In the 1980s and ‘90s, the American beer landscape was fairly simple. You had your Davids, and you had your Goliaths. It was clear who the good guys were and who the bad guys were.
The small, independent brewer was the hero, fighting for the integrity of beer and American entrepreneurship. The large, corporate, mega brewery was the villain, standing in direct opposition to the small brewer, prioritizing marketing over quality, and unabashedly insulting the American beer drinker’s palate by releasing a string of increasingly dull and decreasingly flavorful products.
Things now are a little more complex, however. Today, in an era of beer marked by myriad corporate buyouts, partnerships, and faux “craft” breweries launched by massive industrial brewers, discerning who the good guys are and who the bad guys are has become increasingly difficult.
The contractor commeth
Adding to this complexity is the increasingly common practice of contract brewing. The Brewers Association defines a contract brewing company as a business that hires another brewery, (which for simplicity, we will refer to as the brewery), to produce its beer. These arrangements can occur for a number of reasons, but generally, they are all are similar in at least one aspect. Namely, the contract brewing company possesses demand which exceeds its capacity, and the brewery has capacity that exceeds its demand.
Some of these breweries that contract brew for others are well-established brands with excess capacity (i.e. Abita Brewing Co.), whereas others are facilities with the primary purpose of contract brewing (i.e. the FX Matt Brewery in Utica, New York).
Sometimes, the term “contract brewing” carries a negative connotation, and in some instances, it’s warranted. Contract brewing isn’t innately bad, however. In fact, arguably two of the most exciting, boundary-pushing brewers in the country, Evil Twin Brewing and Stillwater Artisanal Ales are exclusively contract, or more accurately, “gypsy,” brewers. Neither of these brewing companies have their own breweries at all, (not yet, anyway). Rather, they are brewers using the brewing space of other breweries to turn their ideas into a tangible, drinkable product.
An informed consumer
What’s more important to you? The brewer who transforms his or her idea into reality, or the physical space in which that transformation occurs? If the latter is important to you, you may be wise to take a closer look at the label or conduct a quick google search the next time you’re enjoying your favorite brew. You may be surprised at what you find.
Maybe none of this matters to you. Maybe you feel content sitting in your local Baltimore hipster bar, drinking Baltimore’s most iconic beer, National Bohemian, which hadn’t even seen the inside of the state of Maryland until it showed up on a pallet sent from a MillerCoors production facility. That’s quite all right. But maybe you’re inquisitive. Maybe you want to be an informed consumer. Maybe you do want to know where your beer is made, and why it’s made there. When it comes to contract brewing, there are a number of reasons your beer might be made somewhere other than where you think.
For instance, if you’re a small brewer, and demand for your product has quickly outgrown the limited capacity of your 3-barrel system, it may make sense to contract brew to satisfy demand and avoid creating a disgruntled customer until you can expand your own facility. An instance in which this would not be okay, is when a contract brewer never has plans to one day open its own facility, and brews exclusively under contract indefinitely. If you, as a brewer, have no intention of one day having your own brewing space, can you really call yourself a brewery?
Keeping it symbiotic
When examining the association between contract brewers and breweries, another facet to consider is whether this relationship is one of symbiosis, or if the contract brewer merely serves as a band-aid for a faltering brewery. Instead of working to build demand for their own brands, are these breweries relying too heavily on the contract brewers to fill their capacity and pay their bills? After all, there is often a reason that many of these breweries have excess capacity in the first place. Perhaps they were built too big from the start, or maybe demand for their product has simply declined with the dynamic tastes of the American craft beer consumer.
Another thing to be mindful of is the method of contract brewing. For example, does the contract brewer have one of their own brewers on site, brewing the beer themselves? This is the case with many breweries, including the Brooklyn Brewery, who employs its own brewers to produce its beers at the FX Matt brewery in Utica, NY. Or, alternatively, do they simply have the contract brewery brew the beer for them according to specific specifications? Both are common.
When it becomes deceptive
Considering these factors, is contract brewing a necessary tool for growth? Or does it only further obscure an already convoluted craft beer landscape?
When it comes to contract brewing, honesty is key. There’s no shame in contract brewing as a means to meet the demand of eager craft beer enthusiasts until a brewery can undergo an expensive and laborious expansion. What is unacceptable, however, is hiding the fact that a brewing company brews their beer under contract from the consumer. This isn’t the business practice of a small craft brewer. This is the business practice of an AB InBev or a MillerCoors, who convinces you that one of their brands is a small-town brewing company, “hand-crafting” ales with a “pinch of this and a touch of that.” It’s deceptive, and it’s unethical.
In today’s complex landscape of craft beer, there is a place for contract brewing, but to preserve the integrity of the craft brewing industry, it must be characterized by absolute transparency and openness.