Beer in a basement? Trust us, you're gonna be hip to these hops
The newest trend filling steins doesn't mark a huge change from the norm — in fact, it's pretty nano. Nanobreweries, to be exact: a model of DIY suds start-ups that's allowing beer entrepreneurs to build their empires just the way they like them. Enterprising beer nerds, you've hereby discovered the brewpub version of underground farmers markets.
"One day we'll open a real pub, and if you find your photo on the wall you'll get a free pint," said Richard Brewer-Hay (yes, that's the name he was born with) as he showed off the pub-appointed Noe Valley basement room that houses his Elizabeth Street Brewery . Daughter Addison, a precocious four-year-old, plays on the ground next to us as we sip a stout concocted by Brewer-Hay in the very same room — we just checked in with her sister, Quincy, on her way to bath time upstairs.
Nanobreweries are, in effect, the domains of beer makers caught between formidable brewing habits and starting their for-profit commercial operation. The Hess Brewing Company website volunteers that the definition of a nanobrewery is production of 10 to 75 gallons of beer annually. It estimates that there are 44 nanos in the country, with 21 in the works. Nanos can't sell their own beer without undergoing the same kind of expensive brewpub permitting process, so most keep their beer available on a by-donation basis — making for a real good party if you can get an invite.
Brewer-Hay, who moonlights as a blogger for eBay, began brewing seven years ago. Natural hosts, he and wife Alyson would offer his American-style, English-inflected beers at their neighborhood-famous Super Bowl parties. They named their brews after members of the family: Firecracker Red for the ginger-haired Addison; Daddy's Chocolate Milk for the stout that Brewer-Hay is partial to (and that we sit sipping). Recently bottled, it has a smooth, light taste. Also, like most of Elizabeth Street's creations, it is low in alcohol.
At first, Brewer-Hay's small batches were purely a labor of love. But as his brewing skills expanded, the family's parties did too, first to 150, then 200. Word spread, until one day he looked around and "didn't know anyone in the room." He realized he had hit on something and started to consider the shift to opening his own brewpub.
His business plan inspiration? "We're going back to the public house," he tells me as we sit on stools amid photos of family and friends lining the walls. (All the images contain at least one drink in the frame — "that's one of the prerequisites," he says.). The nanobrewer wants to build on the conviviality of beer that our Founding Fathers — brewers all, he says — were proponents of. He wants to sell his own beer alongside the city's best buffalo wings and grilled cheese sandwiches. Primarily, though, he wants "families to be able to come, have a few beers, and still be able to function."
He's well on his way to realizing this vision, with no small thanks to the social networking the nanobrewery model lends itself to. Aspiring tipplers score invites to Elizabeth Street by responding to Brewer-Hay's announcements of upcoming pourings on Twitter. Lately the nano gets visitors from across the country: beer brewers and dedicated drinkers who have heard of Brewer-Hay's skill, or perhaps caught news of his partnership with 21st Amendment brewer Shaun O'Sullivan, which lead to a high-alcohol version of the beer Brewer-Hay named after his grandfather. Their bitter, Imperial Jack, won a gold medal at the 2010 World Beer Cup.
Across town in SoMa, a nano buzz is fermenting at Pacific Brewing Laboratories  that is a little less bedtime and a lot more nightlife. The brews are being crafted by hand by young pups Bryan Hermannsson and Patrick Horn, two skinny fellers in their early 20s. Hermannsson is a bioengineer whose previous nano-project, Clara Street Brewing, introduced him to the enthusiastic Horn. Their project inhabits a sparse side street garage, that since 2009 has been crammed with a younger crowd of hop heads at PBL's keg-tapping parties.
What's special about Pacific's vibe? Surely the nano's unconventional flavors — Szechwan peppercorn, goji berries, and chamomile have all been included in their bubbling brews. Pouring parties serve as share-and-tell time for the duo, who will wax on about their latest hibiscus saison until they're interrupted by its wort bubbling out to the floor by their feet.
"Beer connects you with people in many ways," Hermannsson says. The two are hoping to start a brewpub of their own in the future, a fact they don't hide from the potential investors who make it to their parties. "That's how you get on your feet. People come, you throw free events," Bryan says. "It's a great way to test recipes," Patrick interjects. Fellow partygoers, each holding a glass of one of PBL's four beers being poured that night, undoubtedly wouldn't offer a nano of dissent.