Collaboration Beers: The Natural Evolution of Craft Beer

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 29, Issue 6
January 1, 2009 By Jay Brooks

Aristotle observed, in his classic work Metaphysics, that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” He may not have been talking about beer when he said that, but then again, he was on to something. Over the past decade or so, there’s a trend that’s been slowly building as craft brewers are increasingly making metaphysically delicious beers, in pairs or in groups, with the results often tastier than the sum of their part-iers’ efforts alone.

This recent trend of collaboration beers represents the next logical step in building relationships that brewers began thirty years ago at the dawn of modern craft brewing. Since then, an unprecedented sharing of knowledge and resources has led to an industry mature beyond its years. This is arguably the reason that American craft beer has built its excellent reputation in such a short time, and also why collaboration beers feel like such a natural extension of that success.

Of course, since trade guilds began in the United States, shortly after the start of the Civil War, brewers have been sharing technical information and basic advancements in brewing techniques. But today’s craft brewers have gone further. The kind of assistance they gave one another—early on and continuing through the present day—was unequivocal and without reservation.

When all the small breweries combined brewed such a tiny fraction of the total beer sold, nobody worried about market share, competition or trade secrets. Brewers in the craft industry were simply very open with one another, freely offering each other help, and freely asking for it, too, in a way that earlier generations and larger businesses wouldn’t dream of doing.

As several brewers noted, many early brewers came from a homebrewing background, and took their hobby and “went pro” at a time when there were few books available and hardly any readily available body of knowledge. Most brewers learned their craft in the kitchen, not in a formal school setting. As a result, brewers were already used to turning to other homebrew club members or on forums to fill in gaps in their knowledge.

But a curious thing happened once the size and number of small brewers increased and their market share grew bigger, too. Those close relationships endured as did their willingness to share, as brewers eschewed conventional business thinking and continued to help each other as often as needed. You’d be hard-pressed to find another business where people don’t protect their most valuable trade secrets and operational knowledge. Most industries employ corporate espionage to find out their competitors’ secrets and the threat of lawsuits to keep their own employees from defecting and taking their institutional knowledge with them to a competing firm.

You might be tempted to think that so cavalier an attitude could doom such businesses to failure or, at the very least, to not staying ahead of their competition. By any measure, however, you’d be deeply wrong. It may be counter-intuitive, to say the least, but by and large the breweries that have been the most open and helpful have also been the most successful.

By contrast, in countries where the converse is true—England, Germany, New Zealand, for example—the number of breweries is in decline and innovation is often in short supply. In England and Germany, where some of the richest brewing traditions took flower, a lack of cooperation is helping to bring about a rash of brewery closings, mergers and stagnation. In New Zealand’s craft beer scene, which actually began around the same time as America’s, a lack of openness and community cooperation has led to quality control issues and difficulty winning over consumers. In such climates, sharing recipes and providing other personal assistance with one another is not something brewers are interested in doing, and in many cases even fear their business could suffer as a result.

Ambassadors of Beer

In America, collaboration beers are everywhere these days. American brewers are getting together with one another and also traveling abroad to bring American-style beers to breweries all over the globe. The openness that helped build America’s craft beer is being spread around the world, as U.S. brewers have become beer ambassadors.

In the late 1990s, Garrett Oliver brewed what must surely have been one of the earliest collaboration beers when he traveled to Brakspear Brewery in Henley-on-Thames, England, to make Brooklyn Bridge Bitter with Peter Scholey. The original plan was for Scholey to brew in Brooklyn, too, but Brakspear closed before that could take place. Instead, a few years later, Oliver brewed Brooklyn Best Bitter with Giles Dennis at J.W. Lees in Manchester, England. While Dennis wasn’t particularly happy with the beer they made together, consumers loved it and J.W. Lees continued to make it as a spring seasonal for several years, beginning in 2001. Later that same year, Dennis came to Brooklyn and brewed Manchester Star with Oliver, based on a recipe from 1884, and made with as many of the original ingredients as possible.

