The Increasingly Heated Debate Around Contract / ‘Gypsy’ / Resident Brewing…

Fresh back from the annual Craft Brewers Conference in Washington DC, I am struck by the looming tension and sense of anxiety presently bubbling to the surface in this industry. The conference played host to a number of interesting seminars and a few fairly repetitive ones. Mixed among the nearly 100 offerings were multiple courses on how to deal with trademark and intellectual property related issues, including litigation, and a panel on why attendee should not open a brewery (in reality, it seemed pretty pro-brewery opening if you ask me). One refrain that continued throughout the event was the anxiety over the continued and seemingly unmitigated growth of craft brewers, specifically in the number of breweries at offer. Forecasts of shelf space fights and tap tussles seem apt and the established brewers are starting to let their protectionist and curmudgeonly ways show. I heard a lot of “Get off my lawn” comments from craft brewers, both on panels and in bars, a lot of analogies to poorly rooted trees and less charitably to Third World buses. The common takeaway was the growing sense of unease at the caliber and intent of these aspiring and new brewers and what impact their entrance might have on craft beer generally.

Closer to home, the issue came to the forefront today in the post of Cambridge Brewing Company’s brewmaster, Will Meyers, who added an entry to the brewpub’s blog celebrating his 20 year anniversary at my hometown brewpub. Before I get into the story, I wanted to first say two things. I want to wish Will (and his wily boss Phil Bannatyne) a hearty congratulations at this impressive achievement. Cambridge has built an impressive name for itself and largely due to Will’s hard work and dedication, along again with the continued guidance and presence of Phil and the rest of the team. For my second point, I want to note that I consider myself friends with every person appearing in this story. While loyal readers may not believe this, I actually don’t really have a position on the issues involved here, which I suppose I may later discuss.

In any event, Will’s post on topics including contract brewing lays out his history and the pub’s achievements before, as is relevant here, laying out a position on some of the issues described above from the conference. The important thing to note here for purposes of context is that the Boston area has not seen the explosion of growth that you are likely witnessing in your hometowns. Rents are incredibly expensive and available industrial spaces nearly non-existent. Instead, Boston and its environs has seen a pretty substantial number of individuals and companies bringing beers to market that are made in breweries that they do not own. Historically, this practice was called contract brewing. In the early days of craft brewing, that became a bit of a pejorative, often cast in the direction of the Boston Beer Company. Today, the practice can be called resident brewing, alternating proprietorship, or somewhat offensively, ‘gypsy’ brewing. Whatever phrasing you choose, the practice is again becoming increasingly controversial, sometimes for reasons I can’t quite grasp. And it’s hard to say exactly who qualifies under which of these offered monikers.

In the modern craft era (say the last seven years), this practice appeared to start with the appearance of the eclectic Danish brewer Mikkeller, that, depending on the account you hear, would travel to breweries around Europe and beyond to produce beers on other people’s systems. Using excess capacity built into the global brewing system has a certain understated and elegant efficiency about it. If there is space available, why not use it to go in a very different direction than that of the host brewery? The practice gained some traction, resulting in similar approaches by Stillwater, Evil Twin (from Jeppe, brother of the individual behind Mikkeller), and others.

In New England, we have seen everyone from stalwart industry vets to individuals with absolutely no experience try their hand at the brewing game. Whether this involved participation in recipe formulation, brand and media direction, involvement in the brewing process, or actually directing the brewing and cellaring, each individual and company appears to fall into this hard to define categories of contract / gypsy / resident / altprop.

Getting to back to Will Meyers, his post touched on his personal feelings about this trend in New England, which is likely to grow with the addition of a massive new brewery operation in Connecticut and another planned operation by a local beer bar owner. I found his piece to be interesting for a number of reasons, none the least of which is his not-so-veiled shots at some people in the local industry. I am including Will’s piece here in full.

Following his piece, Jeff Leiter (note, as I said above, that he is also a friend of mine), of the local Somerville Brewing Company, Inc. aka “Slumbrew,” provided me with his response. As I noted, I haven’t really developed much of a position here, though I have historically focused more on the quality of beer than where its made and by whom (if my thoughts on Blue Moon weren’t proof enough). These pieces provide for interesting reads and it’s the kind of discussion that I would like to see more of in this sometimes too-chummy industry.

