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As a homebrewer and beer aficionado, I’m intrigued by Nano-Breweries and the owners/operators that risk so much to pursue their passion for brewing.

In my quest to learn as much as possible about these businesses and individuals, I began reaching out to brewers running operations of particular interest to me and asking questions. I would then post these interviews on homebrew forums for all to learn from and enjoy.

After having just conducted my third interview, I decided it would be great to host these interviews all in the same place for easy reading and future reference… and thus, BrewNano was born.

As I stumble across Nano-Breweries that catch my interest, I’ll be posting about them here. Whenever possible, I’ll be reaching out to the brewers (owners) of these exciting businesses to asks questions about their operations.

It is my hope that these posts will educate and inspire those with interests similar to my own. Enjoy!!

Valhöll Brewing

(Interview originally conducted in November of 2011)

I discovered Valhöll Brewing through the fall issue of Beer West Magazine. In it, there was an article about a brewery “explosion” in the small Pacific Northwest town of Poulsbo Washington. This small town of just over 8000 residents (as of 2009) went from having zero breweries to four in the span of a few months last year and the love of craft beer has been, apparently, growing there ever since.

Conveniently, I have family in that region and decided to make a trip out during the Thanksgiving Holiday. I was fortunate to have done so as the breweries there, including Valhöll, are exceptional and, as always, an inspiration to homebrewers dreaming of going pro someday.

While I didn’t have to opportunity to actually meet Jeff in person, he was exceptionally welcoming when I reached out to him for an interview. I asked him about his business, his beers, and his thoughts on the beer scene in the sleepy little town of Poulsbo:

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Tell me how you got your start. Were a homebrewer before you went pro? How long were you homebrewing before making the jump?

I was never a homebrewer. I was given the opportunity to work in the brewing industry by Ted Farmer. Ted owned the former Heads Up Brewing Co. which was located in Silverdale a few miles to the south of me. Heads Up was a brew on premises as well as a tap room, bottle store, and brewery. After working for Ted for a year or so he started teaching me about brewing and eventually I was brewing full time for him. I had never experienced beer like he offered before. I spent 11 years living in Minnesota which had a great homebrewing community but little in the way of craft beer. I tasted Ted’s strong scotch ale affectionately called “Damned Red Scotch Ale” and I was hooked and have not looked back since.

I first learned about your operation after reading about the brewery “boom” happening in Poulsbo Washington in the fall issue of Beer West magazine. In that article, you mentioned that you wanted to be the first “new-generation” brewery open in your hometown. What did you mean by that? What do you consider a “new-generation” brewery?

I believe that was a misquote. I do not recall ever calling ourselves a new generation. Brewers evolve as do beer styles. My goal was to be the first in this city period, which I accomplished. She may have thrown that in because we were talking about how many of the new breweries are creating styles and interpretations of styles that are breaking the “mold” of what beer is or can be. I consider myself an extreme brewer to some extent. Not just in terms of alcohol but flavors and the use of adjuncts to create something new and memorable. I never want a customer to leave and think my beers tasted like the guy down the street. I also will never tap a beer I will not drink myself.

Outside of the obvious fact that just about every homebrewer daydreams of going pro… where there any external factors that “encouraged” you to make the jump, or did you just decide it was time to have a go at it? 

It was time. It had been several years since Heads Up had to close and I needed to brew. I was at a fork in the road with my day job. By that I mean had I stayed longer I would have been to close to full retirement and would have stayed. Doing a full time day job and this is brutal. I was working over 100 hours a week between the two and my family and the brewery was suffering. The brewery started to stall out I guess you could say. Had I not gone full time it would have never grown which is my dream, so it was time.

Is the brewery your full-time gig, or do you have a day-job to pay the bills?

Yes. Remember those who wish to make the leap to the big leagues have money saved up or a big investor behind them. Money is tight in the first year. Bills getting paid at home becomes difficult at times especially after giving up a federal career with a nice paycheck.

It sounds like things are going quite well for you, having already moved once to a larger space after only six months! Besides making quality beer, do you have any thoughts on why you think you’ve found such great success for a nano-brewery in a small town?

