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10.05.11

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Phaedra
Photograph by Jacques Law
THE NEXT STEP: Johnny and Creek Van Houten are among a growing contingent of nanobrewers-to-be.

Straight Outta the Garage

Nanobrewers prove that bigger doesn't always mean better

By Leilani Clark


This year, something new appeared at Biketoberfest Marin's beer tasting area. Among a smattering of nationally renowned craft brewers—Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Deschutes and Anderson Valley Brewing Company—Johnny Van Houten of Van Houten Brewing poured his unfiltered California Common for a boisterous line of beer drinkers. People returned for seconds and thirds, complimenting him on the simple, cask-conditioned beer, brewed over the summer in his San Anselmo garage. Next to Van Houten was another upstart called Beltane Brewing, and next to them, Petaluma Hills Brewing Company.

Known as nanobrewers, these upstarts have been garnering mass attention in the beer world as of late. CraftBeer.com's John Holl recently called nanobrewers the "talk of the craft beer nation"; the Washington Post offered a glowing write-up of small-scale East Coast operations in 2010 as the trend began to grow; and Hess Brewing in San Diego lists over 60 licensed and operating nanobreweries in the country, with nearly 50 more in the planning stages.

Northern California has its share of tiny brew operations. Last February, Social Kitchen in San Francisco hosted the city's first-ever Nanobrewery Festival. Loftily titled "Breweries of Tomorrow," the event featured the beers of nine Bay Area homebrewing operations—a list that included Van Houten, Beltane and Petaluma Hills—with an entrepreneurial drive. Brian Stechschulte, editor of BayAreaCraftBeer.com, called the unique shindig an "opportunity for beer lovers to sample the work created the Bay Area's next generation of professional craft brewers."

"To me, a nanobrewery is any kind of production system that is under seven or ten barrels, because you're not going to make a huge profit on it. Your profit margin is very small, if at all," says Alan Atha, a 61-year-old personal trainer from Novato and the brewer behind nano-in-planning Beltane Brewing.

"But nano also means, in a cultural context, locavore," he adds.

Atha says he's choosing small out of necessity, though he says that if he had the "big bucks" behind him, he would buy a 10-barrel system without hesitation. Right now, he's focusing energy on securing a lease for a beer cafe in Novato; after that, he'll apply for a permit from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), and taxes will kick in once the beer goes up for sale at a handful of selected beer pubs and restaurants.

"We'll still in the process of our legality paperwork," Atha says. "We're not official, but we're working toward it." For now, Atha brews with the energy of a whirling dervish, pouring his hopped-up tripels and IPAs at festivals and contests. He recently competed in the Great American Beer Festival with a beer chosen for competition by Iron Springs Pub & Brewery. It's all part of the trek to making beer a full-time gig—without breaking the bank.

Johnny Van Houten began brewing beer with his dad in 1998. He's been perfecting his recipes for unfiltered Belgian Tripels, English Pale Ales and California Commons ever since. A husband-and-wife nano-in-planning, Van Houten's business and marketing end is handled by Johnny's wife, Creek. Their garage is jam-packed with shiny, professional-grade beer kettles, fermentation tanks, wort chillers, glassware and a large kegerator with silver spouts. Johnny brews in weekend sessions, eked out between his full-time job and part-time work at Brewcraft in San Francisco.

"We're still official homebrewers," says Johnny. "We produce enough for events and there's some leftover for me to drink. You need a license and you need the space to have a license to make that next step."

It's getting easier to make the move from homebrewer to professional, says Johnny, though he says there are still quite a few hoops to jump through. "There are more people to help you move through the process," he says, citing microbrewers like Sam Calagione as a pioneer when it comes to changing local laws. "With Dogfish, he basically had to create laws around his brewery. That beats a path for us to follow."

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TINY LABEL: JJ Jay of Petaluma Hills Brewing Co. is no stranger to small batches.

After a recent Northwest brewery tour revealed a thriving, small brewery culture outside of California, the Van Houtens decided to begin a more serious push toward their own brewpub dreams. "Driving up to Portland, we realized, oh man, we're so far behind," says Creek, sipping on a Belgian Tripel made by her husband. "There's a brewery on every corner, and they're small, and they're all making incredible beer, and they have a loyal following."

