Op-Ed: Contract Brewing Just Isn’t Craft Brewing (Greg Doroski, Greenport Harbor Brewing)

Posted December 11, 2012 by Lenn Thompson in Beer

These opinions are mine and don’t necesarily reflect those of my employer, Greenport Harbor Brewing, but I take great pride in brewing craft beer for a living. I take comfort in brewing beer at Greenport Harbor Brewing, where we made the decision to reject the opportunity to have another brewery brew our beer.

While it might seem obvious that a business that calls itself a brewery should actually brew beer, there are far too many “breweries” that brew little, if any, of their own beer. Although the Brewer’s Association trade group reported an overall drop in contract brewing in 2012, the local prevalence “breweries” hiring other breweries to produce some or all of their beer is particularly troubling.

From an economic and practical standpoint contract brewing is very tempting. By outsourcing production, contract brewing not only lowers the capital and experience thresholds for entry into the brewing industry, it allows established breweries to supplement their current production capacity at a reduced relative cost. For example, as a draft-only brewery with only about 1,200 square feet of production space, contract brewing would allow Greenport Harbor to boost output beyond our current annual production capacity of 3,400 bbls, and to increase our packaging options by offering our beer in bottles and/or cans.

Contract brewing would also fundamentally change our beer and brewery.

By removing the brewer and the brewing from the brewery, contract brewing not only cheapens my vocation as a craft brewer, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the essential nature of craft beer by neglecting the importance of the process, the people and the place in the production of beer.

Contract brewing would also fundamentally change our beer and brewery.

- Greg Doroski

Craft beer is more than a brand, some sales representatives and a marketing campaign. Craft brewing is more than a recipe at the beginning and the beer at the end. Inspiration for the beer, the recipe, the ingredients and their source, the equipment, and the multitude of choices that we as craft brews make along the way from recipe conception to the beer in your glass all matter. If the craft brewer and the process of making beer are externalized — either partially or entirely — from the “brewery”, I just don’t see how we can say that beer that is produced under contract is the same as beer that is brewed by a craft brewery that brews their own beer.

Although the quality of the beer in the glass ranks high in the consumer’s mind, the process, people and place must figure into the equation, if we are to uphold craft beer as an authentic craft product. This is to say nothing of the importance of location in trend toward buying local goods and supporting local businesses.

This is not to say that contract brewing does not have some place in the industry or that beer brewed under contract is bad. It is also not entirely up to me to litigate the merits and implications of the practice, especially as the discussion becomes even more complex with the consideration of farm breweries that grow their own grain and hops, gypsy and tenant brewing, the partial use of contract brewing, the use of automation in the production process, equipment and brewery size, and other important complicating issues.

As a starting point, it should not be too much to ask for total transparency — including in marketing and labeling — from those who choose brew any of their beer under contract, or under some contract-like arrangement. To this end, following Steve Hindy’s lead from his 2012 keynote address at the Craft Brewer’s Conference, in San Diego, California, where he called to lower the production limit to be called a microbrewery, I think it is necessary for the industry to clarify the terms we apply to ourselves. While the meteoric grow of the craft beer is certainly a cause for celebration, I would argue that growth without self-reflection is never a recipe for sustained success.