Gypsy brewers react to Clipper City founder’s “skin in the game” comment

hugh sisson photo

[Hugh Sisson – courtesy of Cizauskas on Flickr]

UPDATE: Clipper City Brewing founder clarifies comments regarding gypsy brewers

(Halethorpe, MD) – Clipper City Brewing (Heavy Seas Beer) Founder and Managing General Partner, Hugh Sisson, recently penned an editorial in Beer Advocate Magazine on the changing landscape of craft brewers in the U.S.

On Tuesday, Evil Twin Brewing shared a piece of that article on Twitter, which reads, in part:

There’s also no doubt in my mind that 75 percent of the people on that list of [pending breweries] will fail. Or will find out that what they have is a very expensive hobby… [which] I don’t mean as a pejorative. “I can make 35 barrels of beer a month.” OK, well, I’m sorry, that’s not a business yet. And the gypsy brewers, as far as I’m concerned, are exactly the same thing. I know a couple of these folks — some of them have got some awesome beer. But to me, you’re not legit until you’ve got skin in the game, which means capital at risk.

Sisson has been a veteran of the beverage industry for over three decades now so he speaks from a position of experience. Nevertheless, some gypsy brewers took his comments personally as seen below. Notably, Stillwater Ales’ Brian Strumke, who lives in the Baltimore area near Clipper City, spoke up.


Unrelated, it was just announced this week that Clipper City is undergoing an expansion to bring annual working capacity up over 80,000 barrels.

Agree or disagree with Sisson’s sentiments regarding breweries-in-planning and gypsy brewers?

28 thoughts on “Gypsy brewers react to Clipper City founder’s “skin in the game” comment

  1. Maybe Heavy Seas should focus on making a better product then talking about others failing. I even live in their state and have no interest in a majority of their offerings. I guess there is a place for below middle of the road craft breweries.

  2. Good for Stillwater and others for speaking up. It baffles me why Sisson continually bashes those who chose a different path than he in starting a brewery. He should stick to what he’s good at (selling beer outside of his local market) and let the many new MD breweries do what they’re good at (creating a vibrant local beer scene). Plenty of room for both to coexist.

  3. Just because a brewer was able to get beer on the market and avoid a huge capital investment doesn’t mean that they’re “amateur.” Hell, Sam Adams was until fairly recently mostly contract brewed. Did they not have “skin in the game?” And I say all this with a bunch of respect for Hugh and Heavy Seas. We’ve interviewed him and were just recently at the brewery. They make tasty beer that I like to drink and that is all over the place in Maryland. Not to mention they have an awesomely HUGE cask program!

    That said, I don’t necessarily agree with his sweeping generalization about “gypsy” brewers. In my home market, I say look at Pretty Things and Notch Brewing alone. Plus you’ve got some good examples here already, Adam, with Stilwater, Mikeller and Evil Twin.

  4. I would take an Evil Twin, Mikkeller or Stillwater product over a Clipper City Brewing product without hesitation. One can belittle gypsy brewers all they want, but without having “skin in the game” many gypsy brewers have created better products than many larger craft breweries. Furthermore, in my retail experience the aforementioned gypsy brewers sold very, very well.

  5. He’s jealous of the following and niche that these gypsies have created… I’ve never heard of Heavy Seas and they’ve been around how long?

  6. Wow, okay let’s not lose focus on the bigger picture here. Whether you’re a gypsy or pyrate, you’re still promoting craft beer, craft brewing and Baltimore’s heritage in brewing. Having a “skin in the game” is a relative term and considering the sacrifices made by pyrate and/or gypsy alike, everyone here wasn’t born with a silver bottle opener in their hand so this petty hair-splitting on who’s done more is pointless. Remember, for every Loose Cannon or Stateside Saison sold, that’s one more bottle of Bud Lite Lime or Silver Bullet crap that was bought & consumed. Cheers guys!

  7. It’s a silly thing to say. I run a small business myself – on the scale that nobody considers me a real competition in their field – but I’ve been making a profit for almost two decades. Some businesses are small, some large, but you’re “legit” when you can keep doing it year-in, year-out, no matter how you’re financed.

  8. For me there is no argument. Hugh said he knows gypsy brewers that make awesome beer. So what is the problem, heavy seas is a growing business and so is stillwater. Both companies have hardworking dedicated people behind them, and both make great beer. Stop fighting this is stupid. Team beer for life

  9. Hugh has done a lot for craft brewing in Maryland. I don’t think that fact should ever be overlooked. But just because brewers can now produce quality beer without having to jump through the hoops Hugh had to jump through doesn’t mean that they “have no skin in the game”. It’s quite the opposite, the gypsy brewers have had to work extremely hard to create their beers within a framework that didn’t exist before. Brian Strumke has done a lot for Maryland craft beer. He makes amazing beers without a situated brewery. That’s true talent. Hugh be a mentor and embrace the changes in the industry rather than being a grumpy old man who feels like everyone owes him something.

