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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Hydro Street Brewing in Columbus gets ready for its grand opening
Nano-brewing in a small town
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Credit:Robin Shepard

They don't get much smaller than this, southern Wisconsin's latest brewpub: Hydro Street Brewing Company. Now preparing for its grand opening, the downtown Columbus pub passed its building inspections just days before Christmas. Shortly thereafter, the first beer hunters started to appear. Owner Aaron Adams says the first three customers through the door sat at the bar texting their friends, and by evening the place was packed: "We hadn't announced anything or advertised, and we had a house full."

Hydro Street has been going through a soft opening phase, trying out menu items and figuring out its needs for bar and table service. House-made beers have been offered only in very limited amounts so far, because Adams is saving up for his first Mug Club party, scheduled for Saturday, January 28. The official grand opening is set for a week later, Saturday, February 4. Even so, business has been so good that Adams has actually run out of his own beer. Over the past couple of weeks, he's been brewing nearly every day in order to have at least eight beers ready in time for both events.

Given early indications from this community of 5,000, located to the northeast of Madison on Highway 151, Adams may have difficulty producing enough brews to serve local beer fans. He makes his beer just 30 gallons at a time with a system cobbled together from large-scale homebrewing equipment. To contrast, the Great Dane-Fitchburg makes beer in 15-barrel batches (one barrel is about 32 gallons), and in 2010 produced over 1,100 barrels.

Small craft beer makers like Hydro Street redefine micro-breweries as "nano-brewing." It's really a small brewpub model that many homebrewers fantasize about -- but rarely take the risk to open.

Hydro Street Brewing is co-owned by Adams, 37, and his wife Sandye, 35, who oversees much of the day-to-day operations and the kitchen. The brewpub's menu, while still taking shape, features many made-from-scratch items using local ingredients. The pub is located just across the street from the Columbus City Hall with its landmark clock tower. For many years it was Bellack's, a clothing and department store; area craftsmen and artisans helped spruce up the one-hundred-year-old building. This video shows some of the early construction on the site.

In a strange twist of fate, it was poor business luck that actually gave rise to the opening of Hydro Street. A year ago Aaron and Sandye were working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Sandye was managing a microbiology laboratory and Aaron was working as a postdoctoral researcher on forest entomology. After several unsuccessful attempts by Aaron to find work in the forestry field, he and Sandye decided to pursue a dream of opening a brewpub in Washington state.

Last April they quit their jobs, put their house up for sale, packed all their belongings and pulled their two kids out of school. But the day before the moving van was to arrive, the person who had offered to lease them a building at the base of a ski hill near Seattle called to say the deal was off. When they got over the shock, they still had passion for owning their own business; by midsummer, Aaron and Sandye had found the spot in Columbus.

This isn't the first brewery for Columbus. The Kurth Brewery operated there from 1859 to 1949. Its former hospitality bar stands on Park Avenue, about a half-mile southwest from the brewpub.

The name Hydro Street actually comes from a location that Adams had initially considered, on Water Street. Despite finding a more suitable location on West James Street, he kept the name.

Over 60 people have already signed up for the Hydro Street mug club. Members get their own numbered glass mug and invitations to special release parties throughout the year. Last Saturday afternoon Kathy Sanders, who holds mug #1, was sitting at the bar with her husband, Steve (mug #2). "The time is right for this in Columbus. There's a lot of interest in locally produced food and beer," she said. The Sanders described themselves as frequent visitors to the Great Dane and the Malt House in Madison. "This is exciting. It allows us to come home, and then go out and have a beer here," she noted.

Adams is a self-taught homebrewer with more than 10 years of experience. He currently has several styles fermenting in large plastic barrels that sit in a walled-off area of the brewpub. His brew kettles are two stainless steel stock pots, which are heated by gas burners that stand in its kitchen alongside the main stove. Early batches of Hydro Street Campfire Porter and South Haven (Blueberry) Stout helped generate a lot of interest from those who happened to be around the bar when they made brief tap appearances.

The initial lineup at Hydro Street includes a medium-bodied brown ale, a light-bodied golden colored cream ale, a hoppy IPA that is made with Columbus and Cascade hops, and an Extra Special Bitter that he's named London Pub ESB. For the grand opening he's also planning an Altbier, and a seasonal treat made with butternut squash. Once established, he plans to dedicate one of his taps to recipes from homebrewers who make beer with him at Hydro Street, and he's working with a local hop-growers' cooperative to supply some of the hops he needs.

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