First, here is the relevant excerpt from Will Meyers, brewmaster of the Cambridge Brewing Company.

By making Craft Beer welcoming to all by design, we’ve made it a desirable industry in which people want to play a part. This includes the inevitable number of beer marketing companies, aka contract brewers (a few of whom call themselves “gypsy brewers”), who either feel that there’s money to be made in this fad or who genuinely love craft beer but don’t want to invest the capital in their own brick and mortar breweries. This lack of skin in the game shows me that they value short term gains over long term personal investment and hard work. And I truly believe that there is no such thing as a gypsy brewer. In fact I know of only one couple, our friends at Pretty Things, who “reside” at another brewery but who actively create every drop of their own beer, each and every brewday. There’s a big difference between having that level of commitment and integrity, and claiming to be a “gypsy” because you occasionally show up at a brewery on days your beer is being made for you. If you’re not there, every time, doing it entirely yourself and if there are other people physically making your beer for you (sometimes in your absence), you’re simply not a brewer in my book. It’s more than just cutting open some bags of grain or making a ceremonious addition of hops or cacao nibs or some other exotic ingredient and Tweeting about it. I’m sorry if that offends some folks, but this is something that our industry – producers, retailers, consumers, everybody – will need to struggle with as time goes on. The Brewers Association made a valiant effort over the past year with their Craft Vs. Crafty campaign, exposing to the general public the lengths to which the international macro-industrial brewers are going to obfuscate the origins behind “fake craft” beers like Shock Top, Blue Moon, etc. Unfortunately we are always reticent to take a look at the fingers pointing back upon ourselves, so we fail to give the consumer the opportunity to understand the differences among us – those who make beer, and those who just place orders for “their” beer, and the inevitable grey-ish line of separation.

Here is Jeff Leiter, Somerville Brewing Company, Inc. aka “Slumbrew, “Somerville, Massachusetts, and his “Response to contract brewing critics.”

Something about springtime makes brewers maybe a little more introspective than they should be. I remember 20 years ago I was thinking about leaving my Somerville apartment for a new adventure. Before I could leave, I got into graduate school at MIT which secured another two years and, well; it got hard to leave a place I called home. My wife Caitlin and I both have entrepreneurial upbringings, so it was a natural fit back then for us to set out on our own to build our first company that is, in its broadest sense described as “marketing”, nearly 14 years ago now. We learned a great deal about business, running a company, managing a staff of over 15 people at times and developing brands for other businesses. But perhaps the most rewarding part of those years was the ability to travel and observe something we were passionate about: the creation of small batch beer as an artisanal product in this country.

I just got back from attending the Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, DC last week. Things look dramatically different today than they did when visiting breweries a decade or so ago. There has been a near exponential rise in the number of breweries opened in 2012 and now an unprecedented number of breweries-in-planning for 2013. The leadership of the national organization of craft brewers, the Brewers Association, is cautiously exuberant over the growth: Finally, their constituents are earning a recognizable share of overall beer sales in a market long dominated by macro brands! The tradeshow floor had more vendors selling raw ingredients, stainless steel, kegs and beer packaging than I can remember at any previous conference. All is good, except, for some, it’s set against a background voice saying this is all too good to be true, and the industry, as a whole, can’t sustain this kind of growth. Maybe, Maybe not – but this is certainly uncharted territory for the craft beer biz.

The business of making American craft beer, especially in the last 5 years or so, has often been veiled in a mystique of the brewer’s art. This is partly for the benefit of consumers as they take satisfaction in knowing the liquid they are drinking is a product of complex processes guided by a skillful hand(s). But in a few unfortunate cases, the veil is more refined by some individuals and developed mostly to protect the fragile ego of someone who has come to rely on the title of “brewer”. My role at Somerville Brewing Company is quite a bit more sober. It would be an envious job if my responsibilities provided for dedication to just the brewing aspects of the business. Indeed, as a small company, I have an enormous range of obligations from finance, managing wholesaler logistics, inventory, and ingredient procurement all the way down to arranging who might attend what bottle shop tasting. Thankfully, we have a great team and wonderful group of supporters we call Slumbassadors to rely on for much needed help. However, the best part of my job is still doing what I initially got into this for – to produce beers that I develop from concept, ingredient selection, test batches in my small pilot brewery to their final production at Mercury Brewing Company.

