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Some questions for ‘gypsy brewers’

So last week when we gathered around the campfire to sing Kumbaya and drink beer made by “gypsy brewers” was that Joe Stange singing out of tune? He suggested we might might ask these guys who’ve been getting some pretty sweet press, “So, um, since your beer’s so good . . . when are you going to start your own brewery?”

For the record, he pointed out Stillwater Ales, with the help of friends, is putting excellent beers in the glass. I haven’t had any of those, but I have enjoyed a couple of offerings from Pretty Things that were just terrific. Additionally, brewer/owner (but not brewery owner) Dan Paquette has spent nearly 20 years proving just how much he really cares about beer.

But I’m a simple guy. I like the idea that there’s a rhythm to every brewery. Not the same at Abbey Saint Sixtus in Belgium — where monks brew two to three batches every other week &#151 as at Bell’s in Michigan, where brewers in three separate shifts might drop 16 mashes in a 24-hour period. But a rhythm. If somebody isn’t in the brewery almost every day, maybe even cleaning filtering or mopping up after a boil over, is that brewer part of the rhythm?

Isn’t it easier for a brewer who owns his or her own kit to ask for malts made with particular varieties of barley or to have met the guys who grow their hops? OK, not all of them can or bother, and you may not think it even matters. I do.

Nothing simple here. Nobody wants to bad mouth quality beer or good-guy brewers. But I’m glad Joe Stange asked.

Someone’s drinking, Lord, kumbaya.


21 Responses to Some questions for ‘gypsy brewers’

  1. first stater October 26, 2010 at 5:04 am #

    16 mashes per day would be outlawed as cruel and unusual if there was a prison brewery. That is an insane schedule.

  2. Stan Hieronymus October 26, 2010 at 6:35 am #

    There aren’t many 24-hours stretches where that happens. It does seem a little insane, but it all allows for 50-barrel batches, a diverse number of beers, and generally fresher beer. Not cruel in an automated brewhouse (briefly described here.)

  3. JayZeis October 26, 2010 at 6:58 am #

    I love the Stillwater ales. It would be great if “they” could go full-time and had “their” own brewery. As long as the beer is good, I don’t think it matters if they own their own brewery or not. I hope they have success and get to that point.

  4. Kristen England October 26, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    But they seem to at least advertise it right. Stillwater Ales, not stillwater brewery. We have a bunch here in MN that brew their beer in Wisconsin, call themselves a brewery and then market that they are local.

  5. Joe Stange October 26, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    “As long as the beer is good, I don’t think it matters if they own their own brewery or not.”

    I know what you mean but ultimately I think it does matter, and this is really the assumption I want to interrogate.

    There are some skilled and creative itinerant brewers out there, and we’ve named only a couple. They have their reasons for doing it their way. And arguably they are making interesting beers they wouldn’t otherwise be able to make.

    But that line is only good up to the point where their brewing business might serve as a launching pad into an actual brewery. Why shouldn’t a ‘gypsy’ brewer make even better beer once she gets into a brewery of her very own? So even from a hedonistic point of view–as much as we may enjoy their brews made in other houses–shouldn’t we be rooting them on toward further greatness?

    Not that they need to listen to us.

  6. Kristen England October 26, 2010 at 9:29 am #


    Some people just don’t want the headache of a brewery. They want to be brewers though. I do have to disagree with the better beer at their own brewery though. THere are learning curves and the time is definitely not unlimited for them to do so. If they have a product out that is decent people don’t have a lot of patience for poor pints if not just ‘different’ pints. Case in point, there is a ‘gypsy’ group in the TC that has been brewed 3 different breweries so far. They started at a small place in town that made their flagship beer as well as the recipe would allow. Then they moved into the middle of wisconsin. The beer was not great by any means. They got the book out of that place b/c they were effing around with their own cask production and the TTB doesn’t necessarily like that sort of thing as one would expect. Then they come to a huge brewer here in Minnesota that is notorious for making absolute shite. THis beer has not changed again and is the worst of the lot. Now they are gearing up to start their own brewery. So this beer when all said and done will be brewed at 4 different breweries.

    But hold the phone. I just heard yesterday that they are only getting a 15bbl system to do 30bbl batches. They apparently are not going to be brewing all their own beer as they are still going to farm out the things they want done in 100bbl quantities. The thing I find most taxing about these gypsy brewers is not so much the ‘gypsy’ aspect but their recipes. The vast majority are failed home brewers that use recipes written by proper breweries. Case in point, the very brewery I’m talking about uses/used the recipe that Sierra Nevada penned for a clone of their pale ale. Apparently they call it ‘theirs’ b/c they add grapefruit peel.

    It seems to me that these brewers lack a lot of the social ethics that other brewers seem to just get. Meaning making other peoples recipes, tiny tweak and calling them your own. I’ve seen this in many many more beers around the country and not just our area.

  7. Stan Hieronymus October 26, 2010 at 9:30 am #

    Kristen – Indeed they do advertise it and have even managed to turn it into a positive talking point (and coverage by NPR). As opposed to how people vilified Boston Beer/Sam Adams – and still do, even though the company now owns the breweries where its beer is made.