It was time. By that I mean there is a new generation of drinkers that have grown up with craft beer especially in the northwest. When I was young and even after being a legal drinker, the choices were slim and import specialty stores were few. Now craft beer is in every corner store and there is a brewery in nearly every town. People have come to understand that drinking a beer is just as, if not more, sophisticated than wine these days. The complexity and flavor depths that are being produced have our supporters wanting more quality beer. It has been wonderful watching the big “3” being pushed off-tap in the regional market.

Amazingly, in the span of only a few short months, Poulsbo went from having zero breweries to four. Have you found the newly developed [pro] brewing community welcoming and supportive of each other, or has the near instantaneous competition been something of a challenge for your own growing and evolving business?

We all get along amazingly well. Dave “Slippery Pig Brewing” and I have become very good friends through this process. We order grain together to save shipping cost and we help each other out as much as possible. I have known the boys at Sound Brewing for years. They were Heads Up Brewing regulars. I just recently got the privilege of getting to know Steve from Battenkill Brewing and he is a great brewer and becoming a good friend. Of course there is competition but we send customers to the other breweries and help when we can. For example Sound has the only keg washer among us so Mark Hood lets us wash our kegs there. It has been a great experience.

Do you feel you need to have some type of “hook” to distinguish yourself from the rest of the market? If so, what, and how helpful do you feel it’s been?  

We have been described as “culinary brewers” which I guess comes from my love of adjuncts. As an example we make a monster stout that has sweet potatoes, raisins, brown sugar, and cinnamon in it. Tastes like holiday cooking. I love dry hopping and also adding fruit (e.g. grapefruit goes well with Simcoe dry hop).  We also try and use as many products from the local area as possible.

Along the same lines, perhaps, do you tailor the types of beer you produce to current market demands, or do you produce only the beers you enjoy and just hope/assume your customers will be interested?

You have to listen to your customer base of course, but I enjoy helping guide people down a path to beer discovery. I love someone who tells me they hate IPA’s or “dark” beers. Really? So you have tried them all? People’s understanding of beer by and large is limited. I designed an IPA that I made very balanced and finished with Belgian yeast. I used no bittering hops at all, but chose aroma and flavor hops which would showcase that hops are flavorful not just bitter and you can have a well balanced IPA that is 85 IBU’s and finished with the estery flavors of a Belgian ale. It has helped change many minds about IPA’s. I have found that once a customer is loyal they will try anything you make. I am a talker if you have not noticed. Once you can engage a customer and get them talking about the beer, it is easier to guide them to what they like and it also helps them feel comfortable about trying new things.

But to answer your question, I make what my instincts tell me. So far it has worked out really well.

It appeared to me while I was there that you’re currently brewing on a two-tier 15 gallon keggle system. Is that accurate? Tell me a bit about the system.

I am on a Sabco Brew Magic. Dog Fish Head Brewing started with one of these. It has a 1/3 bbl brewing capacity and it is amazing. We have been getting over 80% efficiency very consistently.

I also spied some nice stainless conical fermenters in the back corner. What size are those, what type/brand, and what is your total fermentation capacity?

Those are Blichmann 1 bbl conicals. I have 4 of those and 3 Sabco 15 gal. fermenters. We are at 10 bbl per month output.

Are you selling your beer at the brewery only, or do you sell kegs to other bars/restaurants in your area? What about bottled product in local stores?

We are 95% out of tasting room but we do limited keg sales for a few local bars and occasionally in Seattle. Bottles once we are in the new space.

Given your current system size, how many times a week are you having to brew to keep up with demand? Are you finding it reasonable/workable or are you desperately in need of upscaling?

Upscale? Yes now please! We just bought a building and are preparing to install a 5 bbl system with 8 unitanks and serving tanks. That will put us over 1000 bbls a year.

Right now I have to brew at least 8 times a week to keep up. It takes a triple brew day to fill one conical.

Tell me a little bit about your current location. As a tourist, I don’t know the town well… are you located in an area with an organic customer base, or are you considered more of a destination location – one that folks have to seek out specifically rather than simply stumble upon?

I would say both. We have amazing local support but Poulsbo has become a beer destination as of late. Also there are several very good beer bars and pubs in town and two specialty bottle stores.

The brewery is in a relatively small space, but based on my impression while visiting, it appears to work quite well. What is the total square footage? How much of that is dedicated to the servery and how much goes to brewing operations?