  10. Here is what could literally be taken from Sisson’s statement: Debt is the missing magic ingredient separating quality beer from the rest of the field. Do I think that is what he meant? No, probably not, though the statement reads more like a petulant child confounded by the lack of stasis within the craft beer movement as a whole than an industry veteran. Yes, I realize the idea of stasis and movement together is a contradiction unto itself, but maybe that is the problem with his point in general – the man is asking for something more constant in a sector of the industry which is not only continuously evolving but one which embraces evolution as its very constitution. Boldness, entrepreneurialism, and dedication to one’s craft thankfully don’t come with instructions, prescriptions, or replicable recipes. If Sisson’s comments were taken out of context (hopefully the private audience kind) then I may be off the mark, barring that I’d say the industry veteran is suffering from the worst form of institutional pathology. In the least I would question his PR credentials, more disconcertingly I would question his vision; if he is convinced people want homogenization of methods then he is no way talking about anything less than a homogenization of its products – even if he doesn’t realize it. AB In Bev has the industry science down in all forms, and we know where that has left us, leave the art alone.


    A Gypsy Craft Beer Drinker

    P.S. The measure of a valuable contribution to a community is rightfully and again thankfully more forgiving than the dotted line at the bottom of your watermark. But maybe that is the difference between an industry veteran and lowly hobby brewer – oh I’m sorry, was that pejorative?

  11. Pingback: Heavy Seas’ Hugh Sisson comments on “Gypsy Brewers” (Baltimore’s Stillwater replies) «

  12. Times, they are a changin. Change with the times or get left behind. Just because someone was able to get their beer to market in a different way does not mean that you’re superior or that they’re inferior. Stop your whining and get back to brewing.

    “Your shit doesn’t effect me, My shit doesn’t effect you”, – Rat

  13. Several years ago, at a Baltimore Beer Week luncheon panel of basically all the “pioneers” of craft brewing in central Maryland (Hugh, folks from Wild Goose, Oxford, the first beer bars, etc.), I asked the panel “If you had to do it all over again, knowing then what you know now, what would you do differently?” After a solid minute of forehead-stroking from all of them, Jim Lutz of Fordham (and earlier Wild Goose) said simply, “More money, fewer investors!” The entire rest of the panel nodded in agreement. Hugh Sisson then launched into a review of where the craft brewing industry stood at that point, and I paraphrase the gist of what he said: “Right now, the nanobreweries, the guys brewing in a cut-off keg in a back room, are going great. The big guys–the Sierra Nevadas, the New Belgiums, the Dogfishes–they’re doing gangbusters, too. The guys in the middle, like me, are practically in a death-cage match, and not all of us are going to survive. There’s only so much shelf space and consumer attention. I have to figure out, am I going to be a national player, or am I going to be a terrific local guy that stays small? And maybe I should have figured that out a few years sooner.”

    The argument has been about for a while now: are “gypsy brewers” just looking to be a small but fancy fish in a crowded aquarium, or is the process a stepping stone to eventually acquiring a larger business, including a brewery? Scarcity, exclusivity, and exotica are great for feeding a fad or a cultish following, but it is scarcely a good way to expand a business into prosperity. Of course, Strumke and other gypsies may not have any interest in such growth, and may instead pursue the ultimate goal of the single, exclusive $1000 bottle now seemingly dominated by BrewDog–that’s their choice, but more of a gamble.

    The ultimate problem with the “gypsy” model is that ultimately every host brewery aims to be too busy brewing for themselves to entertain the notion of a gypsy guest. Sisson for years hosted a much earlier gypsy, Stephen Demczuk, brewer of The Raven Lager. Heavy Seas’ increasing business forced Sisson to eventually turn away the occasional contract brew of The Raven, forcing Demczuk to finally “put skin in the game” himself with his own brewery, which starts brewing momentarily: and

    For the record, Stillwater’s Strumke DOES have “skin in the game” in the form of a partnership in a Baltimore bistro:

  14. I guess I’m in the minority here, but I have no love for Stillwater, Mikkeller or Evil Twin. The former’s saisons all virtually taste the same, and after a couple “guest brews” the recipes are on to contract. And as for the other two, well, in my not so humble opinion they have a huge disparity between price and quality across the board for all but a few select bottles. So, I ask, what is so gypsy about paying someone else to brew your beer?

  15. Evil Twin has brews that not only are exclusive but are head and shoulders above many local state breweries. I see City as a JR Rockers of SC. Typical boring product with no sole.
    Evil Twins Biscotti Break is head and shoulders about anything City can produce.
    I would much rather try once, an awesome time staking experience versus a mass produced so so beer.
    I compare ET to my favs such as Goose Islands Bourbon Country and Founders Back Yard Bastard.
    When you have something that is in that realm? Then start talking smack!

