The Aeronaut Brewing Company occupies part of a scantily marked warehouse complex past some of the leafier residences in Somerville’s Union Square. Between the up-and-coming rock climbing venue Brooklyn Boulders and Harvard Book Store’s warehouse, a chalkboard sign advertising local beer points to a door propped open with an Aeronaut keg. The company’s vast space is filled in with various parts: sky-high ceilings, L-shaped bar, seating areas, and, finally, the enormous metal brewing equipment cordoned off with a modest chain.
The rough-around-the-edges décor emphasizes Aeronaut’s raw feel; there is gray concrete accented with blood orange and teal-colored metal tables and chairs, a huge American flag hanging vertically against one wall, cactuses dangling from chains along another, and surfaces of blond, barrel-like wood. Rock music plays from someone’s iPhone, a bin of Aeronaut t-shirts rests in the corner, and chalkboards display the current varieties on tap. It’s Saturday afternoon, and six or seven customers sit chatting over beers of different sizes and hues.
Last to come into view are the colorful lawn chairs suspended from the ceiling by clusters of balloons, alluding to the company’s hot air balloon logo. This might seem perilous, but the cofounders of Aeronaut have the credentials to back up this feat of engineering: two of the three cofounders have PhDs from MIT.
Ronn Friedlander, who finished his doctoral work just over a month ago, obtained his from the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, where he worked in Harvard’s Aizenberg Biomineralization and Biomimetics Lab. Dan Rassi, who according to Friedlander studied “something with computers” at Cornell, is hard at work this afternoon coding the company’s new website at a table near the bar. Ben Holmes, who met Rassi at Cornell before coming to MIT, breezes in to make an announcement.
The six or seven bartenders clad in various Aeronaut t-shirts and sneakers gather to listen as Holmes explains that the brewery has been nominated by Boston magazine for their list of the city’s best date night spots. He wants to launch a social media campaign involving selfies and the hashtag “Aeromance” in hopes of winning this title.
Holmes, bearded, wearing flannel, and still carrying his backpack, paces around energetically before retreating towards the offices in the back, located in the adjoining Foods Hub, an incubator for local food companies in the second part of the warehouse space. Here Aeronaut currently houses the coffee roaster Barismo, Somerville Chocolate, and Something GUD, a locally sourced food delivery network. Food trucks park out back, but inside, behind the spare stalls of these companies, are rows of long beer-hall tables, a beanbag toss being enjoyed by a group of customers, and the space where the brewery has been hosting musical events on weekend nights.
It’s not unusual to find the three co-founders bustling around the brewery and sharing responsibilities for the company. The three friends, who all look the Somerville graduate student part, have just signed a lease for their fifth year living together nearby. Friedlander, also bearded in a Cambridge University hoodie and jeans, explains that the trio first became interested in brewing as a hobby. At home, they began experimenting with increasingly sophisticated methods and “fancier and fancier equipment.” When one of them found a Craigslist ad for their largest and most expensive barrel system yet, the only way to justify the purchase was by opening up a brewery, and so Aeronaut Brewing Company was born in January 2013.
Aeronaut began brewing beer in its current space in March and April of this year and opened on the first day of summer, June 21. They have since gathered a substantial following in Somerville, where they have joined the burgeoning local art, music, and food scene, though patrons hail from as far away as Brookline and Jamaica Plain. Some of their more regular customers have gradually been converted into bar staffers, a young, enthusiastic group that participates in the beer crafting and selection processes.
Friedlander leads the sourcing and selection of ingredients and cultivation of wild yeast strains in the Aeronaut lab. Gesturing toward the imposing brewing equipment that fills nearly half the warehouse, he enthusiastically explains the process by which he uses a bioreactor that scales yeast production to accommodate both pilot and full, 500-gallon batches. He sources hops locally whenever possible despite the fact that the majority of American hops originate in the Pacific Northwest. Glancing back at the chalkboards, he mentions with regret that a beer made with only Massachusetts hops had just run out. Their malted grains also often come from nearby, including Four Star Farms in Northfield, Mass. Other farmers pick up used grains for livestock feed.
As for yeast, “you can swab anything,” says Friedlander. “Then, if you have a decent microbiology background, you can separate the yeast from the bacteria.” Aeronaut’s two brewers, one of whom left his career as an analytical chemist in his 50s to attend brew school, work with the team to create unique varieties of beer flavored by the yeast and other ingredients. Recently, Friedlander oversaw the processing of 750 pounds of butternut squash, which they smoked and used for an autumn flavor. With eight lines on tap, Aeronaut has three or four rotating standards, but the selection changes constantly, and only one, the Armadillo, has been continuous.
Current options include a variety of dark and light beers, from stouts to a wine-barrel-aged saison and a Coffee Cacao Blackberry porter that incorporates one ingredient from each of their three member food companies. Friedlander notes that the wheat beers are particularly popular. He hopes to simultaneously satisfy his customers’ preferences and also open them up to new experiences. “I would love to get people to like beers they don’t like or don’t think they like,” he says. However, “even if you’re making the best Berliner Weisse in the country, some people just don’t like Berliner Weisse.” At biweekly staff tastings, Aeronaut staffers choose beers based primarily on season and ingredients. Amassing a variety of commercial beers, they discuss their favorite and least favorite elements as they come up with their own versions and twists.
Once a pilot batch is underway, the brewers continue to tweak it based on hops, malt levels, and aroma. The Berliner Weisse was scaled up in just a week, but most take longer to perfect. So far, they haven’t ever had to throw out a whole batch, although some have proven impractical for scaling up and remained small, like a beer flavored with cherries or a Belgian tripel made with wine must, the pulpy, freshly pressed grape juice used in the early stages of winemaking.
As dedicated beer enthusiasts, the founders have trouble making recommendations because their favorites change every week. Right now they’re most excited about the future of the company. Currently available at Rosebud in Davis Square, Aeronaut beers have made appearances in several other bars and hope to expand steadily. They currently sell almost everything at their own location, which is no problem for them. With big plans for the expansion of the Foods Hub, they hope to eventually create a full-time, immersive consumer retail experience and host seasonal farmers’ market events. Meanwhile, Aeronaut is also increasingly known as a music venue, something its founders did not exactly foresee but are open to. “We always thought we would have cool, local bands,” says Friedlander.
In the meantime, he measures the success of the company by the fact that they have been able to hire four new full-time employees in the past month. For a startup so new, they seem to be rapidly finding their niche in Somerville. With the recent spate of new businesses revitalizing the commercial profile of the area, Friedlander says, “there is every reason to stay here and every reason to add to that.” An Oct. 2 New York Times profile of the neighborhood mentioned Aeronaut, calling Somerville a “hip alternative to both Boston and Cambridge.” Over the course of the afternoon, the taproom fills with customers eager to prove these observers right. Young couples with babies, groups of adults, and even senior citizens gather at tables, crowd the bar, and keep the bartenders bustling.