The space is 628 sq. feet. What you saw was the entire operation. It is split about half and half. We crammed as much in the space as we could.

Like the other three breweries in Poulsbo, you serve plenty of beer at your establishment, but no [prepared] food. Do you feel this has impacted business at all? What has the customers response been? Have you reached out to any local restaurants to work out delivery options for your patrons?

Like many of the smaller breweries in the state, we do not serve food. There are too many good restaurants in Poulsbo. Several local pizza places deliver and we do serve locally smoked salmon, cheese, and nuts. No complaints so far. I am a brewer not a chef. Someday maybe.

Aside from standard licensing and permit requirements, was there any unexpected governmental red tape that you had to deal with? How painful/painless was your licensing/permitting process? How long did it take, start to finish, to get fully licensed?

It was just over a year to get licensed. The city was difficult but that is due to the laws that were on the books. Once they understood everything it was fairly simple.

Do you have a business plan? Is it a traditional business plan or a more informal outline? Where do you see your business going in the coming years?

Must have business plan. Yes we have a 10 year plan. So far we are 3 years ahead of schedule. I definitely want to grown into a full production brewery. In the 30 bbl to 50 bbl size. That is 3 or so years down the road.

Having now gone through the process of starting a brewery, is there anything you would have done differently had you to do it all over again?

Yes a bigger system to start. And more money.

Do you still homebrew for yourself, friends, and family? Do you enjoy the beer brewing process as much now as you did when you were only homebrewing? How has brewing changed for you now that you’ve gone pro?

It becomes work to a point. An 18 hour day is long no matter if you love it or not. I love this to the point of insane passion so I love it more now. As my understanding of the science of brewing grows my love for it increases.

Any advice for homebrewers out there who may be dreaming about going pro someday?

DO IT. If you have a passion for this the do it. Save your money and do it right. If you think you have enough cash, then double it!

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Many thanks to Jeff for taking time out of his obviously hectic schedule to answer my questions. He is doing an amazing job forging his business and finding much success. I wish him the best of luck and look forward to getting back to his operation in the near future – presumably an operation much larger than the one I visited last month!!

Blackrocks Brewery

(Interview originally conducted in October of 2011)

This is my second interview with an owner/operator of a nano-brewery and I have to say, the people running these businesses are really an inspiration to all of us who, on our long commute home every day from our corporate indenturement, daydream about going pro.

Blackrocks Brewery is located inMarquette,MIand was founded by David Manson and Andy Langlois.

They have a somewhat unique business model for a nano, and one that is of particular interest to me. Realizing the advantages of serving their own beer rather than selling kegs to other establishments, David and Andy decided to open a tap house. They sell no food out of their facility… just beer. And they are finding success in doing so.

I reached out to David Manson and found him to be very welcoming and interested in sharing his and Andy’s story. I hope you will check out their website and enjoy the following Q&A:

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You both obviously started out brewing beer for your personal enjoyment. How long were you homebrewers before you decided to go pro?

Andy and I were actively brewing for 4+ years in my basement. We started with 5 gallons and quickly found that we needed to upgrade to 10 gallons as our supply (like now) was never enough. For the last few years we were brewing every weekend.

Like many pro-brewers out there right now, it sounds like the economic downsizing of the past few years was the impetus for you opening your brewery. Do you think you’d be were you are now if it hadn’t been for the current corporate downsizing climate? Do you still have to work outside of the brewery to pay the bills, or have you been able to make this your full-time job?

I think everyone dreams of opening a “real” brewery when they sit around and are home brewing. It was definitely in our long term plans but had it not been for the corporate downsizing we may have never stretched ourselves to actually go about and do it. Not only was it an opportunity to try our dream but it was a goal to keep Andy and his family in a community where they wanted to be. As it turned out I kept my day job and Andy does the brewing operations. I have found less time to brew and now do more of the administrative duties.

Your brewery is particularly interesting. It’s in a converted house? How big is your current facility (brew space and service space)?

Our current brewery operations are small. We have a 10×12 brewhouse and about 800 sq ft tasting room. Obviously we see this as a unique setting that allows customers feel involved in the brewing. They really enjoy the comfort of the small tasting room.