Certainly one side effect of the recent surge in new breweries is there is more product available. This is a boon for consumers who can now sample a different style or approach every day of every week and never have the same beer twice. With the exception of flavored water and candy, I can’t think of any other consumer products that offer that opportunity. The down side is that many brewers feel a pinch in market share they once dominated, or thought they could dominate. Whereas a few years ago, one brewer may have been the only game in town, they now find themselves among other bottles on a retail shelf. To those of us with a more mature perspective on business, we call this friendly competition. Some of the best advice I’ve received has been from people you might call “competitors”. When the entire segment of craft beer is only approaching 7% of the US beer market, it’s almost absurd to describe other folks in the industry as a threat. Sadly, other brewers internalize the presence of other brands in their local area or the arrival of new brands by people that did not chose the same career lifestyle 20 years ago as an attack on their “brewer” sovereignty. And so, instead of stepping up to lead in a time of exciting expansion, they resort to embarrassing public infighting and attacking members of their own industry.

Some of this is being played out with the recent, yet perennial debate over contract brewing. The latest thinking goes that contract brewers are less genuine versions of a true brewer and are merely engaged in covering up mediocre beer with marketing shtick. A simple beer marketing company has a lack of “skin in the game” over brick and mortar breweries, and don’t want to invest their own capital. As one of the leading grandstanders of this position recently said, “This lack of skin in the game shows me that they value short term gains over long term personal investment and hard work.” Although I will never question the integrity of those who choose to earn a paycheck over setting out on their own, the irony of this coming from someone who achieved their entire status in the brewing world as an employee is overwhelming. It’s also astounding to call other brewing businesses as disingenuous for their lack of capital resources from the safety of a weekly paycheck and staff payroll/equipment financed by someone else. Although, we at Somerville Brewing currently rely on what is technically defined as a contract brewing relationship, it’s downright laughable to think we have neglected to smack down any skin for the “game”. From the personal guarantees and cash outlays to achieve our float of over 1,000 kegs in the market, to the near 90 hour work weeks we spend building our business without a paycheck every Friday – it’s a story that resonates all too well for anyone starting a business in craft beer. The ultimate irony comes from the fact that one of the pioneers of the craft beer movement, Jim Koch, started his business in nearly the exact same fashion; as did our friends at Brooklyn Brewery and many other breweries both now and in the early years of craft beer.

Others have tried to stratify real brewers from less-real brewers as well; though consistently these attempts seem to originate from those who have been in the industry a while or actually own a brewery that might need to work harder to maintain market share. And, a recent (outrageous & pathetic) attempt to tie contract brewing with the crafty side of the Craft vs. Crafty commotion put out by the Brewers Association ended with the accusation that contract brewers just ‘place orders for beer’. No doubt, with an industry seeing the current levels of growth, some individuals see opportunity and, albeit misguided, paths to a quick buck in a hot business. Those that helped shape the industry over the past ten or even twenty years see the newcomers as just opportunistic. In some cases, this is a rightfully deserved perspective. At other times this is simply a deviant and undignified brand strategy to promote their own products over others; a strategy beneath even the marketing companies.

In the end, do the actual people that like our beer and buy our bottles or draught make their decision to support us by whether I checked the gravity on the 2nd day of fermentation at 10:30am? If I am personally not present to transfer our Flagraiser IPA from primary fermentation to a brite tank, will it taste less genuine? I am overseeing the production of our beer on nearly every brew day and key points in the production process to meet my quality standards, but like my other colleagues, I value the care and contribution of the talented staff at Mercury Brewing that work with their equipment to achieve my results. How is that different than virtually every other brewery, including the little local pub that employs a division of labor for the day-to-day production of beer? One old-timer recently put it as follows, “If you’re not there, every time, doing it entirely yourself and if there are other people physically making your beer for you (sometimes in your absence), you’re simplyff not a brewer in my book.” Not only is this statement outrageously myopic, but contradicts his own process. Whether I brewed our beer entirely with my own hands, worked as a tenant brewer to use someone else’s capital investments or worked with the brewers and cellarmen at Mercury to produce Slumbrew, my goal is to produce the same quality product. I depend on that so my customers continue to buy our product and support our brand.

