A Nod to Nanos The Rise of Northwest Nanobreweries

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By Megan Hill | Photo © Dirty Bucket Brewery

It used to be tricky to find Rooftop Brewing Company, a beer producer in Seattle. The brewery opened in the summer of 2013, and unless you knew where you were going, it was tough to actually get there. To help prospective customers, the owners dedicated a blog entry to detailed directions to their little garage in an alley behind a gas station, complete with a map and visuals.

Once you managed to find your way, you’d find a tap room that shared a space with the one-barrel brewing system, little more than what a hobbyist homebrewer would use. In fact, the whole thing felt like you were in a friend’s driveway.

Now, two years later, the once miniscule brewery has traded up:  They’ve moved into a 15-barrel brewery, with a much bigger brewing space and a large outdoor deck. It has the look and feel of any microbrewery; it’s still welcoming and accessible, but now there’s much more seating, and the big stainless steel brewing tanks are standing tall in the warehouse-like space downstairs.

Rooftop Brewing’s path is a familiar one in the Pacific Northwest, where one-time homebrewers decide to follow their passion and open a brewery. Some amass funding and launch right into a 15-barrel system in a large, shiny space; others, like Rooftop, start with a tiny space, little to no staff apart from the owners, and a small system—a nanobrewery.

A nanobrewery is loosely defined in the beer world. It’s smaller than a microbrewery, usually operating on a one- to three-barrel system, though the industry hasn’t quite settled on an exact definition. Fans of these minute ventures enjoy small-batch, sometimes off-beat beers sipped with the brewer working the taps, an overall intimate experience. For many aspiring brewers, a nano presents an attractive entry into the industry.

“It was an important first step for Rooftop Brewing Company to start out as a nano,” says Craig Christian, one of the company’s owners and brewers. “The five of us that started it had very little capital to invest and did not want to go find investment dollars until we knew for sure that it was a business that would be successful. Starting nano was a chance to start on a small scale, develop a reputation, experiment with our recipes, and get to know the ins and outs of the brewing industry. We felt that we had the brewing know-how and the smarts to be successful, but without a strong brewing industry background, it was best to start small and not bet the farm right away.”

Beer-crazed Washington and Oregon are brewing tons of nanos, among them Brewers Union in Oakridge, OR; Natian Brewery in Portland; Ambacht Brewing in Hillsboro, OR;  Foggy Noggin in Bothell, WA; Dirty Bucket in Woodinville, WA; and Outlander in Seattle.

But not all nanos are stepping stones to growth: some brewers may decide to stay small. The historical pattern for growth is there, but it remains to be seen whether nanos have staying power.

“The nano path is not for everyone. It is hard to be consistent at that scale, for one. But the biggest factor is economics,” says Christian, who notes it’s hard to stay solvent making so little beer. “I am not sure whether nanos will be a permanent part of the brewing culture or not. Certainly most of the nanobreweries that I am familiar with in Seattle have expanded to a scale that is no longer considered nano. But there seems to still be room in the industry to allow for the little start ups, so we will see whether there are still more out there waiting to pop up.”