Think of a brewery with its huge steel tanks and large production warehouse. Now shrink it — shrink it way down — and that about describes Dean Wise's brewery operation, which he has built from scratch in the basement of his home in Bend's NorthWest Crossing.
“You might be underwhelmed,” said Wise as he showed off his operation, Below Grade Brewing, which takes up a corner of a 225-square-foot hobby room in his house.
Against a background of white walls, there's the mash tun container for making wort, or unfermented beer, from milled malt grain and water, a boil kettle for adding hops to the wort and two fermenting tanks in which the yeast goes to work on the hop-flavored wort. The room smells of the India pale ale fermenting in one tank, with a hint of citrus.
The setup is smaller — much, much smaller — than at Deschutes Brewery's production facility on Southwest Simpson Avenue in Bend. But Wise, who started out as a home brewer in the early 1990s, actually has more in common with Deschutes' than he does with his former fellow home brewers who make beer for friends and family — and can't legally sell it to anyone.
Wise is part of a new subcategory of the brewing industry — nanobrewers — who are required to obtain licenses from several state, local, and federal entities that allow them to make and sell beer on a larger scale, That makes them more similar to bigger breweries, although nanobrewery production generally doesn't exceed 100 barrels a year, said Paul Gatza, director of the nonprofit Brewers Association based in Boulder, Colo.
But like home brewers, Wise and another nanobrewer in the making, Paul Arney, want their beers to maintain the craftsmanship and difference between each batch that often comes from brewing at home. Arney, a former assistant brewmaster at Deschutes Brewery, said he wants to focus less on making big batches of beer that are consistent. Instead, his nanobrewery, the Ale Apothecary, will create beers that are actually inconsistent. Plus, he wants to be part of every stage of production.
“It is going to be weird beer, it's going to be out-there beer,” Arney said. “That's what I'm trying to do. ... I'm very anti-style.” Arney, 39, doesn't have his licenses yet, but does plan on brewing beer in his home west of Bend.
The nanobrewery movement can be likened to “garage wine” movement of the late 1990s that helped change the wine industry, particularly in France and California. The garage wine movement was born out of a feeling among small producers that large chateaus in France and commercial producers in California had too much control over what was happening in the wine industry. Smaller producers decided to release unusual varietals on a much smaller scale, some of which they actually made in their garages. Ultimately, some of those wine producers grew into larger producers themselves.
Wise and Arney may be the only two nanobrewers in Bend so far, says Jeff Hawes, co-owner of The Brew Shop in northeast Bend, who said he could not think of anyone as close to starting nanobreweries as those two. “In the Central Oregon Homebrewers Organization, some people have dreams of doing it, but that's pretty much where it ends right there,” Hawes said, adding that the cost and time it takes to acquire the necessary government approval can be extensive and pose unexpected challenges for home brewers who want to make the leap to brewing for sale.
Even so, craft beer blogs cite several nanobreweries in Portland and Vancouver, Wash., such as Natian Brewery, Beetje Brewery and Mt. Tabor Brewing. The phenomenon isn't limited to the Northwest. Nanobrewers exist throughout the country, according to the blogs and brewing industry trade journals.
Wise, 45, and his wife, Bridget, 44, took the next big step in being a nanobrewer last weekend when they began selling three of their brews for $5 per 14-ounce cup at the farmers market in NorthWest Crossing. They sold out of their double India pale ale and came close with their old ale and Hefeweizen, they said. All told the couple sold 200 cups of beer.
Wise recognizes that the Bend beer scene is already crowded if not competitive — with nine craft breweries in Bend and 11 in Central Oregon, including Below Grade.
But Wise is distinctly different from his competitors. He doesn't base his beers on market research, but instead brews what he loves in hopes that there's are drinkers for his Below Grade brews in the local scene.
In particular, Wise wants to focus on craft beer drinkers who are willing to try different premium offerings. It's a subset, but it's big enough, he said, to make the business work.
“This isn't a joke,” Wise said. “It's not a game. For me, it's a serious test for me to test my beer in the marketplace, ... albeit my scale is so limited.”
If Below Grade brews take off, Wise said, the couple may decide to move the brewery out of their house and find a space to focus on making and selling in greater volumes, possibly with a tasting room.
Wise began thinking about turning his brewing hobby into something commercial after he was laid off from Bend's Brooks Resources Corp. in September 2009, he said. He found part-time project managing work with an earlier employer, J.L. Ward Co. in Bend.
Wise figures he started work on the IPA about six years ago, going through about a dozen slightly different versions. He made slight changes to the malt he was using, and he tried a variety of hops for the recipe until he arrived at what he thought should be his goal for an IPA.
For Arney, a primary motivation to become a nanobrewer is to be involved in all the processes of making beer. “I can personally be involved in every step and walk away feeling like I'm doing my best,” he said.
The beer he has in mind, he said, is not something he's seen anywhere. He said he has been working on a beer that mixes “aspects of an American pale ale and barley wine and farmhouse (ale) and Belgian.” It'll take a long time to turn around — maybe two or three months, as opposed to a few weeks. And it'll be naturally carbonated.” And another thing, he said — “it's going to cost more.”
Still, with all its peculiarities, Arney said his beer could fit in the geographical area.
“I'm trying to create a uniquely Northwest beer out of American ingredients that kind of showcases where I'm from, where I think our beer is, but it's definitely an Oregon beer,” he said.
Arney wants to be selling his beer by Christmas, and he aims to produce 200 barrels of beer a year within about a year.
For now, though, he's working on getting all the government permission he needs. “We will get it, there's no doubt that we will get it,” Arney said of the OLCC brewpub license for which he applied in June.
Steps to opening a nanobrewery in Oregon
1. Start brewing beer at home. Literature and classes are available, and Central Oregon has an abundance of home brewers.
2. Come up with the initiative to start selling your beer.
3. Get positive feedback from others on your beer, or improve your beer until you get sufficient good reception.
4. Register a business with the Oregon Secretary of State's Corporation Division.
5. File the paperwork necessary to receive a brewer's notice from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
6. Obtain permission to sell beer with a license from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Determine which license from the OLCC best suits the operation you envision. Complete the application. Submit it to one of the OLCC's five regional offices. Work with a license investigator to meet OLCC requirements and allow for an investigation into the establishment of the brewery you propose. At the same time, take a copy of your application to your local government body — city or county — for endorsement.
7. Work with a local inspector from the Oregon Department of Agriculture to meet all applicable requirements and file paperwork for a food processing license. If any of your equipment comes from another state, or if you will sell your beer in other states, you will need to register with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in addition to the ODA.
8. Run everything by the city or county where your operation exists, to get a business license and make sure you won't violate city regulations.
9. Start selling within the parameters of your OLCC license.
Source: Bulletin staff research