Before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Dixie Brewing Company was a city landmark, producing roughly 1 million cases per year from the only large-volume brewing facility operating within the city. The brewery was destroyed in the hurricane, but Dixie Beer is still on the shelves of beer stores nationwide.
This is because Dixie utilizes a practice known as contract brewing. In this case, the original recipe is now brewed at the Joseph Huber Brewing Company in Monroe, Wis.
While Dixie was forced into contract brewing, some craft brewers opt to brew some or all of their beers at external facilities for a variety of reasons — increased output potential, expanded distribution, even environmental logistics. Mattson Davis, president of Hawaii's Kona Brewing, cites the state's decades-long drought as the impetus for having much of his beer brewed at a contract facility in the Lower 48.
However useful this arrangement may be to small or remote breweries, the practice is often demonized within the craft-beer scene. Some enthusiasts feel that the practice is misleading to consumers at best, and in some cases damaging to the quality of the brands themselves.
Tim Schoen is the CEO of Brew Hub, a chain of production facilities that's launching in Lakeland in May. He aims to change the way people look at contract brewing by providing a service far removed from traditional contract brewing. According to Schoen. Brew Hub is not about contract brewing — instead, it's partner brewing.
"We're turning that perception 180 degrees," Schoen said. "We're going to promote it and embrace it. We view ourselves as real stakeholders with our partners."
Brew Hub's Lakeland facility — the first of six regional facilities planned across the country that will host between five and eight partner breweries each — will emphasize a customized approach to partner brewing. This will include custom-built facilities designed to replicate the processes at the partner brewery's current facility, as well as the hands-on cooperation between the partner brewery's brewmaster and Brew Hub's brewmaster, Paul Farnsworth.
To Schoen, the Brew Hub concept is not simply a convenience to partner breweries, but a necessary step for craft beer's continued growth.
"The industry is projecting that (craft beer) is going to be anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of the total volume of the beer industry by the year 2020," he said. "The current infrastructure cannot handle 10 to 15 percent volume throughout the country."
Brew Hub will announce six breweries that have signed on to brew in Lakeland by the end of the year, with the tasting room opening shortly thereafter. The facility will start brewing in March, with an official grand opening on May 1.
Aside from production and packaging, Brew Hub also will offer services ranging from brand consultation to distribution overseas, allowing brewers to ship beer as far as China and Australia. While traditional contract brewers don't get involved in marketing their clients' beers, that will be a crucial component of Brew Hub, where the tasting room will feature merchandise — and, of course, beers — from the partner breweries on site.
Will Brew Hub change the way enthusiasts look at contract brewing? Perhaps more important, does it matter? If the growth that the craft-beer industry has experienced over the past few years continues, Schoen's warning of a currently unsustainable infrastructure will seem more urgent. It's possible that the Brew Hub concept may be just the thing to keep craft beer thriving well past 15 percent of the domestic beer market.