“Contract brewing will be the death of craft beer.” Controversial statement riles brewers

Singlecut photo from Evil Twin Brewing 2

Update I: SingleCut responds.

Update II: More discussion here and here.

(New York City, NY) – On Christmas, Evil Twin Brewing founder, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, shared a photo on Facebook (photo credit goes to Smuttynose Brewing’s Patrick Fondiller) showing the SingleCut Beersmiths logo with some anti-contract brewer messaging that reads, “Contract brewing will be the death of craft beer.”

The photo set off a flurry of comments from fellow brewers, many of whom thrive off of contract brewing and closely-related “tenant” brewing.

“Spoken like someone with a year of experience in the industry,” says Prairie Ales co-founder, Chase Healey, who works with Krebs Brewing Co. in Oklahoma.

Jarnit-Bjergsø, who brews at many different locations, continues, “but what a year it was. I can seriously say that the one beer I had from them is THE most infected commercially made beer I have ever tried. But each to their own right?”

Contract brewing has been a hot button topic for a while in craft beer, in part, due to the attention that is placed on things outside the beer itself (e.g., size, independence, authenticity, soul).

Heavy Seas/Clipper City Brewing founder, Hugh Sisson, sparked a similar firestorm last year when he noted, “you’re not legit until you’ve got skin in the game,” a comment also surfaced by Jarnit-Bjergsø.

This year, New York’s Shmaltz Brewing released “Death of a Contract Brewer” as symbolism that it was starting anew with its own brand-new brewery ditching the stigma and label around “contract brewers.”

Slate, among others, has since tackled the topic of contract brewing.

At the end of the day, maybe science should win out…

“There is nothing magical about owning the equipment you brew on, says Cigar City Founder, Joey Redner. “The beer is either good or it is not good. A beer is not more good because you own the gear it was made on.” Cigar City recently launched a series of beers with a brewery in Puerto Rico.

Saint Somewhere founder, Bob Sylvester, draws a parallel to the restaurant industry. “There are plenty of world class Michelin Star and James Beard award winning chefs who don’t own their own restaurants. Why is brewing different?”

Given the poster’s NYC bent, it should be no surprise that The Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver has the most to say on this, given he is local, tenured more than most and works for a company that brews on a contract basis. He and SingleCut’s Rich Buceta are also familiar with one another having both appeared together on at least one episode of Beer Sessions Radio.

“The thing is, Chase, this crap is just sad. All too often these days, instead of brewing their beer and doing the fun thing they came to do, you see too many angry arrivistes talking smack about their fellow brewers.”

Oliver recounts a story in which Randy Thiel, then head brewer at Ommegang, helped him out when he was in a bind.

“In 2006 we were looking to get into full-scale bottle-conditioning and we were taking a big leap. I bought a gravity filler so that we would be unable to lose our nerve and package carbonated beer. We had a series of test brews and re-fermentation trials planned. Bert Van Heck, then recently brewmaster of St. Bernardus, came to the brewery for three days and taught us the ins and outs of true bottle-conditioning – it turns out that you can’t read how to do this in any book in any language. And then we hit a huge snag.

The re-fermentation crates, without which we couldn’t get started, were actually only available in Belgium. And it would take them three months to send them, and things would otherwise be nearly impossible to pull off. So I reached out to Randy Thiel, who was then head brewer at Ommegang. Knowing full well that Brooklyn Local 1 would soon be sitting on shelves next to his beers, all Randy had to do was say “sorry, haven’t got any – wish I could help you.” Instead, he said “I’ve got 300 crates that I don’t need back for six months – I’ll get them loaded up right away and you can borrow ours until you get your own.” And why?

Because Randy is an actual craft brewer, not a false one. And craft brewers are people of honor.”

As for contracting, while Oliver’s team has the capacity to brew 90,000 barrels of beer right in Brooklyn, the majority of its production takes place up in Utica at Matt Brewing.

