This attack on the very definition of what defines craft beer was part of a sign posted at Singecut’s Astoria location. The sign boasting the truly local nature of the brewery has sparked a debate as to the authenticity of what New York City beer enthusiasts should consider to be local beer.
The charge is leveled at nationally known as respected breweries like Brooklyn and Sixpoint who brew only a small part of their beer in Brooklyn. Sixpoint brews most of their beer in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and Brooklyn Brewery produces the lion share of their beer in Utica, New York.
In the very specific case of New York City though, this criticism goes beyond larger breweries like Sixpoint and Brooklyn to even smaller breweries like Grimm Artisanal Ales, Coney Island Brewing, Radiant Pig, etc. While these may not be internationally known and respected breweries they still face the same challenges as any brewery in New York City. They are located in a place where establishing a business is an overwhelmingly expensive proposition.
Opening any business in New York City has a high fiscal barrier of entry. Opening a brewery of any significant size requires a large amount of brewery space, legal fees, zoning permits, construction permits, licensing, and other expenses before any amount of money can be spent of actually creating a product to sell. When Brooklyn Brewery finally moved into New York City after brewing outside the city limits for eight years it took them millions of dollars and a generous state support by way of a state grant.
It is obvious that even the smallest of nano-breweries would have a hefty fight securing what potentially could be figures well into six figures just to open a small batch brewery. Were a brewery able to get this kind of funding with the low margins in brewing it could be decades rather than years for even a small batch brewery to pay back loans or investors.
The solution for many smaller breweries in bigger cities or those wanting to expand production without wanting the financial risk of buying their own equipment turn to contact brewing. This is commonly known to be the practice of brewing your own beer by renting someone else’s equipment rather than buying your own. Sixpoint’s facility in Pennsylvania is staffed by Sixpoint employees who don’t just oversee the creating of the beer they are the actual brewers themselves.
While being able to rent equipment in Pennsylvania where it is a lot cheaper than attempting to build your own giant brew house in New York City when a Brooklyn resident sits down to a can of Sixpoint’s new Global Warmer is that customer justified in feeling like they are enjoying a local beer if it was brewed and canned in Pennsylvania three hours away?
But is this an issue of contract brewing? Mike and I have reported that there are a number of west coast breweries that are opening new production facilities on the east coast to help with east coast distribution. When Green Flash Brewing Company opens their $20,000,000 Virginia Beach location will the West Coast IPA I drink still be considered a West Coast IPA if it is brewed in Virginia? Is Yuengling really a Pennsylvania beer if most of its production is in Florida?
I tend to think that contract brewing isn’t actually a slight to the “craft beer credentials” of a brewery it is a solution to a tough financial reality; opening a brewery in a lot of markets is expensive. While Singlecut is well within their rights to raise the issue of locality of beers brewed elsewhere there is a quiet, unspoken elitism that Singlecut is implying. They were able to secure funding to create the totally local brewery of a certain size within New York City. Anyone who is unable to repeat this lightning in a bottle is somehow inferior. How convenient for them.
Despite all this defense of contract brewing there is a darker side to this issue. This is a more recent and insidious development with contract brewing that I think needs to be condemned. This is when a brewery contract brews without its own brewers.
This takes a page from current marketing trends that you aren’t selling a product you are selling a brand identity. What works for Apple or Nike who don’t actually create the products they sell, they hire other companies to create the components and assemble the final products themselves, can also work for beer. Were Mike, Jesse, and I wealthy enough we could hire professional brewers to create and brew beers for us and we would sell our Blind Tiger brand beer without the need for the training, expertise, or the dedication to the art of brewing.
While this is a complicated issue without a lot of clear answers I tend to think that the biggest issue with craft beer in America today isn’t the eventually pop of the highly claimed craft beer bubble, it isn’t the over enthusiasm with big tastes without any desire for subtlety, or the vague definition of styles, I think it is the constant in-fighting over what is or is not “true” craft beer.
I think Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery relayed a great story of the advantages of contract brewing:
In 2006 we were looking to get into full-scale bottle-conditioning and we were taking a big leap. I bought a gravity filler so that we would be unable to lose our nerve and package carbonated beer. We had a series of test brews and re-fermentation trials planned. Bert Van Heck, then recently brewmaster of St. Bernardus, came to the brewery for three days and taught us the ins and outs of true bottle-conditioning — it turns out that you can’t read how to do this in any book in any language. And then we hit a huge snag.
