Three Threads

Three Threads by | Jun 2009 | Issue #29

The term “contract brewer” is often misunderstood and tends to get a bad rap with some beer geeks and industry professionals. This could stem from the fact that companies who hire a contract brewer aren’t considered actual brewers, but rather, marketing companies. Your thoughts?

Jeremy Cowan
Founder, Shmaltz Brewing Co. (California)

I am a craft contract brewer. Dirty word? I embrace it. English major behind the brewmaster, I thrive on the fringes. Dancing rabbis and circus sideshow freaks front our diverse, often ambitious recipes, rarely aiming for classic styles. Shmaltz Brewing began 13 years ago with $2,000 for labels, pomegranates and 100 cases of 22s, hand bottled, labeled and personally delivered. With my credit card debt and their stainless steel, I can work with a truly world-class brewer and brewery staff on projects much more ambitious than anything I could cook up with my own knowledge or resources. Late at night, I dig deeper into our shtick (often hosting and hoisting the goods), and daytimes constantly and endlessly overflow with distribution, sales and more emergencies than I ever imagined possible. I get to run a tiny national beer company with seven fantastic coworkers and an award-winning lineup—all from a laptop in my studio apartment, couch surfing or subletting, participating in the best beer scene in the world.

Alan Pugsley
Master brewer, Shipyard Brewing Co. (Maine)

Contract brewing can take on many different guises as it pertains to participants in the brewing industry. I would suggest that the majority of successful contract brewers are real players in the brewing business, even though they may not own a good-sized packaging brewery. At Shipyard, we currently have nine contract brewing partners, the majority of whom own their own brewpubs/breweries and want to get some of their most popular offerings to market beyond their front doors or their potential capacity. Since, in most cases, I was involved in helping their brewpub start-ups, it made a lot of sense for them to come to Shipyard to help them get their beers packaged and to the shelf.

In other cases, there are those individuals who may have a great marketing idea for a brand and maybe have homebrewed for years and enjoyed the growth of the craft brewing industry along the way. If this thought process for a new brand is legitimate and is backed by a solid business/marketing plan, along with enough capital to support the marketing/sales effort, and assuming the beers are of high quality, then again I do not think that this is a bad thing, and [it] helps bring further interest to the marketplace.

Where I think the bad rap comes, and rightly so, is when people come up with funky, off-the-wall designs/names for new beer brands, but in reality have no interest in the actual beer styles/quality, but just want to push a pretty label or silly name and be in the beer business. We get numerous enquiries almost weekly for new contract-brew opportunities, but in reality, unless there is a brewpub/brewery already operating or a substantial business plan behind the new player, we will not entertain the proposal.

Dann Paquette
Owner & brewer, Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project (Massachusetts)

Martha and I used to bristle with indignation at the phrase “contract brewed.” That’s because although we don’t own a brewery, we formulate and brew our beers ourselves. I’ve been brewing too long to pay someone else to do the best part. It’s a win-win: We make the beers we want, and local breweries make extra money.

This model is positive for the beer drinker, too. We don’t have to impress investors when we concoct a beer at our kitchen table. The beers can be as creative as we like, and we can surround them with stories, pictures, poems… stuff that might not seem cool to a banker. And we love it, because we’ve started an amazing business from very little and are free to be involved [on] every level.

So what some may see as a mere “contract brew,” is, to us, a very pure (and fun) form of the brewing trade.