Beer Without a Brewery: What is Nomadic Brewing?

August 06, 2018

By Priya Krishna, August 06, 2018

As homebrewing has grown in popularity as an activity, more people are looking to turn their beer hobbies into beer businesses. But the overhead for making beer commercially is high: between facilities to ingredients, personnel and equipment, there are significant barriers to entry to being an independent brewer.

Enter gypsy brewing, or, the much less derogatory term for the practice: nomadic brewing.

The practice is simple: Beermakers bring the recipes (and sometimes ingredients) to a brewery, and works with the staff to brew that beer using the already existing equipment. It’s not a wildly revolutionary endeavor, but it only started becoming well recognized in the beer world a little less than a decade ago.

An early pioneer in nomadic brewing was Evil Twin, which was started in 2010 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Its founder, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, was a schoolteacher running a beer stall and a distribution company on the side. He started making and serving his own home brews at the stall. One day, he was approached by an importer about distributing the beer.

“He asked for two beers and 100 barrels of each, and I was like, ‘Oh, shit, that’s a lot of beer,’” says Jarnit-Bjergsø. At the time, the most beer he had ever made was 40 barrels worth. So, he called up his friend who ran BrewDog in Edinburgh, Scotland, and asked if he could make the beer at the BrewDog facility. The friend agreed, and the beer was made and shipped out to New York. It sold out in a day. “I thought, maybe I should make a business out of it,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says.

I basically thought of a brewery like a recording studio, where I could rent time and space, and I treated the brewmaster like a producer.”

Practice by Pragmatism

The first thing to understand about nomadic brewing is it’s largely driven by constraints and pragmatism. Most people who start brewing nomadically do so not because of any creatively driven desire to cross-pollinate production across various breweries—it’s because they can’t afford to have their own facility.

Take Brian Strumke, who founded Stillwater Artisanal Ales in 2010. He used to produce electronic music before he realized a passion for home brewing. “I didn’t have the money or the resources to pull together a brewery, and I didn’t have a known brand to get a bank loan,” he says. “So I basically thought of a brewery like a recording studio, where I could rent time and space, and I treated the brewmaster like a producer.”

Contract brewing was technically already an existing practice. The difference, with nomadic brewing, is the relationship between the host brewer and the nomadic brewer. “I wanted to come in and learn the entire experience and be there for the whole development process,” Strumke says. Usually, nomadic brewers don’t just send in the recipe and disappear—one of the biggest critiques, and misunderstandings, that many in the brewing world have about nomadic brewing—they help to source ingredients, check in at the brewery regularly and provide feedback at every stage. A big part of the process, Stumke said, is choosing a brewery where you know you can build a meaningful connection with the team and, of course, one that is willing to lend its space and time in exchange for typically a fee, plus the cost of ingredients, though this arrangement can vary.

Brewing Without Borders

Although nomadic brewing usually starts out of necessity, several of these beermakers see real advantages to the practice. Anthony Sorice, the founder of Root + Branch Brewing, said that nomadic brewing has allowed him to “get my brand out there and make a name for myself before dumpling close to a million dollars into a place and no one knows who I am,” he says. “We can make our own beer without the investment.”

Working with different breweries, and seeing how these places work also breeds innovation, Stumke says: “There are more people getting their hands into the work. They can help me figure out my ideas, and provide cool resources.”

Meanwhile, Jarnit-Bjergsø uses nomadic brewing as a chance to see the world, “and engage with different cultures and people, and design products based on those ideas,” he says. He has no sales representatives or facility managers he has to worry about, so he gets to focus more exclusively on the craft of beer making.

The results, too, are as creative as the processes themselves. Stillwater did an orange wine-inspired beer made with Muscat grapes that blended the refreshment of a sour beer with the crispness of a dry white wine. Root + Branch has a beer called Everyone Stands Beneath Their Own Dome of Heaven, a double IPA brewed with three kinds of oats, plus Galaxy and Citra hops for a “smooth, soft, cereal-like character,” Sorice says. And Evil Twin, known for its collaborations with restaurants, did a beer for the New York hotspot, Mission Chinese Food, called Raceday, a sour IPA made with pineapple and electrolytes—it’s meant to be drunk after a long run.

“Gypsy brewing is what enables this,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says. But he adds that the biggest problem comes in the fact that brewing at someone else’s facility means far less control, and far less of an ability to make beers exactly as one would want. Some brewers won’t have specific varieties of malts or yeast; or the equipment isn’t as clean; or they simply don’t have the time needed to brew certain types of beer.    

Building a System

“You have to be very flexible,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says. “You can’t just go in and make a decision and say, ‘I want to do this.’ I’ve brewed in Mexico and Iceland, and every set-up is different. It makes you rethink what you do. I’ve learned a lot by doing that.” In Puebla, for example, he brewed beer made with local coffee in a facility with less than ten barrels, which would be considered a nano-brewery in the U.S. And in Iceland, he tried making beer with geothermic Icelandic salt, and skyr, Icelandic yogurt—the latter provided pleasant sour notes, he said.

“But it sometimes puts you in an awkward position with the facility,” Sorice adds. “If I want to brew an imperial stout, that takes a month, month and a half. But they want you to get in and get out so they can keep moving product.”

Stumke says his solution to this is brewing specific beers at specific facilities—so he can establish a process that works with the brewer and maintain a level of consistency. In fact, Stillwater, Evil Twin and Root + Branch all have about a half dozen or fewer breweries across the country where they brew certain beers with regularity.

For most of these nomadic brewers, the practice is merely a stepping-stone toward getting a brick and mortar facility. Sorice plans to build a space in Long Island; Jarnit-Bjergsø is in the process of constructing a space in Ridgewood, Queens and Strumke will open a facility in Greenpoint, Brooklyn as soon as this fall.

But they’ve all had such positive experiences with nomadic brewing that they plan to stick with it, and use the brick-and-mortar facilities as experimental laboratories for testing out beers they wouldn’t have the time to make in other facilities.  

“Gypsy brewing was never a part of the plan,” Sorice says. “But we just winged it and went with it, and it’s actually working out.”

Main photo: Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø by Signe Brick

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