Should we give a flying #### about breweries?

| juli 24, 2013

It’s not often I start writing an article and a sense of dread begins to churn in the pit of my stomach – like indigestion after a big meal – and grows with every word I type.

But that’s because I’m about to share more personal thoughts on flying brewers, and if there’s one subject in today’s beer scene that’s more likely to provoke heated debate* and cause people to pick sides than flying brewers then I don’t know of it.

What I do know is that many flying brewers are the darlings of the craft beer movement right now, responsible for what many regard as some of the most imaginative, experimental and often great tasting beers out there**.

This is an actual brewery. At least it will be once I've plugged it in :)

This is an actual brewery. At least it will be once I’ve plugged it in 🙂

But the success of flying brewers like Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, aka Mikkeller and even closer to home Henok and Karl from Omnipollo has undoubtedly caused waves in certain parts of the beer industry, with some questioning whether they are visionary, creative geniuses who have ridden in and captured the imagination of a new generation of beer drinkers or just market-savvy opportunists who create great brands while letting others take care of the beers themselves.

I’ve already scratched the itchy subject of flying brewers on BeerSweden earlier this year so rather than repeat myself I’d like to kindly direct you to read the ‘The Big Flying Brewer Debate’ here and part 2 here.

Back then as today whenever the topic of flying brewers comes up opinion still seems to largely get divided into two camps: those that say ‘so what how or where the beer is made, as long as it tastes great’ and those that argue that only the people who have taken the financial risk and invested the time and hard labour of starting their own brewery, who create their own recipes and physically brew them themselves have earned the right to call themselves brewers’.

The latter feel passionately that place matters, that drinking a beer in the knowledge it is created and cared for throughout every step of the brewing process by the same person or group of people at the same place means something. That only a real brewery can give a beer real integrity.

Supporters of flying brewers sometimes counter that it’s the very fact they are not burdened with the responsibilities of investing huge lumps of cash into brewing equipment, washing floors and cleaning out tanks that allows flying brewers the creative freedom to create their beers. That flying brewers excel in other areas of the beer business physical breweries tend to overlook. And that at the end of the day great beer is all that counts.

They will also often throw in that by renting tank space at physical breweries they actually help support breweries with spare capacity.

These are simple out-takes from a very complex issue and many of them, I feel, are built on a lack of information (and even worse misinformation) about the real work that goes on from both sides.

For me the cause of the problem is primarily rooted in a sense of resentment by physical breweries who feel they have paid their dues by building a brewery and running it. And trust me; having spent over a year building my own craft brewery I can totally relate to their point of view.

Starting a brewery is a huge investment – not just in money (although it isn’t cheap!) but in emotion. I’ve lost count of the days and nights I’ve stressed and worried about everything from floor finishes, drains, ventilation pipes and methods of carbonation to bottle caps and label designs. And don’t even get me started on the swathes of red tape and legislation you need to plough through in order to start brewing in Sweden.

I’m not complaining mind you. These are all necessary stops along the journey for anyone starting a brewery and if you can’t handle a few bumps along the road you’re probably in the wrong business. But these things are the reason physical breweries are so passionate about what they represent. They feel they have invested themselves (and often their families and friends) into their breweries so they can call themselves brewers.

So to see a flying brewer effectively side-step all of this, and then see them and their beers roundly lauded by the beer community, for some, stings a little.

Of course we should remember that flying brewers have their work cut out to. Granted they may not have invested in equipment but even the best beer recipes don’t make beer that sells itself. Flying brewers are experts in reading the market, spotting the next big trend (or creating them) and then marketing themselves and their beers. Mikkeller is not only the ‘Godfather of Gypsy Beer‘; he’s also the ‘Godfather of Gypsy Beer Marketing’.

Physical breweries often point out the differences between themselves and flying brewers, and question why, for instance,  Mikkeller and others like Evil Twin Brewing appear in the World’s top 50 brewers at leading beer rating site when they don’t always brew the beer themselves. They call for greater accountability about where a beer is made and more detail on the flying brewer’s input into making it.

Again I feel this is a valid comment.There IS a distinction between flying brewers and breweries, and in my opinion the beer community at large needs to sit up straighter and recognise this fact. Isn’t it time we were more transparent with the drinking public about the difference, not in a caustically motivated attempt to alienate one, but to better celebrate both?

Ultimately of course it’s you – the beer drinkers – that have the final word. Some of us will always place greater value on drinking a beer from a physical brewery (local or otherwise), putting their money and faith into a company and a group of people they trust to deliver a great beer. Others will place more value on the beer itself, and buy it regardless of its origins.

Flying brewers are just another sign of change, and change, in my opinion, is nearly always healthy. The beautiful thing about the beer business is that it is constantly in flux. Old habits die hard but they do eventually die. New forces emerge and challenge the Status Quo and in doing so they irrevocably change it.

It was a desire to change the beer scene that lead to the craft beer revolution and our new-found excitement about beer in a very real way decades later to this website and many others like it. Change is the reason I’m sitting here writing this article and the reason why you’re reading it.

So yes, I believe we should care about how and where a beer is made. Just how much we care is really up to you.


*One of the best debates about flying brewers on the internet can be found over at the BeerSweden Forum. Check it out!

** Need to make the point here that just because a beer comes from a flying brewer doesn’t automatically make it great. The same can be said of beers released by physical breweries too.

