Modern Day Gypsies Redefining Contract Brewing
written by Brion Shreffler
“Even in my hometown of Baltimore, some brewmasters didn’t take me seriously at first,” Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales says, referring to the resentment with which he and other gypsy brewers were initially viewed.
Brewers and beer nerds alike have long had disdain for crafty beers (i.e. Blue Moon) made by mega-conglomerates, as well as beers produced by ‘marketing firms’ whose creative geniuses fronted money to have a beer style made for them.
This, of course, pissed off people in the brewing industry. And as for the beer snobs, righteous fires of hate kept them warm while waiting for Pliny the Elder to show up at their local church (i.e. Monk’s).
With this as a backdrop, gypsy, contract, and tenant brewers arrived in the last 4-6 years. While gypsies contract their beers and do collaborations around the globe, the term contract brewer is often used for brewers such as Evil Genius and High & Mighty Beer Co. whose beers are brewed for them (usually) in one place. Tenant brewers, unlike the others, handle all the brew day activities. Either way, the host brewery benefits by boosting productivity.
Some beer lovers mistook these three groups for the aforementioned marketing firms—mostly because they had yet to try their beer. For some craft brewers, the success of this new lot brought bitter feelings.
Referring to a certain Beer Advocate editorial from 2012 that impugned gypsy and contract brewers, Strumke says, “The owner of Heavy Seas, Hugh Sisson, without mentioning my name, called me out saying I wasn’t serious, I wasn’t a legit business because I wasn’t invested. It’s really funny. A friend of mine, he was like, ‘Did you see that thing in Beer Advocate?’ I said to show it to me. ‘I don’t think I should,’ he said. He showed it to me and I was like ‘What the fuck is this?’”
The incredulity stems from the fact that Strumke was invested.
In terms of financing, he remortgaged his house and maxed out his credit cards. “I had less than next to nothing after doing so,” he says.
Will Shelton, who has his High & Mighty Beer brewed by Paper City in Massachusetts, tells a similar story. He took a $36,000 cash advance on his credit card.
“It was all the credit I had in the world. Hell, it wasn’t even my money” he says.
While tenant brewer Dann Paquette may have only sunk $9,000—no small amount—into brewing his first batch for his Pretty Things Beer And Ale Project, his investment, like that of everyone else’s, goes beyond money.
When he started Pretty Things in 2008, he had 16 years of experience as a brewer and was looking to land his next gig after returning from England.
“It was a way to keep brewing and potentially earn a little salary while waiting for someone to bite on my résumé. It became more and more obvious that Pretty Things would have to last longer. Then it became sustainable,” he says.
For Shelton, the route to launching High & Mighty was purely selfish.
“I wanted to make a beer that I could sell to the few pubs I went to in Western Massachusetts,” he says, adding that, upon hitting 40, he needed an alternative to the craft scene’s many high ABV beers.
“It was a part-time offshoot of Shelton Brothers [Importers]. It never occurred to me that it would be anything else.”
His drive to create something new led to a hybrid, “a German style beer with American sensibilities, especially where hop rates were concerned,” he says of his Beer of The Gods. “I kind of wanted to do something that no one else was doing and on the lower end of the alcohol scale.”
Similarly, Strumke’s post-modern re-workings collide Belgian history with America’s celebrated ales and IPAs.
For everyone, these were personal projects that grew organically as testament to their underlying sincerity. Their business model was a smart innovation that allowed them to be who they are—and to continue doing so while accelerating two cornerstones of the craft scene: experimentation and community through collaboration.
Not being tied to a brewery’s overhead meant they didn’t need to meet the expectations of a localized customer base. Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin, Strumke, and Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller (the OG’s of gypsy brewing)—with their personalities at the forefront, shredded convention as they emulated food truck pioneers like Roy Choi, while finding a way to tap into a salivating bottle shop diaspora.
“When I set out to start Stillwater, it wasn’t a well-thought-out plan, like I was going to become this gypsy brewer,” says Strumke, who shunned investors for fear of compromising his vision. Missing the creative element from his life as a musician, he also wanted to ensure the same freedom in making beer. “It’s very punk rock,” he says, pointing out that he wanted all the things he loved about home brewing to remain intact.