It’s been no secret that we are actively working towards setting up our own small brewery in Somerville. With this endeavor, we will surely sign more promissory notes and personal guarantees that are so highly acclaimed as a badge of honor to some brewers. Our sights are set way above the pettiness of critics though, who in the absence of genuinely positive contribution to the growth of our industry, choose to base their product marketing strategy on consumer confusion, industry division and false definitions of “Craft Beer”. Instead, our goal is to continue our strategy of producing inventive and ingredient-driven beers our customers like to drink. And as for the brand strategy coming out of our little marketing company: we continue to be focused on making good liquids, spreading goodwill, embracing our charities and making people happy. Our new facility will only strengthen this mission by enabling us to produce even more inventive and esoteric beers while serving as a destination for our customers on a regular basis. This is what it’s all about for us.

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Why The ABCC Got It Right About Farmer-Brewers In Massachusetts…

It’s been a busy week in the world of Massachusetts beer. In case you’ve been living in a cave (or were just out of town like myself), the controversy started with the Idle Hands Craft Ales company announcing that the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) had denied its application for a so-called farmer-brewery license. Beyond impacting this single nano-in-development, the ABCC’s decision included a section purporting to be an advisory opinion, which held that in order to qualify for a Farmer-Brewery license, a farmer-brewer must “grow at least 50-percent, in the aggregate, of the quantity of cereal grains and hops needed to produce the anticipated volume of malt beverages.” The ABCC explicitly stated in its decision that “the industry is put on notice that the Commission will be applying this ruling prospectively and, specifically, during the next annual renewal cycle to ensure that every applicant for a farmer-brewer license meets the state law definition of farmer-brewer by growing at least 50 percent…”

This statement no doubt scared the hell out of dozens of brewers around the state that continue to operate under such a license, even if their renewal period was still a few months away. Read as an advisory opinion, the agency’s decision sought to redefine a long-standing license that a large number of production breweries in the state use for their operations.

The response to the ABCC’s decision and advisory opinion was fast, furious, and devastating. Everyone from newbie nanos to United States Senator Scott Brown piled on the vitriol against the ABCC, calling the decision everything from a “job killer” to a “devastating financial opinion.” Speaking at a well-timed annual meeting of the Beer Institute in Boston, Senator Brown lit into the decision. From the start it appeared clear that it was only a matter of time before either the legislature or other state politicians acted to quell concerns. On the state level, Senator Robert Hedlund filed legislation to allow for a new manufacturer’s permit for craft brewers. On the federal level, Senator Brown announced his support for the long-pending bill to roll back the taxes brewers pay to pre-1991 levels, which would cut the per barrel tax to $9 under legislation. Under the bill, the taxes paid by small breweries on their first 60,000 barrels produced would also be cut from $7 to $3.50. A few days later, State Treasurer Steve Grossman, who oversees the ABCC, announced that the agency’s decision would be rescinded and that public hearings on the rule would be held.

The funny thing about all of the controversy, however, is just how uncontroversial the ABCC’s decision should have been. Little is generally known by the public of the farmer-brewer designation and craft brewers themselves seem to also lack knowledge about its history. This fundamental lack of understanding, combined with the ABCC’s admittedly clumsy handling of the situation, has allowed what is otherwise a seemingly proper decision to go up in flames, squelching a broader and necessary discussion.

Long before the Harpoon Brewery sought the state’s first brewing permit in 1986, the Massachusetts alcohol licensing law contained but a single type of permit allowing for the manufacture of malt beverages in the state. In 1982, at a time when no breweries existed in the state, the state legislature tried to encourage brewing by adding a “farmer-brewer” or “farmer-brewery” license. Little changed since its passage, the farmer-brewer law was intended to encourage “the development of domestic farms.” Under the license, individuals and corporations can brew and sell their own beer on the site of the brewery. The measure passed with little fanfare and went unused until small, upstart craft breweries saw the benefits of its less restrictive terms and much less expensive licensing fees.

