Since the launch of Little Hop Brewing in early 2020, Zak and Lisa Cate have zigged where almost every other craft brewery would have zagged. Even with about 70 breweries within city limits, upstart Portland nanobreweries are finding ways to stand out and reach beer lovers in a crowded marketplace.
Brewing out of his family’s garage in Southwest Portland, Zak opted against producing a flagship beer that would-be customers could count on — choosing instead to craft an ever-changing lineup that has included IPAs, lagers, a fruity grisette and a coffee-infused cream ale. Rather than selling those brews at beer bars and bottle shops around town, the husband-and-wife team built a fanbase by hand-delivering four-packs to customers across the Portland metro area in a bright blue 1963 Dodge pickup. The Cates later sold their limited releases at the Tigard Farmers Market.
It’s not the blueprint most startup breweries would have followed, but it’s been a successful first few years for Little Hop — one of several Portland nanobreweries that are changing the way locals and visitors enjoy craft beer. Here’s how they’re doing it — and how you can enjoy one-off releases and small-batch beers from under-the-radar breweries across Portland.
The Growth of Portland Nanobreweries
It’s tough to say how many nanobreweries are currently brewing in Portland, especially since most are run by one or two people, some with no set brewing schedule, and many without public-facing pubs. The proliferation of small-batch breweries and the success of the Nano Beer Fest (founded in 2008) reveal a growing thirst to enjoy beers from the next class of acclaimed Portland brewers.
It’s the latest in Portland’s well-documented, long-lasting love affair with craft beer. The city’s first modern craft breweries opened in 1984, and Oregon’s first brewpub followed in 1985; today, you can drink some of the nation’s best craft beer in Portland’s dozens of brewpubs and bars, movie theaters, and even grocery stores. And that’s to say nothing of Portland’s numerous beer festivals, like SheBrew and Sip of Spring which attract beer lovers from all over the world.
Led by the likes of McMenamins, Widmer Brothers Brewing and Breakside Brewery, Portland is known the world over today as Beervana. As big-name brands have become synonymous with the city, passionate and talented brewers are looking to carve out a niche and attract new audiences — and are doing so by launching pint-sized nanobreweries.
Portland Nanobreweries, Explained
Somewhat confusingly, there’s no tried-and-true definition for what constitutes a nanobrewery; so small are nanobreweries, in fact, they don’t even register as their own market segment in the eyes of the Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade association that tracks and champions the craft beer industry. Generally speaking, analysts and craft beer industry insiders define nanobreweries as brewing no more than three barrels of beer at a time — the equivalent of six kegs — with limited annual production.
As that small production number indicates, most nanobreweries are passion projects of individual brewers or small groups, and the majority of their beers are crafted in garages, on small-scale setups, or on available equipment at larger brewpubs. Some serve their beers on-site, while others distribute to beer bars, bottle shops and the occasional farmers’ market. Whatever their business model, the small size of these nanobreweries gives them the flexibility to eschew current trends, take risks with their recipes and create enthusiastic communities around their (occasionally unconventional) output.
To wit: Dan McIntosh-Tolle, co-owner of the gluten-free Moonshrimp Brewing, once crafted a beer from a historical recipe left behind by George Washington — a molasses-based mess McIntosh-Tolle matter-of-factly calls “terrible” and “really bad.” Still, Moonshrimp’s customers appreciated his curiosity, buying out his supply and returning for more. “People came back and were like, ‘That was awful, give me another one,’” he says of the experiment. (McIntosh-Tolle’s creativity extends to more conventional craft beers as well; he also brews a brown ale with spruce tips picked from Sitka spruce trees on his family’s land near the Oregon Coast — trees he planted more than a decade ago.)
Ari Moss, owner of 13th Moon Brouwerij, echoes those sentiments about feeling free to follow his muse — in his case, crafting historically inspired recipes and creating beers that reflect his interest in herbalism. “We don’t brew what anyone else is expecting us to brew,” Moss says. “And when you try something, you start to trust us to try the other weird stuff we have.” Moss’ beers have included an amber rye ale, creative lagers, Scotch ales and easy-drinking stouts.
Enjoying Nanobreweries Around Portland
Today, a number of regional beer bars, pubs and tasting rooms make a point to showcase the next generation of craft breweries.
Sean Hiatt owns Proper Pint Taproom (in Southeast Portland’s Woodstock neighborhood) and Proper Pint Oakroom (in Southwest Portland’s Multnomah Village), for instance, and makes a point to pour beers exclusively from independent craft breweries — including several local nanobreweries. Nearby John’s Marketplace, a revered bottle shop and champion of local craft beer, typically pours pints and sells brews from small-batch producers.
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And while most larger breweries have at least one pub where you can reliably purchase beer, it’s a bit more scattershot with nanobreweries. McIntosh-Tolle staffs a walk-up window, mere steps from where he brews and conditions Moonshrimp’s beers, just off Highway 99 W in Southwest Portland. Moss’ 13th Moon Brouwerij beers can be enjoyed alongside regional beers, cider, sake and other beverages from around the world at the wood-paneled 13th Moon Gravity Well in Southeast Portland.
If you’re looking to sample some of the city’s best nanobreweries all in one place, plan your visit around January’s Nano Beer Fest — which features a dozen or so pours from local producers.
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