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Is contract brewing hurting craft beer?

Discussion in 'Beer Talk' started by Beercub, May 29, 2012.

  1. Recently had some beers that really made me wonder how much contract brewing is undermining quality beers. Here are some examples:

    Sixpoint ... originally loved their entire lineup and now i don't even recognize them ... Bengali Tiger in particular... completely lost its personality (contract brewed at Lion's brewery)

    21st Amendment - Hell or High Watermelon... used to love this stuff on an 80+ degree humid day, but had one the other day it was rife with diacetyl (undrinkable... stale movie popcorn taste)

    Kona Pale Ale - had this in Hawaii and found it exceptional. Now that it's brewed in NH (I think), the beer is nothing special at all.

    I'm sure there are plenty of other examples. Or perhaps examples where the contract brew is better. But from a quality, ingredients, and craft-passion point of view, I think contracting the brewing simply to increase volume seems to be a bad omen for craft beer.
  2. otispdriftwood

    otispdriftwood Advocate (730) Colorado Dec 9, 2011 Beer Trader

    If the beer sucks, it sucks. There are plenty of beers that are not contract brewed that suck the big one. And I'll bet there are plenty of contract brews that are excellent.
    Domingo likes this.
  3. smutty33

    smutty33 Advocate (705) Connecticut Jun 12, 2009

    I'm not a fan of contract brewing either,I don't like the idea of a totally different brewery in a different state brewing a favorite of mine just to keep up w/ demand or whatever.I have found that the beer tastes similar,just not the same.No matter how much I like a particular beer,if its currently being contract brewed,I simply don't buy it.

  4. jlordi12

    jlordi12 Advocate (595) Massachusetts Jun 8, 2011 Beer Trader

    I had some Kona for the first time recently (brewed in NH). Thought it was solid. Never had a problem w/ Sixpoint either, I actually love their beers.
  5. I dont know if it is hurting the craft beer industry as a whole, but I do think that it can give a bad reputation to a breweries beer. If I grow up loving a specific beer and the taste changes when it is contract brewed, I may never buy it again. I know that different systems give character to different beers too. I think that Boulevards Tank #7 is named that becasue they cannot get that flavor from any other tanks that they have. Something about that specific tank gives it the character that the beer has.
  6. Contract brewed or not, more beers on the shelf sets the quality expectations higher from a consumer standpoint, which is a good thing.

    Ideally, I prefer a brand to have a physical home with a brewery to visit and brewers to chat with who touch their beer day in and day out themselves. But it's not critical to me. And I'd be lying if I said I've never had contract-brewed beers that were damn tasty.
  7. olympuszymurgus

    olympuszymurgus Advocate (575) California Nov 24, 2009 Beer Trader

    I think contract brewing can be awesome- Brooklyn Lager, Dave's Brewfarm Select, and some Elysian brews(I here...)

    It can also be bad.

    Such is life.
    tronester likes this.
  8. Hanzo

    Hanzo Champion (975) Virginia Feb 27, 2012

    If you contracted out the brewing of a beer, wouldn't you write into that contract that the beer must taste the same? And why is the brewery allowing beer to go out that isn't up to their specifications?

    Do these beers really taste all that different? Would be interesting to do a blind side by side tasting with contracted and non contracted brews.
  9. I was wondering about the Sixpoint Resin I recently had. It was good, but not great. I felt like it might be missing something, though I love the style of can cause I'm a sucker for a pretty package. Maybe contract brewing took it down a notch? Not sure.
  10. Hanzo asks some good questions: “If you contracted out the brewing of a beer, wouldn't you write into that contract that the beer must taste the same? And why is the brewery allowing beer to go out that isn't up to their specifications?”

    I can’t comment to all of the examples that the OP mentioned but I can state that I personally have tasted differences with some Sixpoint beers (those brewed at their Brooklyn location vs. at the Lion Brewery).

    I am not a lawyer or a brewery business guy but permit me to take a crack at the above questions.

    “If you contracted out the brewing of a beer, wouldn't you write into that contract that the beer must taste the same?” The brewery could certainly try and get this language into the agreement (contract) with the contract brewery. There are some issues though:

    · Maybe the contract brewery will not exactly agree to this sort of language. Then it is up to the brewery to select a different contract brewery or change this language.

    · If this language exists in a contract, how is “the same” defined? I am unaware of any unambiguous scientific tests which completely defines flavor. If taste testing is used, who is the taste tester? Who ‘reconciles’ disagreements between the contract brewery staff and the brewery with respect to subjective sensory evaluations?

