Metro, Food

Hops Take Flight At Aeronaut Brewery

Just over a year ago, food, science, and beer collided at the old Ames Safety Envelope Co. factory in Somerville, Mass. The result was that Aeronaut brewery and the Foods Hub was born.

Founded with homebrew recipes and expanded due to the growing inability to house the brewing equipment that grew larger with each purchase, Ben Holmes, Ronn Friedlander, and Dan Rassi have quickly grown Aeronaut into an essential local taproom with live music and theater company performances.

“We sort of built this place from home brew recipes and sweat and what not,” said Holmes, one of the founders of Aeronaut. “And starting in December 2012, a few months in, we were purchasing large pieces of equipment on the Internet.”

Holmes and his fellow co-founders Friedlander and Rassi have technical backgrounds—Holmes and Friedlander have Ph.D.s from MIT and Rassi studied computer science at Cornell. But Holmes said he had been homebrewing ever since he had been in college.

Aeronaut’s brewing operation is just a step above homebrewing levels. Production is miniscule, even by craft brewery standards, producing anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 barrels in a year. By comparison, a craft brewery produces less than six million barrels in a year. For reference, Anheuser Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, ships out over 300 million barrels a year.

But Aeronaut has turned its small size into an advantage, constantly experimenting with one-barrel brews and specializing in small yeast cultures. While the brewery orders yeast samples from liquid yeast culture producers, such as White Labs, that are popular with other breweries, Holmes said Friedlander will also collect his own yeast samples and grow them to brewable sizes (think trillions of cells) in a small lab he has set up in the warehouse.

“We can do tiny little prototype brews in the science lab and then do single barrel brews using whatever yeast we’re using at that level in the brewery in big one-barrel fermenters that mimic our big system but at one-eighth scale,” Holmes said. “Then we can brew at the 8 1/2 barrel scale with the same level by controlling the cell levels in this laboratory.”

These unique yeast samples and the desire to source hops from as many different places as possible—many hops originate in the Pacific Northwest, but hops from as far away as New Zealand and Australia have been used in Aeronaut’s brews—allow for limitless brewing combinations.

The brewing process involves a lot of “what if we…?” questions, the director of brewing Justin Pino said. After each brew is analyzed, the brewing team collaborates and bounces ideas off of each other in an effort to find out the next step to take with the batch.

“Sometimes there isn’t a next step,” Pino said in an email. “Sometimes the next step is something you never would have thought of in your wildest dreams. And that’s where we really find ourselves the most satisfied.”

When the Aeronaut team eventually decided to formally start a brewery, however, the co-founders decided that they wanted to make it about more than just the beer.

It’s kind of a university, it’s kind of a startup school, it’s kind of a place where you can do a project and we’ll say yes to it and help you build it,” Holmes said. “We were brought up in academic labs and we were kind of inspired by the amount of freedom you get when you’re given some room and some space. So it kind of began that way as a sort of extension of that collaborative environment of school but taken to the kind of business end of things.”

The startup school Holmes is referencing comprises the other two-thirds of the 12,000 sq. ft. warehouse that Aeronaut calls home. Referred to as the Foods Hub, Aeronaut uses the space as an incubator for local food service and food product startups that are bringing their goods to the Somerville community.

The current tenants are Something Gud, Barismo, and Somerville Chocolate. Something Gud is a food delivery service that delivers locally sourced and mostly organic food to homes within I-95. Something Gud is currently restructuring after a former employee’s lawsuit, and is hoping to reestablish its operations base at Aeronaut.

Barismo and Somerville Chocolate are both bean-to-product operations, taking coffee and cacao beans, respectively, and turning them into coffee and chocolate products that are sold at select locations in the city.

But since the brewery is only open after 5 p.m., there is little overlap between the Foods Hub tenants and customers looking to grab a drink, said Ernest Paulin, the production assistant at Barismo. Furthermore, there is little interaction between the tenants and Aeronaut beyond the rare hint of coffee or chocolate in the occasional batch of beer.

“Everybody is pretty self-sufficient,” Paulin said. “There isn’t much interaction amongst the companies actually, except kind of informally. There’s Somerville Chocolate. He’ll give us samples because he’s a good guy. I wish we had some reciprocity program in place where we gave [Aeronaut] coffee and we got beer, for example, but there’s nothing of that nature, unfortunately.”

The Tasting Counter, while not officially part of the Foods Hub incubator, occupies a small portion of Aeronaut’s warehouse. It is Chef Peter Ungar’s latest project, where 20 patrons are able to watch their nine-course tasting meal prepared in front of them. Each course is paired with a different wine or beer—beer courtesy of Aeronaut, of course.

Aeronaut has carefully selected tenants at the Foods Hub so that it consists of small, local companies that are dedicated to producing high-quality goods from local materials. It’s all part of the culture Aeronaut is establishing at the brewery.

“I guess all that really ties it together is the shared sense of mission that we are—and this word has been greatly abused lately—but we are all basically small craft artisanal producers of some good,” Paulin said.

As far as craft breweries go, Aeronaut is pretty small. But the vibe? The vibe is bold and it more than makes up for the small brewhouse doubling as a taproom.

String globe lights arc across the L-shaped bar, providing ambient mood lighting. The original artwork from Aeronaut’s first attempt at canning its IPA called “A Year With Dr. Nandu” is up on the wall. Small potted plants are racked on the wall behind one of the many picnic benches for patrons. And if you look up, you will see lawn chairs suspended from the ceiling.

There’s live music most nights—Thursday’s are funk rock—and occasionally the Artist’s Theatre of Boston rehearses in the taproom. Over Halloweekend, there was a pumpkin carving contest and face painting.

Only a chain separates the bustling taproom from the other half of the brewery that houses the coldbox, kegs, and brewing equipment. It’s an environment that truly connects the customer to the product, and while Aeronaut is certainly not the first to create this culture, it is a popular production method within the craft beer community.

The craft beer industry is one of the quickest growing industries in the United States, and right now, Aeronaut is sustaining itself through the atmosphere it has created in its taproom. But Holmes said that while the brewery has a great gig going on right now, the goal is to ultimately expand to the Greater Boston area and beyond.

“I think time has to tell, but I think it’s pretty clear, just hanging out here, you know people are staying and drinking the beer,” Holmes said. “It’s clear that there’s an appetite for something much, much larger, and I think we’re pretty stoked about that.”

Featured Images by Georges Merrell / Heights Editor

November 5, 2015

The Heights is an independent student newspaper that relies partly on donations to continue its award-winning coverage of Boston College and beyond. During College Media Madness, consider supporting the 501(c)3 nonprofit.