“I guess controversy comes from that luxury we have because maybe not every brewer can be as freeform, but that’s why I got into this career. To be as creative as possible and not just produce another beer for the market,” he says.
“Every time we run into any fan of beer in general, one of the first things they ask is, ‘What’s new, what are you working on?”” Strumke says.
While gypsies, contract brewers, etc. are not alone in responding to that demand, they’re pushing the scene forward at a faster rate by reconfiguring it from the inside out.
“I take inspiration from tradition but twist it around,” Strumke says, his beers having “the comforting factor of things you’re used to, but with a weird, interesting tweak.”
And that’s a good analogy for what the gypsies, and all non-traditional brewers, are doing.
“The people who look down on contract brewing tends to be the beer snob. It’s been very rare,” says Trevor Hayward, who founded Evil Genius along with Luke Bowen in 2008.
“I’ve heard it from other people. Like a friend of mine who took a six pack of my beer to a party and someone dismissed our beer because we’re contract brewers,” he says.
“The criticism, it doesn’t bother me. It never has and I don’t think it ever will,”
Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø says.
“It’s a way of doing a business and it happens in all other businesses. It’s just that people in the beer world are not used to this and don’t really know what we do,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says.
Having started as a home brewer, bottle shop owner, and distributor, his desire to breath life into Denmark’s beer scene eventually led to him launching Evil Twin.
As for the gypsy label, he says it is “a little misused actually, because a lot of the people called gypsy brewers are brewing at one or two facilities. They don’t travel as you would suggest,” he says. To wit, in addition to using Two Roads (CT) and Westbrook (SC) both Jarnit-Bjergsø and Strumke utilize breweries around the world.
But as for the quality of his beer, Jarnit-Bjergsø points to the high marks his beers receive on RateBeer.com.
“Our first priority is what’s inside the bottle,” Hayward of says, echoing him. “Once people recognize that, not much else matters,” he adds.
“Sometimes you get a little too focused on where the beer’s from. Sometimes not enough,” Brian O’Reilly of Sly Fox says, with the latter case relating to the lack of transparency seen at times in Europe.
“I think the stigma has been largely eliminated thanks to Pretty Things and Mikkeller—these guys who don’t have a brewery,” Shelton says. “It’s clear people don’t care much about facility.”
But issues of “ownership” go beyond deeds. Just how much one toils is a critical point for some industry peers.
Gypsies like Jarnit-Bjergsø and Strumke couldn’t possibly be there for every brew—and they have no problem pointing that out.
“I have a portfolio and there’s no way with my travels,” Strumke says.
Is there something missing then?
“Doing all of the labor to me is the thing,” Paquette of Pretty Things says. “If you’re not privy to that stuff, it would really suck.”
Paquette, who just celebrated the 6th anniversary of Pretty Things, says that the moment he steps away is when his project ceases to exist.
“I brew every single brew day. I have 100% control over my beer. I’m not just visiting the brewery. I brew for 14 hours without anybody else. It’s a difference. If I could [just] fax in a recipe, I wouldn’t be doing it, I wouldn’t be part of this enterprise. I wouldn’t want to do that sort of thing. It’s bogus,” he says.
But, the gypsies and contract brewers like Evil Genius don’t just turn their beers over to anyone.
“I am there for every setup, every design protocol,” Strumke says.
“We’re making a lot of modifications based on the way we want it,” Hayward says. For all the brews they’re not there for, it comes down to their relationship with Thomas Hooker Brewing (CT)—who they moved to in July 2013—and frequently running quality control.
“When I’m going to a new brewery, I always go,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says. “I don’t just want to send a recipe to a random place that I’ve never used before. I don’t know the system, the setup, so I want to be there when I brew the beer the first time.”
“We make all the recipes ourselves,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says. “100%. We have close contact with the brewers we use. We go as much as we can. I get dirtier than some head brewers. I don’t know what else to say.”
Shelton supervises every aspect of the brewing process for High & Mighty at Paper City Brewing. While he trusts the head brewer, he wants to ensure that every employee adheres to the idiosyncrasies of process his beers require when the head brewer isn’t there.