From the pictures and video I’ve seen, it appears as though your actual brewing capacity is fairly small, but that you have 5 or more 1 barrel fermenters. What is your current brew system and fermentation capacity? What type/brand of equipment are you using?

We currently use the Blichmann three vessel 1bbl brew system but will be upgrading to a Premiere stainless 3bbl system. We have 10 1bbl fermentors, so we brew a ton. This was by design as we didn’t know what the actual market demand was going to be. It was also insurance against potential batches lost due to infection or bad recipes. This [small system] would minimize our losses. It would have been tough to dump a bbl of beer but better than 7bbls.

While you serve plenty of beer at your brewery, you don’t serve any food. Instead you have worked with other local businesses to have food delivered to those who want it. How did you reach out to the local restaurants in your area, and how receptive were they to your ideas/requests? How receptive have your customers been to this setup?

The food issue is tough. Although we would like to offer food, we have neither the space nor the time and know how. Local establishments adopted the concept pretty quick, and some even offered free delivery if it was coming to Blackrocks. Our customers are understanding and seem to find it charming. Many even enjoy bringing in home cooked meals to share with other patrons/friends.

Are you selling your beer at the brewery only, or do you sell kegs to other bars/restaurants in your area? What about bottled product in local stores?

We are currently only selling on-site.Michiganis a three-tier distribution system so you need to be really ramped up for production to meet the needs. With the addition of our new brew system we hope to be able to sell to patrons for home consumption.

Do you tailor the types of beer you produce to current market demands, or do you produce only the beers you both enjoy and just hope/assume your customers will be interested?

We normally brew the types of beers we enjoy, and people have also enjoyed them as well. As a small brewery that is brewing often, we are afforded the flexibility to respond to customers request for previous beers they enjoyed or types of beers they would like to see us produce. In most cases we have been able to meet their needs. We also follow a loose seasonal brew schedule. More heavy dark beers in the winter coupled with the regular beers people enjoy and look forward to.

Do you feel you need to have some type of “hook” to distinguish yourself from the rest of the market? If so, what, and how helpful do you feel it’s been?

I am not sure I would call it a hook but I think our community involvement and the sense that people have been here with us from the beginning goes a long way. The craft beer movement as a whole has certainly helped and it is my opinion that people are looking to drink and support locally produced goods over the foreign owned entities that produce sub-quality products. As much as I don’t have a taste for the big two’s products, I am happy they are owned by foreign entities. It only help to reinforce our emphasis that local dollars spent in our community stay in our community.

Aside from standard licensing and permit requirements, was there any unexpected governmental red tape that you had to deal with? How painful/painless was your licensing/permitting process?

When you say standard lic and permits, it is perhaps the most daunting aspect of opening any business. The Feds want their paperwork and pound of flesh, and the state agencies and local city and county agencies are no different. You feel as though you are skin and bones by the end. Some of the local permits and variances are frustrating and at times difficult to understand, but if you have solid justification and beat the streets and talk to your neighbors it can usually be resolved.

Do you have a business plan? Is it a traditional business plan or a more informal outline? Where do you see your business going in the coming years?

We have had 2 business plans in our short time of being open and foresee several modification in the time to come. A fellowMichiganbrewery CEO said their business plan changes every 6 months. You need to stay nimble and flexible to respond to market conditions. Do we have a broad large focused plan? Yes. It is dynamic and at times dreamy but if you don’t have a goal, you become stagnant. We keep trying to figure out what we can do to achieve that long term goal by re-investing in our current operations.

Having now gone through the process of starting a brewery, is there anything you would have done differently had you to do it all over again?

This question is asked a ton. Currently I would say we are too new in the game to answer honestly. Bigger? Perhaps but that would have left us with a cash flow situation. Different location? Maybe, but our current space is part of the charm of our business. So right now I would say no, we started how we wanted, the way we wanted. Things have worked okay for us to date.

Do you still homebrew for yourself, friends, and family? Do you enjoy the beer brewing process as much now as you did when you were only homebrewing? How has brewing changed for you now that you’ve gone pro?

We don’t homebrew anymore. But our current operation is like homebrewing, and there is a lot of brewing going on. Now our friends and family need to join us at Blackrocks for a pint. They just need to pay for it now!

