The little breweries that could

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MEGABREWERIES churn out millions of barrels of beer every year. Microbreweries make thousands. So what do you call a company that brews just 100 or so barrels of beer each year?

A nanobrewery.

A couple of dozen have cropped up across the country in the past two years, operating quietly out of basements, garages and even storage units. They brew as little as a barrel (the equivalent of 13 cases) a week and distribute extremely limited supplies to, perhaps, 10 or 12 area bars.

It’s an under-the-radar trend that’s part of the growing local food movement and, frequently, the result of career dissatisfaction.

At Healdsburg Beer Co. in Northern California’s Sonoma wine region, owner Kevin McGee takes weekend breaks from his job as an attorney to brew a single barrel, which he sells to a handful of restaurants.

“I like making beer, that almost goes without saying,” said McGee, who brewed 30 barrels last year. “I like all the things that go into creating something. Being a lawyer can get you kind of frustrated, just shuffling paperwork. This is so much more creative. “

Nanobreweries are no mere hobby. They are professionally run and fully licensed, just like any brewery. They just happen to be exceedingly small.

At Aldergrove Brewing in Marysville, Wash., for example, the batch size is a minuscule one-third barrel – a mere 10 gallons of beer. (By comparison, the batch size at midsize craft breweries ranges from 50 to 120 barrels. )

At Schooner Exact in Seattle, the original brewhouse was so small they had to put the fermentation tank in the brewer’s living room.

For beer lovers, these places are hidden gems; you’re never really sure where their tap handles will show up, and the quality may run from fair to superb. It’s a throwback to days of yore, when brewery deliveries were only as reliable as the company mule.

Or, in the case of the tiny Breaker Brewing Co. in Plains, Pa., Chris Miller’s family Toyota Scion.

Miller, 36, and his friend Mark Lehman, 38, founded the brewery last April, installing equipment in the basement of an addition on Miller’s house.

They brew once a week on a 1.5-barrel system that produces about 45 gallons of suds, and distribute it to 11 local bars and restaurants in the region’s old coal-mining towns.

Both still work full time for the local phone company.

“It’s crazy, especially with two little kids,” Miller said. “But it’s what both of us want to do. “

Like most small brewers, the pair started out as home brewers, cooking up batches for their families and friends. “We thought we could do better than a lot of the beer we’d been drinking,” Lehman said. “We knew there’s got to be more to beer than Coors Light. “

After years of stovetop cooking, Miller said, “I think we just said to each other, ‘It’s time to take the next step. ‘

“Starting a microbrewery could cost you a million bucks,” he continued. “We decided, let’s build small, build it ourselves and test it along the way.”

They fabricated the kettles out of steel drums they found on eBay. Their tap handles are crafted from chair legs purchased at Home Depot. They have no advertising budget; they filed all of the necessary legal paperwork without the help of a lawyer.

They figure they spent about 20 grand to set up the brewery, including liability insurance and licensing fees.

The payoff has been more than just dollars and cents. “Going into a bar and having three or four people recognize you as a brewer – they’re drinking your beer and having a good time . . . ,” said Lehman. “That’s so satisfying. “

So how’s the beer?

On a recent excursion up to the Scranton area, I enjoyed several tastes of Breaker’s flagship, Anthracite Ale. It’s a unique, hoppy, bocklike dark beer that’s reminiscent of Dead Guy Ale from Rogue. I Love PA (great name!) is very well-balanced, and Malty Maguire is a throwback Scottish red ale.

All of them are worth the trip up the Northeast Extension. Your best bets for finding them on tap are Elmer Sudds in Wilkes-Barre, and Kelsey’s Restaurant in Ashley.

At the Taproom with Joe

I’ll chat about small breweries Thursday night at the Taproom and Grill (427 W Crystal Lake Ave., Haddonfield, N.J.). It’s one of the new breed of craft beer joints that have cropped up in South Jersey in the past year.

I’ll pair a range of craft beers with tapas dishes from chef Luciano Iacovino.

Beers pour at 5 p.m. Info: 856-854-4255. Tix: $40.

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