Contract Beer Brewing - dummies

By Marty Nachel, Steve Ettlinger

Microbreweries (brewers who make fewer than 60,000 barrels of beer a year) have sort of cornered the image market on gourmet beer: Most of these beers sell for more because consumers consider them superior, largely due to the freshness that comes from being made locally and in small batches. Consumers are also willing to pay more for beer with the cachet of being small and hand-crafted, like artisanal bread or handcrafted furniture.

A lot of the best and best-known craft brews (gourmet beers made in a wide range of classic styles, using quality ingredients) aren’t microbrewed but are contract brewed in larger volumes than a microbrewery can handle. Contract brewers hire underutilized but well-equipped regional breweries to produce a recipe with the contract brewer’s own ingredients and formulas. The giveaway label lingo, if you can find the small print along the edges, is something like, “Brewed by XX Brewing Co. under special agreement, xyz Brewing Co., ABC State.” The only other way to learn what’s contract brewed is to follow beer blogs, do Google searches, or consult the online beer-rating sites.

The very popular Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams Boston Lager and so on) started as a contract-brewed beer, but now the company owns and operates two separate brewing facilities to keep up with demand for its products. The first of the Boston Beer Company’s breweries set up shop in the former Haffenreffer Brewery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts (near Boston). The second is set up in the old Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewery in Cincinnati, Ohio.

You’ll see a definite trend as certain brands become successful enough to build up national demand that can be met only by regional brewing, which is better than having to resort to adjuncts and preservatives. Nothing wrong with that — the quality is the same. Still, you may find it disconcerting.

Your full-of-character beer with its artsy label and catchy name reeking of homemade goodness and local freshness may not be made nearby by some wonderfully talented beer nuts slaving away on homemade equipment; it may actually be produced at an industrial site hundreds of miles away, perhaps financed by venture capital and moved by top-notch marketing muscle. For example, Chicagoans with a fondness for the hometown State Street Beer were surely surprised to find that it’s produced in Evansville, Indiana.

However, if the beer tastes good, don’t worry! The taste — and your satisfaction — is all that really matters.