Micro contractors spark big brewhaha

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So it’s Sunday night and I’m trying to find an Eagles score on the tube when I hear possibly the worst news a guy could hear under any circumstances, but especially those circumstances under which, having just consumed, oh, about two dozen different brews at a local beer festival, that fella has assumed a face-down position on the couch of his choice.

Stay tuned, the TV says, for an exclusive report: THE SHOCKING TRUTH ABOUT MICROBREWED BEER!

What is it this time? Cancer? Botulism? Gout?

“Ohmygod, I’ve poisoned myself,” I moan.

“No kidding,” says an unsympathetic voice in the kitchen.

“Really – Stone Phillips says so. That microbrewed stuff is demon swill . . .”

Now, I’m not sure if I got it straight, but according to this exclusive investigative report by “Dateline NBC,” it turns out that microbrewed beers aren’t really made by singing elves. Some of these so-called hand-crafted beers are made, surprise, in huge factories owned by large corporations.

The practice, called contract brewing, is a dirty little secret that’s been plaguing the microbrew industry since the early ’80s, when New Amsterdam Brewing Co. of New York City figured out it was cheaper to let F.X. Matt of upstate New York brew its lager. Nobody much cared about contract brewing until supposed micros like Boston Beer Co. (maker of Samuel Adams) and Pete’s Brewing Co. of California started brewing beer by the truckful at factories in Pittsburgh and Allentown – the same places that turn out dreck like Iron City and Stroh’s.

I always thought it was a bit of a game. Slick Madison Avenue types come up with cute labels that profess adherence to 600-year-old brewing techniques that use all-natural ingredients, and then in small print admit the beer was actually made in Wilkes-Barre, which I believe is the Official Armpit of Pennsylvania.

But at least one TV news show, and many people in the industry, see it as a scandal.

“It’s a little unfair,” says Gene Muller, who last week opened the area’s newest brewery, Flying Fish in Cherry Hill. “They’ve got the marketing muscle that we’re never going to have . . . I think it’s dishonest . . . The other things is, if you contract, you don’t have the brewery. We’ve got real brewers here. A contract brewer is just a guy in a suit with a case of beer.”

Some of this controversy might sound like jealousy among small brewers who would love to be making as much money off beer as has Boston Beer’s Jim Koch. And some of it is hypocrisy. One of the leading critics of contract brewing is Anheuser-Busch, which – worried that contractors are cutting into its specialty brew division – is pushing a petition with the feds to force them to come clean. Meanwhile, A-B won’t tell you if the beer you’re guzzling was brewed in its St. Louis plant or one in Newark, N.J.

Jeff Ware, the president of Dock Street Brewing, which contracts its bottled beers at F.X. Matt, says A-B is merely looking to sully the reputation of small beer companies. “Anheuser-Busch spent a generation killing off small breweries and they thought they put an end to it. Now the only way for them to grow is to steal market share from the specialty brews.”

Even to Joe Sixpack, this is inside baseball. If you happen to enjoy what you’re drinking, who cares who made it? (Unless, of course, it’s Coor’s – but that’s a gripe for another day.)

The best beer I tasted last week – Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout – came out of F.X. Matt. When I sampled Philly’s first keg of the deep-roasted brew at Bridgid’s (24th & Meredith streets), the place was full of beer drinkers drawn by word that the precious brew had finally arrived in town. None of them seemed put off by the stout’s lineage.

Likewise, I expect beerheads to line up for the Triple Bock at Samuel Adams Brewhouse (1516 Sansom St.) when it goes on tap on Wednesday. That’s right – this strong ale (a stunning 17.5 percent alcohol) is a contract brew, too. The wort is cooked at a California winery, then fermented at the brewhouse.

Confused? Well, while I continue my search for last week’s Eagles score, here’s a run-down of local micros that are contracted. Clip and save this list. Or, better yet, toss it in the trash and go sample these brews for yourself. The label might lie, but your tongue always tells the truth.

  • * Neuweiler of Bethlehem, made by Stroh’s.
  • * Penn Pilsner of Pittsburgh, made at Jones Brewery, Smithton.
  • * Stoudts of Adamstown, 12-ounce bottles made at Lion; draught and unpasteurized champagne-sized bottles produced at its own micro.
  • * Tun Tavern of Abington, made by the Lion Brewery.
  • * Ugly Dog of West Chester, bottles made by Lion; draught produced at its own micro.
  • * D.G. Yuengling & Son of Pottsville, brews its Black & Tan at Stroh’s; all other lines produced at its own brewery.

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