Any advice for homebrewers out there who may be dreaming about going pro someday?

Homebrewers dreaming of going pro need to have a commitment and a desire to bust their ass to make their dream a reality. It doesn’t come without some price. Time away from family, loss of “steady” income for an unknown, not to mention the weird pressure of putting yourself in the form of beer out there for people to judge and be critical of. Make sure you have at least 6 great recipes that you know will be well received and don’t be afraid to experiment. One of our refrains from all the fed and state paperwork as well as local was to come away from a meeting or call with a punch list to knock off. Lists of things to do are better than not knowing what to do or how to do it. Follow your dream, it might work and it might not, but you will never kick yourself later for not trying.

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A huge thanks to David Manson for taking the time to answer my questions. He and Andy and their Blackrocks Brewery are inspirational for any of us that dream of one day going pro.

I wish them the best of luck and huge success.

Old Hangtown Beer Works

(Interview originally conducted in April of 2011)

Inspired by some of the interviews I read on homebrewtalk.com with folks who have made the transition from homebrewing to probrewing, I decided I’d reach out and conduct an interview of my own. After having enjoyed (thoroughly) a BrewingNetwork.com podcast on nano-brewries where he was a guest, I decided to reach out to the owner-operator of Old Hangtown Beer Works.

Old Hangtown Beer Works is located inPlacerville, Ca. (“Old Hangtown”) and was established in 2010. It is a true nano-brewery with an estimated annual production of 50-100 barrels. They produce award winning hand crafted ales and lagers.

The owner and head brewer, Michael Frenn, is a really great guy and was more than happy to let me steal some of his time to conduct an interview. So without further delay, I present to you Michael Frenn of Old Hangtown Beer Works:

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I’m assuming you started out brewing beer for your personal enjoyment. How long were you a homebrewer before you decided it was time to “go pro”?

About ten years. I started brewing around 2000

What got you started brewing originally? What was the turning point when you decided you wanted to brew professionally?

For homebrewing, I was at a Little League game when I saw an old friend who years earlier had offered me some homebrew. Thought it was the nastiest thing I’d ever tasted. In retrospect, as I was a Coors Light drinker, it was probably an excellent pale or IPA! In any event, my birthday was coming up and I asked my wife for a homebrew kit to brew (you guessed it!) Coors Light. The rest is history. As the saying goes, “If you give a man a beer he’ll waste an afternoon. Teach him to brew, he’ll waste a lifetime!”

As for pro-brewing, I had been contemplating a second career for awhile, but not for another 10 years, or so. An unintended job change gave me some free time (always dangerous with me!) and I found a few resources about starting a brewery. It was when I came across an article about “nano-breweries” that things got serious.

How big is your current operation? What is your current brewing system? What equipment are you using to achieve your target/expected volume? What made you choose that particular volume/capacity?

Depends on how you define it. My “business model” is to max out my homebrewing equipment and not buy new equipment (with the exception of kegs and fermenters, which were my biggest expenses). I still use the same hot liquor tank and mash tun. I “upgraded” from my 9 gallon kettle to a 13 gallon, but it was something I had bought years ago and was just lying around in the backyard. I subsequently bought another 13.5 (re-purposed keg), but only because the price was super cheap. So I have four kettles I can boil with simultaneously.

My mash tun is limiting. At 82% efficiency (I run between 80 and 86% consistently), I can extract about 23 gallons of my lowest gravity beer, and about 13 of my regular higher gravity beer. I ferment in 6 gal Better Bottles® of which my ferment chamber can hold 16 at time. Corneys serve as my “bright” tanks and I have room for 12 5s and 4 3s (72 gal total) at a time. We’ve sold 8 barrels since Jan 1.

How are you marketing your beer, and to what segment (e.g. only local bars and restaurants, to private parties, to anyone-anywhere who will buy)?

I only do kegs and offer them to tap houses, restaurants, bars, etc. Generally, I put together a sampling and go do a tasting.

Do you tailor the types of beer you produce to current market demands, or do you produce only the beers you enjoy and sell only to those interested?