The re-fermentation crates, without which we couldn’t get started, were actually only available in Belgium. And it would take them three months to send them, and things would otherwise be nearly impossible to pull off. So I reached out to Randy Thiel, who was then head brewer at Ommegang. Knowing full well that Brooklyn Local 1 would soon be sitting on shelves next to his beers, all Randy had to do was say “sorry, haven’t got any – wish I could help you.” Instead, he said “I’ve got 300 crates that I don’t need back for six months – I’ll get them loaded up right away and you can borrow ours until you get your own.” And why?
Because Randy is an actual craft brewer, not a false one. And craft brewers are people of honor.
This debate has been playing out for a few days and Singlecut responded on Facebook:
Do know, we are not hate mongering, jealous grinches or whatever other erroneous conclusions have been posted. Far from it. We ARE highly impassioned lovers of American craft beer. Someone in this thread said it best: “Interesting how the West-coast treats craft brewing compared to the East-coast. The breweries on the left coast would rather keep it small, with a tiny footprint and sell quality liquid. Many of them can’t even fathom contracting. On the east coast, everyone wants to have a brand, rather than a brewery”. Bravo. I cut my teeth on west coast beers – They have been my heroes growing up, and the business model I’ve set our brewery after.
And also what to me, the word “craft” represents: a hands-on artisanal process by the individuals that set the goals and standards of said beer. Now, onto my hometown NYC: There are numerous examples of brands here representing a NYC locality which have zero to do with this market – The beer is brewed many states away. Clearly this doesn’t matter to everyone, but as a native NY’er it matters to me. OF COURSE the liquid is of paramount importance. But why can’t we have it both ways? A great brewery that is a dyed-in-the-wool NYC-local brand?
It would have been so easy to contract brew my recipes, but would I ever had done it? Never in a million years. Talk about integrity, transparency and such all you want but it’s who we are and why we choose the very hard path of opening a brewery here in NYC. As a NYC native, it was especially important to me. It’s also why we chose the unpopular model of self-distributing our beer, we’d never dream of not doing so. And why our motto is “Mastery Knows No Shortcut”. Our hearts are in the right place and we certainly do support and are friends with other like-minded breweries in this region. I SO WISH there were more of them! So is the sign in question a bit over the top? Sure. The idea was to wake people up. I can tell you from first hand experience that the vast majority of consumers do not know BRAND X that is supposedly brewed in NYC LOCALITY is really brewed ELSEWHERE. And when they learn the truth, are quite disappointed. No joke. It certainly echoed my feelings when I learned the truth behind certain “local” brands.
Now is all contract brewing inauthentic? No. Are there credible examples? Most certainly. I just wish it were the exception instead of the rule here.
As a strong advocate of Buy Fresh, Buy Local I can understand the point that Singlecut is making. There is something magical about a personal craft of love, done locally, with the highest quality in mind, that produces a superior product. Yet that method to create an artisan product doesn’t mean that it is the only way to create high quality craft beer.
Mike and I have admitted on record that if AB-InBev actually produced high quality beer that we would rejoice and celebrate by drinking gallons of it. We also don’t believe that because Goose Island is now a subsidiary of AB-InBev that they no longer produce quality beer. For us we would prefer that every brewery be wholly owned by the brew masters who create the beer, that they produce only a handful of the highest caliber beer, yet produce enough to ship abundantly around the world while maintaining freshness. This isn’t possible and those that deviate from the smaller, dedicated, wholly owned brewery does not lose their craft beer credentials.
So is Brooklyn Brewery not a local brewery despite spending an absurd amount of money to move into Brooklyn? Is it unfair to say their beer is local if brewed in Pennsylvania? It is a hard question to answer.
Personally I focus more on the glass than what’s on the label. I love my local craft beers but I love them because they are great beers from breweries located near Lancaster. If Nugget Nectar was brewed in Oregon to be distributed to west coast craft beer drinkers I would revel that they got to experience a great local brew not decry the fact it wasn’t brewed in Pennsylvania then shipped to west coast markets.
I think craft brewers need to stop attempting to throw around who is crafty and who is true craft beer. When the competition is 90% of the market fighting with colleagues for a higher share of the remaining 10% [most of which goes to Sierra Nevada and Boston Beer Company anyway] looks pathetic. Realize that the competition is friendly and all brewers should unite in solidarity at wanting to create great beer.
After all SingleCut’s definition certainly doesn’t guarantee a better quality of beer. Just a higher personal investment by the owner so if the business fails they lose a lot more. Which is a lot easier for a successful brewery to claim should be the case.