Oliver has also brewed Brooklyn Christmas Ale in Denmark and, in 2004, King’s County Brown Ale at Nørrebro Bryghus, also in Denmark. In 2006, Oliver travelled to Sheffield to brew at Kelham Island Brewery, winner of the Champion Beer of Britain at the 2004 Great British Beer Festival. The Brooklyn Smoked Porter they made won best of show at the Bradford CAMRA festival, a regional beer event in Saltaire, West Yorkshire.

Later the same year, Oliver brewed Brooklyn Cuvée d’Achouffe, with thyme, candy-sugar and the house yeast from Brasserie d’Achouffe at Les 3 Fourquets, the brewpub that Achouffe owns. Pierre Gobron and Christian Bauweraerts of the Belgian brewery later visited Oliver in Brooklyn to brew there. Oliver’s list of collaborations is long and also includes England’s Thornbridge Brewery.

Undoubtedly, Garrett Oliver’s best-known partnership was with Hans-Peter Drexler of G. Schneider & Sohn in May of last year. The arrangement grew out a decade-long friendship between the two brewers, and the result, Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse, was a weissbock pale in color but weighing in at 8 percent ABV. It was dry-hopped with Hallertauer Saphir (a.k.a. Sapphire) hops and used Schneider’s weissbier yeast.

Several weeks later, Drexler brewed the same beer with Oliver in Brooklyn, the only difference being that American hops and malt were used. Brooklyn Brewery laid out fifteen hop varieties for Drexler to choose from, and he picked the unlikely combination of Amarillo and Palisades. Drexler said of the endeavor. “We did this collaboration in order to learn some things and to create some nice new beers, maybe even a new beer style. And, more importantly, to have fun.”

Over the last decade, many other American brewers have traveled abroad as Ambassadors of Beer, spreading the gospel of great beer and sharing what they’ve been up to with beer cultures that have either been mired in tradition or not yet developed their own.

An American Attitude

As Garrett Oliver reminisces over his own experiences, he’s quick to point out that the collaborations have provided an “opportunity to learn and work with other brewers, to see how they operate” and also to “bring what was happening in the U.S. to other places,” especially those with more conservative traditions. Having been doing collaborative beers for some time now, Oliver feels privileged “to have been among the pioneers. It’s fun, I’m glad to see more people doing it.” He adds, “Not only is it a way of learning, but also of spreading the message of total American openness. It’s had a major effect on other brewing cultures.”

Dick Cantwell, veteran brewer of Big Time and Elysian in Seattle, echoes that sentiment, recalling a seminar at a Craft Brewers Conference a few years ago where brewers openly discussed recipes and techniques. Afterwards, a German brewer stood up and told the assembled group: “I have to tell you, this kind of discussion would never happen in Germany.”

When Alan Shapiro, a alum of ground-breaking beer importer Merchant du Vin, started his own importing business, one of the things he wanted to do was build on the global relationships he’d made over the years. Inspired by winemaking legend Allen Shoup’s Longshadows series of wine collaborations, Shapiro developed the Brewmaster’s Collaboration with Dirk Naudis at De Proef Brouwerij in Belgium.

Tomme Arthur, of The Lost Abbey, participated in the first collaboration brew at De Proef. Together with Naudis, he created a beer that brought together elements of both American and Belgian brewing traditions: Amarillo hops, Duvel yeast, Brettanomyces. It was the most hops De Proef had ever used in a single batch of beer. This year, they just completed the second Brewmaster’s Collaboration, this one with Jason Perkins of Allagash Brewing. Next year, Shapiro plans on approaching a Midwest brewer for the third collaboration.

Sometimes the inspiration to collaborate comes from simply being immersed in the brewing traditions of other nations. One case in point is the team of five American brewers—Tomme Arthur, Adam Avery, Sam Calagione, Vinnie Cilurzo and Rob Tod—who traveled through Belgium together. While there, they collaborated with Jean-Pierre van Roy, of Cantillon brewery in Brussels, on a hoppy beer. Generally using a spoon to add hops, van Roy stood over the kettle with a 44-pound bag of Amarillo hops, asking how much of it to put in. The five visitors said, in unison, “All of it.”

