How I Came to Love Contract Brewing

Drink Features Beltway Brewing
How I Came to Love Contract Brewing

In the pantheon of rare beers and coveted 750mm bottles, I tended to dismiss anything crafted via contract brewing. Often, the process felt like an afterthought—a brewery has a bit of extra space and equipment that wasn’t in use, so they found someone with a recipe and lent their facilities (for a price) to them to make the beer a reality. And most of the times the beer that resulted was…okay. Good, but nothing that would send anything skyrocketing to the top of Rate Beer.

That all changed when I found out about Beltway Brewing.

My first encounter with the brewer was actually through one of their own products, the Hansel Sour IPA, which started appearing in tall cans on the craft shelves around my home town of Washington, DC. It was a solid play on the American wild style that I love—and who doesn’t like an overt reference to Zoolander? That first sip of the beer led to a revelation: the brewer does produce a few of their own recipes, but their central focus remains on working with smaller-scale operations to execute their vision—not as an afterthought, but as Beltway’s central focus. They even have on-site consultants to make the experience as collaborative as necessary.

Suddenly, I realized that I could score pints and growlers of some of the most coveted small-batch beers being sold in the country, like NYC’s Grimm Artisanal Ales, which specializes in sours, IPAs, Double IPAs, and other Belgian styles, some of which are brewed at Beltway Brewing. Save for the occasional bottle that might appear on the shelves of a Manhattan Whole Foods, the beer is increasingly hard to find in New York’s five boroughs, and downright impossible to get in DC. Impossible, that is, unless you drove out to Beltway Brewing’s facilities in the DC suburb of Sterling, VA, about an hour out of the city. (Side note: the brewery’s name comes from the often traffic-snarled I-495 beltway that wraps around the nation’s capital and serves as the main conduit to the area suburbs). For DC-area beer snobs, it’s a coup. And for Beltway Brewing, their singular focus on contract brewing has proven to be a raging success that demonstrates how contracting can be done right.

I spoke with president and founder Sten Sellier about how he got his start, and what the brave new world of contract brewing can bring to the craft beer scene.

One caveat to the budding craft brewer: While the pricing of the beers made on contract at Beltway varies based on ingredients, techniques, and 1,001 other factors, this operation is focused on people who are serious about their micro operation. You need to be able to handle a minimum of 60 kegs (in keg form, or in cans or bottles), and—more importantly—you also need state licensing and either a TTB Brewer’s Notice or a wholesaler’s license.

Paste: How did Beltway get its start?

Sten Sellier: I was a homebrewer for 10 years and decided I wanted to “go pro” and take my beer to market. As I wasn’t independently wealthy, I figured the best way to get my start would be to take my recipes to a local brew pub or other production brewery to brew and package my beer so I could sell it. Once I was able to demonstrate great sales, I would be able to raise money from investors or borrow from the bank. However, once I started calling breweries to see who could do this for me, I was met with a lot of “no’s.” Either the breweries were too busy to be troubled with brewing for another brand at all or they were unwilling to do batches smaller than 100bbls with a huge annual commitment. I couldn’t believe it, and wondered why there was not a brewery dedicated to brewing for people in this situation; brands that did not have enough production capacity or any at all. I started calling back the breweries that I previously spoke to and asked, “What if I built a brewery dedicated to brewing for others?” They all said that it would fill a big gap. A couple even said “great, now they’ll stop calling us!” So, I changed my business plan and never looked back as this model was met with more and more enthusiasm from my acquaintances in the industry.

Paste: And why go the contract route versus just leaning into your own recipes?

SS: The need was there and growing. As people caught wind of my business plan and I put a website up, the calls and emails started flowing in from around the country and even outside the U.S. I had an opportunity to create a business that could help small and growing businesses with great ideas and great products expand without them having to take enormous capital investment risks.

Paste: Do you think contract brewers get a bad rep?

SS: If by “contract brewers,” you mean the host facilities, yes, but often rightfully so. Many breweries that offer contract brewing services do it as a side business; essentially renting out excess capacity that they aren’t using themselves. Their clients’ brands will never take priority over the care they have for their own brands and sometimes that becomes evident in the final product. This is how we set ourselves apart; we are dedicated to creating the highest quality, most flexible, and most capable option as a host for brewing. The pathway to our success is to make our clients successful.

