Hop on the Road: What is a Gypsy Brewery, Really?

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Hop on the Road: What is a Gypsy Brewery, Really?

If you’ve been paying attention to the craft beer landscape for the last five years, you probably haven’t been able to avoid hearing the phrase “gypsy brewery” at least once or twice. It’s a term that engenders an immediate, romantic image for a business, a portrait of wayfaring, wandering brewers hitchhiking down the road with a bags of grain slung over their shoulders and mash paddles strapped to their belts like wayward knights errant, questing for their next beer adventure.

The reality, of course, is more mundane and significantly more confusing. Consumers may have developed an idea of what “gypsy brewer” really means, but the industry isn’t nearly so sure. Ask around, and you’ll get different answers: That they’re a race of passionate, ambitious, occasionally flighty brewers who draw both admiration and no small amount of derision. “Mainstream” brewers and brewery owners have occasionally turned up their noses at these gypsy breweries, accusing them both subtly and overtly of not committing to their craft without having “skin in the game” in the form of their own brewhouse. But it’s more complicated than just that, starting with a primary question: How does one really earn the “gypsy” title, if simply having your company’s beer contract-brewed does not qualify?

Contract brewing has always been a contentious topic when it comes to the idea of “authenticity” in craft beer. At the far end of the spectrum, you have MillerCoors and Anheuser’s “crafty” beers, which obfuscate the origins of products such as Blue Moon and Shock Top, claiming they come from brewing companies that don’t even exist, except on paper. On the other end of the spectrum, you have craft brewers who produce their company’s lineup of beers in a commercial brewery that rents out extra tank space, clearly labeling where the finished product was made. It’s common practice, and the way that many large, regional breweries got their start, including the likes of Samuel Adams. Today, it’s so common that “brewery incubators” are a valid business proposal, communal spaces where brewers without breweries can rent equipment and get someone else to handle distribution.

The gypsy brewer label, however, seemingly demands additional personal involvement with the creation of the product. If a contract beer is one where the owner’s company supplies the recipe and branding, while the larger brewery supplies a brew team to actually make the product, then gypsy brewing is meant to represent a much more involved contribution by the recipe creator. Full-on gypsy brewing would presumably require a brewmaster or his team personally traveling to their host brewery, using their own sourced ingredients and conducting the brew themselves, using someone else’s equipment.

That is, at least, the precedent set by rogue breweries such as Mikkeller and its American Star Trek Mirror Universe counterpart Evil Twin Brewing. Another example: NYC stand-outs Grimm Artisanal Ales, who took our 115 DIPA blind-tasting by storm with two amazing beers, Tesseract and Lambo Door. We’d never even heard of this brewery before they knocked our socks off, and it’s an operation run exclusively by a husband and wife duo, traveling to multiple breweries to make their beers and hand-canning them. It’s as DIY as it gets.

But not every “gypsy” brewery follows that entire procedure, and when they don’t, things get murky. If the brewmaster doesn’t travel to the brewery for every batch, is it gypsy? If the brewery uses the house yeast of its host brewery, is it gypsy? Does a gypsy brewer have to brew in multiple locations to qualify for a term that has classically characterized itinerant vagabonds? And perhaps most importantly, why do any of these terms matter?

And yet, they certainly do, to some drinkers. Some argue that the “gypsy” term has been abused as a more artisanal alternative to contract brewing—the sort of branding that could help a new business find buzz and get away with charging a premium for its ultra-limited product. Others, like Cambridge Brewing Co. brewmaster Will Meyers, go much further. In a post on the brewery’s blog from a couple years back, Meyers wrote the following:

“We’ve done this to ourselves. By making Craft Beer welcoming to all by design, we’ve made it a desirable industry in which people want to play a part. This includes the inevitable number of beer marketing companies, aka contract brewers (a few of whom call themselves “gypsy brewers”), who either feel that there’s money to be made in this fad or who genuinely love craft beer but don’t want to invest the capital in their own brick and mortar breweries. This lack of skin in the game shows me that they value short-term gains over long-term personal investment and hard work. And I truly believe that there is no such thing as a gypsy brewer. In fact I know of only one couple, our friends at Pretty Things [who recently closed], who “reside” at another brewery but who actively create every drop of their own beer, each and every brewday. There’s a big difference between having that level of commitment and integrity, and claiming to be a “gypsy” because you occasionally show up at a brewery on days your beer is being made for you. If you’re not there, every time, doing it entirely yourself and if there are other people physically making your beer for you (sometimes in your absence), you’re simply not a brewer in my book. It’s more than just cutting open some bags of grain or making a ceremonious addition of hops or cacao nibs or some other exotic ingredient and Tweeting about it. I’m sorry if that offends some folks, but this is something that our industry – producers, retailers, consumers, everybody – will need to struggle with as time goes on. The Brewers Association made a valiant effort over the past year with their Craft Vs. Crafty campaign, exposing to the general public the lengths to which the international macro-industrial brewers are going to obfuscate the origins behind “fake craft” beers like Shock Top, Blue Moon, etc. Unfortunately we are always reticent to take a look at the fingers pointing back upon ourselves, so we fail to give the consumer the opportunity to understand the differences among us – those who make beer, and those who just place orders for “their” beer, and the inevitable grey-ish line of separation.”