    · Is the brewery (who depends on beer production from the contract brewery) really willing to sue the contract brewery over quality issues or take other actions?

    · Etc.

    “And why is the brewery allowing beer to go out that isn't up to their specifications?” Boy, that is a tough question right there. The cynical ‘answer’ is money!?! The brewer is utilizing somebody else to produce their beers. The brewery wants this product to be distributed and sold so that the brewery makes revenue. As a BA and beer consumer I would very much hope that the brewery would not permit ‘bad’ beers to come from the contract brewery and distributed to a beer store. I can tell you for a fact that unfortunately ‘bad’ beer was (is?) being produced at contract breweries and sold to customers. A very sad state of events that I am hoping has been (or will be) rectified.

    I do not want to insinuate that all contract breweries are ‘bad’. I have had some excellent craft beers that were produced at the Latrobe Brewery (former Rolling Rock brewery now owned by City Brewing Company) and at the Olde Saratoga Brewery. Contract brewing can ‘work’ (i.e., contract breweries can make quality craft beer for other craft breweries). It is up to both the Brewery (to ‘force’ the Contract Brewery to produce quality beer) and the Contract Brewery (to actually ‘do the right thing’ and produce the quality beer like the Brewery would do themselves).

    I truly hope that things get ‘rectified’ for the contract brewing of certain craft beers.

  11. rocdoc1

    rocdoc1 Savant (460) New Mexico Jan 13, 2006

    Y'all would be amazed at the percentage of your favorite Belgian beers that are contract brewed. It's not contract brewing that is to blame, it's shoddy brewing whether it's contract or not.
    tronester, halo21 and LiquidTable like this.
  12. dvelcich

    dvelcich Savant (370) Illinois Feb 6, 2008

    I think the biggest obstacle to maintaining the taste of a contract brew would be the water. In the case of GI's 312, I'm sure the water in NY tastes different than the water in Chicago. How do you keep the beer tasting the same in that scenario?
  13. You fundamentally hit the nail on the head here: “it's shoddy brewing whether it's contract or not”

    I think the frustration of many BAs is the question of: Why was the beer from Brewery X which was so tasty and now being produced at Contract Brewery Y (for business reasons like increasing volume) so non-tasty!?!

    As BAs (knowledgeable beer consumers) we knew that Beer Z was a tasty beer and with the change in beer production location the beer we loved is no longer a lovable beer. A very, very frustrating situation!!

  14. rlcoffey

    rlcoffey Advocate (515) Kentucky Apr 20, 2004

    Start with distilled and add the minerals that you want.
    tronester and LiquidTable like this.
  15. “How do you keep the beer tasting the same in that scenario?” It is not extremely difficult to do that; you can alter the water chemistry to match a given standard/specification.

    Anheuser-Busch does this at each of its breweries (12 breweries in the United States and 18 in other countries). The standard for Anheuser-Busch is St. Louis water and they replicate St. Louis water at each of their brewery locations.


    P.S. The one example that the OP provided of 21st Amendment - Hell or High Watermelon being rife with diacetyl is not a water problem. Diacetyl is an off-flavor from poor brewing process in this instance.
  16. dvelcich

    dvelcich Savant (370) Illinois Feb 6, 2008

    Right, but wouldn't the cost of that be substantially larger? I know I asked, but I was looking for a reasonable real world answer. I can't imagine that's what anybody actually does.
  17. Starting with distilled water would be costly at the commercial brewing scale. Just altering the local water would be more cost effective.

  18. Despite all the advances with purifying and adding salts, metals, etc I would think that water would have a large difference from brewery to another so that might prevent the ability to get the taste 100% the same even with identical recipes.

    Edit: Looks like this has already been addressed a few minutes before haha...
  19. rlcoffey

    rlcoffey Advocate (515) Kentucky Apr 20, 2004

    That works fine if you dont have to take anything out. Reverse osmosis or other filtering is probably cheaper than starting with distilled, but the idea is the same: Adjust the water to get to what you want.
  20. “Adjust the water to get to what you want.” That is exactly correct!

    I am not a fan of Anheuser-Busch beers but I must grudgingly admit that they indeed know how to make consistent products. The Budweiser made at the Newark, NJ brewery tastes exactly the same as the Budweiser made at the Los Angeles, CA brewery. Anheuser-Busch adjusts the water to match the St. Louis water (their standard). Any contract brewery could adjust their local water to match the water standard provided by their brewery customer.