Since then, the Van Houtens have begun the work to open a brew cafe along the lines of Amsterdam's famous "Brown Cafes." Instead of a loud room with big hamburgers and bigger televisions, they'd like to focus on creating a brewery production space and tasting room with simple foods and a cozy, welcoming atmosphere. "More of a meeting space where there's beer and conversation," says Johnny.

Camaraderie is at the heart of craft beer culture, and the young couple has taken as inspiration Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing Company, who is known for an artisan, sage-like approach to brewing beer. His production stays at about 1,000 gallons a year. He doesn't bottle. He doesn't do contests. His fresh hop ales, black beers, and toasted lagers are only available on draft in select places.

"He doesn't care about marketing," says Creek. "And the way he talks about beer is so beautiful and interesting. He's just doing it how he's doing it."

"His beers facilitate a conversation about beer," adds Johnny.

Kevin McGee of Healdsburg Brewing Company agrees, describing Hunt as a cross between "Yoda and Dumbledore." McGee runs the only official nanobrewery in the North Bay, and has been legally licensed by the TTB to make and sell his beer since 2007.

McGee, a former gang prosecutor, was encouraged to turn his passion for homebrew into a business while working as personal lawyer and business strategist to Jess Jackson, owner of Kendall-Jackson. After McGee created a business plan that would allow him to make beer in his garage, he brought it to work and showed it to Jackson, "almost as a joke," he says now.

But the wine magnate took the plan seriously.

"We spent the better part of the day talking about the beer business and going through the model that I put together. At the end of the day, I said, 'I think I can do this.' And he said, 'I think you should do this.' And so that's how the beer business started."

McGee now brews between 800 to 1,000 gallons of beer a year, allowing him to keep up with demand while still having a bit left over. He defines his nanobrewing approach as hyper-local: while he's appeared at a "Meet the Brewer" event in Oakland, and his kegs sometimes make it down to San Francisco and the Peninsula, mostly the brews stay in the Sonoma County radius. The only festival he pours at is Healdsburg's Beer on the Plaza.

Naturally, any limited supply can reach fetish-like levels for beer fans. "The holy grail of wine tourism in Italy is to find the crazy, eccentric wine maker, whose wine is so good that nobody in the village lets it get out of the village, they drink it all themselves," says McGree, smiling. "So the idea, is I could be the crazy, eccentric brewer in Healdsburg."

Indeed, finding McGee's beer is akin to a treasure hunt, since potential licensing snafus prevent the Bohemian from revealing where one can purchase his brews. (Suffice it to say, Healdsburg Brewing Company's U.S. Open Beer Championship award-winning Golden Ales, Robust Porters and English-Style IPAs are available seasonally in fine drinking establishments around Healdsburg.)

McGee doesn't play down the dedication it takes to move from homebrewing into small-scale craft beer brewing. He plans on scaling up into a production microbrewery in the future, but at the present, he owns a very homegrown operation, one in which he brews beer on nights and weekends while maintaining a full-time job. His wife Katee does all the graphic design, and their four-year-old daughter watches over the beer-brewing process with the avid interest of a future beermaker.

"Its tough to do as a full-time job." McGee says. "You have to be sort of a maniacal beer enthusiast to really want to take it this seriously. It was a vehicle for me to learn a business, start a business, do something entrepreneurial, while still doing something at a level that wasn't fatal if it didn't work."

Really, it's the size and scale of the enterprise that should be taken into consideration, and not the "nanobrewery" label itself, say the Van Houtens. Just look at JJ Jay of Petaluma Hills Brewing Company, who calls his nano-in-planning a "Pico House Beer Craft"—because, he says, he just likes how it sounds.

But while a scramble might be on to find words to distinguish the small operations from bigger craft brewers like Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam, some say in the end what's important is to acknowledge and recognize the place that small-scale breweries have in the beer world without necessarily labeling them. "We have to find some kind of word to define it, but we don't care what that word is really," Creek Van Houten says.

Johnny adds that a distinction should be made between an operation that makes 1,000 gallons or beer a year and one that makes 20,000, if only for tax and legality reasons. "If you're brewing on a 70-barrel system, it's going to be different than a seven-barrel," he says, pointing out that Samuel Adams is still considered a "craft brewer" after a recent change in volume definitions.

But nano, pico, small? In the end does it really matter?

"Just call it, 'Home Brewers Getting Paid,'" Johnny says with a grin.


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