    I’ve been meaning to write about the whole silliness in Minnesota. One of these weeks . . .

  8. Kristen England October 26, 2010 at 9:36 am #


    Speaking of MN silliness, one of the oldest and best beer bars in the TC has decided to only put on tap beers made in Minnesota. Its quite radical and there was a backlash by the beer reps but its working out. Tons of support from the local people especially the brewers guild and such. I thought this was brilliant. Only place in the TC doing anything like it. It was in response to all these ‘new’ breweries popping up. None of which have a brewery, half of which don’t even make beer…

  9. Sam October 26, 2010 at 10:38 am #

    Hey Stan,

    Great question, is great beer made “in the doing” or “in the idea”? I guess it’s a little of column and A little column B. Here’s a question, is there a difference between the owner brewer (Like a Sam C) and a gypsy brewer (like a Mikeller)? In someways the brewery is just a “tool” to expression…if you can buy/borrow a good one (well rhytmed), why build one?

  10. dave October 26, 2010 at 10:57 am #

    I was under the impression that the “gypsie” brewers purchased the necessary raw ingredients from whomever they choose, but then use someone else’s equipment to actually brew on. So I’m having a hard time understanding why you think it would be “easier for a brewer who owns his or her own kit to ask for malts made with particular varieties of barley or to have met the guys who grow their hops?” From the article Dan mentions using malts roasted with rosemary, that seems a rather particular ingredient to ask for from a malter. Also I would think if the brewer did not have to clean up the brewery, deal with brewery financing, etc, they would have more time to meet hop growers, etc. I guess it is my general naiveté on the subject, and the little information I know about the subject is limited to the stuff Dann and Martha of Pretty Things have done and talking with them about. The information Kristen left a comment about was certainly new info to me.

  11. Stan Hieronymus October 26, 2010 at 11:28 am #

    Sam and Dave,

    I’d say one difference between an owner brewer and a gypsy brewer is that they are responsible for cleaning up the brewery and do have to deal with financing. That’s part of being a brewer.

    To me a brewery is not just a tool for expression. Traditionally it has been part of a community, reflected the members of that community, provided a sense of local pride and, oh yeah, jobs.

    Now we are back to how closely you connect brewer and brewery. Opinions may differ.

    Dave, visiting the fields where your ingredients are grown is different than asking a maltster to provide a few hundred pounds of a malt smoked in a particular way. You’ve got to be making beer on a certain scale to justify that. Which might get back to Joe’s point.

  12. dave October 26, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    I believe I understand the ingredient point, thus the ability to make better beer. Requiring larger amounts of ingredients allows a brewer higher access in the ingredient chain. Thus instead of purchasing ingredients from a wholesaler, where the ingredients can come from all over but are still labelled as one thing (example: you buy a bushel of simcoe, but that bushel is sourced from numerous producers), you can purchase directly from the farm due to the quantity and thus get a consistent ingredient because it is all coming from one farm… consistency helping the end product be better. Is that the thinking, or am I still way off?

  13. Stan Hieronymus October 26, 2010 at 4:38 pm #

    Dave – You’ve got the idea. I think there are also other examples beyond ingredients. For instance, if you want to be able to use a particular process (say open fermentation on at least some of your beers) you can configure your brewery a certain way when you build or expand.

  14. Swordboarder October 26, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

    Process parameters are huge outside of ingredients. Kettle geometry effects hop utilization. Knock out times and temperatures effect hop flavor, especially if you’re adding any late hops. Knowing and modifying your process is what makes you a true professional. Brewing a recipe on someone else’s system makes it their beer. A recipe is just that, a recipe. Making a recipe doesn’t make you a brewer, making beer on your own system makes you a brewer. Just say no to gypsy brewers.

    (Both kinds, first I heard of the term was for brewers who work for a brewery for a couple years and then move on to the next one.)

  15. olllllo October 27, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    I don’t want to live in a world where beer (even great beer) magically appears from somewhere. I want to know where it comes from and I want to go where it lives.

    Too much virtual stuff in my day-to-day in IT.

    It’s usually bitter sweet when a vaunted beer comes to the Phoenix market.

    Beer is one of the last great reasons to travel.

    • Stan Hieronymus October 27, 2010 at 7:36 pm #

      “Beer is one of the last great reasons to travel.”

      You better trademark that quickly – before I steal it.

  16. Joe Stange October 28, 2010 at 8:13 am #

    I’m stealing it right now.

  17. olllllo October 28, 2010 at 9:58 am #

    Stan, Joe:

    You can’t possibly steal it. You’ll both make it better.

    Send me good beer when you get there.

  18. Stan Hieronymus October 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    For those of you dying for more, the conversation has moved back to the Thirsty Pilgrim (from whence it came).

  19. Alan October 28, 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    Sorry about that – I was in an etiquette bind there. I mean where do I comment. I can’t leave the same comment in both places. So I will post my own post tonight to entirely mess it all up.

  20. Alan October 28, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

    Is this the best I can come up with?

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