“We’ve spent millions of dollars on equipment up there, and we’ll spend more. The Matt Brewery, having outlasted and outsmarted thousands of American breweries in its day, is still there, and still family-owned. It’s the biggest employer in the area. Without them, there would be no Brooklyn Brewery – we’d have gone under sometime in the 90s rather than celebrating our 25th year in 2013 with unprecedented growth and more vitality than ever.”

Turns out contract brewing may just be part of the fabric that makes up this craft beer thing.

Jarnit-Bjergsø is now proudly wearing the photo as his Facebook profile picture.


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20 thoughts on ““Contract brewing will be the death of craft beer.” Controversial statement riles brewers

  1. Sometimes there just isn’t enough money to start and have your own physical space. I have friends who make beer on a contract basis and they make some fantastic beer. Look at Cigar City’s agreement with BrewHub as a point where there is a need for contract brewing. It isn’t easy. It’s like renting and not owning a home. You still have to have a place to live. This is what contract/gypsy brewing is. I think Jeppe called it out right on this one. Sometimes being the renter is better than being the owner. You can explore any time you like!

  2. In the wine industry, no one bats an eye at people/brands who create wine at a different premise or buy grapes/juice from a different appellation.

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  4. Most important to me in this little stunt, is the “…will be the death of craft beer…” bit. Why would any literature produced by a brewery even hint at craft beer’s theoretical demise? That’s the most offensive part of this to me. No brewer should be insinuating that craft beer will come unhinged for any reason, whether it be contract brewing, some hypothetical “bubble” bursting, or the man trying to keep craft down. I still run into people quite often who feel like, as great as the beer is and as truly popular and (god-forbid) mainstream as it’s become, the bottom is bound to fall out and we will all descend backward into Bud Light hell. Enough of that morbid discussion. We are not Cubs fans (well, not all of us), we are craft beer people! Fear does not motivate us, beer does.

  5. IMHO, the only thing(s) that matters is the finished product…and perhaps what you give back to your community. I’d rather drink great contract brewed beer than mediocre craft beer brewed at one’s wholly owned facility…and there’s plenty of mediocrity out there (which, if I remember, was the death of the first incarnation of the “micro-brewed” beers of the mid to late 90’s).

    As long as the product you’re producing is worthy (no matter what industry)…choosing the business model that works for you…is your business NO ONE ELSE’S!

  6. I think the point of singlecuts message was how many NYC breweries thrive off of the ‘local craft’ theme when so many brands beers aren’t even brewed in the the state, much less city. There are at least 3 NYC breweries I can think of who’s growth and popularity were built on the local theme when not a drop of beer was made in the city (or state for that matter). I agree good beer is good beer no matter where it comes from but creating a brand who’s main selling point is that it’s local when it’s not is a cause for concern.

  7. Making the leap from homebrewing to being a commercial brewery is not an easy leap to make and it’s not cheap. Having your beers contract brewed while establishing yourself is a cost effective way to do it, as not everyone has the funds to open up a brewery from scratch. One of the knocks on Terrapin for a number of years was that they contracted brewed their beers and once they were able to build their own brewery, those knocks stopped. Even Sam Adams was contract brewed for many years as new brewery facilities or expansions of existing breweries is not cheap. I look at the number of breweries that have started up here in Atlanta in recent years, and most of them did not go the contract brewing route (Two of them did, with plans to start brewing at their own facility and so far one of them has opened their own brewery and the other one finally got the financing to build theirs.). There is still a bit of a stigma with contract brewing, especially if you don’t clearly disclose it on the label. Some folks will not even consider a beer a “local craft beer” if it was contract brewed somewhere not in the area.

    Even some of the well regarded west coast breweries engage in some contract brewing. Trader Joe’s Mission Street line of beers is brewed by “Steinhaus Brewing” which is actually Firestone Walker.

  8. Saying “contract brewing will be the death of craft beer” is as ignorant as saying “craft brewers are people of honor.” Both statements can, logically, be disproven, and are simply different ways of being naive.

  9. Is Matt F.X. Doing their cans or did Heavy Seas add a canning line…or do they use a mobile canning service?

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