Last week in the northwestern Washington Tri-City Herald there was a nice profile of a small Washington brewery, Laht Neppur Brewing, which is the last name backwards of the owners, Court and Katie Ruppenthal. The brewery is located in Waitsburg, Washington, which is in the southeastern part of the state, a little bit north of Walla Walla. The Ruppenthal’s brewery has been open a little over six months, having sold their first beer last June.
According to the article, they first thought most of their sales would be to local bars and restaurants but the brewery in their converted workshop has become a popular local hangout in its own right. Several of their popular beers sell out before they can be delivered outside the tiny brewery. But the Ruppenthal’s brewery is very laid back, with customers able to cook their own food on the grill. It’s become a community center of sorts.
Given the recent discussions about children at beer places, this passage lept out at me.
Children are welcome and even have their own toy boxes and a tiny broom to push around the broken peanut shells that litter the concrete floors. “We have a cement floor and metal furniture,” Katie said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, they’re going to break something.”
But earlier in the article, co-owner and brewer Court Ruppenthal muses that his brewery is more like a “nano brewery” than a microbrewery, which started me thinking. A microbrewery is defined as a brewery that “produces less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year.” There are a few other bits to the definition, but that’s the main distinction. Above that are regional breweries (up to 2 million barrels) and then, simply, breweries (or big or national ones, with over 2 million barrels). There are only four breweries making more than 2 million barrels per year, and 53 that produce between 15,000 and 2 million (according to the 2006 figures from Modern Brewery Age). So out of roughly 1400 U.S. breweries, only 57 are large, leaving around 1,343 microbreweries (including brewpubs, whose definition has to do with their percentage of packaged beer sold).
So it seems to me on a practical basis, the term microbrewery doesn’t seem as useful anymore, or at least seems to need some modification. The various sizes of the remaining breweries and some patterns there seem to suggest some changes to the definitions. For example, below 15,000 annual barrels there are only five that brew more than 10,000 each year. Looking at the next 5,000 barrels down shows another big drop off, with only 19 breweries producing between 5,000 and 10,000 barrels per annum. So that means there are still a whopping 1,319 breweries that make less than 5,000 barrels per year.
If we keep going, only 10 make between 4,000 and 5,000 barrels annually, 16 between 3,000 and 4,000, and 17 between 2,000 and 3,000. This means 1,276 make less than 2,000 barrels of beer each year. Fully 67 breweries make more than 1,000 barrels so that’s still approximately 1,209 below a thousand barrels per year. The reason for doing all that math is to show that the overwhelming majority of breweries make a very small amount of beer each year. This is not to take anything away from their efforts, but in terms of what’s important to their interests, I have to believe they’re different from that of the larger concerns. There’s such a wide range of sizes within the definition of microbreweries that there must be a correspondingly varied set of issues they face, as well.
So I’m not quite sure where you’d draw the line, though at either 2,000 or 1,000 seems prudent. Those breweries, I think, we should define as nano breweries. Technically, the prefix “nano” means one billionth but more colloquially simply is used to denote the very small (as in nanotechnology). Fittingly, the Jargon File says the following about nano:
– pref. [SI: the next quantifier below micro-; meaning *10^(-9)] Smaller than micro-, and used in the same rather loose and connotative way. Thus, one has nanotechnology (coined by hacker K. Eric Drexler) by analogy with `microtechnology’; and a few machine architectures have a `nanocode’ level below `microcode’.
So in computer or math parlance, nano is directly below micro in terms of size. Next below nano is actually “pico,” technically meaning one-trillionth, but at some point it might also be useful to have microbreweries, nanobreweries and picobreweries.
But for now I’d argue for dividing the current definition of micros into two, with micros being breweries that produce between more than either 1,000 or 2,000 barrels per year and nanos being breweries that produce less than 1,000 or 2,000 each year, along with all of the other current parts of the definition. And since there are so few breweries between 10,000 and 15,000 barrles per year, perhaps the upper microbrewery/lower regional boundary should be changed to 10,000. The reason for doing this, I think, is in terms of not just size but the way in which these different size breweries function, are organized and approach the market, which I believe is radically different between all of the divisions. Thus it would make sense to start talking about them as separate parts of the beer industry, in much the same way we do now with the big breweries, regional breweries and microbreweries.
Anybody else have any thoughts or comments to add?