There’s a lot of talk at the moment about contract and gypsy brewing, and how they’re evil. And if you’re an established Belgian Family Brewer (who’s been brewing for over 50 years) then it seems that any newer brewery with their own kit is evil too.
This is almost certainly a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that there are more and more breweries opening up all over the world, bringing more and more beers to compete in what some see as an already threatened market.
Before this can be properly discussed, however, the general public need to become not just aware of, but comfortable with the terms used for different types of beer producers. And before anything can really be decided about whether something is evil or not, the beers themselves need to be honest and open about where they’re from to allow the drinkers themselves to decide if they want to buy those beers.
The first type of producer is a Brewery, where the person or company that produces the beers owns their own brewing equipment in their own premises (which can be rented) and brews their beers on it. This is pretty much how everyone assumes all beers are made.
Secondly there are Cuckoo Breweries. Cuckoo Brewers don’t generally have their own equipment (although there are some exceptions) but use that of another brewery. Sharing premises along with things like cask washers, bottling or canning lines can save a lot of money on the original investment needed to set up a brewery and can allow brewers to get their beers out to market and make sure that the business will work before they invest their life savings along with re-mortgaging their homes. Cuckoo Brewers almost always brew the beers themselves, it’s just the equipment they borrow.
Thirdly there are Gypsy Brewers. Gypsy Brewers are very similar to Cuckoo Brewers, but whereas Cuckoo Brewers tend to be sited in one brewery in particular, Gypsy Brewers move around a lot, sometimes never brewing in the same brewery twice. Like Cuckoo Brewers, Gypsy Brewers also brew the beers themselves, often as collaborations with the brewery whose equipment they’re using. The downside of Gypsy Brewing is that consistency can take a massive hit as the equipment changes each time, but the upside is that it allows for a lot of experimental beers, and a good Gypsy Brewer can overcome the consistency issues and produce some stunning beers.
Fourth and finally, there are Contract Brewers. These fall into two very distinct categories, those that can brew and those that can’t. The first one usually happens when a small brewery has reached capacity and needs to produce a lot more beer than they would normally be able to themselves. They’ll have a meeting with a larger brewery, discuss the recipe they normally use and work out how to scale it up to the bigger kit, and then they leave the brewery to produce the beer for them. Sometimes you’ll also find contract brewing being done on a small scale such as a home-brewer wanting a micro-brewery to produce a batch of their home-brew beer to sell commercially. The second type of contract brewing is where someone with no brewing knowledge or skill commissions a brewery to produce a beer that they can then label up and promote as their own.
It’s important to understand these types of brewing and how they can affect the industry before making any decisions about whether or not any are evil. Having your own brewery where you can brew your own beer seems like the ideal situation, and personally I’m loving it. But for some people it’s just not practical, or even wanted. Some people only want to brew once in a while, and for them owning a brewery and paying the rent on the premises when it’s not being used just isn’t financially viable, so going into a friendly brewery every now and then and using their equipment in its downtime is an ideal solution. There are many different reasons why people choose alternative methods of brewing, but what we as brewers must do I believe is start being more open and honest with the drinkers about where our beers are made.
There are some very famous and very talented Gypsy Brewers; foremost amongst them is Mikkeller. They make no attempts to hide the fact their beers are brewed at different breweries. There are also some very famous breweries that contract, such as the always impressive Yeastie Boys who print on their labels where the beer was brewed. There was uproar in the beer world when it was found out that Sharp’s Doom Bar wasn’t brewed in Cornwall any more, and more recently when it was discovered that Meantime’s London Lager is occasionally brewed in Holland. Are the beers any different? I don’t know, I’ve not tried them. But as a drinker I’d like to know where the beer I’m drinking is brewed.
I’m not against Gypsy, Cuckoo or Contract Brewing, I’m against the deceitful marketing we’re starting to see. If you’re not willing to put where your beer is brewed on the labels, then I wonder at your motives for being in this industry. We’re already seeing people spending a lot of money on fancy logos and labels with big marketing launches for what is in fact a pretty standard, often bland beer that’s not much more than a rebadge from a struggling micro-brewery who’s lost market share to the newer wave. If we want to protect the brewing industry, then I believe we need to make sure that the beer going out to market is properly controlled by the breweries. We need the passion to be for the product, not for the profit. We need to make the public aware of not just what goes into our beers, but where it goes in.