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Is contract brewing hurting craft beer?

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

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  1. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,059) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    I am not a QC person. If there is a whole batch of beer (I don’t know what size fermenters that Cold Springs Brewery has) wouldn’t you at least check beer on a per batch basis?

    I know that you can’t ‘test’ every can/bottle of beer but I would like to think you could ‘test’ each batch?

  2. jesskidden

    jesskidden Meyvn (1,287) Aug 10, 2005 New Jersey

    The TTB requires the name and city of the brewery, not just the "name of the company".

    Other than Sixpoint's rather notorious use of the TTB's option of "principal place of business... in lieu of the actual place" loophole for the can's labels, I can't recall ever seeing another craft brewery which didn't list the actual brewing city for their contract-brewed beers.

    BBC always listed the actual city(ies) for all their contract-brewed beers from the half dozen or so companies they've used. It was obvious that "Pittsburgh, PA" meant Pittsburgh Brewing Co., "Rochester, NY" meant Genesee, "Eden, NC"- Miller, "Portland, OR" Heileman's subsidiary Blitz-Weinhard, etc., for anyone who cared. Likewise Brooklyn's labels have always said "Utica, NY" and all the other brewers who have used The Lion have all stated "Wilkes-Barre, PA".
  3. Mebuzzard

    Mebuzzard Poo-Bah (3,461) May 19, 2005 Colorado

    In asking a question, I failed to provide an answer to the OP's question.

    Yes. I think contract brewing is hurting craft beer. Sure, some breweries will expand and make more good beer and more money. But to me, craft beer means Regional beer. If I want a Bell's, then I have head east. If I want a HotD, I go west...and north. Call it a local culture thing, but I like the idea of having different beers in different parts of the country (world). Gives me an excuse to travel.
  4. geocool

    geocool Initiate (175) Jun 21, 2006 Massachusetts

    I think Smuttynose labels did not say "Utica, NY" when they had F.X. Matt brew some Brown Dog a couple of years ago, but I'm not sure about that. I believe Mystic brews elsewhere but ferments the wort in Chelsea, so the labels say "Chelsea." I don't usually see the "name of the bottler or packer" on any of these labels, just city and state.

    I'm not sure that I'd pass on a beer because it said "Portland, OR" on the label, aren't there a lot of breweries there in addition to Blitz-Weinhard? You make a great point, though, and in general I've learned to look for these clues. I just wish it was a little more obvious and ubiquitous.
  5. jesskidden

    jesskidden Meyvn (1,287) Aug 10, 2005 New Jersey

    I didn't suggest anyone "pass" on contract-brewed beers, only gave the example as one of many cities that "Boston Beer Co." has been associated with via their contracts over the years. BBC did get some negative blowback when they created their "Oregon Originals" line, using Heileman's B-W as it's "home" brewery. (They later moved the brand to the Hudepohl-Schoenling Cincinnati brewery they eventually bought. BBC's always had a hard time with geographically named brands.)

    Yeah, there are a lot of breweries now in Portland, but Blitz-Weinhard ain't one of 'em anymore.
  6. geocool

    geocool Initiate (175) Jun 21, 2006 Massachusetts

    I'm just sayin' that city/state isn't the same as including the "name of the bottler or packer." A little more clarity would help consumers.
  7. mattbk

    mattbk Devotee (467) Dec 12, 2011 New York

    A good QC program would statistically test a small portion of each batch for a number of attributes and variables: ABV, contamination, color, aroma, and flavor, to name just a few. If the samples all pass, so does the batch. Remember also that beer is a living thing... that is, it is made from living things, yeast. Some flavors take time to develop, diacetyl is one of them, acidity (from contamination) can be another. Their QC may have passed this batch initially... only to find over time it was unacceptable. If they are a good brewery and they understand quality, they'll change their processes and procedures to catch failures of this magnitude the next time.
  8. andylipp

    andylipp Zealot (545) Dec 8, 2006 Massachusetts

    I'm pretty sure that all Kona bottles are contract brewed-even the ones you may have enjoyed in Hawaii, at Redhook out west or in NH. I personally have found that almost any beer tastes better on vacation, especially in Hawaii.

    People will often assume that contract brewed=bad beer. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it may only be psychological. I'm not saying the OP necessarily did this, but just mention the "C" word and some people start looking for flaws in a beer that aren't there. Sort of like how my neighbor never complained about me playing loud music until she actually saw the size of my speakers.
    kgoyette and Ranbot like this.
  9. hopfenunmaltz

    hopfenunmaltz Meyvn (1,305) Jun 8, 2005 Michigan

    Once breweries reach a certain size, they can afford some lab equipment and a QA person (Quality Assurance).

