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Contract Brewing Ain’t as Bad as you Heard

A few years ago a friend wrote to ask for my opinion on contract brewing. I have since lost the actual conversation, every bit, byte, and pixel lost to the netherregions of the etherspace. I remember the gist and my opinion has not changed much since then, as a matter of fact, I’m probably far more off the fence than I was back then. The short version runs like this: Do it. I added a bunch of hemming and hawing about how people get all up in arms about “authenticity” and whatnot, but essentially the art of the craft brewer is two-fold: make good beers and be sensitive to the whims of your homegrown market. I could still hem and haw, but I like to think of it like this:

There are people who make recipes, and there are people who make beers. In very, very small breweries these are often the same people. But even in very modest sized breweries they often are not. Sure, it could be argued that when a brewer is a close friend or even a close associate with the owner and/or lead recipe creator, the brewer might occasionally be able to make his own beer under the brewery’s label, but that’s neither here nor there. The real bottom line is that brewing on large batch systems is a technical skill and a technical art. It’s the ability to manipulate machines to create a consistent product over and over again. It is good that the recipe creators outsource this activity to someone who is good at it so they can spend their time doing what they do best.

Do you really think that the celebrity chef of your choice is the guy who turns on the oven to cook that signature steak? Do you think he still blends those spices and oils in the rubs he uses? Do you think he tosses the salad, stirs the soup, or delicately folds the sugar into the whipped egg whites? Of course he doesn’t! That’s not to take away from those people who do those things. Being a sous-chef is important work in a kitchen. Being the saucier is no joke. Those people are skilled too. Is the eating experience any less good because Wolfgang Puck didn’t actually touch your Pan-Roasted Swordfish? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s probably better. It’s been a long time since Puck had to man the griddle; the line cook over there now has a much better understanding of that cooking surface as well as the overall character of today’s batch of deep sea treasures. His muscle memory is fine-tuned to flip at precisely the right moment to cook both sides in a way that will honor the name of the kitchen to which he is attached.

I do supposed one problem we’re facing here is one of operational definition. All beer brewed at a “contract brewery” is a “contract brewed beer” and this beer can come in the form of the beer that Brugge Brasserie offers in Indianapolis: top-notch, well designed, and sometimes assertive beers worthy of every designation and respect a craft beer deserves, all the way to Big Flats, a crappy lager with a skunky odor contract brewed by the very nice folks at Genessee Brewing Company. (Or at least used to be, I haven’t followed Big Flats since they debuted two years ago.) But let’s be clear, Big Flats sucks because it tastes bad, not because of where it was brewed. Sometimes a “contract brewed beer” is created from start to finish by the contract brewery. These beers are marketing ploys…like the promotional pens your company hands out at trade shows. They aren’t handing them out saying “Hey, look at my pens!” What they’re saying is, “Hey, you need a pen, you can take one of mine….oh and by the way, remember me the next time you need <<Thing We Actually do>>.” That is actually a nicer thing than what Walgreens is doing which is saying “Hey, we know you’re sheepishly walking u and down the aisles looking for the cheapest beer…this is Walgreens. Why should you give your money to ABInbev when we can provide you with a slightly worse product for a significant discount?”

I don’t normally get into mind-reading, but I’ll stick my neck out a little here and say that this kerfuffle from a few weeks back has nothing to do with whether or not “contract brewing will be the death of craft beer,” because it won’t. It’s a point too obvious to make. Contract brewing has been around a long time. Sam Adams used to exclusively contract brew and they’ve done more to advance the industry and culture (such as it is) than most. What it does do is make brewing cheaper, which provides a profit incentive to the breweries that decide to do it. And additional profits allow a company the financial constancy and overall leeway to do things like reinvest in their firm, pay down capital investments, and experiment with their long-tail beers.  And don’t forget Pete’s Wicked Ales or Sam Adams’ current yearly contest where … essentially they pick homebrewers recipe to contract brew each year. Some of those beers are good and who’s going to take those homebrewers to task for not starting up a megabrewery and distributing their beers all over the country themselves? Contract brewing make opportunities for legitimate brewers to start their businesses with lower start-up costs and it makes for a potentially more competitive craft beer marketplace overall. That’ll be a good thing for craft beer drinkers, even as it might turn out very poorly for a set of craft brew makers that either stylistically cannot compete or ideologically choose not to compete in this way.

Trying to decipher a brewer’s “authenticity” is about as possible as trying to determine what a politician “really believes” instead of just looking at how he votes. Walgreens revealed their intentions by turning out an extremely low priced product that I, along with several others, would deem too expensive at half its low, low price. They never had any intention to make a good beer. They wanted to make a beer that would appeal to poor college students that  place some value in the “craft” look. Basically binge drinkers that didn’t want to show up at the frat party with another Natty Ice 30-pack. Hunting for authenticity is a fool’s errand. And attempting to rally craft beer drinkers behind a No Contract Brewing At All Costs campaign is as off-putting and cynical as CAMRA’s “the only real beer is cask beer” lunacy. It’s an artificial line in the sand to promote one’s own choices by tearing down another’s.  You want to end contract brewed beers? Then prove they suck by out brewing them.

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Posted in The Drinking Class.