But, he adds, “If you’re brewing at Two Roads where Jeppe is brewing, I wouldn’t worry about it. That’s a well-funded brewery.”
And in contrast to breweries like Paper City, Two Roads is highly automated. With that aspect in mind, Jarnit-Bjergsø says, “You can’t really change something on the day of a brew. Who pours the malt in the mash tank doesn’t change the beer.”
In terms of trust based on reputation, who’s to blame Mikkel Borg Bjergsø
of Mikkeller (who declined to comment) for faxing in a recipe without even that initial visit when the recipient was local craft juggernaut Sly Fox Beer.
“We did a lot of back and forth, exchanging notes, a lot of nuances,” Sly Fox head brewer O’Reilly says, with one of the four beers done for Mikkeller being changed slightly (via the hopping) after a small batch was sent to Borg Bjergsø.
Paquette, for his part, says he wouldn’t be learning if he wasn’t handling every last aspect of every brew.
But that’s exactly what Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø says he loves about working on different systems—learning how to adapt to them.
However, it goes beyond adjusting to every brewery’s setup. “It’s the brewer you work with, the ingredients,” he says.
“So I have to rethink the way I build the recipe, the way we brew. It keeps me going. I’m not looking to get my beers to taste the same. There are a lot of uncertainties when going into a new place that challenge the way I think,” he says.
Since the gypsies won’t rule out owning a brewery someday, and many, like the guys at Evil Genius, see it as essential to wider success in craft brewing, I asked if doing so would limit one’s creativity.
“No, I really don’t [think]. In some ways, I think it will allow us to be more creative,” Hayward says. For instance, he says, “We can’t do barrel aged or sour beer,” at the facility they currently use.
But, at the least, it could limit your travel.
“It’s not just a business thing for me—it’s an artistic collaboration,” says Strumke, who refers to himself as an artist. His goal, like Jarnit-Bjergsø, is to learn from different perspectives.
Brewer Scott Morrison, formerly of McKenzie Brew House and Barren Hill, in speaking of a hopped up, alcohol heavy and Brett up-front Orval he did with Strumke, says of the benefits of brewing together: “He really turns things upside down and looks at things differently. He probably thinks the same things about me. So when we exchange ideas, we’re always learning something new.”
The collaborative spirit of Strumke—he also did a beer with Jean Broillet of Tired Hands—and Jarnit-Bjergsø is matched by newer gypsies like Omnipollo and To Øl.
Tore Gynther of To Øl Brewing (DK) says, “If a brewery makes a solid brew, we want to salute that. A way of doing that is making a collaboration brew. It is a way to inspire and get inspired, which is basically how craft brewing can continue to develop.”
“Everybody knows each other. It’s a small community,” Jarnit-Bjergsø, says.
Given his respect for Brooklyn neighbors Other Half Brewing, he repped these newcomers (they launched in late 2013) by working with them in the same way his brother Mikkel helped his former students at To Øl gain recognition.
Helping out the new guys who happen to be your competition—“I can’t meet my demand” Jarnit-Bjergsø says to that—is just one way to check your ego while furthering a sense of community.
Another way is Strumke’s Remix Series. Inspired by his life as an EDM DJ and musician, he and other brewers (Omnipollo, Jarnit-Bjergsø, Westbrook) literally hand over their work to be reimagined.
“I had reached out to more traditional breweries and never got a reaction. I guess it could be a risky game but I think it gives the sense that the main thing we’re trying to do is promote creativity and progression by opening yourself up to new ideas,” Strumke says.
Two Roads, a brewery built with contract brewing, and hence, more of a cooperative model in mind, is just one example of that he says.
Morrison, who consults with emerging breweries, estimates that 13-15 are set to open in the Philadelphia region. With an even more concentrated market, he says it’s inevitable that contract and even gypsy brewers will emerge to help breweries avoid downtime while pushing the scene even further.
Until then, gypsies lie at the far end of the spectrum, behaving like the wild yeasts that fascinate them.M
“Wild yeasts…it’s kind of like walking into a new brewery. You kind of know what you have, but it can go in different directions,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says.