I once had a conversation with a senior guy in the Napa Valley Vintners about contract production, meaning small winemakers who rent equipment and space, and even staff, from larger wineries to make their product rather than building their own production facilities. There are lots of boutique and high-end producers that do this, since the capital costs of building your own crush pad, fermentation rooms, and storage cellars is staggering. In fact, there is a whole industry of “custom crush” outfits, many of which don’t even have a label of their own but make a good living letting other people work on their equipment.
I was curious about whether there was some stigma in the wine industry about these contract jobs. He seemed puzzled and said it is quite the reverse – some of the most sought-after wines in the area are produced in this way.
This isn’t true in the beer world. The term “Contract Brewed” is often uttered with a sneer, as if it is somehow selling the product short to let someone else do your work, or to brew the beer far from your home base.
The suspicion is not mere snobbery – there are truly some poor contract-brewed beers out there. There is a major contract brewing facility in northeastern Pennsylvania, for example, that produces dozens of labels for breweries all over the East Coast. But at least to me, pretty much everything they make tastes faintly of banana, which I am reasonably sure is not what the brewers intended. I remember one brief, unhappy period when a beloved local brewer in Philadelphia had to outsource his beer to this big producer after he lost his brew house in a nasty split with his business partners. The contract-brewed stuff was horrible (yes, it tasted faintly of bananas). As soon as he opened his own new brew house about a year later, however, the beer was back to its old, delicious self.
Slate magazine has a look at this very question this week, with a piece about the unexpected places your beer may be made. For example, if you drink any of the Kona Brewing beers available on the mainland, you’re actually drinking beer made at the affiliated Widmer Brothers facility in Portland. And much of what is sold under the Boston Beer Company label – Sam Adams to you and me – isn’t made in Boston, but is actually made in auxiliary facilities in Pennsylvania, Oregon, and North Carolina.
Just this morning I got a press release about a San Diego company that is hooking up with a distributor to get its products on the shelves in California.
“After achieving significant traction in Florida, Georgia and Virginia, the San Diego-based company that brews its beers in Wisconsin now brings their beer to its own backyard,” they write.
That certainly sounds like the long way home.
The brewers who outsource defend the practice in the Slate piece, saying the important question is the recipe and the quality of the ingredients that go into it, not the physical location of the brew house.
“Beer is made up of water, and the island of Hawaii has been in a drought for decades,” Kona Brewing’s President Mattson Davis told Slate. “It doesn’t make sense to be shipping this scarce resource across the ocean to the mainland in bottles. Brewing closer to market has eliminated 800,000 miles and saved 1,500 tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent to taking 319 cars off the road for a year.”
And maybe not all remote brewing is bad. The Kona beers I have had on the mainland taste pretty much as I remember experiencing in Hawaii. And there are some good examples locally; the house beer served at Hopmonk Taverns, for example, is made at a Gordon Biersch Brewery in San Jose. And it doesn’t seem to compromise the quality a bit; in fact, I’d put their Kellerbier up against any beer of similar style in America.
Certainly Budweiser and other major-market brewers are skilled at producing high quality and consistent beers across multiple facilities. Large craft competitors such as Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and our own Lagunitas are doing the same thing with their expansion breweries.
So does it really matter where your brew is brewed? Some brewers quoted in Slate think so:
Those who take issue with the concept of contract brewing see it as a matter of misrepresentation. Greg Koch, founder of legendary Stone Brewing near San Diego, said, “As a consumer, I want the truth to be easy to understand and require no special knowledge … If [the beer] is not brewed at the company whose name is on the label, I’d want to know.”
Many traditional brewers also see contract brewers as less willing to put their “skin in the game,” as Will Meyers, the brewmaster at Cambridge Brewing Co. in Boston, puts it.
My guess is it does come down to the quality and integrity of the contract or off-site facility. That huge contract operation in Pennsylvania just happens to do mediocre work, in my humble opinion. But it is also clear that Widmer and Gordon Biersch are doing fine work for Kona and Hopmonk, and Sam Adams seems to have no trouble managing quality across multiple breweries.
Have any favorite contract brew stories? I’d like to know what you think.
– Sean Scully