    The lab tests are good to have, but the go/no go test is a tasting panel evaluation. Even small breweries can do this. Good breweries have tasting panels for all the beer produced.
  10. Ranbot

    Ranbot Devotee (462) Nov 27, 2006 Pennsylvania

    Personally, I think the question of quality from contract brewing is overblown. As mentioned above there are plenty of examples of contract brewing or brewing from multiple locations that's done right, from Sam Adams to Budweiser to Belgian brewers. Just because one bottle or case of beer is off, like the 21st Ammendment Hell or High Watermelon example, doesn't mean every beer or even a large percentage of the beers coming from the contract brewer are bad. As mentioned above QAQC is never 100% perfect, no matter where it's brewed. We also don't know what may have happened to the beer during distribution...it might have sat on a shelf for months, which certainly wouldn't be the contract brewers fault. Brewers don't get every bottle leaving their brewery perfect either...just do a quick forum search for Lost Abbey Angel's Share for an example of just how bad a brewer's QA can.

    FWIW, I drank a lot of the Kona Fire Rock Pale Ale on my honeymoon in Hawaii a few months ago. I just had a bottle of it last weekend, which was probably brewed in NH, and I didn't taste any noteworthy difference.

    There's plenty of evidence that tastes can be influenced by many things other than than the actual flavors. People percieve flavors differently depending surroundings, serving temperature, state of mind, homerism, expectations, passage of time, or similar experiences, particularly when you're tasting very similar products (or even the same product) over a long period of time. Even professional tasters have some inconsistencies/bias, so if anyone thinks they are immune to these influences and biases they are deluding themselves.

    On a more practical level contract brewing is an overall benefit for the industry. It gives brewers a way to produce beers when they don't have the capacity at their own brewery. This is beneficial because brewers can be more flexible to meet market demands, or bridge the gap until they can expand, build, or purchase their own brewery. Contract brewing can also be a godsend if a brewery is hit with a natural disaster. There's also nothing wrong with producing beer closer to the distrubution areas (i.e. fresher beer for consumers). Using the Kona example, if I'm on the east coast, I'd rather have a beer brewed in New Hampshire than one coming half-way across the Pacific Ocean and across the North American continent. There are even good "gypsy" brewers where 100% of their product is by contract. It's also great for brewers with excess capacity because they can contract brew to maintain profits until they can grow their own brand or business, which has a an even greater benefit of maintaining jobs. Can problems occur during when contract brewing? ...of course. Can those problems be solved? ...of course.
    andylipp likes this.
  11. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,059) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    Matt, could you please expound upon your statement of “some flavors take time to develop, diacetyl is one of them.”?

    I am a homebrewer and in the close to 300 batches that I have personally made I have never experienced any diacetyl issues.

    Below is what John Palmer states in his book How to Brew with respect to diacetyl:

    “Diacetyl is produced early in the fermentation cycle by the yeast and is gradually reassimilated towards the end of the fermentation. A brew that experiences a long lag time due to weak yeast or insufficient aeration will produce a lot of diacetyl before the main fermentation begins. In this case there is often more diacetyl than the yeast can consume at the end of fermentation and it can dominate the flavor of the beer.”

  12. MLucky

    MLucky Aspirant (286) Jul 31, 2010 California

    In a word: yes. I'm just gonna say it. Contract brewing is bad. If someone else is brewing your beer, 99% of the time they will not take as much care as if it was their own. That's just human nature. You want something done right, do it yourself.

    And I'll take it a step further: contract brewers should not be called craft brewers, because craft implies a care in production that is the opposite of the "made to order" approach. They should be called beer brokers.

