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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Gypsy Brewer

"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers..."
--Blanche Dubois, A Streetcar Named Desire
We know what a Gypsy Blogger is, but what about a gypsy brewer? I met one at the Saison Fest at Cascade over the weekend. He is Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, one of the three most well-known of his breed (the others are Dann Paquette of Boston's Pretty Things and Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Denmark's Mikkeller). Gypsy brewing* is the act of producing beer without a brewery. I imagine the brewer waiting at home, near a phone with a red light, waiting to get the call.

"Your brewery's free this afternoon? You have a couple of extra tanks? I'm on my way!"

And then the brewer hops in his old Metro van full of grain and hops, and races over to the brewery.

It's actually not like that. Strumke, who is from Baltimore, is able to produce 85% of his beer at the DOG brewery. This answered a lot of my questions, like: where do you find breweries with excess capacity; how do you account for the differences in systems you have to brew on; how do you juggle the distribution issues? The trick, it seems, is to find a brewery with excess capacity and work out a deal. Strumke also manages to take his show on the road--or plane, actually, and also brews in Belgium. Somehow he manages to figure a way to travel there, brew, ship his beer back to the US as a sort-of import and still make money. That's is a cool trick, and one I would attempt if I weren't just a half-assed homebrewer.

Strumke is sort of the East Coast Alex Ganum, producing saison-inspired beers that apparently do a bang-up business among restaurants and pubs around Baltimore. (That's another question I had: where do you store your beer? He was visiting Portland with his distributor Maggie Fuller, who groaned. "That's not the problem--they're sold the second he has a batch finished. The problem is deciding who gets a keg.") They have been getting raves from the beer geeks, and Strumke has been profiled by the Washington Post, NPR, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.

He brought three of his standards to the Saison Fest--Stateside Saison, Cellar Door, and Existent. I enjoyed them all, though I found them to lack the complexity of some of the more accomplished saisons available. (Though that's a really provisional judgment; four ounces from a plastic mug isn't exactly the best environment to really take a beer out for a test drive.) The Stateside is a Dupont-style classic and my favorite of the three. Cellar Door is made with white sage which, in addition to a sagey quality, also has a note of chamomile--not my favorite. Existent is a black saison and was approachable and rich. Amazingly enough, we may actually get a few kegs out here at some point. I've asked the distributor to give me a holler if they do--and I'll give you one then, too. I'd like a full pour.

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The gypsy brewer phenomenon raises some interesting questions, and I've only begun to think seriously about them. For one thing, it requires a great deal of generosity on the part of the lending brewery. After all, a gypsy brewer gets a brand new brewery without having to pay for one. (Other codgery blogger types have noticed this, too.)

On the other hand, it does take a particular kind of personality: Brian struck me as enormously flexible and relaxed. Keeping all those balls in the air, bouncing around between breweries--it's not for the strictly-regimented. Finally, I wonder why we haven't seen gypsy brewers in Oregon--or even on the West Coast. I have no doubt that there is enough capacity to keep a brewer active in Portland--if s/he could find a willing lender-brewery. It seems like a much easier way to get started than nano-brewing, which has all the attendant problems associated with mini-batches.

In any case, fascinating stuff.

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*A term used kindly, though one nevertheless freighted with cultural baggage. Let me emphasize that I didn't invent it.

3 comments:

Jared said...

Not really a new thing. A lot of early craft brews including Sam Adams were contract brewed. The only thing that sets "gypsy brewers" apart is that they are their own brew masters. I think that's where the problem lies. Breweries don't usually have issues contracting the space; but having a guy bring in his own material and run the show himself at your brewery could cause a definite road block

Jason said...

I've had one of their beers, I think it was the farmhouse door? Anyway, they used sage in it, and it was delicious. One of the few Saisons that I can say I really enjoyed.

Brian said...

This is done in a lot of manufacturing industries where it is more efficient to keep production running around the clock. The down time can be sold to smaller producers and both parties benefit.

Being a gypsy beer blogger I love the idea of traveling for beer. Keep it up Brian.

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