<Back to News & Events

Who and where and do we care? How gypsy brewing is earning disapproval and disrupting discourse in craft beer

"'Property,' Welsh muttered to himself too softly for anyone else to hear. 'All for property.'" - First Sergeant Edward Welsh, in James Jones's The Thin Red Line

"But to me, you’re not legit until you’ve got skin in the game, which means capital at risk." - Hugh Sisson, founder and Chief Executive Officer, Heavy Seas Brewing Company

"If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation." - Don Draper, Season 3, Episode 2, "Love Among the Ruins," Mad Men

In an increasingly crowded craft beer marketplace (2,347 breweries, 1,254 in planning, 409 opened in 2012), competition increases as well. Everything in craft beer becomes elastic: brewing equipment and space, hop contracts, and shelf space, among other goods and services. Enterprising brewers and companies have found two market inefficiencies in this environment. The first is termed, somewhat pejoratively, "gypsy brewing." The second, "crafty" beer, will be discussed later on.

Gypsy brewers do not own brewing facilities. Instead, they find breweries with excess capacity, and they travel, sometimes between continents, to these places to make beer. Though some of these itinerant, wandering brewers have taken out second mortgages, maxed out credit cards, and gone into debt to pursue careers in brewing, they are deemed as being lesser by some, like Sisson above, because they do not own property. For a group of brewers who are vocal but probably in the minority, craft beer is "all for property," or at least it is defined by having come from a building owned by the brewery.

When Sisson voiced his opinion in Beer Advocate Magazine, there was a minor uproar (please do read the comments on the article), and Sisson quickly backtracked (again, please read the comments), but by then the discursive damage was done, and it is clear that some stakeholders within craft beer do not understand the increasingly "postmodern, transnational craft beer scene." Will Myers, head brewer of Cambridge Brewing Company, reignited this discussion earlier this month, writing that

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 [definition: a brewer that writes recipes for beers that are then produced by other people at a facility not owned by that brewer] (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. (Source)

Note the similar discursive formations of these critiques of gypsy brewing. It has become a meme in the original sense of that word that craft beer, in addition to having high quality ingredients and independence from multinational corporations, must also be associated with a place.

The “property” line of attack on gypsy brewing is telling because it hits these brewers with something they do not have by definition, though ownership of a facility does not necessarily enhance the quality of the beer. The language about property from critics is the velvet glove surrounding the iron fist that is these critics’ annoyance that gypsy brewers are running successful operations and brands without capital, or at least sufficient capital, and without facilities that one can walk in or around or sell or mortgage. The argument about property being a requisite to brewing resonates with both the norms and American dream of business ownership and the image of small businesses as job creators (searching that phrase results in 22.4 million Google hits), and as the lifeblood of the economy (2.7 million hits). These gypsy brewers, according to Myers, are instead tied to a piece of paper, a contract, and not to land, not to a facility, and not to property. These gypsy brewers have no roots, the argument goes. They are hardly brewers. They are marketing companies. They don't make anything, whereas “true” craft brewers do. These arguments place gypsy brewers outside of the craft beer industry and into the nebulous service sector.

The most eloquent defense I’ve seen of renting rather than owning a brewery protects both gypsy and contract brewers. This defense comes from Jeff Leiter of Somerville Brewing Company, also known as Slumbrew. Leiter points out that a great many more "traditional" craft brewers, including Brooklyn Brewery and Sam Adams, began as contract brewers and that he aspires to own and operate a brewing facility. Property? More skin than he already has in the game? Leiter wants that. He wants to become "more craft," in the traditional, normative sense of the term as formulated by Sisson. "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," writes Leiter, who goes on to describe in great detail the kind of skin he has in this game, which proves Sisson's point, by following the discursive norms mentioned above, that this question of property and capital is the battlefield on which the argument will be fought.

Leiter’s argument also undermines, inadvertently or intentionally, the Brewers Association's attempt to differentiate “craft” beer, a definition from a trade association, and "crafty" beer. This “crafty” marketing, the second market inefficiency alluded to earlier, is the attempt to obscure the macro origins of beers like Blue Moon (owned by SABMiller) and Shock Top (owned by InBev), among others. Leiter writes:

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?

A craft brewery, according to the Brewers Association, is

  • Small: at or under 6 million barrels produced per year, (a number that has been raised twice for the Boston Beer Company),
  • Independent: a brewery must have no more than 25 percent ownership by a non-craft brewer, and
  • Traditional: in that the flagship beer is a product of malted barley, and not other adjuncts like corn and rice, though those can be used to enhance as opposed to lighten the flavor of less than half the beers brewed (never mind that corn is a traditional brewing grain in the United States; just ask Dick Yuengling or August Schell).

To the Brewers Association, “crafty” beer, hides its ownership, uses the capital of said hidden ownership, and may brew with adjuncts. In Leiter's offset quote above, the battle is not between “ownership versus contracting” or “craft versus crafty,” both of which share a focus on ownership and property, be it physical or intellectual, but instead between beer that tastes good and beer that does not. Leiter’s argument here is one that ignores process, that negates it.

Ownership does not matter in this argument. Publicly held (Sam Adams and AB-InBev), privately held (Sierra Nevada), or employee-owned (New Belgium and Full Sail)? It does not matter. A scrappy small business (how every craft brewery views its operation) or a multinational corporation (Bud, Miller, Coors)? It does not matter.

Who brewed the beer, and who developed the recipe? Are they the same people? That does not matter.

What about output and volume and scope and scale? In five months in 2012, Budweiser sold one million barrels of Platinum (thanks, Pitbull!), more than the yearly output of every craft brewery except for Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada. These elements also do not matter here.

Except that they do. Because nearly anyone who has ever had a craft beer would say that it, whatever the style, is an improvement on Platinum. There would be no craft beer if consumers were happy with macro offerings.

For this reason, the idea that taste trumps all may be too simplistic. Purchasing patterns and consumer behavior tell us this isn’t true. Questions like who and where and how and why beer is brewed are as important to many beer drinkers as how the beer tastes. There is a role for process, but what? Were flavoring extracts uses as opposed to original source ingredients? Does it matter that supporting a local brewery keeps money local? That doing so supports neighbors and communities? That the beer will be fresher? That is where this much more nuanced debate will take place once craft brewers stop fighting multiple fronts against crafty, contract, and gypsy brewers.

So let's change the conversation by having a dialogue about these issues rather than counterproductive and distracting arguments over what it means to be a brewer, over what it is to make beer, over a definition of craft beer coined by a craft beer trade association. Gypsy brewers make good beers. Breweries with properties make good beer. Crafty breweries make good beer (and if you’ve had something from Goose Island recently, you’d be hard pressed to deny it.)

The key here is that beer must move beyond the broad strokes. If you’ve had something from Stillwater, you know that not having a location all his own isn’t hamstringing the beer. You’ve no doubt had beer that’s disappointing from a brewery with a lease on a property. The nuances are what’s key here. The discourse is valuable but we must be critical of it for the overall product’s sake, and isn’t that what we’re all here for, to advance beer as a product? We hope you’ll talk about these issues below. How much does the process matter to you? Taste uber alles? How important is locality and freshness to you? Cheers.

 

* The author is indebted to Bill DeBaun for his help with this article. 

Neighborhood: 
News Categories: