Brewery numbers in South Africa are on the up – we all know that. I used to be fairly confident that I knew of around 90% of SA’s breweries. These days I’m forever learning about new beers and new brands. But more and more, I find that it’s not brewery numbers that are rapidly rising, but contract brands.
For those who aren’t sure, a contract brewery is one that brews on someone else’s system. They don’t have their own brewery, instead investing their rands in branding, marketing, kegs and distribution. And paying the brewer for their ingredients and services of course. It’s a fine model. Some of the best known brands in the States (Brooklyn Brewery, The Boston Beer Co) and South Africa (Jack Black, Darling) started life as a contract brewery. Despite what some say, contract is not a dirty word. If it’s done right that is.
What is “doing it right”, you might ask. Well, here are my thoughts on the four types of contract brewer – who’s helping the industry, who cares about the beer and who will be moving onto contract tea blending when that becomes the Next Big Thing.
This is the guy (or girl) that knows craft beer is cool right now and, often mistakenly, believes people are making quick cash from the brewing scene. He has never brewed a beer in his (or her) life and probably drinks a lot of Castle Lite, but he (yes, yes, or she) would love to see – let’s say their – name on a beer label. So they go to their closest brewery and say “hey, won’t you stick my label/my restaurant brand on your lager/blonde ale/pale ale” (it’s never going to be an IPA or a weiss – Bandwagon Guy wants something “approachable” and “easy drinking”). You might have guessed that I’m not a fan of Bandwagon Guy. I think his (or her) only possible benefit to the craft beer industry is that they might – might – introduce beer to a new audience. But only if they’re distributing far from the existing breweries. So unless you’re peddling your half-assed beer in Pofadder or Mount Fletcher, then stop it.
The Marketing Guy
You have a healthy bank balance, an eye for design and a way with social media. You’re aware that craft beer is hip and you fancy a piece of the pie. You are Marketing Guy. You have an idea of the sort of beer you want – a notion of the colour, the flavour, the ABV and of course the style, so you check out three or four breweries to find out who produces good beer and who can offer you a good deal on contract brewing. Marketing Guy is going to do good things for the industry. Sure he doesn’t brew the beer himself, but he cares about the end product, he has the ability to get his beer – and by association, craft beer in general – into the hands of new drinkers. They might be inner-city office workers, weekend wine drinkers, township businessmen or university students, but Marketing Guy knows how to identify an audience and give that audience what they want. He prefers to leave the brewing to the expert and there’s really nothing wrong with that.
The Part-time Beer Nerd with a Full Time Job
She’s been brewing for years – first on pots on the stove and later on three-tier systems with pumps and temperature controlled fermenters. She really knows how to put a recipe together and would love to share the resulting brews with the world. Just one problem: she works a full time job in some field she studied for five years to get into. So contract brewing is the next best thing. But don’t expect Beer Nerd to rock up at the brewery with a vague notion of which beer she wants. Beer Nerd comes equipped with a carefully developed recipe complete with mashing schedule and an intricate dry hopping regime. She’d love to stick around for the brew, but y’know, being a grown up sucks and the 9–5 is calling. Beer Nerd proves that contract brewing is a legitimate way to enter the industry and that contract-brewed beers can be just as good as – or indeed superior to – other stuff on the market.
The Penniless Beer-Loving Control Freak
Ah, and then there’s this guy. This guy struggles with contract brewing. He is not a marketing guy or a passing beer enthusiast. He is a bona fide beer fanatic and he wants to brew his own beer. Only problem is, he doesn’t have upwards of half a million rand to sink into a decent brewery. So he contract brews. He comes up with a name and a label and a recipe or three. Only catch is, he wants to be there on brewday. Actually, he doesn’t just want to be there – he wants to brew his own damn beer. It’s not just that he doesn’t trust others to tweak the water or santise the everything. He doesn’t, but it’s also that he genuinely loves brewing beer and wants to participate in the whole thing (well actually, not so much the cleaning – that’s what he’s paying his fees for). He’s the very best kind of Control Freak – one that demands excellent beer.
So as you see, not all contract brewers are created equal. Recognise yourself in there? Or perhaps you spot a South African brand or two in these words. Of course, at the end of the day, what really matters is the beer. But it’s not just about the quality of the beer. Craft beer is all about variety. Brewery – and contract brewery – numbers are ballooning in SA, but if we end up with 50 identical lagers, with only the labels to tell them apart, then really – what’s the point?
For more on contract brewing, read this post, dug out from the vaults.