The Mysteries of Contract Brewing Revealed

Drink Features Craft Beer
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The Mysteries of Contract Brewing Revealed

We all know what a gypsy brewer is. Covered and romanticized nigh-ad hominem by the beer media, these are brewers unencumbered, we might say (sparkle in eyes, copy of On Walden Pond at the ready), by the confines of a single facility, of a single portfolio or return-on-investment-driven business plan. Or hey, no business plan at all. These are the magical talking owls of the craft beer industry, their creations seemingly ephemeral, showing up on shelves to great acclaim, then vanishing without a paper trail.

None of this, of course, is true; gypsy brewers are as nose-to-the-grindstone as anyone in the industry and, most importantly, the beer has to come from somewhere. Enter the contract brewery—the brick and mortar breweries that do the bulk of the grunt work for another brand, usually from brew-day all the way through packaging, labeling, and shipping.

Westbrook Brewing, a world-class brewery in its own right (I drank their Gose by the gallon when I was last in Charleston, South Carolina) operates partly as a contract facility for several brands in the 12% Imports portfolio, most often Evil Twin. To date, they’ve brewed dozens of brands for brewer/Torst publican Jeppe, with the only indication of their participation in fine print on the back of the bottle: “Brewed by Westbrook Brewing Company, Charleston SC.”

I suppose the most pertinent question, from the contract brewer’s perspective is: Why?

“Beyond the obvious stuff, like Jeppe paying us for the use of our brewing capacity,” Edward Westbrook tells me via email, “our arrangement lets him try weird things (like adding 1,000 donuts to a beer) that most contract labels wouldn’t be able to support. And on our end, his connections have allowed us to sell our beers in New York City and in Europe, which has been great for our profile.”

Jeppe indeed has a lot of important, special connections throughout the industry, which makes this arrangement a uniquely beneficial one to Westbrook. He opened Olbuttiken, still one of Copenhagen’s most revered bottle shops (it has hosted Cantillon Blabaer releases and been a Zwanze Day spot), in 2005, and helped curate the beer list for Noma, a multiple-time winner of the World’s Best Restaurant title. His Evil Twin brand, thanks in large part to Westbrook, is nearly ubiquitous from the Midwest to the East Coast.

So how does this happen in the first place? For Westbrook and Jeppe, it was a simple matter of recognizing coincidental needs.
“We first met about five years ago, right when we first opened,” Edward says. “We had some extra capacity, and Jeppe was looking for a place [in the United States] to brew his beers.”

For Westbrook, the contract arrangement might have come about as a chance meeting that led to a mutually beneficial arrangement. For other contract breweries, like Octopi Brewing, this was part of the plan from the get-go.

“We want to be a one-stop shop for all of our client breweries,” Isaac Showaki, president of Octopi Brewing, says. “When we sign a contract with a client brewer, we make a commitment to help them with legal work, marketing, advertising, equipment, scaling up, etc.”

Because Showaki’s initial plan for Octopi was to be the region’s go-to for contract arrangements, he’s made sure that the facility is equipped to deal with all scale and manner of needs.

“Among our brewers,” he says, “we have over 40 years of brewing experience. On top of that, we have an on-site lab that measures IBUs, diacetyl, ABV, and microbiological issues. And we do this with every batch of every beer.”

Another quirk of Octopi Brewing: they have their own in-house brand known as 3rd Sign Brewing, a reference to Gemini, the Zodiac symbol represented by twins. When I ask why he chose to separate the brands out rather than just slap the Octopi label on their house beers—De Proef Brewing out of Belgium, for example, brews dozens of brands for Mikkeller, To Ol, and more, but releases its own beers under, simply, “De Proef”—Showaki responds: “We have the same brewers working on 3rd Sign beers and contract beers at the same time. But the mission statement is different; the objective is different.”

Not that 3rd Sign is rigid in its methodology, but the point of Octopi, as Showaki puts it, is to be “fluid,” hence the facility’s ability to handle any number of styles at any given scale.

“The smaller breweries, for the most part, want us to produce their flagship, off-the-shelf brands for them,” he says, “so they can concentrate on growing their portfolio. Larger companies are comfortable brewing their flagships, but want us to play around with their rarer items.”

Again, it’s all about the sliding scale of need.

But getting back to the client brewers themselves—this arrangement is much more than just a set-and-forget type of contract. This, after all, is their product, their name on the label at the end of the day, so it’s in their best interest to stay involved.

“We do have some brewers who make it a point to be here on every single brew day,” says Showaki. “Others drop by a little more sporadically. It all comes down to availability and trust.”

And though Jeppe’s various commitments don’t allow him to get down to Charleston as often as he might like, he manages to stay very involved with every Evil Twin brand that comes out of Westbrook.

“I know he tastes the beers regularly,” says Edward Westbrook, “and he likes to get samples of any new stuff as soon as it’s bottled. He also comes to Charleston regularly to taste stuff at the brewery and to brew.”

Like Octopi, Connecticut’s Two Roads Brewing had twofold aspirations from the get-go—hence the name.

“It was absolutely part of the plan from the start,” says co-founder Clement Pelani. “Brad, Phil [other co-founders] and I had been talking about it in the early ‘90s. We were making beer back then, and having it contract-brewed, but it just didn’t work out: the brewery we were using was too big, the batch sizes weren’t right, and there were quality control issues. So Brad said, ‘Why don’t we just fill this void ourselves?’ We started building our own brand around that concept.”

From there, it was just a matter of establishing relationships and getting the word out.

“For sure, when we first started out, we were the ones making the phone calls,” Clem says. “Now it’s almost 100% that people come to us.”

A lot of them certainly have. To date, Two Roads has produced multiple beers for the Evil Twin (Molotov Cocktail, I Love You with My Stout, Citra Sunshine Slacker, among others) and Stillwater (As Follows, Cellar Door, Classique, etc.) brands, as well as Fire Island, Notch, and Lawson’s Finest. Yes, those batches of Sip of Sunshine tall-boys you’ve been fawning over? Made at Two Roads.

As with Westbrook and Evil Twin’s Perfect Nose barleywine, Two Roads and Evil Twin have a co-branded beer: Geyser Gose. Of all the brands produced at Two Roads, this is the only one that carries the names of both breweries. I asked Clem where that line gets drawn.

“With a purely contract brew,” he says, “it’s all the client brewer’s recipe. Phil, our brewer, may make some suggestions about how to adapt it to our equipment, but that’s it. With a beer like Geyser Gose, though, we’re involved at every stage, from formulating the recipe, to brewing, to packaging and marketing.

One trait that all three breweries share is the ability of their employees to handle all types of jobs, even at the same time. Though the brands may be separated—even, in Octopi’s case, marketed under the completely different 3rd Sign label—the staff is talented and organized enough that they can manage, and excel at, such a varied workload.

“It’s the same team,” Clem emphasizes. “In a given day, we might be brewing three different Two Roads beers and three different contract brews.”

The spirit of contract brewing is rooted in the fulfillment of a single need; brewers have to make beer, after all, and out of this basic concept, we’re seeing the rise of an innovative division of labor. But it goes further, I think, than that. This relationship fosters a natural and continuous environment characterized by learning, innovation, and collaboration.

As Isaac Showaki puts it, “My success is my client’s success.” And we, the consumers, reap the benefits of such a philosophy.