Both. My highest volume beer approximates Fosters lager. It’s also the most difficult beer to do consistently (but the profit margin is awesome!). I have one account that I call “keg of the month” where I get to make whatever I want for them. This is a distinct advantage of being small; I’m very nimble. Incidentally, the beers have done so well it’s now the “2 kegs of the month” account!

Interestingly, as a homebrewer I never did spice beers, except for a pumpkin ale. Now I have a gingered lager and a pepper beer, both of which were requested by one of my accounts. I also have a peppermint beer. The pepper beer (Chili Bar) is now my second best seller, tied with the Mineshaft Stout (my flagship).

Did you feel you needed to have some type of “hook” to distinguish yourself from the rest of the market? If so, what, and how helpful do you feel it’s been?

I market myself as “local” and that in itself is huge. People also find the “small” aspect attractive (never thought I’d ever say that!). Thirdly, I’m the real deal and take good care of my accounts. Once I get a “handle”, I keep it.

Aside from standard licensing and permit requirements, was there any unexpected governmental red tape that you had to deal with? How painful/painless was your licensing/permitting process?

The government side was easy. The private sector side (getting the bond, working with the graphic artist, etc.) was the most challenging. The most important first step is determining if your “planned activity”, e.g., home business, brewing, etc., is allowable by the jurisdiction you’re in (city, county, parish, etc.).

Do you have a business plan? Is it a traditional business plan or a more informal outline? Where do you see your business going in the coming years?

I developed a business plan for a pub (which is ultimately where I want to go). I did not develop a plan, per se, for the nano operation. However, we are expanding (I just ordered 81 ½ barrel kegs and will likely begin brewing at a local brewery within a few weeks) and I have sketched out a general road map.

Are you currently working outside of your brewery? Full-time or part-time?. How much of your “non-work” time is devoted to the brewery? Any plans to make the brewery your sole job?

I have a full time job and a family. The brewery is “jealous mistress” and balancing is tough, I spend every spare minute doing something associated with the business. But, it is far easier today than it was just a few months ago. We produced more beer in the first three months of this year than the first 7 months of operations. The efficiencies continue to increase.

Do you still homebrew for yourself, friends, and family? Do you enjoy the beer brewing process as much now as you did when you were only homebrewing? How has brewing changed for you now that you’ve gone pro?

Ahhhh, the “cobbler has no shoes” as it were. I’ve purchased more beer to drink in the past eight months than in the past eight years! Every drop is spoken for. Technically, I can keep up to 200 gallons I produce for personal consumption but haven’t done so. I usually go to one of my accounts to drink my beer! When I started the brewery, I had to drop a lot of other things: I haven’t done any gardening for a year, the motor I was building is on hold and my 6 tap kegerator is in disrepair. Then came winter and the rains. Now that its spring, I plan to have the kegerator back up in about two weeks and then life will be good again!

But a word on homebrewing. Technically, the feds do not care about what you make until it reaches the bright tank; that’s where taxing starts. So, I could brew and ferment in the brewery and then pull beer out and call it homebrew. My read on the homebrewing community is that they would view that as “cheating”, especially for competition or club events, etc. So my personal rule is yeast pitch and ferment location determine whether its homebrew or probrew. If I pitch in the brewery and ferment there, it’s probrew. Anywhere else, it’s homebrew.

I love brewing even more now and get excited about the possibilities. The only thing I’m short on is brewing time.

Having now gone through the process of starting a brewery, is there anything you would have done differently had you to do it all over again?

Yeast management, production schedules, documentation and clarifying/carbonation process (on a production scale) were the biggest challenges. It would have been good to have had a little experience on a large scale. There definitely was a learning curve.

Any advice for homebrewers out there who may be dreaming about going pro someday?

If you have a vision, follow it. Don’t give up. Don’t get discouraged. Believe in yourself. Seek out friends and leave the rest behind. Take care of your accounts. Know when the results are not what you wanted, figure out why, and make adjustments as needed.

Most importantly of all: have fun! There’s plenty of room for good beer, but it’s gotta be fun or it’s not worth doing.

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A huge thank you to Michael for letting take some of his very valuable time to conduct the interview. He really is a super nice guy and seems quite willing/happy to share his wealth of nano-brewery information. My only regret is that I don’t live closer to his fine establishment… I’d love to enjoy some of his beers!!