Thursday, October 28, 2010

Of Gypsies and Race Car Drivers and Auteurs.

Last week I wrote a bit about the phenomenon of brewers without breweries... a.k.a. gypsies or nomads or itinerants or whatever you want to call them. Now I'm really going to pile it on, so in the interest of civility I need to re-iterate that many of them are great people making great beer. If they weren't, I wouldn't even care about this issue. I just can't help wanting bigger and better things for them.

To summarize my argument: Some of the nomads are making great beer, but they have it somewhat easier than brewers who are risking it all to start their own house and make it work. That latter group deserves more fame and honor and, maybe, more of our money. So there is one point. And I would note that it's a point unrelated to the quality of the beer.

So what about quality, then? Is a brewer with his own kit and greater control over it going to make better beer? As hedonists we might say that as long as they are making great beer for us to drink, we don't care where they make it. Persuasive.

However, that is a hedonism of immediate gratification. I'd propose a more thoughtful, long-term hedonism that allows us and our children's children to enjoy those great beers for years to come. Anyway, the troubles of starting and owning a brewery might lead to better beer--even in the short term. Right?

Stan Hieronymous weighed in Monday and got some more chatter going. He suggested that those running their own place are more likely to have a relationship with the maltsters and hopsters--and thus more likely to get exactly the raw ingredients they want for better control over their work. Another point.

More compelling: Stan suggested that every brewery has a rhythm, and if a brewer is only visiting then he is not part of that rhythm. I would elaborate a little more. Brewing is a fairly complicated process. Lots of pesky steps and big machines. Every place has its quirks, and usually there are lots of lots of them. Someone intimately familiar with her own system is going to know those quirks cold, how to minimize some of them, and how to use others as a strength.

It's not a perfect analogy, but try to imagine a race car driver who rents his wheels every weekend. He would probably be at a disadvantage.

We haven't even touched on the issue of product consistency. If it's important to us as drinkers, then surely we've got to favor the brewer-owners, not just the brewers.

But that's business talk. One of the supposed strengths of nomadic brewing is greater creative control over recipes. This suggests an image of artists who don't want to fuss with bookkeeping or employees. No doubt there is something to it--not everyone is cut out for business. Me, for example. But it leads me to another sloppy analogy, this time from film criticism: the auteur. There are directors and producers and writers and actors. Then there are directors who have the freedom and tools to implement their total artistic vision.

Likewise, there are brewers and there are owners. But maybe to really control your artistic vision, if that's what interests you, you also need to control your brewery.

Finally, for a more philosophical perspective, I've got to quote a comment on Stan's blog from "ollllo," whom I suspect is David Schollmeyer from the Phoenix-based Beer PHXation. Obviously he's a fellow thirsty pilgrim: "I don’t want to live in a world where beer (even great beer) magically appears from somewhere. I want to know where it comes from and I want to go where it lives. ... Beer is one of the last great reasons to travel."

Unless you are a brewer. In that case it is one of the last great reasons to stay put.

Pictured: Pieces of brewing kit at the Brasserie de la Senne in March. Their quirks are yet to be revealed. Yvan de Baets and Bernard Leboucq have been making great beer on the road for a few years now. Once they get things running--probably in the next few weeks--I think we can expect it to improve.


  1. Isn't this all a bit of brewer worship? I mean how many traditional breweries can touch the value, quality, vitality and originality of Pretty Things? Very few. And, besides, "brewer" in many cases now is a euphemism for celebrity front man and jet setting conference goer. What are their rhythms? Who cares?

    I don't care if the beer is made by a owner in fee, a tenant, a co-op, a weekend time filler or a home brewer. If it is good, it is good.

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  3. See. You didn't steal it, you made it better. ;)

  4. For myself I am more likely to buy a beer that supports an entrepreneur. There is something of decadent about gypsy brewing.

  5. Alan, I suspect that you mostly agree with me but are trying to kick up an argument. Which I totally respect, by the way. (But if anyone starts dissing Bob Dylan, they officially lose all credibility here. That is a house rule.)

    I've already addressed your point, so now I'll improve it: If it's good, it's good. But if it's good, it could also be better.

    And I'm not sure where you see brewer worship above. I actually thought I was being a bit hard on them. But I have no trouble admiring someone who takes risks while balancing an artistic side with a head for business. A rare combination in any field.

  6. I disagree. If you compare the beers that Pretty Things makes vs the beers that the owner/brewer of that Westport brewery makes, it's pretty obvious that your arguments fall apart.....

    it all comes down to the brewer - their skill, their creativity, their dedication to the final product. Their are many brewer-owners who make a lot of mediocre me-too beer.

  7. If you think I'm arguing that all brewer-owners are better than all nomads, then you're missing the point. I'm certainly not saying that anyone who owns their own place is automatically a good brewer. Yikes no.

    What I'm suggesting, again, is that good brewers might make better beer in their own place rather than using others. I'm not sure why it's controversial, unless it's only because we tend to be loyal to the itinerant brewers who are doing it really well.

  8. "Alan, I suspect that you mostly agree with me but are trying to kick up an argument..."

    Fawning: I saw Dylan here in eastern Ontario last year. Liked how he unexpectedly did a knee twisty thing all show.

