As someone who enjoys craft beer more frequently than my doctor / mother / trainer / person next to me on the bus would prefer, it seems I have savored my fair share of “contract brews.” Contract brewing is the practice of outsourcing some or all of the processes in the development of a beer. Most often, this is done by microbreweries for the production of their craft beer, defined rather ambiguously by the Brewer’s Association as beer made by a brewer that is small, independent and traditional.
That understood, is “contract brewing” really such a bad practice? And if not, why is the term drawing disdain from industry insiders and craft beer connoisseurs? 

It seems to be a bit more complicated, in large part due to the nuances associated with “contract brewing.” The term is without a solid definition, and each company may take a different approach to the process. Some might even handle it differently between each of their varietals. For instance, certain contract beers might be created entirely by the third party, with the contracted brewer doing everything from recipe development, to manufacturing, to marketing and sales. Other times, the contracted brewer could only oversee the manufacturing phase, with recipe development and all sales and marketing being handled by the contracting company. 

Differences in the labor contracted aside, utilizing a contracted brewer for manufacturing provides several benefits to the craft brewer. First, it allows companies to handle an increase in demand, as their production facilities may not be large enough or they may have a lack in resources and manpower available. Additionally, the larger brewer handling the production may have superior equipment, such as boilers and bottling devices, providing efficiencies in the manufacturing process and a more consistent product. This, in turn, leads to higher profits for the craft brewer, either by eliminating the need to make a substantial capital expenditure or by meeting the level of demand (or a combination of both). So long as the craft brewery has a strong commitment to quality control procedures, the consumer should not see any difference in quality regardless of where it was manufactured. 

The stigma associated with contract brewing might stem from companies who outsource the entire development process, allowing them to simply kick back, cash in and enjoy a cold one created entirely by another company. Is it really fair to the consumer to slap a misguided label on the bottle and charge the higher price most commonly fixed to “craft beers?” Is it fair to even call it a craft beer if Anheuser-Busch developed the recipe, manufactured, marketed and sold it with the microbreweries label attached? Maybe contract brewing is muddying the definition of craft beer because the definition of craft beer is inherently muddy.

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