But from the beginning, applying the farmer-brewer designation to small brewers was complicated and fraught with problems. In the beginning, the ABCC enforced the spirit of the regulation and required brewers to cultivate at least one ingredient used in the brewing process, be it hops or barley. This, of course, caused problems for local brewers. As the Boston Business Journal put it more than twenty years ago, “[s]ince the climate here is not appropriate for growing barley adequate for brewing beer, to get the license [brewery] owners must lease farmland to grow a crop they will never use.”

“I don’t know of any other business that is required to farm in the state in order to do business,” Jonathan Tremblay, the then manager of the Cambridge Brewing Company, told the Journal. To qualify for the farmer brewer license, the brewpub grew 10 acres of useless barley that it leased from a farmer. At the same time in Northampton, one of the state’s only other brewpub proprietors, Janet Egelston, wanted to open new locations of the popular Northampton Brewery in Worcester and Salem but the state’s laws caused them to open in Portsmouth, New Hampshire instead. The nature of the farmer brewer license also caused her to postpone for five years her marriage to a business partner, until a state senator filed special legislation exempting from the state law prohibiting joint ownership of both brewery and restaurant.

In response, the ABCC filed legislation in 1990 attempting to scrap the farmer brewery license and replace it with a new brewpub license. After long being stuck in a legislative committee, and while no other brewpub licenses were granted, the legislature finally passed the law in 1998, adding licenses for pub brewers and pub brewers. While the new license allowed pub brewers to operate without the farming requirements, the legislature did not remove the language for non-pub based farmer brewers.

The ABCC itself acknowledged the farcical nature of the license. “The farmer brewery license is not working out well at all. It is making hypocrites and dishonest people out of legitimate business people by claiming they are growing the commodities that go into the product when in fact they are not,” George McCarthy, former ABCC chairman, told the Boston Business Journal in 1990. Somewhere thereafter, the ABCC changed its application of the ingredient growing requirement, allowing new craft brewers to enjoy the benefits of a license never intended to govern their operations. Craft breweries favored the farmer brewer license and continued to open and operate under its designation.

Fast forward to today and craft breweries are suddenly up in arms over something that should have been addressed by their lobbyists and the legislature decades ago. Until recently, Massachusetts brewers have been a largely disorganized bunch, preferring to go it alone in their operations and eschewing a larger, statewide group effort. The resurrection of a statewide brewers guild has helped this situation but the group has not taken steps to alter the state of the farmer brewery designation before the legislature.

The ABCC decision certainly frightened business owners who have worked hard to develop their operations or spent time in the planning stages. The Idle Hands press release on the denial of its license best captures this feeling.

Though this decision helps clarify a license that has been on the book for years, it sets a precedent that creates far-reaching effects on breweries, bars, restaurants, retailers and ultimately consumers. There are cost implications and more important issues relate to economic growth, industry innovation, and consumer access to a greater variety of local beers. These effects are further amplified as the brewing industry is one of a few growing industries in an otherwise struggling economy. Existing breweries of all sizes will have to adapt to the 50 percent requirements or apply for alternate licensing, and local entrepreneurs will have to determine whether they can invest in an industry that no longer supports growth and innovation.

While the ABCC’s unexpected change in course sent craft brewers scurrying in response, and with good reason, the agency’s decision was neither unforeseeable nor out of line. State law allows the ABCC to make rules governing brewing licenses, with comment periods usually given to the public and those affected. The ABCC even has the power to issue emergency regulations, as it did earlier this year when it prohibited the sale of caffeinated alcoholic beverages in the Commonwealth.

The odd thing, however, is that craft brewers are either ignoring the spirit and language of the farmer-brewer law or want to continue to operate in ignorance of it. For its part, Idle Hands conceded that it was not going to produce any significant portion of its own ingredients in line with the farmer brewer’s licensing guidelines and most craft brewers grow very little or none of their brewing ingredients.

