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Thursday, March 14,2013

Tiny bubbles

J Wells among a new breed of super-small breweries

By Steve Weishampel

It’s easy enough to name the most obvious trends in Boulder County brewing. Three breweries are planning to open this summer in Lafayette; Boulder loves beer that’s heavy on the hops; barrel-aging is big.

But one that’s less obvious until you see the space for yourself is just how small some new breweries are. Sure, they’re called nanobreweries, a term generally understood to mean a four-barrel (or smaller) production system. But the term doesn’t really illustrate just how tiny the operations are at places like garage-housed Crystal Springs or BRU or Bootstrap’s 3.5-barrel system. It’s like operating a convenience store with one shelf or a school with six textbooks.

It looks like that’s the direction craft beer is going in this county, and nowhere is the trend as evident as J Wells Brewery, a two-month-old nanobrewery tucked away in the Pearl Parkway warehouses with the Parkway Café and Redstone Meadery.

You can’t find J Wells’ beer on tap in restaurants or in the cooler at the liquor store. In fact, with a production capacity of just one and a half barrels, it’s a shock that the brewery itself stays in stock.

How nano is this brewery? The bartender on Thursday afternoon when we arrive is a part-timer who just happens to be named Jamie Wells. Like Tom Horst of Crystal Springs, who gave his title as “owner, brewmaster, keg washer” when I spoke with him a few weeks ago, Wells wears many hats. Based on his comments from behind the bar, Wells apparently runs the marketing department, decides recipes, buys ingredients, brews, bartends and cleans up shop at the end of the day. And that’s all on top of his regular job in an IT department.

Yet somehow Wells still has time to keep four or five beers on tap. During our visit, his offerings tended toward opposite ends of the spectrum, with two stouts and two pale ales (including an imperial IPA) on tap, as well as an English-style brown ale. The best, and the favorite among the malt-loving Boulder Weekly staff, was the not-too-heavy, not-too-sweet chocolate milk stout. The imperial IPA, Hop Haze, also won high praise.

So did the Lights Out imperial Russian stout, a strong, malty brew. Or, as it was called on the hastily edited whiteboard menu, Lig ts Out Stout, possibly because a quick Google search reveals at least five different breweries make beers called Lights Out Stout.

One effect of J Wells’ tiny production is that the beers can rotate in and out at lightning speed. The brown ale has already been replaced by a best bitter session ale — which, if you’re like me and have never heard the phrase, is an ESB with lower alcohol content.

As quickly as the big boys — Avery, Boulder Beer, Left Hand, Oskar Blues — are expanding across the country, that trend is no match for the speed at which tiny breweries are popping up in the county. It’s a very encouraging development. We’ll gladly grab a stool in every garage and warehouse in the area.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com Next stops: Left Hand, 1265 Boston Ave., Longmont, March 14; Oskar Blues, 303 Main St., Lyons, March 21. Members of the public are welcome.

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