So…how do I contract brew?

January 29, 2012

You love craft beer, so you start home-brewing. You brew a couple good batches in a row and your friends start raving about your beers. That’s when the inner voice begins.

Try as you might to go about life as normal, the voice becomes louder as you brew more and more.

Owner Mark Dunkerley with the first bottle of Jubilee

You start to do a little research and learn that craft beer is hot. Really hot. 10-12% sales growth hot.

You read Sam Calgione’s book, Brewing Up a Business. The voice consumes you.

It’s time to start your own brewery.

You start putting together a business plan. The marketing section looks great…you’re going to sell unique, high quality ales and your packaging is going to be awesome.  The financials? Wait…something has to be wrong here. That’s a big number. $1.5-2 million big. Making it back at $3-4 per case. Ouch.

“How the hell am I going to do this?”

And then you hear about another way. A way to bring your beers to market without having to invest all that money in a brewery.

Eureka…I’m going to contract brew!

You google “contract brewing” and find…well, not much (here’s a link to Lion Brewing that does a nice job of laying out the steps you’ll need to take).

Unfortunately there isn’t a nice list of breweries you can contact about brewing your beer. The ones you find seem a little…well, dauntingly large.

So…how do you find a smaller brewery to brew for you?


I met the owners of BBC through a mutual family friend.  I got pretty lucky on that one.

Who should you target?

If I were starting from scratch, here’s what I would do

1) Look for breweries that are either starting up or expanding.  Most existing craft breweries are struggling with capacity issues, so they likely won’t give you the time of day.  Breweries in start-up or expansion mode have excess capacity and will be more likely to welcome some extra $ in the coffers.

2) Attend beer festivals as a volunteer (you can meet local reps and sometimes owners), join the local beer geek group (homebrewer’s association), get to know the bartenders at the local craft beer bar (but don’t be a douche about it), meet with local distributors. 

3) Volunteer to work at your local brewery if you can

4) Organize a beer festival of your own (this takes some planning and $, but it can be done)

5) Travel to some of the beer conferences

A couple things you should consider when looking at breweries:

1) Shipping- ideally, you will be able to piggyback on the existing brewery’s shipments…by putting your beer on their truck, you will both be lowering costs.

2) Quality- take a close look at the quality of the beers the brewery currently produces.  If an existing local or smaller(15bbl and under) brewery has a lot of capacity, there’s probably a reason.

3) Mininum quantity- figure out your breakeven point and set that as your minimum quantity…go higher if you can.

Contract brewing can be a fantastic way to get into the beer business. But it’s not easy.  Hopefully these tips will help you.

Oh, and expect to make about $2 a case if you’re lucky.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sten June 8, 2012 at 8:54 am

Great article – I think you hit all the important points and clearly have done your homework!
Beltway Brewing Company is in plans to open in early 2013 exclusively as a contract brewer, host for partner brewing and to produce and package private label beers.

Mark June 8, 2012 at 6:48 pm

Thanks Sten! Best of luck with your endeavor. We may look you up when I’m near your area.

Kurt July 9, 2012 at 5:26 pm

What about labor costs? As a contract brewer can you provide all of the labor associated with production or does the host brewery usually provide all the labor and factor the cost into their overall price for contract brewing?



Mark July 28, 2012 at 10:49 am

Not likely. You could maybe help with some of it if the brewery has hourly folks doing the filling of the cases, pallets, etc, but for the most part it’s easiest to use their labor

Katherine May 19, 2013 at 5:46 am

As a contract brewer, what licenses do you need to obtain? I have heard you need a wholesale license if you want to distribute it yourself but is this possible to do without renting a warehouse space? Thanks, Katherine

Mark May 19, 2013 at 4:58 pm

Hi Katherine. The licenses you will need vary state by state, and also depend upon your agreement with the brewery you are contracting with. I hate to be vague, but I don’t want to tell you the wrong info. I’d recommend calling the local ABC board and asking them. As for distributing, you will definitely need a federal permit, regardless of whether you have your own space. For instance, my beer is stored at the brewery until the distributor picks it up. Hope this helps some.

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