After four months of experimentation and countless litres of beer wasted, Jason Stratton and his business partner Patrick Doré never anticipated just how popular their final brew would be.
Within two weeks of opening their miniature brewery in July, the creators of North Vancouver's Bridge Brewing Company sold out of their specialty North Shore Pale Ale, which they offer directly to customers in refillable growler jugs. They have been struggling to keep up with demand ever since.
"We are constantly under pressure," Stratton says, noting they are once again down to the last keg and a half of their signature golden, hoppy ale and will likely run out by this weekend.
Due to their minuscule output of roughly 400 litres per batch or less, the struggle to meet demand is a common challenge for so-called "nanobreweries" like Bridge Brewing Company, which represent an increasingly popular niche in beer production.
Microbreweries, the small-scale alternative to conventional big-name beer brands, have become exceedingly trendy in recent years. In the United States, according to the Brewers Association, the total number of microbreweries has jumped to 922 from 615 in 2010. In Ontario alone, a 2010-2011 annual report by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario recorded a 52.7-per-cent surge in sales of craft beer from the previous year. But lately, serious beer drinkers have been getting acquainted with their even smaller, pint-sized cousins.
Operating at a small fraction of the scale of microbreweries, nanobrewers are taking home brewing beyond their kitchens and garages and into the commercial realm, creating and selling only a few kegs at a time. And thanks to a growing thirst for exciting, one-of-a-kind, locally brewed concoctions, nanobreweries are sprouting up across the country.
"People just know that it's a labour of love and people are just willing to support the small guys now," says David Bowkett, founder of the soon-to-open Powell Street Craft Brewery, in east Vancouver. He expects that his first run of pale ale, porter and IPA, all painstakingly brewed in 350-litre batches, will be ready for sale by mid-December.
Like many nano operators, Bowkett started out as a home brewer, making a few litres at a time as a hobby. And to some extent, brewing continues to be an interest of pure pleasure for him; Bowkett has kept his day job as architectural technologist, brewing batches on weekends. (Similarly at Bridge Brewing, Stratton, who is an accountant, continues to work as a controller for a Vancouver company, while Doré works as an executive concept chef.)
Most nanobreweries barely break even for the first couple of years, Bowkett says, explaining he didn't launch his venture merely to make money. Yet even if it is no get-rich-quick scheme, nanobrewing can make good business sense. For one thing, launching a nanobrewery is much cheaper, and therefore far less risky than starting up a microbrewery that typically generates hundreds of thousands of hectolitres of beer per year.
In Antigonish, N.S., for instance, where Terry Piercey is setting up a nanobrewery upstairs from his bar, the Townhouse Brewpub & Eatery, his entire system cost roughly $6,000. By comparison, Piercey says, the cheapest micro-brewing system he could find would have set him back more than $120,000.
His set-up is admittedly tiny. It consists of a couple of 50-litre kegs converted into kettles that are heated with propane. But he anticipates it will be able to produce about 40 litres of beer per batch, once he gets it running in the new year – enough to put a regular house beer on tap, in addition to the other brands he currently serves.
As a pub operator, Piercey believes that making his own beer will help set his establishment apart, as in England, where many pubs cultivate a loyal following with house brands. Besides, he says: "We have a full kitchen and we make lots of food, so it's like, why not just add a little brewery and make the beer as well?"
Another major advantage is the ability to experiment, without wasting huge volumes if a recipe proves unsuccessful.
At the Toronto bar Get Well, brewer Brad Clifford creates a new beer almost every week from the in-house brewery, ranging from stouts to IPAs. He has created a "saison," a Belgian-style beer that has a spicy, peppery flavour, for instance, and just this week, he's experimenting making an IPA with rye.
"We just love beer and wanted to make good beer because there's not a ton out there," says Get Well's co-owner Jeff Barber. With a nanobrewery, he says, "we can be … a little more free and creative with what we're doing."
In a small back room, surrounded by simmering kettles and metal tanks, Clifford is like a gleeful chemist, adjusting the temperature of his mash and measuring its sugar content.
One of his finished products, an American pale ale he calls "Pinball Wizard," has a complex tropical fruit aroma, a hint of citrus and a malty body. It's utterly delicious – it's not hard to understand why Clifford has lost his taste for large-scale commercial brews. "I'm a beer snob, pretty much," he says.
For the nanobrewers interviewed for this story, obtaining approval to sell their products was not an enormous hurdle; all said the process of applying for a license was not prohibitively onerous. But the operations require plenty of work. It takes just as much effort – if not more – to create 50 litres of beer as it would take to brew 500 litres.
Bowkett, who plans on selling his beer at local bars, private liquor stores and directly from his Vancouver brewery, bottles his brew with a small machine that only seals two bottles at a time.
"It's a long day to do a full batch of beer," he says. "The whole process is very labour intensive. There's nothing automatic about it really."