Aeronaut: Beer. Science. Food. Fun


Photos by Adam Detour

Like many of its high tech counterparts that were launched in their founders’ garages, Somerville’s Aeronaut Brewing Company began in its founders’ apartment. But the operation really gained traction in their backyard before settling, about a year ago, in the former Ames Safety Envelope building just outside Union Square. The creation of three friends with serious science cred, Aeronaut opened in late June 2014 and makes very good, very interesting beer. But there is so much more than beer brewing at 14 Tyler Street.

Co-founders Ben Holmes, 28, Ronn Friedlander, 30, and Dan Rassi, 28, met as students. Holmes and Rassi went to college together at Cornell; Holmes and Friedlander were PhD candidates at MIT (Friedlander received his degree last year). Sitting at a table in the taproom of their cavernous space, looking much more hipster than tech nerd in their flannel shirts, hoodies and jeans, sporting varying amounts of facial hair, Holmes and Friedlander discuss new recipe development as some of their Kendall Square neighbors might approach a new product introduction, in terms of prototyping and experimentation. At the same time, they can sound like modern chefs, affirming their commitment to the local farmers that supply their hops and grains, and listing the various items they have foraged to flavor and even, in the case of wild yeast, ferment their beer.

The partners have also populated their 12,000-square foot space—more than they need for brewing and serving—with small, like-minded food concerns, creating a “food incubator” under the umbrella of what they call the Foods Hub. Most evenings and weekends the taproom is filled to capacity, with visitors spilling into the Hub; food trucks are parked outside, bands often play inside, making the spot a social hub as well.

About four-and-a-half years ago, when they were still graduate students, Holmes and Friedlander moved into the top two floors of a house in Somerville. Rassi joined them about a year later, and the three began home brewing beer, an activity Holmes dabbled in while in college. When a friend of a friend offered them equipment that would allow them to store and serve their beer from kegs, they jumped on it. The time saved by no longer having to bottle beer allowed them to be more creative and experiment. “We started accumulating beers,” Friedlander says, storing them all over the apartment, including the basement, back porch and back yard. They were also building more equipment and investing money in what was still a hobby—“on the hundreds of dollars scale,” Friedlander says.

In December 2012, Holmes saw an ad on craigslist for a “brewery barn for sale.” Until this point, the roommates had always brewed small batches using mismatched components. But Holmes explains, “With beer, as you brew bigger it just gets easier. Kegging is easier than bottling and less dangerous. The more volume you have, the better temperature stability is.”

They traveled to Troy, NY to see what Friedlander describes as “a barn full of large brewing equipment,” that included 1,000-pound, 60-gallon kettles designed for making large amounts of food, like soup, rather than beer. In fact, they had most recently been used in a prison cafeteria. The equipment had been sitting around as junk. But refurbished, “the home brew house… had the potential to improve everything we did,” Holmes says.

“I think it was pretty clear to all of us, if we were going to buy [the equipment] we were going to sell beer,” Friedlander adds. “So at that point we had a quick discussion. Are we going to start a brewery? And pretty quickly we all said, ‘yeah, that’s what we want to do.’”

It wasn’t easy getting everything to Somerville. And once they did, there was no way it would fit either into their apartment or their basement. “This was when the backyard brewing program began in earnest,” Holmes notes. “And with it the brewery. The problem was it was December,” he laughs. “Cold.”

Once it was set up, the equipment remained in their backyard until the landlord made them get rid of it. In all that time they brewed only one batch of beer. But it came in very handy for maple syrup. During the first season, the roommates boiled down about 150 gallons of sap (from about 20 to 30 trees worth), yielding two or three gallons of syrup. The next year they made much of Groundwork Somerville’s maple syrup in exchange for their excess end-of-season sap, which they used for sap beer. They brewed experimental batches in 2013 and ’14 and are working on a commercial offering, using Somerville sap, for this season.

Within about four months of bringing home the equipment, Holmes says the partners were looking for a “legitimate system” and for places to locate a brewery. During this time Friedlander designed a temperature-controlled water bath system with solenoid valves, pumps, plastic tubs and soda bottles, essentially creating dozens of miniature fermenters that enabled the brewers to evaluate the effects of different yeasts and temperatures on the beers they were making at home. And the three were traveling around the country to research breweries, visiting about 30.

During their travels, they bought the equipment they now use in the brewery from a brewpub in Mineola, Florida. “It is perfectly matched to our capacity needs,” Friedlander says. And buying it used saved money. At the time they had not yet found their commercial space, so they shipped the equipment to a storage yard in Mansfield, where it sat for a year. Right now they have another storage container full of lab equipment in the same yard.

In the summer of 2013, more than a year before the brewery opened, Holmes, Friedlander and Rassi began to work with Mike Labbe, an experienced brewery engineer. Labbe guided them in the process of redesigning their existing recipes for mass production, developing new ones and, according to Holmes, “helped in essentially every aspect of learning the system.”

In a rare expression of self-doubt, Friedlander says, “I remember going to see this equipment in Florida and having this ‘in over our head’ feeling.” “We didn’t know how to turn it on,” adds Holmes.

“By getting so involved, we quickly learned that there was a ton of stuff we didn’t know, a ton of experience we didn’t have. That’s why people like Mike were so valuable,” Friedlander says.

