What is a gipsy brewer?
4 April 2016, By Jonny Garret
How would you feel if I told you that some of your favourite breweries aren’t actually breweries? That some beers are conceived on one side of the world by one person, and brewed on the other side by someone completely different.
I know that sounds ridiculous, but if you are a big fan of Mikkeller or Omnipollo; if you’ve ever enjoyed a Stillwater or Evil Twin beer, then you’ve been enjoying the work of a very untraditional kind of brewer.
A gipsy or “phantom” brewer is a company that does everything else a brewery does, except actually make the beer. Mikkel, founder of Mikkeller, hasn’t brewed a commercial batch of his own beer since around 2006. Instead he rents out or commissions other breweries to make his beers for him. According to a documentary on Youtube, he still comes up with all the recipes on a small Braumeister at his office in Copenhagen. Among these breweries is our Norwegian favourite, Lervig, who make all of his strong stouts including the world-famous Beer Geek Vanilla Shake. The story goes that after trialling the beer at competitions and serving it at Copenhagen Beer Festival, demand became so huge he turned to his friend Mike Murphy to make the first commercial batch. The rest is history.
Meanwhile, Omnipollo have been making outrageous beers for a few years at various locations all over Europe. The two founders, Karl Grandin and Henok Fentie are heavily into art, hence their remarkable bottles, and are inspired by looks as much as taste. While visiting one of the breweries that makes their beer, the awesome Buxton Brewery, we were told that actually Karl is not a huge fan of beer, and purposefully brews drinks that taste as far removed from it as possible. It might explain the endless use of unusual ingredients, the often low bitterness and the obsession with pushing boundaries.
Can gipsy brewers really be craft?
Both Mikkeller and Omnipollo brew the majority of their beers at the mystical De Proef brewery in Belgium. We were lucky enough to be allowed to tour the place, a privilege not granted to many. It couldn’t be further away from the railway arch culture of the UK. We had to wash our shoes before walking in, a request we understood once we saw the spotless brewery. The tanks shone so brightly so you nearly squinted, and from each fermenter hung labels admitting which brewery was using the amazing facilities - pictures that could show any names weren’t allowed. While breweries like Omnipollo proudly proclaim to be gipsy brewers, others use places like De Proef to keep up with demand or to guarantee consistency of a core product, and their provenance story would be ruined by admitting they brewed abroad.
There has been some resistance to the rise of gipsy brewing, particularly in Belgium. Can you be a craft brewer if you are not even the man loading the malt? Do you deserve the credit for a beer if you conceived it and left it to others? For us any criticism is unfair if the concept and recipe is exciting and unique. Just because they didn’t add the hops, that doesn’t mean they aren’t the reason the beer tastes hoppy.
Below are some of our favourite gipsy-brewed beers, all of which push the boundaries of beer in a way that a normal brewery might not be able.
Brewed at De Proef, its unlikely that this is a truly spontaneously (ie wild yeast) beer but it’s definitely made with the right strains, with that cider-like puckering sour and sweet crossover, and a hit of blackcurrant fruitiness.
One of the first of a new wave of absolutely juice bombs, this beer was way ahead of its time when it came out. It smells like pure fruit juice – overripe mango, and pineapple – and has a light, fizzy mouthfeel and a clean finish.
Definitely one of Lervig’s finest moments, this beer brewed with gipsy brewer To Ol from Copenhagen, this lightly soured, slightly caramelized beer is like Anchor Steam with a hint of acidity and a hoppy finish.
We love this big IPA, which is brewed in Belgium but owes as much to the West Coast of America as anywhere seeing as it’s dry hopped to hell with simcoe. Brewed at De Proef it also comes in a new variety every year, whether it’s with a new hop (galaxy in 2013) or a new yeast (brett in 2015). Soon, however, Troubadour won't be a gipsy brewer, with a brewery in the works for early next year.
Soft Focus is a Wheat Ale crazed up with amarillo and tettnanger hops. Flowerful notes from the wheat create a harmonious blend with the hops and add aromas of freshly pressed citrus fruits and orange, as well as softer sweet smells of elderflowers.