To Calagione, the instinct to collaborate feels as natural as breathing. “Anytime you get a few brewers in a room drinking, invariably someone says, ‘Hey, let’s do something.’” And so the idea of brewing a beer together evolved over the Belgian trip. Unlike typical collaborations, they didn’t create a recipe together but instead each took a base beer brewed at the Lost Abbey’s brewery in San Diego (because it had the available space at that time), and aged it in different barrels provided by each of the five breweries—with their own bugs inside. After sixteen months, the five reconvened to blend the beer.

Once the project was announced, many online commenters speculated that the group wouldn’t be able to work together because each had strong opinions and ways of doing things, but according to Arthur, “It didn’t take that long, because we all get along.” While traveling in Belgium, the five had stayed in touch with their families by phone, and the Belgian phone system, Bel Proximus, inspired the beer’s name, which eventually became Isabelle Proximus.

Tomme Arthur, who hosted the Isabelle Proximus brew, also recently did a collaboration with Hildegard van Ostedan at Brouwerij Leyerth (a.k.a. Urthel) called Ne Goeien (Flemish for “Give me a good one,” something you’d say to a bartender as you entered a bar). And Tonya Cornett, owner and brewmaster of Bend Brewing, will soon be coming down to San Diego to brew at the Lost Abbey.

Brewing Diplomacy

Two of the Isabelle Proximus brewers, Adam Avery and Vinnie Cilurzo—from Avery Brewing and Russian River respectively—also collaborated on a beer to resolve a dispute. In a classic example of brewers acting differently than most industries, the pair discovered that each brewed a beer called “Salvation.” At that point, they didn’t know one another, but Avery approached Cilurzo at the Great American Beer Festival and, realizing they were in different markets, the issue was settled. “I’m cool if you’re cool,” they concluded.

After that, they became friends and decided one evening in 2004, after several pints at Russian River’s brewpub, to brew a collaborative version of their two Salvations. Natalie Cilurzo, Vinnie’s wife and business partner, suggested the name: Collaboration, Not Litigation Ale for the new beer. It took two more years for the beer to be brewed, and it debuted in December of 2006. Having proved very popular, a second batch was released in February of this year.

Vinnie Cilurzo, from Russian River Brewing, has also been involved in several other joint efforts, including taking a keg of 21st Amendment Brewery’s popular Watermelon Wheat, spiked with Brettanomyces, and aged it for several years on oak to create Watermelon Funk. But by far his favorite collaboration came when Agostino Arioli—who started Birrificio Italiano, Italy’s third microbrewery, in 1996—came to Santa Rosa, CA, to brew La Fleurette, one of Arioli’s more unusual beers and a brew quite unlike anything Russian River had ever done.

The story of Agostino’s La Fleurette is a romantic tale. Seven years ago, he met a girl and fell in love. Awash with the emotions of new love, he set out to create something that would be “a celebration beer of personal happiness.” So he started experimenting and after a year of trial and error was satisfied with the beer, released commercially as La Fleurette. To the kettle he adds turbinado raw sugar and orange blossom honey, but he also adds black pepper because, as Agostino puts it, “love is also spicy.” At the end of the boil he dry hops—or rather, dry-flowers—the beer with both roses and violets. After that, elderberry concentrate is added, more for color than flavor.

Working on that beer, Cilurzo said, “reminded me not to forget my roots, and to never forget you can do whatever you want.” La Fleurette was such “a crazy recipe that it reminded me of my homebrewing days when you could do that kind of beer on a small scale. It’s the kind of beer that would normally have me thinking, ‘There’s no way you could do that on a commercial scale,’ yet that’s exactly what La Fleurette is. I love that beer because it’s so full of flavor and yet only 4.5 percent ABV.”

In addition to Isablle Proximus, Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione has also done his fair share of other collaborations, beginning with one on his honeymoon, though he considers that one “unofficial.” While in Paris with his then-bride Mariah, Calagione discovered a brewpub downtown, one of the Brasserie Frogs. They invited him to brew an English mild with them.