If by “contract brewers” you mean the brand owner, yes, that happens, too. But every situation is unique. Some brand owners are intimately involved in how every aspect of the production process of their beer should go. Others are looser. Just like any brand, there is a story and a varying level of involvement and dedication to the quality of the product. At the end of the day, there are so many variables that factor into what makes a great beer that you can’t just say contract brewed beer is always good or always bad.

Paste: How do breweries typically find you?

SS: Word of mouth and internet searches-until recently (within the last year), we have put very little into sales and marketing. We have just been trying to keep up with the orders coming in from people finding us.

Paste: Was that the way Grimm Artisanal Ales came to work with you?

SS: Joe [Grimm, co-founder with his partner Lauren Grimm] and I recently reminisced on this. It feels like we’ve always been working together! He remembers that I reached out to him before we were operational sometime in 2013. They were working with a brewery in Massachusetts at the time. By April 2014 they gave us a shot to be the host facility to brew BFF, a Belgian tripe IPA, with them, followed in quick succession by their biere de miel, Bees in the Trappe, I believe. After things went well, we basically got on a monthly schedule that has just grown and grown ever since. It’s been a great relationship.

Paste: How collaborative is the brewing process in terms of working directly with your contractors verses, say, just executing their recipes?

SS: Each of our clients has a varying level of involvement, but the majority of them are extremely involved. We have a very tedious brewing process review procedure to make sure that, weeks in advance, we are 100% clear on exactly how a brew is made, from milling to mashing to brewing to fermentation to dry hopping to centrifugation to carbonation to packaging. Throughout the process, of course, we offer our two cents based on our experience and expertise, which our clients can take or leave (as long as we are not letting something dangerous or terrible for the beer happen). We really do see it as more of a collaboration to varying degrees, with the brand owners having the final say on the creative direction. For that reason, we really have not had any clients that are anything but completely up front about their partnership with Beltway.

Paste: How many beers are solely your own? I know I’ve seen the Hansel around…

SS: Yes, Hansel has been a great success for us to show off our abilities. We have done a few other special releases over the years to celebrate anniversaries, etc., including, most recently New Classic Mild, Black Snake Barrel Aged Imperial Stout, Octo IPA, and a few other nano projects here and there.

Paste: What’s been the biggest surprise?

SS: The sheer complexity of our operation. The logistics and flexibility we need to have to deal with so many changing requirements is extremely demanding. The talent, skill, and patience of our staff to keep up with constantly changing requests and demands is truly impressive. It’s not for everyone. We do all the work and get none of the glory that successful breweries get rewarded with. Our reward is being able to take part in everything that is going on in craft beer today simultaneously under one roof. New England IPAs, kettle sours, mixed fermentation, barrel aging, just about every style you can name and some you can’t… And getting to learn from and enjoy the results at the end of each batch!

Paste: Any particular favorite project since you started operation?

SS: It’s really hard to pick a favorite with all the innovation and success that has gone through our brewery, especially with all we have done together with Grimm, but perhaps one I am most proud of is our relationship with James E. Pepper Distillery. Amir Peay first approached us in 2013 inquiring about developing a beer to be aged in James E. Pepper “1776” Rye Whiskey barrels. Amir told us how James E. Pepper sources their barrels to age their whiskey directly from their cooper, so that they have complete control over the age and type of barrels that they use. Thanks to the quality of the barrels and the whiskey that was aged in them, these barrels were highly sought after by many a brewer. For a while Georgetown Trading Co. sold these barrels to a variety of brewers, who aged their own brands of beers in them. Amir tasted the delicious products being aged in these barrels and asked the question, “What if we were to design a beer specifically for these particular barrels that could compliment the whiskey?”

That’s when he discovered Beltway Brewing Company and asked us if we could design him just such a beer. Beltway developed an imperial Brown Ale with just a hint of smoked malt to play nicely with the notes of toffee, chocolate, oak, and vanilla from the barrels, with a rich rye whiskey finish that can only be found in freshly dumped barrels. No more than 30 days after 1776 whiskey is dumped from the barrels in Kentucky, those barrels are being filled with 1776 American Brown Ale at our brewery in Sterling, Virginia.

We won a gold medal for this beer at the 2016 Alltech Commonwealth Cup and now have a second project started, a newly developed Imperial Stout recipe aging in new freshly dumped 1776 barrels. We are all on the edge of our seats for this one!

This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

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