To Hell with Part-Time Beer Writers and Contract Brewers!

Provocative title, yes? Good, because that’s what it is meant to be, but imagine for a second if I really meant it.

Imagine if I wrote a column about how important it is that every person writing about beer should be doing it as their sole source of income, with no “day job” or sidelines to keep the rent/mortgage paid and the lights on. Now imagine further that I implied through said column that those who do not write full-time are somehow less worthy than are those few of us who do, and that the fruits of their labours, ie: the articles and reviews they pen, are therefore by definition second class.

You’d probably think at best that I was rather full of myself, and most likely also that I’m an ass. And so you should.

Now change the above scenario to brewing rather than writing, and brewers in brick-and-mortar breweries and contract or so-called “gypsy” brewers rather than full- and part-time writers. Only this time you needn’t imagine it because it’s happening now. Again.

I’ve been writing about beer for 23 years, so I’ve lived through all this a few times now, and I’m here to tell you that it’s an utterly undignified debate. It smacks in turn of protectionism and claims of superiority, or at least greater legitimacy, and it is utterly meaningless to the vast, overwhelming majority of those who drink craft beer.

Why? Because like me, most of them don’t care whether the beer was born in a wholly-owned or sometimes borrowed brewery. They care whether or not it is good. Period.

Is there reason for the craft brewing industry to be debating owned breweries versus contractors – what Tim Webb and I have dubbed ‘beer commissioners’ – and “gypsies”? Yes, there may be, but internally. It’s a brewer-to-brewer and owner-to-commissioner debate, folks, and something that only looks petty and mud-slinging to outside entities. And what’s more, it will have no positive effect on the audience for your beer, so there is zero benefit to making it public.

(To those that say this is a fight for legitimacy and that the public will turn against beer commissioners if they know the true nature of what they do, I have three words for you: Boston Beer Company.)

When the craft beer biz gets together, as it did last week in Washington for the 6,400 person strong Craft Beer Conference, there is a tendency to forget that much of the beer drinking world is still blissfully unaware that alternatives to Bud and Coors Light even exist But it remains the reality that only the very fringe of the beer cognoscenti, itself a tiny, tiny minority of beer drinkers, is interested in this sort of internal debate. For the rest of the world, all that matters is what is in the glass.

Or, to return to my imaginary example, what’s on the page. And so far as I’m concerned, that’s the way it should be.

22 Replies to “To Hell with Part-Time Beer Writers and Contract Brewers!”

  1. OK, Stephen. I’ll play.

    Do you really think these growing numbers of drinkers filling up these 50-font taphouses and paying for these beer dinners are “blissfully unaware”? Do you think they’re the same drinkers as 23 years ago? Do you think they don’t care about where their beer is made, really? These sections in supermarkets and liquor stores that are touting “local” beers and doing quite well off it, thanks, do those customers not care when it’s a fib?

    They’re a minority of overall beer drinkers, surely, but I think some do care, at least a bit, and few are in the industry. They also subscribe to the magazines that send me checks.

    Should they care? Maybe not,, but that’s a different question.

    signed, full-time writer making part-time pay

      1. Because you’re a contrarian bastard, Joe!

        I agree with part of what you say about the “growing number of drinkers,” especially the part about them not being the same as those 23 years ago, but would suggest that most of them either remain unaware or frankly don’t give a damn about where their beer comes from. Or if they do care, worry more about it being local than they do about whether or not it was contract brewed. Isn’t Brooklyn Lager a “local beer” for most New Yorkers even when it’s brewed in upstate New York?

  2. Again, well said!

    BBC and Brooklyn and all the other contract brewers buy ads in magazines that pay you, too, Joe. And also recall, as I stated here:

    “…the elephant in the room is there is no relationship between the capacity to own a building and own brewing equipment and actually making good beer. To quote Joe, any asshole can own building and equipment. In fact, some do. We need to move away from the sort of magical thinking about the business of beer that allows us to vet questions objectively. How many brewers come to the trade with family money, pre-existing all paid up factories (I know of one) or other forms of financial asset that the new contract brewers simply do not have. There is zero reason to assume the person with easier access to capital and know how makes the better beer. Viva contract brewers! Viva, viva!!!”

        1. I do write occasionally about spirits, Ron, and do the odd bit of restaurant consulting. But certainly the majority of my income comes from writing and talking about beer.

    1. A very small minority of us raised our hands at the recent reconvening of the North American Guild of Beer Writers in DC. Fewer than I’d expected, but still a few. I personally do some editing as well, but it’s mostly beer at this point.

  3. As a full time drinker and part time beer writer, I can tell you that the most important thing about a beer to me is how it tastes. Sure, I tend to favour the beers brewed by the little guys as opposed to big guys on a philosophical level too, but if the big guys started making face-meltingly good American IPAs, I’d probably buy the odd six pack. Having said that, dismissing “gypsy” brewers out of hand these days doesn’t really apply in Toronto. A number of brewers these days simply opt to start out contract brewing to raise capital so they can open their own place eventually. They’re no less “invested” than brewers who jump in whole hog, they just take a different approach to the same end goal. And if they’re making good beer, who cares where they make it??

    Incidentally, and largely off topic, I’m not sure the humorous “beer writer” analogy you led with is apt. I’m of the opinion that part time beer writers are the best kind. With their (our) income provided by means wholly unrelated to the beer industry, they (we) have no need to fear offending anyone that we might rely on for sustenance and thus we’re much more likely to always give our honest opinions. To hell with full time beer writers, I say!

  4. A great point! Thanks for sticking up for us. As a gypsy brewer myself, I’ve gone through this debate several times. The difference between traditional old school contract brewing and present day gypsy brewing is transparency. Gyspy/Ninja brewers aren’t embarrassed that they are doing so. We promote the brewery we brew at all the time. We believe in their beer as much as we believe in ours and we are honored to have the opportunity to work with them. We work to make a good product and will hopefully have our own brewery one day, but we currently don’t have the funds to open up our own brick and motor. We’re working on raising money and developing our brand alongside our host brewery so that we can one day have a space of our own. Everyone gets to their goal differently – this is our path. I agree that each and every brewer/brewery needs to be looked at individually. It’s case by case.



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