Calagione has also brewed in the Czech Republic at Herrold, and made a traditional Danish gruit recipe from the fifteenth century with Anders Kissmeyers of Nørrebro Bryghus in Denmark. The beer, called Old Odense Ale, is made with star anise, blackthorn berries, maple syrup, other herbs and no hops. Calagione also just recently returned from Rome where he collaborated on an Imperial pilsner, called My Antonia, with Leonardo di Vincenzo of Birra del Borgo. Early next year, yet another collaboration is planned with Nick Floyd, of Three Floyds, to brew a big, dark beer aged on Palo Santo wood to be named Wooden (It Be Nice).

Allagash Brewing, in Portland, ME, yet another Isabelle Proximus participant, and the second Brewmaster’s Collaborator at De Proef, has also recently co-brewed with the four owners of Belgian brewery De Struise—Urbain Coutteau, Carlo Grootaert, Phil Driessens and Peter Bruin. The beer, an 8.2 percent ABV blonde that’s 35 IBUs (with Cascade and Amarillo hops), and made with cane sugar and honey, is called Fedeltá, which is Italian for fidelity. De Struise also recently brewed their Black Albert at Portsmouth Brewery in New Hampshire, with an eye toward blending the result with Portsmouth’s award-winning Kate the Great.

Three-Way Brews

Stone Brewing in Escondido (near San Diego), CA, just released their first bottled collaboration beer. The project involved Stone Brewing; Mikkel Bjergsø, from Mikkeller in Denmark; and Peter Zien, from AleSmith Brewing in San Diego and was called, appropriately, Stone-Mikkeller-Alesmith Belgian-Style Triple Ale. Stone decided on a slightly different approach to collaborating, with three brewers participating. The philosophy of three was simply that with two, there’s the possibility that one brewer’s ideas could dominate, but with three there’s a more even distribution of philosophies, making it a more democratic brew.

Their second collaboration, which only recently took place, involved Stone; Ron Jeffries from Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter, MI; and Kjetil Jikiun, from Nøgne Ø in Grimstad, Norway. For this beer, loosely referred to as a holiday beer, each brewer brought local ingredients from his part of the world: Michigan chestnuts, Norwegian juniper berries and freshly picked California sage (essentially a wet sage beer), along with rye and oats. A third is currently being planned with James Watt of Scotland’s BrewDog Brewery.

The 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco, CA, recently launched their own collaboration project, dubbed “The Brewer Outreach Program.” The first of these took place a few months ago when Mitch Steele, head brewer at Stone Brewing, made a west coast IPA with British malts with Shaun O’Sullivan and Jesse Houck, the brewers at 21st Amendment.

O’Sullivan explains his program: “I just like the idea of people coming in and doing what they do and giving them an opportunity to brew on a pub system, and afford larger brewers a way to brew little one-off beers.” Next up is Gabe Fletcher, from Midnight Sun in Alaska, followed by Chuck Silva, from Green Flash Brewing in San Diego. Midnight Sun, meanwhile, did a collaboration with brewer Ben Love (then at Pelican Pub & Brewery; now at Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, OR) that they called Conspiracy, a Belgian-style black beer.

Mitch Steele, meanwhile, last year brewed that same IPA at the Shepherd Neame brewery, as part of a project organized by the JD Wetherspoon pub chain, which operates 700 pubs throughout England. They invited four brewers from around the world to brew real ales at English breweries for the JD Wetherspoon International Beer festival, and then served all four beers at a three-week long festival at all 700 pubs.

Steele, who saw first hand while a brewer at Anheuser-Busch how secrecy and a lack of openness can grip a company, noticed this same tendency in the English brewers he observed. While the brewers at Shepherd Neame were taken aback by the amount of hops he called for in his beer, they eventually became excited by the prospect of the final beer. But at the opening day of the festival, Steele noticed that it was not consumers who were slow to embrace hoppy American beers, but other brewers, who seemed so set in their ways that they didn’t even want to try his beer.

