If you read my latest I Tried It about Walmart’s private label beer, then you’ll recall that Walmart’s beer is contract brewed by a company called Trouble Brewing. Contract brewing is when a company brews and packages its beer using equipment it does not own and comes in a few forms. One of these forms is the way Walmart is brewing its own store brand of beer, wherein the contracting brewer essentially hands the entire beer production over to the contract brewery and has very little input or involvement with the beer itself. Another way contract brewing occurs is a brewery letting a brewer come in to use equipment that may go unused otherwise and the brewer has much more involvement in the process, such as supplying his or her own ingredients and recipe. Yet a third way contract brewing occurs is by itinerant brewers, which you can learn more about heading over to Word of the Week.
In cases such as Walmart’s, finding out more about the contract brewery - Trouble Brewing, in this particular case - sometimes proves to be a Nancy Drew-level mystery.
The first step I took was Googling Trouble Brewing. If you do the same, you’ll find that the first hit is for an Irish craft brewery named Trouble Brewing. Because I know that Walmart’s Trouble Brewing is in Rochester, New York, I knew this wasn’t the same brewery. As I kept scrolling, the results got fishier and fishier – there were Untappd links that only listed the four beers Trouble Brewing brews (hmmmm…) and some Beer Advocates links for the same four beers, but no website for a Trouble Brewing in Rochester, New York. In this day and age, it is extremely rare for any business, no matter how small, to not have a website. Or any kind of web presence beyond what other people have posted about them. Even Drink Like a Boss, a malt beverage with “certified color” (WTF IS THAT), which is brewed by a tobacco company in Kings Mountain, NC, has a website. There’s not much to it, but it has a website.
Not having a website is no match for my intrepid spirit.
The next step I took was to head over to the TTB’s COLA approval website because I knew if I could find the label approval, I could find the plant registry information as well as contact information for the brewery. I chose to search by Trouble Brewing’s most apropos beer name, Red Flag. Up popped a label approval from December 2015, which was registered to Hop House Brews and Winery Exchange, Inc. in Rochester, New York. Great! Now to head over to the website for Hop House Brews to find out more about the company behind the company behind Walmart’s beers.
No website for Hop House Brews either. Although this Google search at least turned up another private label beer about which I did not know. As it turns out, Hop House Brews brews a beer called Big Flats Lager 1901, which is only available at…Walgreens? So now we all know that Walgreens has its own brand of beer, too.
Another dead end? Not with my pluck and moxie.
The address for Hop House Brews is also listed on the TTB’s website, so I entered that into Google Maps and voila! The mastermind behind Hop House Brews, which is the mastermind behind Trouble Brewing, which is the mastermind behind Walmart’s private label beer is Genessee Brewing, which is actually now known by the more faceless name of North American Breweries.
North American Breweries does have a website, which lists their brands but not their brands’ brands. North American Breweries lists their beer brands as Dundee, Genessee, Honey Brown, Imperial, Labatt Blue, Labatt Blue Light, Labatt Blue Light Lime (blech), Magic Hat, Portland Brewing, and Pyramid. There is a link to find out more about their contract brewing but it is unsurprisingly vague and directs you to an email address for more information.
Geez Louise, this mystery wore our spunky and gallant gumshoe out.
I get why contract brewers don’t always make it easy to figure out who they are – their business is conceptualizing beer, brewing it, packaging it, and then selling it under a private label name. Their job is to be anonymous, to be the guy behind the guy, to be the wind beneath the wings.
But is there a need for it? Take Trader Joe’s for instance. It’s a company that is all private label, all the time. Trader Joe’s has several beer products and has never gone to great pains to disguise who brews their private label beer and neither have the contract breweries. Although if my contract breweries included the likes of Gordon Biersch, Goose Island, Unibroue, and Firestone-Walker, I probably wouldn’t mind not keeping it a secret.
However, if there’s one thing most craft beer drinkers can agree they value, it’s authenticity. We want our beers to come with a face, a name, a brewery, a story. Authenticity is why the outrage is so swift and severe when a brewery announces it’s being acquired by another, larger company. Authenticity is also why we roll our eyes at the idea of Walmart selling its own “craft” beer.
By the way, if there are any other monolithic organizations out there thinking about introducing a private label beer, maybe don’t give it such tantalizing names as Trouble Brewing and Red Flag. Because names like that just encourage sleuthing as well as derision.
Next up – The Mystery of Certified Color.