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Are nanobreweries a good first step for North Carolina brewers?

Ponysaurus Brewing Co. started as a nanobrewery inside Durham’s The Cookery before moving into a much larger space – with a 10-barrel brewhouse – just last year.
Ponysaurus Brewing Co. started as a nanobrewery inside Durham’s The Cookery before moving into a much larger space – with a 10-barrel brewhouse – just last year. Rochelle Johnson

From the day Burial Beer Co. opened its doors in Asheville in 2013, you could not overlook the beers they were making. But the brewery? You could walk right past it if you weren’t careful.

That’s because Burial began life as a nanobrewery. While there’s no hard and fast definition, most consider nanobreweries to be those that brew no more than three barrels of beer in a single batch. Burial was working off what is essentially an advanced homebrew setup: three pots atop a wheeled metal frame, the whole thing capable of cranking out one barrel (or 31 gallons) of beer at a time.

That nano system saw a lot of use as the founding trio – Jess and Doug Reiser and Tim Gormley – brewed around the clock just to keep the taps filled in their taproom, located in Asheville’s beer-rich South Slope neighborhood. They kept a frenzied pace for just over a year, at which point they installed a 10-barrel system and relegated the one-barrel system to pilot batch duty. And just last month, they announced plans to build a second brewery near Asheville’s Biltmore Village.

Though Burial Beer Co.’s rise in such a short time is impressive, it’s not uncommon. OysterHouse Brewing Co., for example, graduated from a portable system inside The Lobster Trap seafood restaurant in Asheville to its own space across town. Ponysaurus Brewing Co. started as a nanobrewery inside Durham’s The Cookery before moving into a much larger space – with a 10-barrel brewhouse – just last year. D9 Brewing Co. opened the roll-up door to its nanobrewery in a Cornelius office park in 2013; less than a year later, they were opening a new 5,000-square-foot facility with a 10-barrel brewhouse.

Given how fast these breweries are expanding and how much more frequently they have to brew with a small system just to keep up, it begs the question: Is the nanobrewery model a sustainable one, or merely a stepping stone to bigger things?

For Andrew Durstewitz, one of the founders of D9 Brewing Co., the plan was always to start at the nano level and grow. The brewery has had success following that plan, but that doesn’t mean he would advise others to do the same.

“If I had to do it all over again, hindsight 20/20, I really wouldn’t suggest people get into nanos and try to grow them organically,” Durstewitz said. “I don’t think there’s time left in the market now.”

If I had to do it all over again, hindsight 20/20, I really wouldn’t suggest people get into nanos and try to grow them organically. I don’t think there’s time left in the market now.

Andrew Durstewitz, co-founder of D9 Brewing Co.

The time and money it takes to scale up later is considerable, noted Durstewitz. But then the time and money it takes to start a nanobrewery is what makes that concept so appealing for many in the first place. Brad Ledbetter will open Thirsty Nomad Brewing Co. in Charlotte this year, and he doesn’t sugarcoat the reason he has gone the nano route.

“The amount of money I had on hand was nano-size,” said Ledbetter.

Despite this, and with the brewery yet to open, Ledbetter plans to scale up eventually. For now, he has chosen a location just 15 minutes from his day job as a programmer, so he can leave work and head right to the brewery.

The trio behind Burial had eyes toward expansion before opening as well. Before moving to Asheville the three had lived in Seattle, where nanobreweries are more popular. The concept appealed to them, as they wanted to open at a faster rate and fund the operation themselves. It also allowed them to get to know their new community better.

“People were coming in, seeing Doug or Tim bartending and seeing me with the baby attached to me washing dishes,” said co-founder Jess Reiser. “I take a lot of pride in how we started.”

Now, almost three years later and on the cusp of opening a second brewery, Reiser said she feels that those who have supported the brewery feel invested in that growth. Does she think the nanobrewery model is sustainable for others not looking to grow as quickly?

“I would say that success and sustainability are pretty subjective,” said Reiser. “It depends on what the individual owners are looking to get out of the business.”

Indeed, in an age when so many breweries (nano or not) are rapidly expanding, it’s worth remembering that not everyone has those same aspirations. Regulator Brewing Co. brews in a 250-square-foot space in Hillsborough that is not open to the public, and they will likely keep it that way for some time.

“We got into it hoping to maintain the nano level for the foreseeable future,” said Dustin Williams, who opened the nanobrewery last year with his wife and another couple. The four have no plans of giving up their day jobs, as they are all early (and happy) in their careers.

Even if they wanted to, Regulator would have a tough time expanding. They source at least 75 percent of their ingredients from North Carolina farms, and it would be difficult to acquire that much locally grown barley and hops for larger batches. Still, they do have growth in mind.

“We just want to enjoy it and keep working on the recipes and improving on those,” said Williams. “We want to grow in terms of the beer we’re making, instead of the volume we’re producing.”

Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine in Durham and author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.” Reach him at cltbeer@gmail.com or on Twitter, @DanielHartis.

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