Earlier this year, JD Wetherspoon hosted four brewers invited by for the 2008 festival: Richard Anderson, from Australia’s Barons Brewery; Matt Brynildson, from California’s Firestone Walker Brewing; Toshi Ishii, from Japan’s Yo Ho Brewery (who coincidentally has done a collaboration with Norway’s Nøgne Ø, who in turn has collaborated with Dugges Ale & Porterbryggeri of Sweden); and Mikkel Bjergsø, from Denmark’s Mikkeller (who’s also done collaborations with BrewDog, De Proef, De Struise, Nøgne Ø and Three Floyds).

Brynildson brewed at the historic Marston’s Brewery in Burton-on-Trent. Marston’s is the only remaining English brewery using the Burton Union brewing system, and Firestone Walker, using a modified Burton Union system, may be the only other brewery in the world using one. Though Marston’s system wouldn’t allow Brynildson to dry hop using the same method he normally does, or use the amount of hops he originally wanted to use, the experience was still a very positive one. “Being in that historic brewery was just amazing.” He brewed a California Pale Ale with Cascade and Centennial hops.

Unsurprisingly, Brynildson’s experience mirrored Mitch Steele’s the previous year, with consumers and even retailers acknowledging that they wanted to try big, hoppy American-style beers, while it was primarily the English brewers who clung to strict traditional style interpretations.

Bonds of Friendship

Collaborations don’t always come from the brewers; sometimes friendship is enough. Dustin Watts, who is the VP of Sales and Marketing for Terrapin Beer Co. in Athens, GA, has for many years been good friends with Chris Lennert, who just happens to be VP of Operations for Left Hand Brewing in Longmont, CO. After the idea emerged from a few late night pints at the Brick Store Pub in Decatur, the pair put brewers Spike Buckowski (Left Hand) and Ro Guenzel (Terrapin) together. The result is Terra-Rye’zd, a black rye lager (or Imperial roggen schwartz lager) brewed with nearly 50 percent rye malt. The collaboration series is called “The Midnight Project,” in honor of its inspiration, and the plan is to create a different beer each year between the two breweries.

Even today, with more opportunities for prospective brewers to learn brewing via internships and formal education programs, many still come up through the ranks of homebrewing. Three years ago, the Brewers Association, in an effort to support and encourage homebrewing, created the GABF Pro-Am, a program where “award winning homebrew recipes from American Homebrewers Association members” are made at a commercial brewery in partnership with a professional brewer, with the resulting beer entered into a special competition at the Great American Beer Festival.

Another type of collaboration is simply sharing facilities to benefit both breweries, such as the effort undertaken earlier this year between Elysian’s brewpub chain in Seattle and New Belgium Brewing in Colorado. But in addition to the more mundane sharing, the two brewers—Dick Cantwell and Peter Bouckaert—will also be collaborating on monthly draft-only beers that will be a twist on the type of beers they both currently make. Elysian’s Cantwell lays out their philosophy: “The plan is purposely free form and improvisational in nature, giving us an opportunity to spark an interest in innovative beers.” That program will start in December, possibly with a big, hoppy tripel IPA with a Belgian-style twist.

Same Beer, Different Brewery

Another type of collaboration is when brewers separately brew the same beer, but at their respective breweries. Both the Illinois and Indiana state brewers guilds have been brewing annual beers, known as Replicales, where each brewery follows the same recipes, but variations in yeast, malt and possibly hops make for beers which still taste wildly different.

In Washington state, the brewer’s guild—to honor brewpub pioneer Bert Grant, who passed away in 2001—began doing a collaborative brew for their annual cask ale festival. The recipe changes little from year to year, but at least a dozen brewers will stop by on brew day (which is at a different brewery each year) to work on the beer.

In California, Drake’s Brewery held a beer festival for a number of years (now retired) where each attending brewery would make an IPA using a single particular hop variety, such as Summit or Bravo. Then, on the day of the festival, as many as twenty-five IPAs, all brewed with the same hop but with different malt builds and/or yeast, could be sampled.

