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At Great American Beer Fest, Some 'Micros' Go 'Nano'

Billed as the world’s largest commercial beer competition, the Great American Beer Festival gets underway Thursday in Denver.

This year the GABF sold out all of its nearly 50,000 tickets in less than an hour, emblematic of a broader boom, that’s going on within the craft beer industry according to Julia Herz of the Boulder-based Brewers Association.

“Things are on fire right now for breweries in planning, we actually have 1,300 breweries in planning in the US that we’ve recorded right now, on top of the 2100 breweries that are in existence.”

With so many opening up in cities like Fort Collins and Denver, we got to wondering how new breweries try to stand out in a market that’s becoming increasingly crowded?

As it turns out, some brewers are staying competitive by entering the market as hyper-local.

Going “Nano”

Scott Witsoe scoops up a heavy sack of oats and hoists it over his shoulders.

“These are the kinds of things you do as a nano,” he says.

That’s nano, as in nano-brewer. 

When Witsoe was laid off from his job last year, he decided to take his passion for home brewing and go commercial, opening up his Wit’s End Brewing Company, his new full-time job.

Wit’s End is housed in this converted garage in a remote warehouse area south of downtown Denver.

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC
Wit's End Brewing Company's brewery storefront in Denver. The brewery is housed in an industrial park south of downtown.

No frills, just how Witsoe likes it.

“For me, I thought, why can’t a brewery be like your corner bakery, or your corner meat shop,” he says. “Why does it have to be at this grand scale.”

The term nano-brewery is so new defining it is a work-in-progress.  But Witsoe and others in this emerging sector have collectively agreed a “nano” is one that has a brewing capacity of just three barrels or less, that is, there are never more than about two kegs of a particular beer on hand and ready to sell at once.

Running a beer operation this small has its downsides for sure, says Witsoe.  But at the same time, he can’t imagine being a larger craft brewery with investors behind him. 

“I also have very specific beers I want to make, a very specific thing I want to do,” he says. “It’s hard to always articulate that, and for me to be able to have a small system that I can play with, to not have to take on investors and do any of that, I can just sort of do it my way.”   

Crowd Pleaser

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC
The 'Wilford' is pictured left, to the right is a 'Super FL.I.P.A', two of the brews made at Wit's End.

One of those “specific” beers is the Wilford, Witsoe’s take on a Belgian-style Oatmeal IPA, one of several experimental beers he’s entering in this week’s Great American Beer Festival. 

The beer has gotten quite popular with his customers in the tap room up front, for now, the only place around town where you can drink it.

“The less refined the physical space, the better the beer,” says customer Harneet Sethi. “Maybe that’s not a true rule, but I go by that theory because they’re focusing their energy on the beer.” 

Sethi and his friend Mark Dziedzic happened upon Wit’s End while visiting town from New England this week where they are both home-brewers.

“I think it will take off, because this is how it used to be, every city had their own beers,” says Dziedzic. “You had Germany, little towns where there’s little breweries, so I can see neighborhoods having their own beers.”

The Local Beer Movement

In many ways, the phenomenon fits right in with the theme of the localization of beer.

“Because they’re mainly only selling to their backyard network,” says Julia Herz of the Brewers Association, which now counts about 300 nano-breweries among its members. 

Herz says it’s an appealing business model for many up and coming brewers.  There’s not a lot of overhead or capital needed, and many build off of some of the home brewing equipment they’ve already acquired. 

That’s how many “heritage” craft brewers such as Dogfish Head in Delaware or New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins got their start, after all.

“[They] started as very small breweries, delivering one case at a time and brewing one batch at a time and then they grew,” Herz says. “It all depends on the business model of the brewer.”

‘The Oscars of Beers’

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC
Scott Witsoe

Wits End owner Scott Witsoe isn’t ruling out an expansion, but for now, he just seems to be savoring his early success. 

The brewery just celebrated its one year anniversary.  And another milestone came recently when Witsoe decided he needed to hire an employee to run his tap room and help out with brewing.

Sales are continuing to rise.   

“It’s so surreal to me, I never thought I would be the type of person that would actually employ someone,” Witsoe says. “It still sounds kind of formal when I’m looking over the payroll and signing checks.”

Also surreal for Witsoe, this year he won’t just be going to the Great American Beer Festival, he’s competing.  Nano-breweries don’t have their own category, so that Oatmeal IPA will go head to head against the big boys like New Belgium.

But even if he doesn’t win, Witsoe says the exposure alone is worth the price of admission to the Oscars of Beer.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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