Nanobrewery Boom in Denver: Everything Big Gets Small Again

Colorado's craft brewing industry has created some of the biggest fish in the microbrewery pond. The growth has catalyzed a brewing ecosystem, as the big fish have spawned many little fish. Nanobreweries are opening up in Denver at a very swift clip. But one question remains: What is a nanobrewery?
The nanobrewery motto might well be "go small or stay home." Stay home and drink the canned and bottled offerings of the top commercial and craft brewers, but if you want a truly unique experience, find a nanobrewery near you.
Nanobreweries are creating tailor-made experiences for their customers by brewing small batches with special ingredients, revived brewing styles and an experimental attitude. 
"It takes big balls to always be brewing new beers," says Bryan Leavelle of Our Mutual Friend Malt & Brew in Five Points.
But there's an upside, adds Leavelle. "Not being tied to a huge inventory of beer is one of the great things about small-batch brewing. Your mistakes cost you less. The difficulty is finding a balance between new beers and the beers your regulars like to drink."
An elusive definitionThe taps at TRVE Brewing.

TRVE Brewing
on Broadway in Baker has staked out its niche not only on the beers brewed but also the black metal played. With beers named Death Ripper and Hellion, TRVE (pronounced "True") appeals to a special breed of beer lover. TRVE has pioneered creative financing in the nano brewing world with their craft beer club called CVLT. Members buy in and help fund the brewing of in exchange for access to growler refills and special-members only events. 
But is TRVE a nanobrewery? "We aren't one anymore, thank god," says TRVE Proprietor Nick Nunns, though he wasn't sure what the exact definition of a nanobrewery. 
Nick isn't the only local beer luminary unable to put a barrel number on the definition of nanobrewing. Steve Kurowski of the Colorado Brewers Guild doesn't have a ready answer for what the classification specs are for nanobreweries and neither does the Brewers Association. Braden Miller at Black Shirt Brewing seemed surprised when I questioned whether he considered his operation a nanobrewery. 

Nanobrewery or not, there are plenty to of small neighborhood breweries in Denver. Like Our Mutual Friend in Five Points, Wit's End in Valverde is a neighborhood brewery that aims to quell the desire for a new brew. Strange Brewing takes it a little farther and has incorporated adventurous consumption into their T-shirt slogan, "Take something Strange home tonight." Hogshead Brewery in Highlands brews traditional English-style, cask-conditioned ales in a former body shop and gas station upcycled into a pub and beer garden. 
Wit's End Proprietor Scott Witsoe offers a starting point for a definition of a nanbrewery: a three-barrel system, tops. Witsoe has one barrel now, and plans to grow to seven. But what it's really all about is getting as local as possible.
Explains Our Mutual Friend's Leavelle: "I want to be able to shake the hand of the person that grows the grain I buy and I also want to be able to shake the hand of the person that drinks my beer." To this end, Our Mutual Friend sources its malt from Colorado Malting Company in Alamosa.
But local ingredients and customers aren't the only keys to Denver's nanobrewery explosion -- local legislation also plays a major part, says Leavelle. "Colorado liquor and brewing laws make it possible for nanobreweries to exist, but the proximity to local distribution in the taprooms in Denver make small-scale brewing financially feasible."

Expectations and experimentsNanobreweries are often defined as having under four barrels of production capacity.
Black Shirt Brewing defied my expectations of what a nanobrewery would look like, with an industrial feel much like the early Breckenridge Brewery on Blake Street. I thought I'd find something just a nano step up from a homebrewing operation. This was not the case at Black Shirt, or any of the other so-called nanobreweries I visited in Denver. Today's nanobreweries look very much like the brewpubs and microbreweries of 20 years ago. 
One of the traits they all have in common is they often run out of their most popular beers. This means that beer you loved last Friday night may not be available on your visit this weekend. In fact it may never reappear, or at least not for months, and when it does the recipe may have been reworked.

"It is easy for me to get experimental," says Witsoe of Wit's End.  "A smaller system makes it easier to be creative without the weight of potentially having to throw out 1,000 gallons of beer. Our coffee stout was an experimental brew but it now it's in our regular rotation."
With the slippery definition and ever-changing taps, the only thing that seems certain is that nanobreweries exist for about a nanosecond before they either become microbreweries or go out of business. And everyone agrees small-batch brewing in a neighborhood setting is bringing something new to the beer conversation in Denver. So get out and drink something new -- even if it is a little strange.

Read more articles by Jerome Shaw.

Jerome Shaw is a writer, photographer and beer lover from Denver. His travel blog is Travel Boldly. You can find him on Twitter @JeromeShaw or email him here.
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