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Are Contract Brewers Craft?

Does having a real brewhouse matter?

Yesterday in the Globe and Mail, Ontario-based beer writer Ben Johnson wrote a piece exploring whether contract brewing helped or hindered the growth of craft beer. You can read the original article here.

Johnson offers a very balanced and fair piece, asking questions and letting different people in the industry answer. However, his article hit a question that I have been contemplating for a long time. What is the role of contract brewing in the craft beer scene?

Let’s take a step back and quickly explain contract brewing. A contract brewery is an operation that rather than build its own bricks-and-mortars brewery arranges to brew their beer at an existing facility. The degree of control and autonomy over the beer varies depending on the contract. Sometimes the contractee takes responsibility for all aspects short of selling the beer. Other times the contractor handles most aspects under the supervision of the contractee staff.

Sometimes contract brewing is a stop-gap while the owners build their own brewery – a chance to create some name and cash flow. Other times it is the core business model, avoid the costly upfront capital costs at the expense of smaller margins.

The source of the controversy is whether you can legitimately call yourself “craft” if you don’t actually make your own beer.

It is a big question and I know it is controversial, as evidenced by my decision in my brewery stats posts to offer up both contract-inclusive and contract-exclusive numbers (for example here).

Those opposed to contract brewing argue, in short, that having your own brewery provides skin in the game, giving you a solid motivation to create the best beer you can. It also, from their perspective, provides more credibility. You are crafting your own beer with your own hands (and equipment), which is the essence of craft.

On the other side, contract supporters argue that a commitment to creating quality beer is not linked to owning a bunch of expensive equipment. You can create and produce amazing craft beer using someone else’s equipment.

Johnson’s article seems to suggest that there is a difference between using a brewery but employing your own recipe, skill and staff and simply paying them to brew a beer for you that you have little connection with. He may have a point. But I think it may also be beside the point. I know of a couple brewery owners who know little about beer. They hire staff to make beer for them. As it happens they also own the equipment, but how different is that from using someone else’s equipment?

There are lots of points on both sides. In the interest of efficiency I will briefly outline some of them without comment:

  • Craft is linked to artisanal production, meaning you need to get your hands dirty.
  • Contract brewing has existed for decades. Longstanding breweries like Boston Brewing used conracting to make their name and became respected breweries.
  • Contract brewers undermine craft by pretending to be a real brewery when they are not.
  • Many respected breweries had their start by contracting.
  • Contract breweries lie to consumers by saying they are one thing, or come from one place, and really are produced in a different location.
  • Contract brewers have less control over the process and so can’t provide the same degree of quality control a real brewer can.

I exclude from that list some specious arguments, such as contract brewers produce non-craft beer for the mass market (a claim implied by the Johnson article). The relative accessibility/mass market nature of the beer generally has nothing to do with whether you have a brewery or are a contractor.

I think I also reject that location doesn’t matter and that the only thing that counts is the quality of the beer. In my mind, the craft beer ethos demands honesty with your customers. You can’t say you are from Edmonton if your beer is brewed in Kelowna (to pick a random example not linked to any current arrangement). There needs to be accountability.

There is no question this is a complex question, and there are no easy answers. Personally, I continue to be torn about how to handle contract breweries. For me, I think much of it depends on context and intention. There are a couple breweries in Alberta currently making their beer at other breweries. Their short or long term plan is to open their own brewery. That feels different than a company that never plans to open a brewery.

But my distinction on that front only takes us so far. It is easy to say Brewery X who is contracting for a year or two while they build their brewery is okay. But how is that different than Brewery Y who has no intentions of creating their own brewery. If they are honest about where their beer is brewed, should we care?

Or does this matter?

That, I think, is the crux of the question. Mostly I will leave it for you to decide for yourself. But I will say this. Those who unequivocally reject contract brewing as illegitimate are both ignoring history and creating too narrow a definition of craft – one that many bricks-and-mortars breweries would fail. On the other end, those who unquestioningly say it doesn’t matter where a beer is made and all that matters is quality ignore the inherently local nature of craft beer. You can’t brew your beer in Wisconsin (as a random example) and say you are an Alberta brewery. It is just false.

The contract brewery controversy has raged for about three decades now, meaning it won’t end anytime soon. Both types of breweries will continue to be a part of the industry, whether people like it or not.

Allow me a simple antidote. Rather than focus on the mechanisms under which a beer is made, maybe focus on whether the quality is sound, the marketing is honest and the beer reflects the ethos of craft. If it meets all three thresholds, it is craft beer. If it doesn’t then we are free to call them out.

I know I am copping out a little bit. But it is a complex issue and I refuse to be boxed into black-and-white corners. Besides, I know all of us have enjoyed a contract brewed beer from time to time, which makes us all compromised in terms of sweeping judgement. Thank goodness for that!

 

7 comments to Are Contract Brewers Craft?

  • Barry

    I don’t think your idea to focus on the quality and honest marketing of a brewer’s brand is a cop out at all. For me it’s the quality of the beer that brings me back to drinking it a second time, or more. Marketing honesty comes into play, but I don’t stick my nose in the air if the brewer doesn’t own the facility they brew in.

  • Chris

    Where do gypsy brewers such as Mikkeller fit into this argument? Gypsy brewers do not own a brewery, but they also do not contract brew per se. They rent the equipment of another brewery to brew beer themselves. If you brew your own beer, but don’t own the equipment, are you craft? I don’t think anyone could argue that Mikkeller has hurt the craft beer industry.

    Also, what about the argument that contract brewing allows small brewers the funds to maintain and operate a larger brewhouse than they currently require, allowing them a cash flow while they grow their own sales?

    • beerguy

      In my mind gypsy brewers are contract brewers. There is a range of deals in contracting, moving from the contractor does nothing to the contractor basically taking over the brewhouse for a day. So, gypsy brewers are contract brewers. Are they craft? I think their reputations are telling.

  • There have been so many examples of awesome contract breweries in the states that make/made incredible beer and push(ed) the boundaries. Highwater Brewing, Prairie Artisan Ales, and Pretty Little Things come to mind. The Rare Barrel, which are arguably one of the most eminent sour breweries in the United States, contract brew their wort out of a facility in another city. Most Belgian lambic breweries contract brew their wort elsewhere and focus on the barrel aging and blending process. It would be hard to say that any of these examples are not craft breweries just because they pay someone else to go through the motions of pushing buttons on a brewhouse (which is partially or entirely automated at many of the brick and mortar craft breweries that almost everyone would categorize as craft). Craft beer is about creativity, innovation, and attitude.

  • I am a gypsy brewery now who has 8 years of brewing expenance before i became a gypsy brewery. I brew my own at differant breweriers. I won a silver metal on my second brew. I am about brewing great craft beers.
    elbeck brews edmonton alberta canada

  • Brady

    I don’t know whether your use of ‘random’ in the examples here is simply sarcastic, or spurious, or what, but it is rich in my imaginings. As for an example of a contract brewery that absolutely blows away any quality argument, one way or another, check out Outcast. Mic drop.

  • Chad

    I’d think that whether contract brewing is craft or not is a moot point: it all comes down to the beer: has care and attention gone into creating the brew? Regardless of personal taste and opinion, I’d like to think that any beer brewed with a motivation that comes from passion for the craft (as opposed to dollars) can only help the industry.

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