While the ABCC’s abrupt announcement in the Idle Hands decision and its later advisory opinion was far from the best way to handle the shift of how it will apply state law, craft breweries operating in Massachusetts have to take some responsibility for their failure to address a glaring and long-standing problem. State Senator John Olver, the one who assisted Egelston in navigating the brewpub law in 1990, telegraphed the situation to the Journal in 1990. “The farmers brewery license was set up for another time and was never successful.”

It’s time for the Commonwealth (and its brewers and legislators) to address these long-standing issues in a responsible and public manner.

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But Who Will Think Of The Innocent Pumpkins…

Fall is a fantastic season if you enjoy change, beautiful scenery, and crisp outdoor happenings.

Fall is a terrible season if you happen to be a gourd…

Pumpkin Protest...

Somewhere around mid-Autumn, the Great Pumpkin Slaughter begins. And perhaps ground zero for the decimation of innocent pumpkins is the Cambridge Brewing Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The brewers blow through dozens upon dozens of 10-barrel batches of the pub’s Great Pumpkin ale. And to make each batch, the brewers have to hand-cut 150 pounds of pumpkins. This is a near-thankless task that the dedicated brewers (Will Meyers, Megan Parisi, and Kevin O’Leary) hope will one day be automated…or that there will be an international pumpkin plague that wipes out the gourd, leaving only happy hoppy beers in its wake.

Tomorrow is the second annual Great Pumpkin Festival at CBC (from 4 pm – 1 am) and here are the details…

This event will feature 6 CBC Pumpkin brews alongside 14 Pumpkin beers from breweries like Elysian, Iron Hill, the Alchemist, Dogfish Head, Southern Tier, Allagash, Jolly Pumpkin, and more!

Executive Chef David Drew has also whipped up an amazing pumpkin inspired menu.

And of course The Great Pumpkin Festival would not be complete without the sacrificial tapping of the 150 pound giant pumpkin filled with “cask? pumpkin beer by robed monks and offered to the masses.

$10 gets you in and your very own “Great Pumpkin Festival 2009” limited edition glass. Then, it’s in to the festival to buy tickets to sample the brews honoring the great gourd.

And don’t forget your costume…it is Halloween after all.

‘Tis the season to celebrate the slaughter of your favorite gourd…

(image courtesy of Will Meyers’ wonderfully creepy imagination)

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Now Taking Your Questions…for the Belgian Beer Festival…

Belgian Beer Fest...

Starting Friday night I’ll be moderating two panels at the annual Belgian Beer Festival, hosted by We’ve long been fortunate to have a number of excellent speakers from all areas of the beer world in attendance to offer their thoughts on Belgian beer and culture and this year is no different. During Friday’s Night of the Funk, I’ll be discussing Funk with Dave Yarrington of Smuttynose, Mike McManus of Brewery Ommegang, Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing, Will Meyers of Cambridge Brewing, and Rob Tod of Allagash.

On Saturday, we’ll switch gears and discuss Belgian beers, brewing, and culture with Dann Paquette of Pretty Things, Jason Perkins of Allagash, Megan Parisi of Cambridge Brewing, Patrick Rue of the Bruery, and M. François de Harenne of Brasserie d’Orval.

If you have some questions you’d like asked of these folks, please feel free to drop a comment or an email…

Otherwise, I’ll see you at the fest…

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So Quiet Here, So Much Running Around…

Things have been pretty quiet around here, with only the occasional Twitter update in recent weeks. I’m still trying to square the impact of Twitter on this site, balancing the convenience and lure of short, quick Twitter posts and the longer ones required here. In any event, it’s been a long and busy few weeks, starting with the Craft Brewers Conference (which seems like several weeks ago) and leading into a week-long trip to Belgium. I’m back now and it continues this evening with the Cambridge Brewing Company’s 20th Anniversary Party. I’m optimistically hoping to attend at 5 pm or so but realistically think it may have to wait until tomorrow as I arrived home from Europe late last night. So we’ll get back at it here soon but things may continue to be a little slow as I need to pen a few columns and articles and eventually get around to writing more of the new book.

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