Why it matters so much that people be physically present during 100% of the process, I have no idea. Does this make a brewmaster not a brewer at his own brewery if his team carries out his recipes while he’s away, or if he doesn’t shovel out each batch of spent grain? It doesn’t seem like an entirely fair demand to make of a brewer who may have traveled hours just to take the next step in their dream. When did this become such a black-and-white classification?

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At the same time, though, I honestly must admit that I have occasionally shared a measure of annoyance with some of the pretension that can accompany the gypsy title. It’s a business plan that supports “rock stars” and brewing personalities in a way that a brick and mortar brewery usually doesn’t. Only in the world of gypsy brewing can you have a project like The Perfect Crime, which is a gypsy team-up between two famed brewing personalities: Stillwater’s Brian Strumke and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin, who is described on the site as “formerly an internationally renowned techno DJ and producer.” Or perhaps take Ohio gypsy brewery Nowhere in Particular, the subject of this groan-inducing profile, where brewer Pat Sullivan and his “brewing pseudonym” Charlie Navillus have their legend expounded upon with such gems as:

...also known as the “I slept with someone famous … well, famous in cultured circles … please ask me more about it” story, clearly oh-so-relevant to the brewer’s art. Unless of course, “hooked up” means “bummed around Europe with” in this parlance, not that it really makes a difference. But I digress.

Mild annoyance aside, I’m acutely aware that being a gypsy brewer is no picnic. I’ve interviewed enough of them to see how demanding a job it can be, often as a part-time endeavor balanced precariously on top of a more reliable income stream. So many of the modern gypsy brewers are simply passionate, earnest homebrewers who don’t have nearly the resources at their disposal when they start out to think about opening a brick and mortar brewery of their own. They’re people who, 10 years ago, would simply have thought “Well, I’d love to brew professionally, but there’s no way I can manage it,” before giving up on that dream. Today, those dreams live.

Nor is the term a license to print money or find quick success or a transition into a physical brewery of their own. Let’s take one particular group as an example: San Francisco’s “Band of Gypsies,” which put out this press release in 2013, announcing themselves as a 7-brewery stable of gypsy brewers, each working toward permanency. At the time, they included Bison Organic Beer, Calicraft Brewing Co., Highwater Brewing, Lucky Hand, Oakland Brewing Co., Pacific Brew Labs and Triple Voodoo.

Checking back in three years later shows us the range of outcomes these projects can have. Lucky Hand and Oakland Brewing Co. each no longer exist. Bison Organic Beer, Calicraft Brewing Co., High Water Brewing and Pacific Brew Labs are all still executing some combination of contract and gypsy brewing. I can only verify that one—Triple Voodoo Brewery in San Francisco—has opened a full-scale production brewery. The rest continue to scratch and claw toward the goal.

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Rob Pihl and Laurisa Milici are two of those incredibly hard-working gypsy brewers who exemplify the passion necessary and sacrifice required to make the transition. Their company, Radiant Pig Craft Beers, is headquartered in a 500-square-foot NYC apartment where the couple still create new test batches weekly on the same sort of five-gallon brewing system I’ve used on my own stove top. The vastly upscaled recipes are then brewed in multiple locations out of state, primarily Thomas Hooker Brewing Co. in Connecticut and Wachusett Brewing in Massachusetts, where Pihl and Milici travel each time to get their hands dirty.

“It’s safe to say that we learned on the job,” said Pihl, who sold his first commercial beer in early 2013. “It was a real challenge scaling from 5 gallons to a 20-barrel system. We learned so much about meticulous note-taking and keeping records and instilling change, small pieces at a time. Brewing on and learning the commercial equipment ultimately enabled us to work backward to scale down, rather than scaling up. And of course you also have to acknowledge that the goal isn’t replicating the homebrewed pilot system—it’s understanding what that result will allow us to do in a commercial brewery.”

Fairly professorial stuff from Radiant Pig, which can’t help but draw comparisons to Grimm, considering that both are run by a gypsy-brewing couple based in NYC. Both are also in search of that next phase, the full-scale brewery to call their own. Pihl hopes to secure a space this year, and looks forward to the transition … while still being proud to say he’s a gypsy brewer.

“I feel like the term just fits us pretty well, fits the goals that we’ve always had,” he said. “We’re hands-on brewers who are willing to travel, but with the long-term goal of permanence. In terms of words like contract and gypsy, they mean far less to me than the finished product. That’s how craft breweries should be judged.”

And with that sentiment, I will never disagree.


Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. You can follow him on Twitter.