At-home habit: Hobbyists turn brewing into business

At-home habit: Hobbyists turn brewing into business
Nick Kocis and Jeremy Hach of Dead Bird Brewing, a new nanobrewery on the east side of Lake Monona.

Home brewing starts with curiosity. At the inception, it could be two college beer buddies looking for something to do over winter break, or a father and son experimenting with an at-home kit.

Along the way, sincere interest is what gets a home brewer from that first awful batch to the “Whoa, wait, you brewed that yourself?” one. It can even lead to scratching the “home” part of “home brewing” and replacing it with “local.” That’s the path many Madison home brewers have taken, turning hobbies into careers and churning out batches you can’t find anywhere but here.

From home brewing to House of Brews
College buddies Nick Kocis and Jeremy Hach gave in to their curiosity over one fateful winter break, turning their attention to the idea of making their own beer. In search of brewing equipment, they rummaged through Hach’s parents’ attic hunting for a big kettle. They found it–with a dead sparrow inside.

The omen didn’t stop them. After washing (and rewashing) the kettle, they brewed their first batch–a beer, they joke, that had a bit of dead bird inside.

Years later, that bird has become a beloved mascot. Dead Bird Brewing, a new nanobrewery on the east side of Lake Monona, was created by Kocis and Hach, two beer lovers and former roommates.

It helps that Kocis is the head brewer at House of Brews, a contract brewery in Madison. At House of Brews, he can be in control of every single aspect of brewing, fermenting and bottling his own brand.

Kocis says contract brewing has a bad rap, but House of Brews is trying to prove otherwise. He credits contract brewery for the ability to start their company.

“If House of Brews didn’t exist, Dead Bird Brewing wouldn’t exist,” he laughs, taking a sip of Dead Bird’s Pomplamousse Grapefruit Pale Ale.

One at a time
Peter Gentry bought a homebrew kit as something to try with his dad. At 24 years old, he started brewing on his parents’ stovetop. Gentry worked eight years at the Wisconsin State Journal marketing online sales, selling print ads to bars and restaurant and even acting as sales manager of The Onion when it was based in Madison. He entered a home brew competition where the top three finishers won the chance to brew their beer at Grumpy Troll Brew Pub in Mount Horeb. The owner of Grumpy Troll liked Gentry’s so much, he entered it into the U.S. Beer Tasting Championship.

That moment was Gentry’s turning point. He realized his hobby could become a profession. “I was looking to build a bigger brewery but couldn’t get the loans,” he says. So he decided to try out a model that was popular on the East and West coasts, but had yet to surface in the Madison beer scene: the nanobrewery.

With just $700 in his bank account, he opened the doors of One Barrel Brewing Company in 2012 to a line of people waiting outside. Clearly, he piqued the interest of Madison beer fans. “It was refreshing and rewarding to see that,” says Gentry.

Staying true to its name, One Barrel Brewing brews one barrel at a time in-house. That equals about two kegs, or 300 pints. By scaling down, Gentry says, One Barrel is able to “showcase how approachable all manners of brewing and beer style can be.”

For Gentry and his home-brewing counterparts, it’s about making good beer–each batch completely dependent on the inspiration and artistry of the brewer, each as different from each other as the pints they produce.

But there’s one thing that unifies them, and probably you, too. They love a good beer.

Is bigger better?
Massive megabreweries like Miller Coors and Anheuser-Busch may make up the majority of beer sales, churning out millions of dollars’ worth of product from gigantic facilities, but microbreweries that scale back are beloved for their craft, local sourcing and creativity. A microbrewery produces less than 15,000 barrels per year with 75 percent or more of its beer sold off-site, according to the Brewers Association.

So, what’s smaller than a microbrewery?
The nanobrewery. Nanobreweries like One Barrel Brewing Company (Madison’s first!) make a small batch even smaller with carefully brewed suds cared for by human hands.

And what’s smaller than a nanobrewery?
The humble home brew. A homebrewing hobby can simply be a weekend experiment for one enthusiast, but is sometimes the start of something bigger for another.