    There, I said it, and I feel better.
  13. hopfenunmaltz

    hopfenunmaltz Meyvn (1,305) Jun 8, 2005 Michigan

    Agree with your post for the most part. If Diacetyl increases with time, it is due to an infection. Pedio kicks out a lot of Diacetyl for example.
    Edit - it also kicks out lactic acid.
  14. JohnB87

    JohnB87 Initiate (108) Mar 14, 2011 Michigan

    So how do you know if a specific beer is contract brewed?
  15. Errto

    Errto Initiate (0) Oct 20, 2009 Connecticut

    Exactly. In addition to the possibility that something went wrong in the transition as explained by JackHorzempa and marquis above, there are two other possibilities to consider:

    1 - the beer, having expanded into many new markets, is harder to get fresh, and

    2 - the combination of nostalgia and the stigma attached to contract brewing in the craft beer industry makes it seem not to taste as good

    Maybe I should open a Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout or Southampton Keller Pils...
  16. nategibbon

    nategibbon Initiate (117) Sep 6, 2008 Illinois

    Diacetyl can increase over time due to the oxidation of alpha acetolactate. Although extended conditioning periods allow the yeast to absorb most of this precursor, even minute amounts can result in buttery flavors if the beer is old enough. Pretty much unavoidable with some lager yeast strains.
  17. beerme411

    beerme411 Initiate (0) Sep 28, 2010 California

    what about lagunitas contract brewing with anchor to keep up supply when they were expanding recently?
    or what about guest brewing like with mikeller and pretty things?
    or helping with start ups like Almanac in the bay area?

    contract and guest brewing(using other peoples equipment) seems to have a time and lace its not perfect but its not bad for craft either
  18. hopfenunmaltz

    hopfenunmaltz Meyvn (1,305) Jun 8, 2005 Michigan

    Yes this is true, it has happened to me bottling a Pilsner. O2 when bottling is not so good. Forgot that one.
  19. LiquidTable

    LiquidTable Initiate (0) May 3, 2011 Michigan

    I regularly enjoy beer that is brewed under contract vs the same beer brewed at the parent brewery. I have also had beer from the contract brewery that is better or worse (different scenarios) than the same from the parent brewery.
    It's not an issue of "contract=bad," just occasional inconsistency. If the beer coming out of the contract brewery is lesser quality than that from the parent brewery, it's the parent brewery's fault. Even the simplest contract brewing agreement has language specifying recipe, ingredient and QC standards. If the parent brewery did not include these, he is SOL. If he is not maintaining some level of oversight, that's his own damn fault.
    As far as the technical aspects (water chemistry, fermenter size/shape) these are easily fixed and should never be an excuse for a professional brewer.
    One thing to consider...maybe it's the fault of the wholesaler. Mishandling or poor storage of product, out-of-code due to wait time in the warehouse or retail, etc.
    Bottom line is it's not necessarily an issue of contract brewing being bad...hell, it's the cheapest and easiest way for a brand to get legs!
  20. marquis

    marquis Crusader (741) Nov 20, 2005 United Kingdom (England)

    What really matters is the beer in your glass.Whether it's craft (and believe me, the big boys could match anything if it was worth their while) or anything else it's all about enjoying your pint.
    Contracted beer can be slightly different from the original but that introduces the possibility that it might actually be better (Fullers v Gales)
    A good contract brewer can make a decent fist of things.Coniston Bluebird Bitter won the Champion Beer of Britain in 1998.This was brewed by a tiny brewery at the back of a pub so production was farmed out.It's a lovely pint all the same and highly regarded on both sides of the pond.
    On the other hand look at Boddington's , once an iconic local brew noted for its intense bitterness.A big brewery wanted to make it nationally available and set about scaling up production.Ubfortunately Boddy's had used a specific malt which was in very short supply so the recipe was changed.It's not now worth drinking.
    So the answer to the OP is-it all depends upon how it's done.
  21. mattbk

    mattbk Devotee (467) Dec 12, 2011 New York

    thanks for this, missed the response yesterday. i have had the same exact experience with a lager we brew. but, it is also correct that diacetyl could develop from what begins as a low level contamination within the brewery, which could reach a high level by the time it reaches the consumer.
  22. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,059) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    Jeff, Nate & Matt,

    Thank you for your responses to my diacetyl query. So there appears to be three ways that diacetyl can be produced in a beer:

    · Poor fermentation process as detailed by John Palmer

    · An infection (which may not be noticeable until later)

    · Oxidation of alpha acetolactate

    I suppose that I can consider myself to be a ‘fortunate’ homebrewer since I have never experienced the presence of diacetyl in any of my homebrewed beers (and yes, I have a very sensitive taste bud for diacetyl).

    I suppose there may be no way of exactly knowing which of the above causes was the result of diacetyl in the OP’s Hell or High Watermelon beer or my Sixpoint Crisp beer.