Rassi found the location for the brewery after studying Somerville zoning maps. He and his partners signed the lease in October 2013. The equipment was installed and operating in March 2014.

While the space was being built out, the partners prototyped several recipes at home. They bought and built a small, one-barrel system to test recipes with different yeasts and different hops. The goal, Friedlander explains, was to have a really good library of recipes ready when they opened. “We still do that,” he says, but their small batches are now about 30 gallons instead of five, they have a small-tank system at the brewery, and they can sell an entire batch on a Saturday afternoon.

“Pretty quickly we became a company that wanted to sprint and cast an enormous net for the beers that we loved and to project onto the available ingredients the special laboratory capabilities of our backgrounds,” explains Holmes. “The ingredients come from our place—in Massachusetts—and the Foods Hub, which we built around the brewery.” Tenants in the Hub include barismo coffee, Somerville Chocolate, and farmers market delivery service Something GUD. Aeronaut has used barismo coffee and Somerville Chocolate’s cacao beans, as well as produce from Something GUD, in its different brews.

Integral to Aeronaut’s beer development is the brewery’s laboratory, which is largely Friedlander’s domain. Sitting inauspiciously in a back corner—basically it is the back corner—the lab holds, among other things a laminar flow hood, an autoclave, a microscope, a digital hydrometer and a bioreactor. Friedlander bought the basic vessel for this last piece, which to the untrained eye looks like a large glass jar, at an auction and is finishing its construction with equipment he bought online.

Since January Friedlander has had a graduate student from Boston University working with him, as a full-time intern, on creating methods of testing new ways of growing yeast for higher-density growth and building a database of the yeast they are already collecting and characterizing. He is also working with a group (that includes some Aeronaut bar staff) on building methods to gather large numbers of wild yeast, test them for their ability to ferment, then determine ways to develop them into usable brewer yeast strains. And he is working to identify yeast strains and species in-house using genetic techniques.

Aeronaut grows yeast in its lab for all of its pilot batches because its founders believe it helps them control the flavor of the beer and monitor the health of the yeast before it enters the wort and ferments the beer. They also grow yeast to larger quantities for production batches in a house-made bioreactor/propagator. They cultivate wild yeast to grow their own strains in their lab, too but, Friedlander points out, “We are certainly not above using commercial strains.” For example, they use a Weihenstephaner yeast from Weihenstephan Abbey in Germany, said to be the oldest brewery in the world, for some wheat beers.

Holmes describes the lab as the “component that allows us to power the microbiology program. For example, we might not just brew six different recipes into those six different vessels. We might brew an eight-barrel batch on the big system and ferment it with eight different strains of yeast that are grown up from single cells in this house.”

“I think what really makes us different and special, instead of a single, unified brand of beer, or a style of beer which we make, we always have this sense that there’s these series that we keep in our heads that we’re always trying to keep representing,” he says. One series is French saison beers. Within this series Aeronaut brews Cache Dans Le Chateau, (biere de garde), a deeper, darker winter saison; Saison Acide, which is a sour saison; and Saison of the Western Ghats, flavored with cardamom and named for a mountain range in India, part of which is known as the “Cardamom Hills”—all with the same yeast.

Another is the British ale series named after English birds, in memory of Friedlander’s time in Cambridge, England. While there, he started the University of Cambridge birding society and enjoyed the local brews. Aeronaut’s Jackdaw, a London porter, and Lark and Linnet, an English brown ale, pay homage to those days.

“If you come here a lot you’ll become familiar with these threads, which are always progressing and are facilitated by this prototyping system,” Holmes continues. “Some of these are connected to yeast. Some are connected to hops.” For example, Aeronaut buys the majority of its hops from Four Star Farms in Northfield, Massachusetts. Northfield IPA and Northfield Amber are named for that.

Less than a year in, Aeronaut has grown from three to nine people. Labbe left the company at the end of last summer, but now, in addition to the founders, there are two brewers and a brewery operations assistant, a taproom manager, distribution manager and community coordinator. Though Holmes, Friedlander and Rassi still develop recipes, design is more collaborative, with the rest of the company pitching in. “The process, which began in the kitchen… is much happier now and alive, as we put ideas into the queue and discuss how they fit in with our vision and the season and ingredients we have available and they become legit beers,” Holmes explains.

For the few months after its June 2014 opening, Aeronaut was producing roughly 600 gallons per week, brewing twice weekly. Today they are brewing three to four days a week, producing closer to nine hundred gallons in that time.

Aeronaut was financed with investments from 20 of the founders’ friends, family, and acquaintances, many of whom they met over the course of launching the business. “A lot [of them] tried the beer and invested based on that,” Holmes says. But Friedlander adds that the partners also had to convince investors that their business model was solid. The company is making money, but the founders are still investing all profits back into the business.

“We’re pretty lucky with how quickly things took off for us,” he says. “We broke even in the first two months, three months, which just shows me that we were filling some kind of need here.”

In addition to the taproom, Aeronaut beer is available at a growing list of area restaurants.

Aeronaut Brewing Company
14 Tyler St, Somerville

This story appeared in the Spring 2015 issue.