Do you have to be cuckoo to gypsy brew?

Do you have to be cuckoo to gypsy brew?

What defines a gypsy brewer? Although Germany boasts a large number of breweries many of the beer brands making headlines don’t own a phsyical space. Cristal J. Peck has talked to some of the most interesting players behind the ongoing gypsy brewing wave.

Pack your hops, we’re brewing gypsy!  For beer-lovers planning a beer pilgrimage throughout Germany’s progressive beer scene, take heed. As you grab a bottle of pale ale which you find decidedly delicious prompting you to plan your trip to the brewery with the anticipation of tasting panels, tours and some cool “merch”, be warned. There is a possibility that, as you arrive at the address listed on the bottle, you’ll find yourself at an apartment block building, office complex or a bar. With no brewery to speak of.

As contemporary and historical beer culture enjoys revival and growth in Germany, more and more beer entrepreneurs, whether through necessity or preference, are choosing to utilise the brewery of others for a fee rather than investing in one themselves. The address on the bottle, by law, identifies the company who has brought it onto the market, not necessarily where it was produced. This term is widely known as “gypsy brewing” (itself a politically incorrect term), “cuckoo brewing” (the connotation also not great, given the disreputable nature of cuckoos) or the better term of the bunch, “client brewing”.

Gypsies, Cuckoos and Clients

With well-known examples of gypsy brewing in other countries such as America and Scandinavia, the phenomenon is not restricted to Germany. But given Germany’s rich history with beer and the resultant brewery abundance (recent estimates being 1,400 and counting), and the reality of a persistent decrease in annual domestic (non-craft) beer sales, Germany is in a unique situation for a new wave of formative gypsy brewers.

Dwindling annual domestic beer sales, falling 2,7% already this year, coupled with news that Germany’s beer export market is also suffering, leaves brewery capacity ripe for the taking. A savvy brewery owner sees merit in capitalising on the booming creative beer scene. By filling tanks that would otherwise be empty with a new urban beer startup products, they can ensure that they are at full capacity. Enter the gypsy brewer.

GYPSY BREWING: Anyone can do it!

Whether you’re a classically trained brewer, an ambitious hobby brewer, or an entrepreneur who’s spotted a trend, you could very well become the next gypsy brewing sensation regardless of whether you have a recipe (there are experts who can create one for you)!

But could this widespread availability of breweries, enabling essentially anybody to brew and market their beer create issues for the scene? Not according to Christian Gläser, one of the founders of The Mash Pit, a yet-to-open multi-brew house facility aimed at providing the possibility to gypsy brew to interested parties. With plans to contain brew kettles and fermenters ranging from 50 to 2,000 liters, Christian feels inspired by the communal act of like-minded brewers brewing together, something that Franconia’s Zoigl Gemeindebrauhaus (community brewhouse) tradition has celebrated for hundreds of years.

In the Zoigl community brewhouses, beer is collectively brewed with the resulting young-beer then taken to the private cellars of the respective brewers for fermentation; once complete, the Zoigl-Star is erected at the front of the brewhouse signifying to the community that the beer is ready to drink. Christian hopes that The Mash Pit will also foster such a sense of community.

Likening the burgeoning ‘do-it-yourself’ beer brewing scene to that of photography, Christian, who hails from a background in the arts, believes that, whether a studied brewer or merely enthusiastic hobbyist, The Mash Pit will perform the same role for brewers (in much the same way that the digital revolution changed the landscape for photographers by enabling anybody with a sense of visual composition to take exceptional images).

Hit the ground running

For a young brand like Berliner Berg the decision to start as a gypsy brewer made sense to American and German trained brewmaster Richie Hodges, who spent two years gypsy brewing for Crew Republic before brewing for another two years with Berliner Berg. “We were a young startup with limited resources, we needed to hit the ground running’ explains Richie. “Berliner Berg needed consistent quality in order to build their portfolio as they ventured into the market.”

But brewing on somebody else’s equipment does not come without complications. When Richie first gypsy-brewed during his time at Crew Republic, he realised very quickly that relinquishing full control of the brewing process was going to take adjustment. Four years later, he contemplates the tumultuous relationship he has had over the years with his host brewery, Schlossbrauerei Hohenthann. “The first time I did a recipe, I was told that… this kind of [single step] mashing program doesn’t make beer”, Richard reflects. “…it worked, I mean, obviously I knew it was going to work, but it was a process of building mutual trust and respect, and that takes time.”

First trust, then the mangoes

Sebastian Sauer, another prominent German gypsy brewer agrees that effectively working together takes time. “Give-and-take” seems to be a term that both he and Richie use repeatedly. With a reputation for eclectic and unconventional brewing under his labels Freigeist Bierkultur and The Monarchy, Sebastian is also very aware of the importance in gaining the trust of the host brewery. “When I came [to Vormann Brewery] six years ago, [Christian Vormann] was very skeptical”, Sebastian recalls. “There were times that [Christian] was like ‘you want to use this crazy amount of mango? You won’t be able to sell this beer!’…and then we needed to brew a second batch!”

Sebastian derives benefits from brewing in other breweries entirely unique to his situation. Without the constraints of having his own brewery, he feels a sense of freedom at not having to conform to any “bread-and-butter” beer portfolios in order to pay the bills. With total brewing freedom the need to promote and educate consumers cannot be overlooked, and Sebastian enjoys the nomadic life of travelling to present and make his edgy beers accessible to people who may have otherwise never had the chance to try them.

Constant travel means that often, after the first or second time brewing a new beer, Sebastian is absent for brewday, something he has no reservations about, taking solace in the fact that his recipes lie in the hands of qualified brewers in the host brewery.

Life for the gypsy brewer ain’t always easy

But Sebastian’s views are not echoed by every gypsy brewer. For Lukasz Wiacek, part of Berlin’s latest gypsy outfit, Fuerst Wiacek, gypsy brewing serves an entirely different function. With plans to ultimately establish their own brewery, Lukasz and his business partner Georg Fuerst view gypsy brewing as a way of getting a better feel for brewing on a large scale, with being present for the entirety of the brew being extremely important to them.

For Lukasz, whose famed New England IPA recipes rely on precise pH monitoring throughout the brew process, being at the mercy of an automated brew system is challenging. This is another reason the two view gypsy brewing as a means to an end; they see benefits in trialling different brewing systems and exploring the market for their beer before they ultimately invest in equipment themselves.

Between their respective full-time jobs, Lukasz and Georg skillfully juggle their six-hour journey to Gundelfingen to brew in Camba and have also recently started brewing at Brauhaus Binkert in Bamberg before returning to Berlin in time for their day jobs on Monday mornings. And let’s not forget subsequent sales and marketing; it’s a two-man show. Nobody said being a gypsy brewer was easy.

Principles and practice  

For Richard Hodges, being present on the brew day is a question of principle. “I’ve always taken it quite literally, that with a craft brewer, it’s about the craft itself. I have no doubt that Hohenthann could make a great beer with my recipes, they are trained professionals, but that’s not the point. If principles don’t separate craft beer from industrial beer, then I don’t know what does’.

But being present on the brew day is not necessarily about the craft itself, according to Sebastian Sauer. He maintains that being receptive to leaving the brewing to experts allows him the flexibility to challenge established constructs through presenting his beers.

This leads to the openness and acceptance we have for so many beers in the world right now. “Even apart from the gypsy brewing, it can also be about nomadic life. You can build your experiences into your beers as well”, as Sebastian Sauer puts it. And his bizarre beer history is a true testament to that, but that’s another story.