    Point: I am not sure I agree at all with the proposition "that good brewers might make better beer in their own place rather than using others." I know I don't agree with the rhythm idea but I am sympathetic to where you and Stan are going with this idea in terms of exploring an idea. But I really do think I really do disagree.

    I am going to search my soul and post something tonight. A thrill for all awaits to be sure.

  9. Alan - How is this brewer worship?

    To me NPR and others using the term "gypsy brewer" and turning them into romantic figures who ride into an otherwise lousy brewery (see Stiv's comment about Westport)and turn out magical drinks is brewer worship.

  10. But before then... maybe it is "brewer as entrepreneur" worship. Which is really "entrepreneur" worship. The fact is, I just don't seek out brewers at all. I like the ones I have met - but its like I want to go to the ball game but I am not hanging around to get any autographs.

  11. Hey, Stan. We cross posted AND I answered your question at the same time.

    ["Someone's asking questions, Lord - Kumbaya"]

    How is "gypsy brewer" as hero any different than "celebrity brewer" as hero or "food pairing brewer" as hero or "TV beer guy" as hero?

    I think it is all a sideshow - except that these brewers are using up excess capacity and making more good beer. And because they are using excess capacity economic theory indicates that it should be good value good beer as well. But to one of your points, if the guest brewer does not clean up after themselves, well, that would be wrong.

    BTW, the use of "gypsy" in this sense (which was created by none of us) is somewhat uncomfortable given it is a reference to a hard done by minority population. Can we pick another term? Itinerant brewers or guest brewers might be better.

  12. Alan, I look forward to your post. I hope you tear me a new one. I'm getting uppity and need to be put back in my place.

    Right. Time for a post about Costa Rican fruit or something.

  13. But it is the word "gypsy" that makes the story sexier.

    Likewise the words "worship" and "hero" come with some baggage.

    I "appreciate" the "pay your dues" experience Dann Paquette (Pretty Things) has racked up and his devotion to putting something good in the glass. But I also appreciate the 18 years (or whatever the number is) that Andy Farrell, a shift manager, has put in at Bell's. He's one of many reasons that Bell's makes great beer.

    Oh, and based on what I've paid and what I've seen about other beers from "gypsy brewers" they don't come cheap.

  14. Joe! Tear you a new one? No way. I need to explore why I don't care. I am going to get out a black turtleneck and play some Joy Division to get me in the mood.

    "Pay your dues"? Stan, I am not sure I care about that either. Has Tim Lincecum paid his dues?

  15. This has been a great discussion. So far I've been in the wings following the script, which is why I have a lot to say here. I heard my cue when Alan mentioned "economic theory."

    I think there's a whole dimension in this debate that we may be missing, because we are looking at this from the outside as critical consumers and political beer drinkers, rather than from the point of view of the brewers themselves. By 'brewers' I mean both owner-brewers and what I call "tenant-brewers" (aka gypsy brewers).

    Aside from owning your building, the largest single piece of capital in a brewery is the brewhouse and ancillary equipment. Brewers and entrepreneurs have been trying to economize on the standard business model for years. Some earlier examples of alternative business models include the Utah Brewers Co-operative and the Granite City chain in the midwest.

    [Granite City produces wort in one brewhouse in Iowa and ships sterile, refrigerated wort to its "brewery" restaurants where it is run into awaiting fermenters, pitched, and finished. There is a QC program including microbiology and the beer is pretty good. That's just the back story for those unfamiliar with GC.]

    The BJ's chain has actual breweries in perhaps 10% of its units and uses either self-distribution or the 3-tier system to get their beers to their non-brewing restaurants. Each of the non-brewing restos has a prominent grain silo outside. This is certainly misleading. But the real point here is that someone came up with a new economic paradigm for building a business in the brewing sector. You might want to discredit them because it sounds like they are somehow cheating or making inferior beer, but in the end we each have to make up our own mind based on ideology or taste. These businesses had the chutzpah to forge new ground and are being successful at it.

    I see the tenant-brewers as just another different way to get to the same end game - beer in your hand. Perhaps a tenant-brewer would like to start their own facility but doesn't want to limit their creative control by having majority investors. Or they aren't willing to mortgage the house, or they can't get financing with the economy in the dumps, or the county where they live won't approve a brewery, etc. As a tenant-brewer they can have more control over their beer than by simply contracting it out or by brewing under adverse ownership conditions (i.e. owner's cutting costs on ingredients or conditioning time).

    From the perspective of the owner of the brewery, they are making a business decision to increase the utilization of their system, and so they derive income that helps keep them in the black. They enter into a business relationship with the tenant-brewer. This agreement should clarify the responsibilities of the tenant with regards to available shifts, brewery cleaning, allowable yeast/bacterial strains, if materials are going to be purchased cooperatively or separately, and of course rent/utilities. I think getting too worried about brew kettle geometry or paying of one's dues is a distraction.

    What it boils down to is: a) do you like the beer, and b) are you comfortable supporting the business that makes it. (The latter is what I call 'to be a political beer drinker.')

    p.s. Stiv's right: "it all comes down to the brewer - their skill, their creativity, their dedication to the final product. Their are many brewer-owners who make a lot of mediocre me-too beer."

    Matt, The Palate Jack