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Small but mighty, local ‘nanobreweries’ do it all

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Updated: August 25, 2013 6:04AM

There’s not just hunger for local eats in Chicago. There’s thirst. Deep, abiding thirst, the kind which can only be slaked by locally brewed craft beer.

The beer-brewing industry has gotten even more regional with the expansion of nanobreweries into Chicago. Larger than home brew operations but much smaller than microbreweries, nanobreweries are sprouting up in the city and in a few suburbs. Currently, at least seven are either operational or working through the permitting process.

“There’s plenty of beer drinkers in this town, look at the bars,” said Jason Klein, 30, who runs Spiteful Brewing nanobrewery with Brad Shaffer, 30. The two have been close friends since they attended Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.

“People just want to stand behind a local company,” Klein said. “There is always demand for something new that’s small and local.”

Nanobreweries typically have two or three employees, and they do it all: brew the beer, bottle and label it, and distribute it. In the case of Spiteful Brewing, located in the basement of an industrial space in Ravenswood, that sometimes means transporting the beer on the back of a bike or in the trunk of a Tahoe or Explorer. At Pipeworks in Humboldt Park, employees use a Chevy Astrovan with more than 200,000 miles on it that they call the “Bicentennial Falcon,” a nod to “Star Wars”’ “Millennium Falcon.”

“We just load that thing up until it’s scraping the street,” said Mike “Strong Mike” Schallau, Pipeworks’ Master of Barrels. “After you reach a certain size, legally you would have to sell to a distributor who would sell to a bar.”

The operations may seem amateurishly small, but the product is not. Sold at large local retailers like Binny’s Beverage Depot and smaller craft beer meccas around the city, the palate-pleasing beer produced by nanobreweries is increasingly in demand, in part, because there isn’t much supply.

A microbrewery is defined as a brewery producing less than 15,000 barrels of beer a year, according to the Brewers Association, a craft beer advocacy group. Last year, Pipeworks made under 1,000 barrels.

“People want the most local beer and we brew it and send it out the day we bottle it,” said Schallau. “We can sell directly to retail outlets and bars and can also have more competitive prices because it doesn’t go through an intermediary.”

The appeal of running a nanobrewery isn’t only in the mandate to taste beer before bottling it. It’s also in the relatively small start-up costs. Klein and Shaffer, who talked about opening up a bar before realizing the initial costs were too high, worked full-time jobs outside the brewery for three years while getting their operation up and running.

The permitting was an intense and lengthy process that had them figuring out local, state and federal alcohol laws.

“The licensing process was the biggest hurdle,” Shaffer said.

The local nanobreweries are largely interconnected, sharing best practices and occasionally bags of yeast if someone runs out. Spiteful’s Shaffer and Drew Fox, owner of 18th Street Brewery in Gary, Ind., trained together at Pipeworks, for instance.

Fox, who started as a home brewer, said nanobreweries are working to build a transparent community of beer drinkers and makers.

“I think what’s really appealing about it is it’s a small craft,” he said. “The individuals’ hands that are performing the craft are all over the beer. [People] really want to know the individuals behind the kettle. The whole brewing community is letting everyone in to see the hard work.”

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