Contracting an Illness

Published two weeks ago on Stuff was possibly one of the most interesting and important articles written about beer in New Zealand. This one by Michael Donaldson, talking about Tuatara brewing Townshend Brewery beers under contract. In the process, the Townshend beers became infected with a wild yeast or bacteria, causing the bottles to fountain when opened, and the beer itself to taste bad. Take a moment and give it a read.

I want to talk about it because it touches on a couple of interesting points about the brewing industry.

Two things that need to be said: First, my deepest sympathies for Martin. He’s been working so damn hard for eleven years now, and to have a set back like this is devastating. Not only from a personal point of view – disappointing customers – but from a financial point of view. Losing large quantities of stock, not to mention a distribution deal of this scale must be potentially ruinous for a business as small as Townshend.

Martin Townshend. Credit: Jed Soane/The Beer Project.

Martin Townshend.                                                                          Credit: Jed Soane/The Beer Project.

I’d also like to say I’m disappointed in Tuatara’s (now ex-) CEO’s reaction:

“[Shirtcliffe] believes the problem was caused by an over-estimation of demand for Townshend’s beer in six packs and as a result the beer spent a long time in unchilled storage and, because some of stock was unpasteurised, refermented in the bottle.”

In saying this, they’ve essentially denied any responsibility for producing faulty beer. But the assertion that gushing bottles was a result of ambient storage I find dubious.

Not mentioned in this article is the fact that it wasn’t only bottles that were infected, but also keg stock. I know this because I regularly ordered Townshend kegs from Tuatara for Golding’s. In October 2015 I contacted Tuatara about infected Pilsner kegs, and in January 2016 I contacted Martin directly about infected APA kegs (both of these beers were exhibiting what I’d call a ‘farmhouse character’ typical of wild yeast, and high levels of carbonation). At this point I stopped ordering Townshend beers unless I knew they’d been brewed by Martin in Moutere (none of which have ever shown signs of infection).

Add to this, the fact that I have literally never heard of commercially produced beer accidentally re-fermenting in bottles without an infection. Many, if not most ‘craft’ brewers in New Zealand do not pasteurise their bottles. These then go on to sit ambient in supermarket storerooms and off-licence shelves for up to months at a time, and yet gushing bottles are a very rare occurrence.

What all this suggests is that the root cause of the issue was probably an infection, and it was most likely occurring somewhere up-stream from the bottling line. But let’s not get too bogged down in brewing minutia.

As I see it, there are two wider issues at play here. As pointed out by Martin, we need better guidelines for contract brewing. Whilst I’m not hugely enamoured with the idea of extra legislation in this matter, minimum standards for labels would probably help in this regard. Forcing contractors to state where each beer was brewed would put some of the responsibility back on the brewery that made it. After all, no one wants their name attached to a faulty product.

However, I’m not convinced that labelling standards would address what is the core of the problem, which is accountability in the contract brewing process. If something goes wrong, we need clearly defined guidelines as to who is responsible at each stage in the brewing process. This isn’t just to protect contractors, but also to protect the breweries that make the beer on the contractor’s behalf as well.

Whilst things like infections and fermentation issues are the responsibility of the actual brewery that’s been contracted, other factors are the responsibility of the contractor. Things like recipe flaws, such as an inexperienced contractor supplying a recipe that will not actually work, or making decisions/specifications that negatively impact the finished product (I’ve heard of both of those happening). Protection for both parties in this situation is necessary.

Again, legislation might help, but what I might suggest is establishing a comprehensive legal framework that can be employed by any brewery, demarcating responsibilities for contract brewing. The Brewers Guild of New Zealand might be instrumental in establishing these; as well as a potential arbiter in the event of a dispute.

Now there probably was some sort of agreement, legally binding or not, in the Townshend/Tuatara deal, we don’t know for sure. But what we can say is that if there was, it was definitely not comprehensive enough. Just look at this line: “For his part Townshend didn’t realise the beer would be stored unchilled.” Storage of finished product is exactly the sort of thing that needs to be agreed upon beforehand. Beer has a limited shelf-life and I’m willing to bet few breweries would agree to a distribution deal if they knew their product was going to sit ambient.

I think the larger issue here is a lack of professionalism in the ‘craft’ brewing industry as a whole. We are transitioning from a cottage industry, to a large-scale, commercial one. That transition is not always going to be smooth. The simple fact of the matter is that many brewers, even surprisingly large ones, seem to behave as if they’re still making beer in their garage for their mates. It’s no way to build a mature, sustainable industry.

On the one hand, it’s easy to forgive a small, one or two person operation like Townshend for this sort of thing. When you have to do everything yourself, it’s easy to make mistakes. On the other hand, whether you’re making 50 litres, or 50 hectolitres, good business practices are essential.

Legal protection, accounting, cashflow, human resources, customer relations, brand management, logistics, health and safety, company culture: these are the boring, unsexy, business-wank-type-buzzwords words that no one wants to deal with. But  these are what breweries need to come to terms with with if they’re going to grow and prosper in the years to come. Because you can make the best beer in the world, but if you can’t run a business, you’ll have a hard time staying afloat to sell much of it.

To end on a positive note, Townshend beers are back being produced in Moutere and tasting great. You should pick one up next time you see them on tap or in stores. And give him a hug/high five next time you see him. He really has earned it.




6 thoughts on “Contracting an Illness

  1. Great post! The ‘comprehensive legal framework’ for contracting arrangements should exist – in the contracts. That way if a brewer wanted to have where a beer was produced on the label this could be agreed on in the contracting process and likewise there needs to be framework for deciding who is at blame. Maybe the Brewers Guild could consult with the industry and come up with some sort of basic contracting agreement much like the hospitality association provides form employment agreements that meet all the basic standards to its memebers.

    • ‘Contract’, I guess it’s in the name, isn’t it?

      Yeah, more or less what I was thinking – some sort of boilerplate agreement that breweries can use.

      • The lovely Kerry Gray made a point a few weeks ago about the need for the Guild to me more active in areas other than the awards. I think this is one such.

  2. As someone who has worked in the contract manufacturing industry albeit in a different area the onus is one the contractor and the contractee to come to a substantive agreement on what will it be made with and to what standard and how will it be stored and distributed. . Otherwise substandard product and consumer dissatisfaction is assured.

  3. It seems like a complex situation and I have sympathy for both parties. But I find it staggering, the attitude that 100% of the blame should lie with the guy who didn’t brew / store / distribute the beer. I have had gushers in my homebrew from both infection and poorly mixed priming solution, serving this to customers must be heartbreaking.

    It would be interesting to know how long the bottles were stored at ambient temps. If the bottles were past the use-by date when they hit the shelves (which should be a few months for an APA) then Tuatara’s explanation makes sense.

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