is not going to break the bank. It is also easy to use your old homebrew kettle to make a starter from DME and grow up a homebrew pitch. The 10-fold multiplier is a good rule of thumb; divide your batch size by 10 and that is your propagation volume.

A couple of things that I would hold off doing in a nanobrewery are growing yeast from slants, feeling the need to harvest and re-pitch yeast, and using bugs that are capable of causing problems. These suggestions deserve a bit of a defense, so here goes. Growing yeast from slants is serious work, and there is plenty of work to go around when brewing with a limited staff; the payback is simply missing and there are bigger issues that deserve full attention without running your own yeast lab. As far as harvesting and re-pitching, it is best to harvest yeast within a few days following the end of primary fermentation and to re-use as soon as possible to prevent loss in vitality and viability. If you only use a couple of strains and brew frequently, this may be an option. And now onto funky bugs; don’t bring these into your brewery unless you really know what you are doing. This includes Brettanomyces, lactic acid bacteria, diastatic and lactic acid yeast strains. There is nothing wild and spontaneous about how to operate a brewery that brings wildfire into the cellar.

So those are some of my thoughts about exploring beer through ingredients in a nanobrewery. I did not cover ingredients outside of malt, hops, water, and yeast/bacteria, and there is a whole world of beer that includes fruit, spices, nuts, etc., so there is no real limit to this exploration. The commonality with these ideas is experimentation, embracing small batch size, wandering from technological advances that may curtail creativity, and to tell stories.