The wandering brewers
by Mark Tichenor
Mikkel Borg Bjergsø has come very far, very fast. In 2006 he, along with his partner Kristian Klarup Keller, set out to change the taste of Danish beer, taking their inspiration from the American craft beers of the West Coast. Today their company, Mikkeller, makes some of the world’s most sought after (and pricey) beers.
Not bad for a brewer that doesn’t actually have a brewery.
Bjergsø is the leader of a trend: the gypsy brewer. Instead of establishing physical brewing facilities of their own, they make beer at other breweries, using their fame and reputation to sell the beer and lend prestige to their hosts.
Pretty Things Brewing follows a similar model as tenant brewers, Rending the brewhouse of Buzzard’s Bay Brewing in Westport, Massachusetts on brew days and churning out daring, highly desirable beers. So does Stillwater Brewing, from Maryland. All of these brewers prove through sales that their business model makes sense.
The big advantage is flexibility. Gypsy brewers are not limited, creatively, by their equipment. If Bjergsø has a beer in mind, he can find the brewery with the appropriate facilities to make it happen. That’s not a luxury enjoyed by ‘Brick and Mortar’ breweries, or by brewing companies who contract brew through them. Lower operating costs also help the bottom line. Lower costs mean a fatter bottom line.
The cost savings of having basically zero brewing equipment or buildings to pay for lets these gypsy brewers follow their vision in a way most breweries can’t; they have no need to pump out beers for mass market sales to cover expenses. Instead they can focus on fanciful, sometimes fantastic, occasionally ghastly specialty beers.
Being a wandering brewer, however, has some inherent limitations. When you’re brewing batch-by-batch, brewery-to-brewery, it’s hard to expand your business. Also, there is a real dependence on the strength of the craft brewing scene creating and supporting the brewer’s ‘rock star’ status. Should the beer scene taper off, sales would inevitably follow, and sales are all these brewers have.
There’s also the hype factor. While wandering breweries put out tangible product, it tends to be hyper-expensive. Currently An 11 ounce glass of dark, smoky Mikkeller Black Hole goes for $11.50 at The Old Toad, on the same tap line as many excellent $5 beers. Some would say it’s only because of scarcity and faddish hype that the distributor would have the chutzpah to charge that much.
For now, however, brewing at-large seems to have its place in our diverse and vibrant beer culture. Really, it’s difficult to find fault with brewers that aren’t afraid to follow their dreams, to whichever brewery they might actually take them.
In Other Beers
The first Rochester Real Beer Week was an unquestionable success, with wholehearted buy-in from stores, bars and restaurants across the county, as well as from breweries and distributors nationwide. Over the course of last week, Rochesterians had access to beers that normally come nowhere near this part of the country. It was a taste of what you might find in Philadelphia or Boston.
This is important; it goes beyond enjoying a special occasion. For one week, little, out-of-the-way Rochester, New York had the eye of the best breweries, and it could be a factor when these breweries decide what markets to enter in the future. Rochester Real Beer Week, now to be an annual event, makes a difference and we’re lucky to have it.
Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.