MOONSHRIMP. Leikam. Gateway. Red Ox. Shattered Oak. Brewed by Gnomes. And now Tiny Wolf. These aren’t rare Pokémon—they’re some, if not all, of the nanobreweries currently operating in the Portland area. While there’s no established definition for what constitutes a “nanobrewery,” it’s generally accepted that anyone brewing about three or four barrels’ worth of beer at a time isn’t merely micro, it’s nano.
Based on 99W in King City between Tigard and Sherwood, Tiny Wolf Brewing aims to offer up barrel-aged beers to Portland’s Westside. Brewer David Bogle is 28 and has no professional brewing experience, but began homebrewing in 2011. Tiny Wolf whips up single-barrel batches of hop-packed IPA for now, but has six wine barrels and a whiskey cask filled with Belgian-style ales.
“We have a marvelous beer scene in Portland,” says Bogle, “and sour beers seem to be growing in popularity. However, in my discussions with the nearby taprooms they all told me they would love to add more sour beers to their offerings, but it was often difficult to find in kegs.” That has been even more marked on the Westside. Beaverton’s the Growlerie is Tiny Wolf’s primary account thus far. (No Tiny Wolf beers were available at press time.)
“As I considered this as a business, I started speaking with owners and brewmasters, asking for their direction about the best way to get started. Overwhelmingly, they agreed it was best to jump in headfirst,” Bogle says. “The advantage of the one-barrel approach is I can afford to make mistakes. It’s hard to do something so catastrophic it cost me the business.”
Bend’s Ale Apothecary is one of Bogle’s influences. That one-and-a-half-barrel brewery has been referred to as an art project since it’s hardly set up to become commercially viable beyond supporting founder and brewer Paul Arney. After 15 years at Deschutes working his way up to assistant brewmaster, Arney launched the Apothecary in 2012. The dude has a notorious Finnish kuurna—a canoe-shaped mash tun carved out of a tree from his backyard.
The Ale Apothecary is one of only two Oregon home-based nanobreweries to attain an appreciable level of success; Arney’s beers command $30 to $40 a bottle. The other is the Commons Brewery, which began as Beetje Brewery in founder Mike Wright’s backyard in 2010. Wright accepts his share of the credit (or blame) for the surge in nanos around Portland, because he made it look easy (it’s not). He explains that when budding brewers approach him with questions couched as “if this guy can do it, anybody can,” Wright says, “I answer all of them, of course, but [they] need to understand that a nano is not a viable business model.”
Earlier this year, Humble Brewing powered down its North Portland garage-based operation that launched in 2011. But co-owner Scott Davis says he’d “ABSOLUTELY do it all over again.” (Emphasis his, via email.) “I can’t really say there’s anything nanos offer consumers that the small to medium craft breweries don’t,” writes Davis, but says they do offer the “freedom to experiment, the ability to put new stuff out all the time, the ability to dump a batch if needed.”
Davis adds, “It’s also significantly more than a one-person job. Nobody should underestimate the time it takes... taking orders, making deliveries, picking up empties, and trying to keep the public informed. No matter how you start, you’re going to eventually need capital to upgrade [if you have bigger ambitions]. While we were happy at our scale, it was never going to be more than a hobby without a significant cash infusion.”
The natural comparison for a nanobrewery is Portland’s beloved food carts. Instead of six, we have about 600 of those. As Tiny Wolf’s Bogle puts it, “We provide a lower-cost route to learn the craft and the business and act as an incubator for people with passion and drive.” That certainly sounds like former food carts Burrasca, Lardo, and Brunch Box.
Brewed by Gnomes’ Shay Hosseinion says, “I’m also looking at maybe a food cart or brick and mortar for a small tasting room as my next step. [Then] build my own brewery on a farm—probably 10 barrels.”
Steven Shomler, author of both Portland Food Cart Stories and Portland Beer Stories, has this to say: “It’s what they can do to take their shots. At least they’re going for it.”