It’s inevitable that as an industry grows, there are going to be some conflicts, not everyone is going to be happy with the result. Craft beer in Canada has been on such a massive upswing in the last ten years that there were bound to be some issues that arise. The one that seems to be getting the most attention right now is the debate over craft vs. contract brewing.
To start, craft brewing is typically defined as an independent start-up brewery with their own production facilities and brewing equipment. Whether or not “craft” still applies once that label is purchased by a macro distributor is another argument. Contract brewing on the other hand is when a brewing label uses equipment and staff that aren’t inherently theirs in order to create their beer lineup. Craft Collective in Vancouver is an example of one such facility that provides the necessary equipment to contract brewers. Contract brewing is not a new phenomenon, it’s actually been around for years, so why the fight now?
For one, contract brewing is growing at a rapid pace. With high consumer demand for craft beer, contract brewing is an easier means of getting into the market and creating beer. Let’s face it, purchasing commercial brewing equipment, leasing space and hiring staff is an expensive undertaking. Contract brewing can be a relatively easy outlet for starting a beer label. But it’s exactly that ease of access that is upsetting the craft brewers. Their claim is contract brewers aren’t putting in as much blood, sweat and tears as they are, and are only diluting the market share for everyone else whose put in the hard work.
Secondly, in some cases, contract brewers can leverage the expertise of onsite brewmasters in creating recipes. Rather than starting from scratch, they can say they want a “Hazy IPA with notes of pineapple and mango” and a contractor can create a recipe for that label. This certainly does not apply to all cases, and in fact is likely the rarity, but it’s an option nonetheless.
Brewers are starting to coin contract beer labels as “virtual” beer, and I think it’s an unfair label. Look, there’s no denying that contract brewing is more affordable, and can be abused. Odds are there are contract beers out there with funding backed by macro-beer produces to simply leverage the interest in craft beer without tarnishing it with the macro-beer association.
But on the other hand, most of the contract brewers are simply people that have a passion for beer, much like the craft brewers before them. Should the ability to purchase brewing equipment be the barrier to entry? If so, we’d be at a loss of some creative brewers on the scene currently.
Look at breweries like Superflux and Boombox. Both are HIGHLY regarded in British Columbia and have a cult like following amongst drinkers. But, neither of them own their own facilities, instead opting to rent out tank space at other breweries– Boombox most recently took up residency at Parallel 49. These brewers produce some amazing beer, and have the opportunity to get creative with their work. In fact, if contract brewing didn’t exist, we would never of had the Superflux/Boombox collaboration beer “Pablo Esco gnar”, one of the best beers ever produced in BC.
I understand the frustration of craft brewers. They’ve put a lot of money into their operations and it feels like cheating when someone else can come in without that same investment and start to take away customers. But a growing industry demands innovation, and if contract brewing creates a landscape where the quality of craft beer continues to rise, then I’m all for it. In the end, good beer will win out. Craft beer drinkers are a discerning, and snobby, bunch; if they don’t like something, it simply won’t succeed in market, no matter how cheap it was to produce.