  21. When a beer is brewed at another location a close flavour match is extremely difficult.Young's Brewery relocated just a handful of miles and despite the same people with the same ingredients and recipes it took them months to get things even approximately right.It's not just the brewing liquor, the size and shape of the fermenters make a difference.
    But this isn't really a quality problem unless the result is inferior.Some say that Gales beers are better now they are brewed by Fuller's.
  22. I think we should advocate for clearer labeling about where beer is brewed, and by whom. Right now, for the most part, all we get is the name of the brewing company and might never know if beer A was contract brewed at facility B. Let consumers decide if they like facility B's beers or not.
  23. “When a beer is brewed at another location a close flavour match is extremely difficult.” It may potentially be ‘difficult’ but it can be done.

    Anheuser-Busch brews at multiple locations and their beers are exactly to same from these disparate locations.

    Sam Adams contract brewed at multiple locations over their history and they sold consistent beers flavor wise.

    From my perspective it requires:

    · A brewery who is conscientious in making sure that the contract brewery is making the beer to the brewery’s standards/specifications

    · A contract brewery who is willing to ‘do the right thing’ and produce the beers per their customer’s standards/specifications

    There is plenty of history where contract brewing has produced quality and consistent beers so it can indeed be done. Just follow the two steps above.

  24. Hanzo

    Hanzo Champion (975) Virginia Feb 27, 2012

    Maybe the issue is blown out of proportion?

    Anyone have any "proof" there are differences? Like results from blind taste tests?

    People speak of batch variations all the time, could that not be more likely the cause?
    rocdoc1 likes this.
  25. What “proof” would be satisfactory to you?

    The OP stated: “21st Amendment - Hell or High Watermelon... used to love this stuff on an 80+ degree humid day, but had one the other day it was rife with diacetyl (undrinkable... stale movie popcorn taste).”

    The problem I had a number of months ago for a different brewery/beer was also a diacetyl issue. The beer was undrinkable and I had to drain poor it. I knew that this beer could be a tasty beer because I had it on draft a few months prior (the draft beer was produced at the brewery vs. the contact brewery).

    Very noticeable off-flavors such as diacetyl levels so high that the beer needs to be dumped do not require a blind tasting (in my opinion).

  26. Hanzo

    Hanzo Champion (975) Virginia Feb 27, 2012

    Well for one, is everyone complaining about said beer? Could it not just be the batch he had?
    LiquidTable likes this.
  27. Many breweries have large industrial RO systems to get the mineral content low, then brewing salts are added to get the water profile intended for the beer being brewed that shift/day. As you said one needs to look no farther than AB to see that you can make the same tasting beer in various locations (don't know what they do, but they are successful in brewing the same tasting beer). You can see the RO system at Stone on the tour.

    Equipment is the big item. When RR added the production system they had to make adjustments to get the beers tasting the same as the pub systems beers. Same recipe, same brewers using the same ingredients.

    Bells had an open house a few weeks back. Their new 200 bbl system is more efficient than the old system, and the new brewhouse is next to the 50 bbl brewhouse. They have been doing sensory panels to determine what to adjust to get the beer to taste the same. Same water, same ingredients, same fermenters. I will say that fermenter geometry and size will influence the way the yeast behave, so that can be an issue for going to a different brewery.
  28. Adjusting brewing liquor is relatively easy (easier still if you choose the location of the brewery with some foresight)
    Fermenters make a lot of difference. The thermal dynamics of a large fermenter are quite different from in a smaller one and there will be temperature differences.Going from open tanks to conical fermenters is commonly regarded as bad news for the beer.Increasing the depth of the wort alters the fermentation process as well.That's why Young's-despite enormous expertise and experience using the most modern equipment took so long to get things tasting the same.
    tronester and Zimbo like this.
  29. Mebuzzard

    Mebuzzard Poobah (1,135) Colorado May 19, 2005

    Here's an odd question:

    How would a contract brew be different than, say a Dale's brewed at the new OB facility in North Carolina? That is, the new space is....well, new, with different water, different brewers, etc. Would a Dale's in CO be the same as NC?
    Same with Sierra Nevada and any place that has multiple brew locations (save BMC)...
  30. Outstanding post marquis.
    Conical fermenters are the devil's work.
  31. OK, let’s discuss the OP’s 21st Amendment - Hell or High Watermelon problem of the off-flavor of too much diacetyl. Maybe it was just ‘one’ bad batch but the compelling questions are: Why was this bad batch distributed? If 21st Amendment made this one bad batch at their California brewery would they have distributed it? Why did 21st Amendment permit this Minnesota produced bad batch to be distributed? It seems to me that the contract brewing relationship is part of the crux of the problem. I could be wrong but I really don’t think that if this bad batch was produced at the California 21st Amendment brewery that this beer would have been distributed.

