The C Word

I just finished reading The Craft Beer Revolution by Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery. (Okay, I read most of it, but the parts on the American beer distribution system were pretty boring.) It was an interesting read at times, both in terms of addressing some aspects of American craft beer history that I knew nothing of and because so much of it related to conversations that have beer taking place a lot in recent months about the current influx in “craft” breweries in Ontario. And yes, those quotes are a foreshadowing of what to expect.

The book spent a lot of time mentioning Jim Koch – more time than anyone else, including Fritz Maytag and Jack McAuliffe. No surprise, not everyone is a fan of Jim and the Boston Beer Company. The books goes into shouting matches that Jim had with other breweries and a lot of behind the scenes encounters that I’m sure some people would rather not have had published. A lot of it had to with Boston Beer Company being a contract brewer – two words that still create controversy to this day.

Anyone thinking of starting a brewery should read The Craft Beer Revolution because it really details what it’s like to be starting a new brewery. There isn’t one mold to be a successful brewery. The people behind the biggest craft breweries in the States are a mix of backgrounds. Some are business minded (Jim Koch), while others are homebrewers turned professional. It takes a wide variety of skills in order to run a brewery, but all breweries run into the same people – it’s fucking expensive to start your own brewery. Equipment is expensive, as are making any necessary renovations to the space to make it fit for brewing. Then there are ingredients, staff, marketing, signage and ten thousand other things you need. It’s no surprise that smaller nano breweries have become popular and that contract brewing has almost become a necessary step for most breweries.

It’s been thirty years since Jim Koch brewed his first batch of beer in his kitchen and contract brewing is still as controversial now as it was when Sam Adams started its rise to the largest craft brewer in the US. While Americans have been arguing over contract brewing for decades, it has only become a gripe for Ontario breweries in the past year or two. When you look at a number of the biggest new breweries of the past three to five years, most have chosen to start as contract breweries (Double Trouble, Kensington, Left Field, Sawdust City, Spearhead). Sawdust City is the first to open their own brewery, while two others are working at getting breweries ready, but are finding that it takes a lot of time and money. The other two are happy enough so far to brew elsewhere, which annoys some people.

I can understand both pro and con sides to the contract brewing argument. For breweries that have invested everything they have in their company, it is annoying that a contract operation can steal your business at a fraction of the cost. Some will eventually open a brewery, while others are created to try and make a quick buck with little interest in giving back to the overall craft beer industry (Triple Bogey anyone?). But if I were to start a craft brewery, as someone that loves craft beer but has no actual experience in brewing, contract would be the way I go. Hire a brewer, make a bunch of one beer to start, hopefully get in the LCBO and spend extra cash on marketing. Then use that as a basis to search for investors to start a physical brewery.

A lot of griping comes from the presumed intent of the brewery. Are they in it as a business venture of because of the love of beer? Well, why can’t it be both? Beer geeks can’t run all the breweries, or else craft beer would be too weird and esoteric for most of the general population. Everyone has their own ideal beer – for some it’s super hoppy, for others it may be a locally made lager that tastes like a macro brewed beer but comes from close to home and isn’t filled with adjuncts. As they told us in library school, for every book a reader and for every reader a book. Some of these breweries must be hitting markets that current breweries are missing or else they wouldn’t manage to stay in business.

I also find it interesting because breweries are not static entities. Two of my favourite local breweries (Amsterdam and Great Lakes) have changed so much in the past five years that they are barely recognizable. Great Lakes started out brewing with malt extract, so they should be the poster boy in Ontario for showing how much a brewery can change. The future is impossible to predict and I would wager that one maligned contract brewery currently operating will look significantly different in ten years.

To bring this around full circle, I found some of Steve Hindy’s comments to be a little funny seeing as Brooklyn started as a contract brewery. It’s basically the same thing as Kensington – contract brewery named for a location that didn’t initially start brewing in that location. Junction started out as a contract, but eventually found a home in (or at least near) the Junction. Contract brewing is a way to get a quicker and cheaper start in the industry, but most contract operations eventually realize that you need your own brewery, whether it’s because being a contract brewery is limiting production, doesn’t give the flexibility needed or some other reason.

There is no doubt that we’re encountering a weird, wacky time in the Ontario beer world, one that we’ve never seen before. Contract brewing is bound to get more controversial as new breweries continue to enter the market, but it is unfair to treat all contract operations as a homogenous group. As a beer lover, I have faith that quality will be a determining factor in the long-term success of any new brewery.

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