Griffin loves the romance of the road; the relationships acquired along the way. From Impressionists to Dadaist collectives, art has always thrived where creators could nurture each other by sharing space, physical and otherwise. Likewise, nomads brew using other people’s brick and mortar and equipment, seeking the serendipity and expansion that comes when spirits collide.
Yet Up Front is far from being the first nomadic brewery. The model was led, in part, by two other artistically-minded brewers who sought spontaneity and resisted being rooted in one place. When Henok Fentie founded Omnipollo in Sweden in 2011, he was inspired by Belgian painter René Magritte and his communist-inspired approach to surrealism – where painters, photographers and even fashion designers worked in series, interpolating a central theme through their chosen medium.
“The basic idea is that you could convey from one form of expression to another,” says Fentie. “I had this idea that if I ever ran a business, I wanted to run it that way.”
Around this time, Fentie met Karl Grandin, a visual artist based in Stockholm, and offered him the idea of opening a brewery embodying these principles. Fentie would do the beer and Grandin would do the design. Grandin was on board, but Fentie only had $3,000 in start-up money, a loan from his mother. There was no way the two surreal dreamers could turn this meager sum into their own real estate.
Instead, Fentie leveraged connections from its brewery work and found them production space at other established breweries. They brewed on short-term contracts, often collaborating with their hosts, and in exchange for time and space, they brought their artistic vision into the brewery.
At the same time, in Baltimore, Brian Strumke was planning his own wandering adventure. Strumke was a home brewer and world-touring techno DJ who began brewing full-time at the end of his DJ career. He was drawn to nomadic brewing for the same reason Fentie was: it was an invitation to travel the world and experiment with new collaborators. At first, a friend introduced Strumke to Twelve Percent; like Stein, he immediately saw how the distributor could help establish a brand without having to rent a building.
“I was like, ‘Oh shit, this can be my label,'” Strumke says. “Creatively, if I really wanted to stick with my art, then getting it out there widely was a safer bet than expecting just one specific local market to absorb your concept.”
Like those authors of America’s first wave of craft beers, the media fell in love with Strumke’s story. They called him a ‘gypsy brewer’, a term he originally adopted but has since abandoned due to its racist connotation (it is still frequently invoked in the US and UK ). NPR praised Stillwater from the get-go, likening Strumke to “an old-world traveling preacher.” In 2011, Stillwater was named the second best new brewer in the world by RateBeer.
For any traditional brewery, the next logical step would be commodification and mass production. But throughout history, iconoclastic artists have operated under a communal and egalitarian ethos that dissolves traditional notions of property, and nomadic brewers are no exception. “I’m an anti-capitalist at heart, and in some ways it’s very weird that I started a business,” Griffin says. “You can be against money, but you still have to spend it, because it’s the dominant system.”
Up Front’s Giulia exemplifies this philosophy. An English-style Barleywine blend aged on figs and dates, it’s the product of six different brewing locations. Every time Griffin moved, the barrels came with him. When the end result proved unsatisfactory, he tossed it into a glass of another Barleywine he made that he was tasting at the same time, and the beer was born.
“That’s the beauty of collaboration,” says Fentie. “It’s almost always the case that the end result, both in terms of flavor and everything else around these beers, is actually better.”
Nomads are not inherently against growth; they just find different and more decentralized ways to do it. Griffin subsidizes its most creative beers largely through sales of a popular beer, a Gose called Das Ist Techno Sex: a variation of Yojo that replaces lime with kalamansi. The demand for this beer is high enough for it to turn the script around and contract his brewing at 71 Brewing in Dundee, Scotland, where he does all his canning.
Still, it can be a slippery slope from outsourcing to empire building. Omnipollo now operates two bars in Stockholm as well as others in Hamburg and Tokyo which produce around a third of its beer, and it has just converted a church in Sundbyberg, Stockholm, into a flagship brewery/taproom. Strumke found semi-permanent production space in the native-owned Talking Cedar brewery, distillery, tasting room, and restaurant in Rochester, Washington; simultaneously, he is planning outposts in Leeds and Brazil. These moves follow in the footsteps of ancient nomads like Prairie Artisan Ales and Grimm Artisanal Ales, which transformed into more traditional breweries after starting on the road.
While traditional, static brewery models don’t necessarily breed toxic cultures, owning physical space and equipment creates power dynamics that can quickly get complicated. By avoiding ownership, nomadic breweries could apparently disrupt these structures, but this has not been the case unilaterally. It’s impossible to discuss the fairness of the nomadic brewing model without citing Mikkeller: perhaps the world’s best-known nomadic brewery, now an empire notorious for its ongoing saga of workplace abuse.
Many nomadic breweries also had to negotiate the fallout from partnering with companies later tainted with similar allegations. Up Front’s Techno Sex was born when a Glasgow BrewDog pub ordered a Yojo-style beer for a festival. And both Stillwater and Omnipollo had ties to Tired Hands leading to its own scandal (Omnipollo continued to work with the brewery after reviewing its plans to establish a “fair and just workplace,” says Fentie).
Griffin resists, but sees home, family, and finances as inevitable frictions on the nomadic path. He is visibly uncomfortable with his recent acquisition of a rental unit for his cans, tanks and office equipment. Fellow nomad Harry Weskin builds a brewing kit in the spartan, high-ceilinged warehouse, turning his Dookit Brewing Company into a full-time business. This decision is mutually beneficial, but as Griffin says, “Once we get a brewing license, we won’t be [nomadic] more brewers. Because of this, he plans to stay mobile for as long as he can, instead of using Weskin’s kit.
“It’s going to be a shame when I have a house I don’t have to leave,” Griffin says. “I never want to have a kit that can do more than two batches a month. I could certainly reduce the costs considerably, but it would come at the expense of my lifestyle which would change considerably. »