    I would like to think that a commercial brewer would know how to properly ferment a beer, maintain good sanitation, and properly package a beer (no excess oxygen ingress during canning/bottling). I personally have not experienced problems from breweries who brew their own beer similar to contract brewed beers that I have tasted. This may be a stretch of an explanation but I am personally concerned that there is a ‘give a shit’ factor in play here. I am starting to think that MLucky got it right with:

    “Contract brewing is bad. If someone else is brewing your beer, 99% of the time they will not take as much care as if it was their own. That's just human nature. You want something done right, do it yourself.”

    I truly do hope that certain breweries/contract breweries can rectify the issues that they have been having otherwise contract brewing will definitely ‘hurt’ craft beer.

  23. Chlodwig23

    Chlodwig23 Initiate (136) May 14, 2009 Massachusetts

    Our bottles say "Brewed and Bottled by Mystic Brewery, Chelsea, MA" The confusing thing may be that legally "brewing" is the fermentation part. Mashing and boiling is 'wort making.' but of course it's the more visual part everyone thinks of when we say brewing (steam rising, stirring things, burbling kettles, etc.) You can mash and boil with hops and sell the result and the TTB has nothing to do with it unless you ferment it.

    When we developed our method we found most differences in comercial beers occured on the "cold side." i.e. in fermentation and conditioning. So we decided to focus on fermentation and conditioning and buy barrels instead of a brewhouse. Really, we simply rent a brewhouse for six hours or so (with gradient mashed beers a bit longer). We source and purchase our own ingredients and go out there for the brewday. I think you can easily see the main point here by comparing our beer to Pioneer's. Pioneer beer is very good but it comes out much different than ours. Fermentation vessels, bottling lines, and cold side methodology have a big impact on the final product.

    As for the major issue of contract brewing, you can put talent in a tin tun and turn out a triumph or you can give a blundering recipe to the best brewery in the galaxy and brew up a blasphemy.
  24. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,059) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    “As for the major issue of contract brewing, you can put talent in a tin tun and turn out a triumph or you can give a blundering recipe to the best brewery in the galaxy and brew up a blasphemy.”

    I am guessing that “put talent in a tin tun and turn out a triumph” means that as long as you have talented folks (quality brewers and other brewery staff) in a less than ideal facility they can still make great beer.

    The statement of “you can give a blundering recipe to the best brewery in the galaxy and brew up a blasphemy” means that if a brewery provides a poor beer recipe to a quality contract brewery the resulting beer will still be ‘bad’.

    What is the explanation for why an existing production brewery (Sixpoint as an example) which made great beer at their facility (and therefore had ‘good’ recipes) then decides to have their existing formulated beers produced at a contract brewery (for increased production reasons) and that beer is subpar? Even more than subpar, those beers have egregious off-flavors?

  25. Chlodwig23

    Chlodwig23 Initiate (136) May 14, 2009 Massachusetts

    Simple answer: By blundering recipe I meant one that will not work for that particular brewhouse and fermenation cellar. There are no magic recipes, but the advantage a brewer may have is developing recipes specifically for a specific brewhouse. So something fantastic at one brewhouse may be full of off flavors at another if the recipie is not 'tuned' for that particular brewhouse and cellar.
    LiquidTable likes this.
  26. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (3,059) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania

    “So something fantastic at one brewhouse may be full of off flavors at another if the recipie is not 'tuned' for that particular brewhouse and cellar.” Thanks for that input. That would never have occurred to me. I would have thought that a quality recipe could be brewed at a different facility but I am obviously in error.

  27. geocool

    geocool Initiate (175) Jun 21, 2006 Massachusetts

    I just stopped by the store, and I saw on a 12-pack of Whale's Tale Pale Ale:
    "Brewed by Cisco Brewing, Nantucket, MA and under special agreement Utica, NY."

    So in this (and many) cases there is just no way to tell from the labelling if a beer is contract brewed.
  28. jesskidden

    jesskidden Meyvn (1,287) Aug 10, 2005 New Jersey

    Well, it's usually a case of knowing the individual breweries involved, but I think in this case (not real familiar with Cisco) it'd be a matter of asking "Does the primary brewery have a canning line?" I'm guessing - "no" - and that's why they've contracted out the cans. Similarly, lots of draught-only craft brewers contract out their bottled products.

    I'm sure there are exceptions but most craft brewers that do both - keg/bottle/can themselves and also contract out some brands - usually have different label language, so that the labels put on their "home" products don't mention their contractor brewery.

    Also the TTB DOES require that (quoting from the approvals):


    But then again, the consumer is back to the "date code conundrum" - knowing how to read the codes.
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