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Category: Articles in English, Krönika, Senaste Nytt

Comments (15)

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  1. Johannes Weiss skriver:

    I’ve got nothing against flying brewers. One thing I miss though is local colour.
    For me a beer is more than the final taste, for me it also counts where the ingredients come from.
    A lot of gypsy brewed beers are coming from Belgium and are thus brewed with Belgian water etc.
    But in a Swedish beer I’d like to see Swedish ingredients as far as that’s possible. It’s not possible for the hops, but it’s definitely possible for example for the water and malts used.
    That of course does not only apply for Sweden, but also for all other countries.

  2. Why can’t both co-exist and treat eachother respectfully? Proper info about where the beer is made should be given of course. The whole discussion feels a bit like “waves in a duck pond” cause everyone having an opinion about this is pretty much initiated with the craft beer movement and its ways. Of course Mikkeller can’t be compared to, lets say, Traquair or Weihenstephan. But as long as they (the flying brewers) doesn’t claim to be anything else than what they are and act with respect I don’t see a problem. I think “we” (duck pond people) should worry more about macro breweries acting like craft breweries, cause they have the abilities to fool the masses.

  3. darren skriver:

    Great point there Fredrik. As a duck pond person I totally get that this sort of ‘in-house’ debate is boring for many people. I still find it interesting mind you (hence the article) but having written it all I now want to do is follow a flying brewer’s beer from his or her brain, to their kitchen, to Belgium (or wherever it is brewed) and back again to Sweden. In doing so we’d get to see the work flying brewers put into their craft, and that, for me, would be fascinating!
    Also totally agree about your Macro/Micro point!

  4. Johannes Weiss skriver:

    Of course both can co-exist. As written I’ve got nothing against Gypsy brewers. Mikkeller and Evil Twin are great and I got all the respect for what they’ve done and are still doing. I just feel there are too many others jumping on that train and just benefit from the platform Mikkeller created for them.

  5. Kevin Z skriver:

    Darren, Sounds like a good article for a future c/o Hops issue. 😉

    As someone starting a brewery in Sweden as well, I’m a bit wary of gypsy brewers but I’m a bit of a part of the American beer lovers community still and I listen to what my colleagues are saying about Scandinavian beers and they are VERY excited about what is going on up north here. A lot of that has to do with brewers who are reaching beyond the borders like Mikkeller and Omnipollo. It’s impossible for small, locally-emphasized breweries like mine will be and is the case for the majority of swedish microbreweries, to reach beyond the nordic borders. But these flying brewers as you call them have that ability and are spreading good news and expectations about the craft beer scene in Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

    As small, local breweries we should aim to keep the expectations up when they come over for a visit!

  6. Marc skriver:

    If a flying brewer buys into an existing physical brewery with a small percentage that then increases over time, how many percent of the physical brewery must they own before not being flying anymore? And how many percent can the initial brewery go down to before they become flying instead of physical? And if it’s the same people working in the brewery doing the same things before as after, what significance does the change of percentages of ownership have on how traditional and authentic they are, and whom you should give credit for producing the same beers?

  7. J skriver:

    Hmmm, a question for thoughts. If too many are jumping on the train Mikkeller created, does it mean all the “real” breweries that are opening or have been opening the last 1000 or so years are just jumping on the train that Weihenstephaner created? Can there only be one? Its just a business model, so to say that only one are legit and the rest are just jumping on the train (btw, Mikkeller was NOT the first “gypsy” brewer) is pretty one sighted.

  8. Jeppe skriver:

    Dear Darren,

    interesting read. And funny to think that you named me, a so called flying brewer, as the inspiration for you to open your open brewery. I’m honored of course and happy you respect what I do!

    Good luck with your own!


  9. darren skriver:

    Great to hear from you over the water! Of course (and I’m glad you saw it) I have enormous respect for flying brewers. You only need to flick back through BeerSweden over the years to see that 🙂 And yes, that chat we had in the Bishops Arms around the SBWF a couple of years back did push me over the brink of a decision to start Beer Studio. So when we’re open you’re more than welcome to fly up to Umeå and hang out for a while 🙂
    Good luck with all your amazing projects!

  10. Johannes Weiss skriver:

    First of all I never said that there’s only one gypsy brewer “allowed”, you (whoever you are) just assumed that because I wrote there are TOO many. Too many doesn’t mean there shall only be one.

    Also Weihenstephan was not the first “brewery” in the world, so Weihenstephan would also have jumped on a train that was probably created by some Sumerians. Weihenstephan, for you to know, is the oldest brewery still being in operation though.

  11. J skriver:

    “Too many”. Please name all you can, would like to know what “too many” means to you.

    Weihenstephaner is the first “commercial” brewery. But ok, lets just say Weihenstephaner have jumped the train also………

  12. Johannes Weiss skriver:

    @J: Sorry, but this is getting unobjective and I generally don’t like to discuss something with an anonymous. I have nothing to add to what I’ve written before. Cheers.

  13. J skriver:

    Understandable, “too many” is still less than 0,1% of the amount of “real” breweries in the world. You know that and it makes your point invalid.

  14. J skriver:

    Btw, my name is John John but I’m called J. So you can answer now.

  15. Johannes Weiss skriver:

    What makes you so angry?