Chris Lohring surveyed America’s beer scene in 2010 and decided to play the contrarian. Rather than mimic the popular and potent stouts and India pale ales, he would specialise in low-alcohol, high-taste “session beers,” as he called them.
To lenders, though, the business plan held as much appeal as flat beer. So Lohring kept costs low by using established breweries in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut to produce and package crisp pilsners and rustic farmhouse ales under his Notch Brewing label.
Contract brewing, as it is known, was perfect for a startup like his, requiring no expensive infrastructure. “There’s nothing riskier than building a plant before the brand and the beers have been proven,” said Lohring, who in 1993 helped found Tremont Brewery in Boston.
Craft brewing’s decade long global surge has been partly fuelled by contract, or “gypsy,” brewers, rootless beer makers whose recipes are realised on other breweries’ equipment. Early trendsetters like Evil Twin Brewing and Mikkeller of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Stillwater Artisanal of Baltimore built themselves into international brands through sales in bars, supermarkets and beer stores.
Chris Lohring, owner of Notch Brewing, at the brewery in Salem. The company opened the physical location after six years of “contract brewing” at other breweries. Photo: Gretchen Ertl/The New York Times
But now, consumers are increasingly seeking beer at the source: Since 2010, sales at breweries and brew pubs have risen more than 500 per cent, according to the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Beer lovers routinely troop to breweries for releases of cans and bottles, and a sense of belonging to a particular place has become as important as the beer itself.
That places contract brewers in a pickle. “If you don’t have a brewery, you’re kind of homeless,” said Mikkel Borg Bjergso, Mikkeller’s founder and chief executive. “You don’t have anything to show people.”
As a result, many itinerant beer makers are dropping anchor, opening breweries with tasting rooms for thirsty patrons.
Evil Twin, in Queens, and Grimm Artisanal Ales, in Brooklyn, are building breweries and taprooms. Stillwater aims to start its own beer production plant next spring in Brooklyn. In June, Almanac Beer Co. revealed plans to construct a brewery and taproom in Alameda, California, near Oakland.
And this month, Bjergso announced that he would create a brewery at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. Scheduled to open this year, Mikkeller Brewing NYC will brew and can beers like its Say Hey Sally pilsner, served alongside food from Fuku and Pat LaFrieda. “Next year at Citi Field, people will be drinking beer made at the ballpark,” said Jim Raras Jr., Mikkeller NYC’s executive vice president.
Notch Brewing’s session beers eventually found their niche, and last summer, Lohring converted a riverside warehouse in Salem, Massachusetts, into a brewery, taproom and beer garden. In the afternoons, customers clink glass steins of corn-laced lagers and smoked beers that are produced on the premises.
“Say you’re sitting there as a contract brewer, and you’ve got a million bucks,” Lohring said. “Do you spend the old-fashioned way with advertising and marketing, or do you spend a million bucks on a facility where you serve beer to consumers? It’s a pretty easy decision.”
Taprooms also serve as consumer focus groups. Lohring uses his to test richly flavored Old World lagers and pale ales featuring new hop varieties. “We get immediate feedback from customers and sales,” he said, “and that informs us on our next steps.”
Even more traditional brewers are planting roots. In February, the 127-year-old Narragansett Brewing Co., which once produced New England’s top-selling beer (and one of its catchiest slogans: “Hi, neighbour! Have a ‘Gansett”), resumed brewing in Rhode Island for the first time in decades.
The beer was discontinued in 1983, but Mark Hellendrung, a former president of Nantucket Nectars, bought the brand rights in 2005 and soon began contract-brewing its landmark lager in Rochester, New York. Last year, he moved the company into the cooperative Isle Brewers Guild in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and, in February, started making smaller batch beers like It’s About Time IPA.
Previously, fans passing through Rhode Island could visit only the brand’s headquarters, then in Providence. Now Hellendrung can meet fans at the brewery, as he did recently with a North Carolina couple who stopped by while driving to Maine. “We were able to sit down and have a beer,” he said. “It was just awesome to have a great conversation.”
All the same, many of these beer companies still outsource much of their brewing.
Narragansett makes most of its beer, including its lager, in Rochester, at North American Breweries, which also produces Genesee beer. That brewery’s mix of lager-making expertise, speed and economies of scale is hard to beat, Hellendrung said, noting that the Rochester brewery can make 1200 to 1400 cans a minute, compared with 240 in Pawtucket.
Bjergso’s Mikkeller beers are mostly contract-made in Europe, where he operates the Warpigs Brewpub in Copenhagen in tandem with 3 Floyds Brewing Co. of Munster, Indiana.
But that can exact a cost, in dollars and freshness, when you factor in tariffs, shipping costs and delivery times. So last year, Bjergso took over an existing brewery and taproom in California to create Mikkeller Brewing San Diego.
“It’s great to produce an IPA and serve it to customers within a week or two weeks instead of two months,” Bjergso said. He can better adapt to fickle consumer tastes by making and selling popular IPAs directly from the brewery. “You’re able to give the customers a better experience if you’re behind everything, instead of going to a supermarket or some random bar,” Bjergso said.
NEW YORK TIMES