When Billy Powell discovered the ancient torture technique of scaphism, the Long Island-based founder of Nightmare Brewing Company felt the calling to make a beer inspired by the grisly practice. Dating back to early Persian times, scaphism involves wedging a victim between a couple of boats, then force feeding and slathering them in milk and honey, and waiting for insects to nibble away at the person until they achieved an excruciatingly slow death. Powell’s idea of scaphism in beer form used milk sugar and honey as a foundation, which he aged on cacao nibs and Tahitian vanilla to produce a 17% ABV imperial stout. The Scaphism brew's high ABV references the 17 days the first recorded victim of the execution method allegedly took to perish.
Nightmare’s Scaphism beer conveys the venture’s unabashedly macabre ethos, along with the founder's ravenous passion for horror flicks and death metal, which combine to direct some of the most progressive craft beers in New York. Each can is fronted by gory pen-and-ink artwork courtesy of Defame, a St. Louis-based illustrator who Powell brought on board because, as he says with a laugh, "He had a sixth sense of violence like I do.”
Nightmare Brewing launched in December 2018 as Powell's reaction to a craft beer scene he saw saturated with formulaic IPAs. "Everybody was doing the same thing,” he says. “I wanted to make beers that are more polished and not your typical IPA cheat code with Galaxy, Citra and Mosaic [hops]. A lot of people are getting palette fatigue from these breweries doing something over and over—I wanted the ingredients to actually have some meaning so it gives you more resonance.”
To do this, Powell did not set his sights on opening a brewery, instead started producing using what Powell dubs a “phantom brewery” system—his spin on the gypsy brewing, when a brewer uses another brewery’s facilities to produce beer (often while saving funds to open its own brick and mortar establishment). Powell’s first beer were made at Great South Bay Brewery in Bay Shore, New York, where he used to volunteer putting beer boxes together. "I didn't know my ass from my elbow as it were," he admits. "As a homebrewer you really think you know everything, but luckily I was taken under the wing by some guys [at GSB] who really know their stuff." Powell’s currently tapping connections in Dorchester, Boston, where he’s dabbling with a sour ale brewed with Colombian mangoes.
Powell has a reverence for the ingredients he brews with—and it's something his colleagues in the industry have picked up on. Bill Kiernan is the co-owner of Sand City Brewing in Northport, New York, where Powell worked before launching Nightmare. He testifies to Powell’s enthusiasm for sourcing ingredients, whether 80 pounds of Colombian mangoes or vanilla imported from Tahiti. “Billy is a high-energy guy who travels to the ends of the Earth for the things he's committed to,” Kiernan says. “He gets genuinely excited about ingredients—be it coffees and teas or fruits and grains—and has a penchant for the exotic which, incidentally, may be discovered at the ends of the Earth."
Phantom brewing gives Powell the freedom to follow his creative whims as he builds his business, which has grown from selling cans from Great South Bay's taproom to distributing beers across 15 states across via the 12 Percent Beer Project. Powell says one day he might like to open "a small physical space where I can get experimental," but for now he's focussed on expanding into more territories via phantom brewing. Not being tethered to a single brick-and-mortar base is a model that has also helped launch brands including Evil Twin, Stillwater Artisanal, and Mikkeller, but it’s been criticized for potentially destabilizing craft beer’s infrastructure, along with letting brewers release sub-par brews with fewer financial consequences. Powell disagrees, arguing that the nomadic nature of his phantom brewery is necessary to keep the industry creative.
"I'm currently searching for unique equipment to see if I can brew my way around the country," Powell says. "A lot of times, breweries are pigeonholed, when they can only brew one beer with one layer of flavor because of the system. But you can brew all these different styles with different equipment and water profiles and get drastically different beers—the same recipe brewed in New York and California will give you completely different beers.”
This dedication to innovation rings true when Powell talks about Nightmare’s beers. The Glasgow Smile, a 6.7% ABV gose, was sparked by a scene in the TV series Hannibal, depicting a ghastly attack involving slicing a victim with a knife from the corners of their mouth towards their ears. Powell homaged the Scottish heritage of the Glasgow smile by using the heather plant for the base of the beer. It’s an ingredient Powell discovered had been used in Scottish brewing for thousands of years. He added wild bilberry skins to the blend, along with raspberries, blueberries, and lemon zest—a combination used in a traditional Scottish dessert.
The meticulous, detail-oriented way Powell crafts his beers is matched by the brand's intricate can designs. Powell had been following Defame on Instagram for a couple of years, charmed by inked black-and-white illustrations evocative of covers from a lost 1980s metal album or banned VHS slasher movie. ”It was a pretty brutal pitch," says Defame, who grew up in a religious household and recalls he and his sister hiding metal albums from their parents. "Billy said, ‘I'm really into metal, beer, horror and just gruesome shit and I have an idea for a beer to mix all those together.’ I was like, ‘Dude, I'm fucking sold—that’s everything I like.’"
The first beer Defame worked on was Drawn & Quartered, a 10% ABV quadruple IPA that was part of Nightmare's launch. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse adorn the can, ripping the arms and legs from an anguished body. Riffing on the number four, Powell added hops to four vessels used to brew the beer—mash, kettle, brite, and fermentor—as well as four times throughout the fermentation process. “Every single one of my beers I obsess over to the point of mania," Powell says.
When it came to designing the can, Powell mentioned he wanted one of the Four Horsemen to be a reaper. Since then, every Nightmare can features a reaper hidden in the visuals. Powell also gave Defame a photograph of someone he knew and asked him to replicate the face for the victim.
"I think the appeal of the artwork is a morbid curiosity with death,” Defame says. But Nightmare isn’t about shock tactics. “I always try to put a face or an eye on the center of the can, because that touches people subconsciously like, ‘Oh, it's a person, you can see into their soul.’ It's a lot deeper than just macabre artwork drawing them in. If it was just some chick chopped in half and there's no faces to relate to, you're probably going to think it's gross and not want to drink it.”
Powell admits that Nightmare’s beers can be polarizing—but that comes with his mission of pushing boundaries. He’s currently working on a beer based on the Nordic Blood Eagle ritual, trying to find a way to import enough cloudberries and gooseberries to bring it to life. He’s also plotting a brew inspired by Alexander The Great’s fondness for elephants with blades strapped to their feet, which would viciously crush foes, a technique known as Gunga Rao. “Nightmare isn’t for everyone and I understand that,” Powell says. “But right now I’m really enjoying the phantom brewer lifestyle.”