The Innovative 'Gypsy Brewers' Shaking Up the Beer World


Bernt Rostad/flickr

Pretty Things is one of the most sought-after new brands of beer on the East Coast. But it's not a brewery. There's no facility or warehouse; the entire staff consists of Dann and Martha Paquette, the owners, and Jim Barnes, the New York sales rep.

Instead, Pretty Things is part of a small but growing breed of itinerant—or gypsy—brewers, a list that includes Stillwater Artisanal Ales, based in Baltimore, and Mikkeller, from Copenhagen. Gypsy brewers invert the conventional startup model: instead of sinking close to a million dollars into equipment, leases, and payroll, they rent space, time, and often manpower from other breweries.

"Everyone has different reasons for starting this way," Martha said, "but for us it was partly financial. We brewed our first batch and we were broke. How many conventional breweries can do that?"

It was a decision born of experience. Dann has been a professional brewer for nearly 20 years, long enough to remember the craft beer boom and bust of the mid-90s. "I saw too many guys lose all their money, even their houses, when their breweries failed," he said.

I met the Paquettes and Barnes at a Midtown Manhattan café on a rainy September morning. As I sat down, Dann was on the phone with Pretty Things's current home, a brewery in Westport, Massachusetts. That kind of flexibility is another advantage of gypsy brewing: The only time Dann and Martha need to be on site is when they're actually brewing; otherwise, they can run everything from their home in Cambridge—or a New York City coffee shop.

If you don't have a workplace to leave, your work never leaves you. "We're always talking about beer, even sitting around the kitchen table," Martha Paquette said. "Luckily it's so much fun."

But the real advantage for Pretty Things is the creative flexibility that comes with having few sunk costs. Conventional breweries need to make a regular income to cover loans, pay investors, and meet insurance premiums—which, at least until the upfront costs are covered, means brewing beers that will sell widely. That's partly why new breweries start with crowd-pleasers like IPAs and brown ales, and only later venture into palate-challengers like sour ales and imperial stouts.

"We're able to be crazy creative," Martha said. "We brew for our own entertainment." Indeed, few breweries are as proudly idiosyncratic as Pretty Things. They draw their own labels and promote their new beers with home videos posted to YouTube. Like other gypsy brewers, they eschew standard styles in favor of deeply personal tastes; Babayaga, which Dann described as a "woodland stout" and is brewed with malts roasted with rosemary, "was meant to taste like an old lady made it in a shack in Eastern Europe."

It's a similar story for Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, who started brewing under the Mikkeller label in 2007 and has become one of Europe's best-known craft brewers. He said he chose the gypsy brewer route specifically because he wanted the freedom to tap different breweries with different areas of expertise. "I get to choose the breweries I want to work with," he said. "Different breweries have different advantages"—everything from the characteristics of their water supply to the training of their brewers. In less than four years, he's collaborated with a veritable who's who of world-class breweries, including Belgium's De Proef, Norway's Nøgne Ø, Scotland's BrewDog, and Indiana's Three Floyds.

It's also been a way for Bjergsø to break into the U.S. market. Not only do the beers he makes stateside not need to clear customs, but by working with domestic breweries, he's built up an impressive list of contacts among brewers, distributors, and importers, all people who can help him get his beers into the hands of American consumers.

There are, of course, downsides to gypsy brewing. For one thing, the concept is still foreign to most consumers, even many beer geeks. Dann Paquette said a lot of people think Pretty Things is a contract brewery—that is to say, a brand that pays someone else to actually make the beer. "Everything about the beer comes from us," he said. "The brewery just provides the equipment."

Gypsy brewers also have to work around their hosts' schedule. "There aren't many brewhouses these days that are sitting around with excess capacity," said Brian Strumke, the owner, brewer, and sole employee of Stillwater Artisanal Ales.

Strumke brews most of his beer at a facility outside Baltimore, but he frequents breweries in Belgium as well. By both choice and necessity, he said, "my business model is to be wide and shallow," producing a wide range of styles in small quantities. Microscopic, at times: as part of Baltimore Beer Week, Strumke recently debuted Requisite, an "imperialistic" stout available for a single night at a single bar.

And while the Paquettes have done all their brewing in the Boston area, Bjergsø and Strumke travel extensively on both sides of the Atlantic. "It's not something for the family man," said Strumke, who is 34 and unmarried. "In the past three weeks I've been in three time zones, four countries, and eight cities. In between, I've been home for three days."

Probably the biggest problem, though, is the same one faced by anyone who decides to ditch the nine-to-five grind and work from home: If you don't have a workplace to leave, your work never leaves you. "We're always talking about beer, even sitting around the kitchen table," Martha Paquette said. "Luckily it's so much fun."

At least, most of the time. "Sometimes," Dann added," we have to go drink margaritas."

A promotional home video from Pretty Things: