It would seem that contract brewing is here to stay. Last month, we tried to break it down into categories that help clarify the different ways beer is contract brewed. Pretty Things does a great job explaining how and why they.re tenant brewers, while Ashley Routson tackled the topic for the Brewers Association. And looks like former AB InBev execs are launching contract-brewing facilities across the country.
The truth is, a lot of people are brewing beer and can.t afford breweries . which is why contract brewing offers a more affordable option for many up-and-comers. Many brewers who do have a brewpub or space for brewing can.t expand or spring for a bottling line . so renting facilities for brewing additional batches or to bottle offers a viable option.
But we were curious about how things go down at a contract brewery, and James Dorau, the Operations Manager at Mercury Brewing and Distribution Company was kind enough to field some of our questions.
When did Mercury Brewing start contract brewing?
That started in ’99. Rob [Martin] took over and didn.t have a brand yet because he didn.t own Ipswich Ale. We were brewing it under contract . so before Rob took over we were essentially contract brewing for ourselves. We were doing it for U.S. Beverage. He went out and was approached by the guy who owned Modern Homebrew Emporium at the time to make a beer called Fat Cat. Eventually he offered for us to take over the brand and own it. And pretty soon we were approached by Dornbusch. And we kept getting approached by other people to brew beer.
It seems like there.s been a recent boom in contract brewing.
I.d say I get a call or an email probably twice a week from people wanting to have beer made here.
Which contract brewers do you work with now?
Cambridge Brewing Company, Offshore, Blue Hills, Farmington River in Connecticut, Battle Road Brewing, Notch, Slumbrew, Cody, and Great Rhythm. We.re taking on a new one, soon. Clown Shoes and Brash, of course.but they.re set up as more our brands. And we do just Grey Lady for Cisco.
What portion of the brewery is dedicated to contract brewing?
I.d say probably around 48 percent of the beer brewed here is contract brewed. We expand as some of our contracts and brands expand. A lot of contract brewers who are just starting want a 30-barrel batch, which is our minimum. We have seven 30-barrel fermenters so that limits how much we can do with the smaller contractors. Everyone tends to have about four styles when they start out. So it.s a lot of finagling around with schedules for those tanks. We have a lot of 60-barrel tanks so it.s nice when they move up to that size. Better yet we have quite a few 120-barrel tanks, which is what we do with Clown Shoes. We can.t take on a whole bunch of contractors if they all want 30-barrel batches. So it.s nice to work with a more serious brewer involved who wants to go beyond a single distributor. As far as taking on new contractors, right now we don.t have any capacity but we.re building a new brewery and it.s almost completed. So we when we move we.ll have a lot more room.
How do you handle the process of contract brewing at Ipswich?
We find out how much they know about the brewing process, whether they.re professional brewers in the first place, which helps. We sit down with them, talk to them, see if they.re a good fit. From there it.s pretty much done on a handshake. They supply us with a recipe and we can usually give them some idea of what it will cost. They have to supply us with kegs, labels, and six packs and case boxes if they.re going that route. We just supply the glass and whatever ingredients they need. We have yeast here. We have house yeast but a lot of them bring their own if they own a brewpub or brewery.
Do you think there’s a stigma around contract brewing for the brewer or the consumer?
I get a lot of calls from people who say they have an idea or a brand name named after their ship or a frog or something. They want to know how much it will cost to make it and we don.t know. One IPA versus another can have vastly different costs depending on ingredients. And they.ll say, .I don.t have a recipe, I.m not a brewer.. I get a lot of calls from people who don.t have a clue. They just have an idea. .Well whatever, can.t you just put in Ipswich Ale with a different label?. Really? We’ve spent 22 years building a brand and we.re just going to slap your label on it? What are you thinking? I don.t understand it. I think that.s where the stigma stems from.
You had no trouble going to buy a can of Billy Beer maybe back in the .70s but did Billy Carter have anything do with it? Probably not. He.s not a brewer, it was probably just Pearl with a different label on it, or sometimes they would make a recipe slightly different just to make it different. And there.s been years of that. So I think there.s a stigma that goes along with it. Because of that people like that it.s not something we need to do, so we don.t. We may have done that in the past to make a little more money, but craft brewing has taken off so much that it.s not even necessary to do that anymore.
There a lot of people out there who may not be professional yet but are doing great home brews and one-barrel batches and don.t have the money to build a brewery. I mean who does? It.s nice to be able to approach a brewery have them make it for you and if it takes off, then you can get financial backing perhaps and build your own. But it.s a great way to test the market.
What’s the most level of involvement that a brewer can have there? The least?
The majority of these brewers come in and brew the beer themselves. Whether it.s Will Meyers [Cambridge Brewing Co.], Chris Lohring [Notch Brewing Co.], or Jeff Leiter [Slumbrew], these are people who have a lot of brewing experience. They go up, they spend all day working on the brew deck. We have a brewer who shadows them, helps them out.
If there.s a new contract brewer who.s never used our system, we have a brewer they can shadow or follow around to learn how to use the system. We.ve got some who just tells us it tastes great, to keep doing what we.re doing, and they email us when they need more. It depends on the contractor but I think the majority takes a hands-on approach to their beers.
Is there anything that brewers can.t do there or that.s off limits? Like pitch their own yeast?
No. When it comes to brewing we can show you what we do or you can do your own thing. Many contractors have instructions on how they want it done with lots of attention to detail. But there.s nothing they can.t do. But they.ll be here to dry hop or add cocoa nibs. Sometimes they.ll ask us to sanitize something differently. There.s really no problem there. Let.s say you want a 100 percent Brett or sour beer. We can do that too . it.ll cost you, though. Because the tank.s infected, so every gasket, clamp and hose requires a lot of cleanup and sanitation.
How does scheduling all those different brewers work?
Everybody knows now that it.s a five or six week lead-time to brew. The whole schedule is filled out that far in advance. Every one of these brewers has several styles and we have our own beer to produce as well. It.s a challenge to get all that scheduling done.
What are some of the challenges to hosting contractors?
Handling so many different SKUs and different styles and scheduling can be difficult. Inventory is a challenge, as is being able to stay on top of everything and letting everyone know when they.re low on product. The more styles and brands you have the more work it takes.