In yet another twist on brewing the same beer at different breweries, Todd Ashman of Fifty-Fifty Brewing in Truckee, CA, invited two brewers he admired—Matt Van Wyk from Flossmoor Station and Zac Triemert of Lucky Bucket Brewing—to join in him in a hands-on learning experience. Ashman wanted to “demonstrate that just as each brewer has a distinctive brewing style, each brewery also has attributes that make it unique: the local water supply, brewing equipment and ingredient sources all contribute to the distinctive character of a beer.”

Ashman created a recipe for a Belgian-style strong dark ale, in part because he wanted to work with raisin purée and other spices, and named it Collaborative Evil. The beer was essentially brewed by all three, following the same recipe, but using different yeasts and even different honey, another exotic ingredient. Because of these small variations, each beer had very distinct flavors and unique identity. The important thing for this type of collaboration, Ashman stresses, is to get them all together again to taste the differences. Next year, as many as nine breweries around the country are currently signed up to participate in Ashman’s project.

The Future of Brewing Together

While there is no doubt that collaboration beers are a growing trend, not everyone is convinced they’re here to stay. Everyone seems to have a different reason for doing them and perceives their value differently.

Some people fear that collaborative brews may simply be a way to generate publicity. Before doing his own jointly-brewed beer, Ron Jeffries admitted to feeling “a little cynical about them.” But after being involved in one, he’s had to rethink that assumption. For him, “the collaboration experience was spiritual,” as well as educational. “It was great to spend time with people I respected, but didn’t really know that well. It was great to see a little bit more of how and why they do what they do.”

Many people echo the sentiment that a collaboration must be more than just a marketing exercise. Collaborations are, by necessity, compromises. Jeffries feels that if it goes too far it becomes more marketing-driven instead of being all about creating a great beer. “That’s the danger,” he says.

Tomme Arthur makes a musical analogy: “There must be a point. You can put Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses on the same stage, but there’s no guarantee the results will be beautiful music.” Continuing the musical metaphors, Cilurzo adds, “Collaborations are like musician’s side projects, where you can gain inspiration. But it doesn’t mean the band breaks up.”

Arthur believes “there will continue to be a need for ambassadors overseas” providing an “opportunity to reach out. We all use the same ingredients, but there’s a world of difference.” Cilurzo adds, “In collaborations, you see things you might never have thought of on your own, and that’s the ultimate reward.” Calagione sees the trend as “a microcosmic symbol of how promiscuous the beer industry is, where we all share secrets with one another, where the consumer is generally catholic with their drinking habits, celebrating the breadth of styles available in the world.”

Todd Ashman sees collaborations as “a natural evolution” of the brewer’s networking experience and offers a way “to stay in touch with people you might not otherwise deal with regularly.” He adds, “It’s also a way to get your customers into the fold and keeps it interesting” for both them and the brewers. And that may be the truest test of all, that the consumers ultimately like and are willing to buy the collaboration beers.

While there is certainly competition among American craft brewers, it is a healthy competition, borne of trying to outdo one another, to show off, to push the envelope just a little bit farther. As Stone’s Mitch Steele says, “Craft brewers feed on what each other is doing.” Or as Calagione puts it, collaborations “remind everybody how creative and exciting the craft beer world is. Not only do we let our freak flag fly, but we also let it mingle.”

Undoubtedly, consumers can count on seeing and tasting more collaboration beers in the coming years. As long as brewers keep approaching the collaborations with their fellow brewers, whether at home or abroad, in the right spirit, then they’ll continue to create unique beers, often in limited quantities, that will keep the beer world continually excited about each new beer. As Dustin Watts, co-creator of the Midnight Project, sees the ultimate point of collaborations, they just scream, “Welcome to the world of craft beer, this is what it’s all about.”

Jay Brooks
Jay R. Brooks has been writing about beer for over 15 years. He was formerly a beer buyer for Beverages and More and the general manager of the Celebrator Beer News. He also writes online at the idiosyncratic Brookston Beer Bulletin from his home in Marin County, CA.