Contract brewing: good for the brewer, good for the brewery

Go to any liquor store with a decent beer selection and you’ll find enough “bombers” (22-ounce bottles) to start a war. This proliferation of beers is due, at least in part, to the rise of contract brewing, or brewing your beer at someone else’s brewery.

This relationship is mutually beneficial — it helps the physical brewery’s bottom line while allowing a new brewer to get a foot in the door for a much lower initial cost. By contracting, startups can avoid the often multi-million dollar investment that comes with building a brewery. Lower entry costs means more breweries, which means more selection, which means more hoppy goodness for all.

Thankfully, the quality of the beer certainly doesn’t suffer because of this arrangement. Some of my favorite brewers, including Pretty ThingsClown ShoesNotchBattle Road, and Peak Organic, do not have a physical brewery. Their brews are made in someone else’s house.

To outsiders, contract brewing might seem odd — like Ford making parts at a GM plant — but it works well for everyone. The brewing industry is still largely collaborative, at least at the local level. Most brewers are glad to see new ideas and breweries out there, as it raises the awareness of, and market for, craft beer while expanding the options for beer buyers. Sure, these new brewers also compete for increasingly scarce shelf space and tap handles, but brewers usually see this as the classic “Rising tide lifts all brewers” situation.

Even more surprisingly, quite a few existing breweries will brew at another brewery’s location to take advantage of a different system. Buzzards Bay has done or does do quite a bit of contract brewing for other breweries with physical plants, including OffshoreNewport StormCisco, and even Narragansett.

Buzzards Bay’s Bill Russell explained that there are three main types of brewers who will brew there: brewers and startups who don’t have a brewery and/or don’t want to deal with the logistics of bottling (Pretty Things), brewpubs who can’t bottle or brew large quantities of beer (Offshore), and large brewers who want to do smaller-volume specialty beers at a smaller brewery (Narragansett).

Explained Russell, “Narragansett has plenty of beers, but (owner) Mark wanted to expand their product line and kept coming up with beautifully made beers “¦ higher alcohol, more artisanal, made in smaller batches. It’s small compared to what they do for their regular beers. They come into our brewery and do it with us.”

So the next time you reach for a brew by an unfamiliar brewer, raise your glass to the collegial spirit of a brewing industry that would rather collaborate than compete (more on collaboration brews in a future column). That beer may just have come from a different brewery than you’d expect.

Originally published March 27, 2014