  16. Just watch Mikkeller next beer will be “Skin in the Game”. It is good to be an agile like a Gypsy.

  17. Heavy Seas should focus on making better beer, not bashing brewers who put out a far superior product.

  18. “Demczuk isn’t a Gypsy. Dude doesn’t even brew his own stuff.”

    Wrong. He did physically supervise the brewing of his Raven beer at Clipper City for years, and is now building his own brewery, with financial partners. Again, as someone asked, just what is the difference between a contract brewer and a gypsy? Signing to make a set number of batches versus “let’s brew this beer in your place, and if it sells we’ll do another beer”?

    Is the difference that between physically laying hands on malt, literally shoveling hops, etc. versus running the business? I’ve asked several brewery owners “so just how long has it been since you literally brewed a beer?” A lot of the well-known names, including Sisson, haven’t done so in years if not decades. Does Calagione actually brew at Dogfish Head anymore, or does he just pose for cameras doing so? It doesn’t much matter, does it?

    Finally, I approach it in this way: If I wanted to get involved business-wise with a brewery for distribution and selling (say, bringing these beers to Colorado or Arizona, just to make up an example), who should I get behind: the guy who hopes to be able to send me a vanload of 750ml bottles a couple times a year, or a guy able to commit to a trailer-load of cases or kegs once a month? Yes, different products, different marketing, and Strumke’s competing with Belgian bottles while Heavy Seas is competing with every other damn IPA, saison, imperial stout, etc.

  19. All Mr. Sisson did by writing this editorial is reaffirm the struggle that the gypsies have faced all along. This isn’t the first guy to come along and question their sustainability. They may not face as many inventory and overhead issues as a traditional brewer, but they have unique struggles that Mr. Sisson hasn’t faced in his 30+ years of brewing experience.

    Imagine the logistical nightmares the gypsies face… Brewery schedules, different brew systems, getting grain, hops, and yeast to breweries all over the world, missed flights, event and promotion planning, hangovers, traveling year-round and having to be away from their families for days and weeks on end. It’s not easy being a gypsy, and they pay a great price every day for all the celebrity they have achieved.

    Mikkel, Jeppe, and Brian are all exceptionally talented brewers. The product speaks for itself. They are also really good dudes, and many of us know them or have at least hung out with them while they were passing through our towns.

    The gypsy movement will undoubtedly lead to some opportunists who make a few batches of shitty beer, but it has already proven to be a successful and sustainable business model for these guys. Bring on the critics, they are used to it…

  20. “Imagine the logistical nightmares the gypsies face… Brewery schedules, different brew systems, getting grain, hops, and yeast to breweries all over the world, missed flights, event and promotion planning, hangovers, traveling year-round and having to be away from their families for days and weeks on end. It’s not easy being a gypsy, and they pay a great price every day for all the celebrity they have achieved.”

    Cry me a river. This is, in effect, the business model, and lifestyle, they chose for themselves. Strumke was living that nomadic lifestyle before he started brewing professionally, as a DJ in demand internationally. Just like being a rock star or other musician on the road, it’s the price you pay for the perks and benefits–the profits, the fandom, celebrity status, increased sales and buzz, etc. It’s a business model that they can easily abandon if it gets too tedious, taxing, or unprofitable.

  21. @Alexander, I couldn’t remember where I knew your name from – but i knew I recognized it…after googling you and looking at the first image that came up – got a good chuckle as it was a picture of you AT Clipper City in March 2008.

  22. Pingback: Clipper City Brewing founder clarifies comments regarding gypsy brewers | BeerPulse

  23. So I won’t drink Clipper City anymore I guess, a huge part of what I like about a craft beer is the people behind it, and he’s a d*ck which means his beer will always be s*it on my taste buds. I own a small brewery, one that HAS put skin in the game, but kept a day job while trying to get the dream going. I am licensed, I have my location, I have a very small system, and we are making beer, what’s wrong with that…we pay taxes, have bonds, have permits, pay permit fees, have fire inspections, etc…even have an LLC after our name and a loan from Sam Adams in the “businesses” name – last time I checked all that should mean we are a business. At one point he had a business that wasn’t profitable yet and he wasn’t paying himself nor did he have employees, but he must have short term memory in his older “I’m a big brewery” years, f*ck you Hugh (hey that rhymes!)

  24. Unfortunately this situation got out of hand quickly, spilling into the Web-o-Sphere where the personal attacks flowed. It is also unfortunate that all of this could have been avoided if only a few small, but important, guidelines were followed.
    Context, clarification, confirmation, ambiguous terminology, hasty remarks, and personal offense all have roles in this flame-up. Communication is important in all aspects of business, even outside the work place.

  25. Pingback: Shot across the bow: Heavy Seas Beer may be taking stand against National Bohemian | BeerPulse

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