    A number of folks chimed in on their experiences with Sixpoint/Lion Brewery here: http://beeradvocate.com/community/threads/sixpoint-bengali-tiger-recipe-change-bad-batch.6296/

    It is indeed your choice if you think maybe the issue is blown out of proportion. I have a different opinion on this matter.

  32. yemenmocha

    yemenmocha Poobah (1,255) Arizona Jun 18, 2002

    As if an excess demand relative to supply is a better thing to have?
  33. I don't know about Dale's plans. Sierra Nevada will have probably buy equipment from the same suppliers that they did for Chico. Look in the beer news section and you will see that they have announced that the head pilot system brewer in Chico is moving to Asheville to become the head brewer. Water in that part of NC is very low in mineral content, so it is easy to treat and adjust. The ingredients will be from the same suppliers. Beers will be shipped overnight and put through sensory panels until it matches.
  34. It is my understanding that when breweries expand at a given location or expand by opening new locations they expend effort to ensure that given beers are produced in a consistent manner.

    Even Marquis made mention of: “That's why Young's-despite enormous expertise and experience using the most modern equipment took so long to get things tasting the same.”

    So, in this case Young’s expended effort “to get things tasting the same.”

    There is no reason why this can’t be achieved with contract brewing. Sam Adams did this with their beers at multiple contract brewery locations.

    The common need is effort:

    · A brewery who is conscientious in making sure that the contract brewery is making the beer to the brewery’s standards/specifications

    · A contract brewery who is willing to ‘do the right thing’ and produce the beers per their customer’s standards/specifications

  35. Better labeling would help consumers decide for themselves if there are differences or not.
  36. Jeff,

    A long time ago I took a tour of Old Dominion Brewery in Ashburn, VA. The tour guy was the owner: Peter Bailey. At that time they were operating the brewery 24/7 (three shifts) to keep up with demand. Peter made mention that he was considering expanding but he was reticent since then he would need to expend the effort to get their beers consistent with the newly expanded brewery. He told a story of how when Sierra Nevada expanded their brewery they had to dump a whole batch of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (he mentioned the number of barrels) since it was not consistent with their previous Pale Ale. You could actually see a pained look on Peter’s face when he told this story.

    Needless to say but Sierra Nevada solved their growing pains and figured out how to get their newly expanded brewery to make beers to their existing standards.

    Sierra Nevada made the necessary effort and produced good beers and just as importantly they did not distribute their ‘bad’ beers.


  37. emannths

    emannths Savant (445) Massachusetts Sep 21, 2007

    I think there are a few different potential problems that are being conflated in this thread:

    1. Batch-to-batch variation. This seems to be the issue highlighted in the Sixpoint case (it doesn't help when they're tinkering with it).
    2. Off-flavors due to poor brewing practices/QC. The buttery Hell or High Watermelon is the example here.
    3. Brewery-to-brewery variation. Marquis' Fuller's example is a good one (though not a contact brewing situation).
    The first two aren't due to contract brewing--all brewers have batch-to-batch variation and QC issues to contend with. As JackHorzempa has said repeatedly in this thread, brewers and contract breweries have to cooperate effectively to minimize these variations and prevent bad beer from reaching the store.

    And as I see it, the third item is the only one where the contract brewing relationship causes a much harder problem. But the result isn't "bad" beer, it's just different. This shouldn't stand in the way of creating good beer.
  38. My own personal experience is that Sapporo that is brewed in Canada isn't as good as the product that comes from Tokyo. But I suppose that doesn't fall under the "craft" category anyway.
  39. litheum94

    litheum94 Advocate (675) California Dec 29, 2008

    I have at least a case of Watermelon Wheat every summer, for the past six summers. I have never noticed a difference. I'd say in this case, it's due to batch variation and not the fact that it's contract brewed.
  40. litheum94

    litheum94 Advocate (675) California Dec 29, 2008

    We have to remember that QC is never 100%; some bad product will ineveitably slip through the cracks. This can happen at the smallest level or at a contract brewer.