Somewhere along the line "contract brew" became a dirty word in the craft brewing industry. It is unclear why contract brewing, where a brewery brews beers other than its own, is so looked down upon. But the fact is, there are plenty of great brewers out there who just don't have a brewery to use.
The problem with contract brewing is that it introduces an unknown into the brewing process. If there is insufficient quality control then the beer will not taste like it should. But this is a fault of the brewery seeking the contractor. The contracted brewery will, typically, do exactly what it is told to do. If the contracting brewery requires a high level of quality control, the contracted brewery will brew to that level of control. If the contracting brewery is submitting a bad recipe to be brewed, that is not the fault of the contracted brewery. In other words, if a contracted beer is not any good, the majority of the blame lies with the contracting brewer, not with the contracted brewery.
There are some times where the brewery is just the machines. In some cases, like at Minhaas/Berghoff in Monroe, the contracting brewery sends it own brewer (and sometimes its own employees) and its own ingredients to the contracted brewery. In these cases, the contracted brewery is simply machines. In which case, there is little distinction between using a contract brewery and having one's own brewery.
All this is to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with contract brewing. If it's a bad beer, it's a bad beer. But just because it has been contract brewed does not mean it is necessarily a bad beer (or even should have a presumption that it is a bad beer). City Brewing Company in LaCrosse, WI is a contract brewery. In addition to their own beers, City has been contracted to brew Smirnoff Ice, Mike's Hard Lemonade, Pabst, Rolling Rock, and Sam Adams - among numerous others.
Recently, however, the brewery itself has become a "pure" contract brewery. City Brewing Company sold off its own brands to a local group that will take over marketing and distribution; though City Brewery will continue to brew them. With all of that said, City's products have fairly high availability across the state. LaCrosse Lager and City Lager are both well-known as low-priced, good pale lagers. They aren't the greatest beers in the world, but they've never tried to be. They are good, cheap beers. They also make some seasonal beers: The Golden Leaf Wheat Ale, City Cream Ale, City Winter Porter, and the City Festbier. It's the first and the last that we are concerned with today.
The Golden Leaf Wheat Ale is a solid, albeit second-tier, wheat ale. It pours a slightly hazy golden color, with a moderate white head that dissipates quickly. It has a faint aroma of fruitiness and sweet clover, but is otherwise low-aroma. It has a smooth, sweet flavor of both maltiness and honey. The hops are surprisingly pleasant with a sharp bite in the finish, but they otherwise stay out of the way. It is a fine beer, neither over nor under-whelming.
The City Festbier is a solid Oktoberfest beer. While it has yet to be seen in the wild here in Madison, it has greater availability in the LaCrosse area and in the North. Pours a thick, white foamy head with moderate carbonation and copper color. The aroma is sweet and malty with a faint earthiness that is equal parts fruity and roast-y. The flavor is all sweet, in fact it tastes almost, though not quite, artifically sweet. There are very little lingering flavors, and has a clean finish. Throughout the course of the beer the sweetness fades a bit, making this a very drinkable beer. It doesn't warm up very well, however, so drink it quickly.
By the way, the City Festbier was brought to MBR by one of our readers. This is something that we hearily endorse. If there's an interesting beer out there that you think should be reviewed, either let us know where we can get it, or bring us a can (or bottle) or two. Thanks David!