Seventeen years ago, I earned my first brewing gig as an assistant brewer at a startup brewpub in downtown San Diego called Cervecerias La Cruda. Like many apprentice brewers of that era, I was a great consumer, but I was greener than the Jolly Green Giant when it came to brewing knowledge. I knew what I liked in a beer, but in terms of how all-grain beer was actually produced in a brewery, let’s just say I am lucky I was hired at all.
During the nine months that the brewery survived, I came to meet new people and develop relationships that remain with me today. It’s those friendships that make the industry of craft beer as strong as it is. Collectively, we share a passion for making amazing liquid, and oftentimes this enthusiasm manifests itself in collaborative efforts between like-minded brewers.
This notion of brewers getting together and sharing ideas on recipe development would actually appear to be a recent phenomenon. Last time I checked, the guys making Budweiser and Coors Banquet Beer haven’t convened annually in the hopes of creating the ultimate lawn mower lager. In their defense, they may be waiting for hell to freeze over. That would appear to be the ultimate reason for the mountains to turn from blue to red.
Each brewer has his or her reasons for working on a collaborative project. When I approach these opportunities, I’m drawn to them like musicians sharing a love for sitting in and riffing through a part of someone else’s jam session. I rarely look to be the lead on the project and prefer to be a traveling artist collaborating at someone else’s facility so I can see how things are done outside our environment.
I’ve collaborated on over 15 different beers now with friends, acquaintances and even people I’d never met before. Each of those productions has given me a chance to explore other breweries, foster new friendships and create awareness for our brands. Traveling to other corners of the globe to brew a new recipe continues to be one of my favorite parts of my job (especially if that travel takes me to Maui, as it did last winter).
There isn’t a published set of rules for collaborating on beers, but there are a few things I consider before agreeing to make bedfellows with another brewery. First and foremost, I believe with conviction there needs to be a legitimate reason for collaborating. Without this, you have no story, and interest in the project will be tepid at best.
During a judging session at the 2007 Great American Beer Festival, while seated next to Hildegard van Ostaden of Brouwerij Leyerth (Urthel), she and I hatched a plan to collaborate on a low-alcohol saison under The Lost Abbey brand. We knew in nine months San Diego would play host to the Craft Brewers Conference. As such, many of the best brewers in the world would be visiting (including Hildegard) and looking to experience our brewing culture. She came to our brewery armed with a wealth of brewing knowledge I have never possessed. Spending eight hours working on a brew together allowed us to converse in depth on some ideas I wished to inquire about.
The recipe was quite simple to work out. Hildegard hoped to brew a saison with no spices in a straightforward manner. Given that The Lost Abbey produces Red Barn Ale (a spiced saison) year-round, this was a great side project for the brewery. Her husband, Bas, created the artwork that adorned the label. We call it the Dom DeLuise label here at the brewery, as Bas really played up my strongest features …
Ten years ago, collaborative beers were less commonplace than they are today. The landscape has changed, and the shelves are now littered with these kinds of releases, I’m left wondering if we have hit a proverbial wall in an almost Grammy-fication of collaborative beers.
Each year, we know that the Grammy Awards show will feature a night of artistry and even some unconventional unions of musicians. Some will seem incredibly natural, like Santana and Rob Thomas, and others more fraught with peril (Milli Vanilli anyone)? While not my first Grammy Awards show memory, I clearly remember that February night in 2001 when Marshall Mathers (Eminem) took to a thundering and rainy stage to perform a version of his hit “Stan.”
He was joined that night by Sir Elton John, who accompanied Eminem in a show of unity. As an openly gay male, John sat in to debunk the rumors of hate swirling around The Marshall Mathers LP release. Their duo still rings as one of the best collaborative musical performances I have ever seen. But most importantly, their performance mattered. It resonated and it found legacy. To me, the essence of a great collaboration should also cause a group of people to work together, hopefully finding meaning in a shared experience, all the while creating an exceptional opportunity for the audience.
And while I’ve been around the collaborative brewing block once or twice even in Belgium, I’m no brewing moped. Rather, I prefer to believe I’ve become a seasoned and selective partner who knows what he is looking for. Of course, we all have to start somewhere. For me, the year was 2002, and like many I was a young ambitious brewer when I collaborated on my first beer. Some local brewer friends and I got together to brew a German-style stein beer. This method of using super-hot rocks to heat the wort was a first in San Diego and certainly told a great story.
Some seven years later, I built on that same process and improved it when I invited Tonya Cornett (then of Bend Brewing Co.) to collaborate with Port Brewing Co. on a new spring release named Hot Rocks Lager. In launching Hot Rocks Lager, we were able to bring back the super-heating of black granite rock addition to a batch of beer and retell the story of how the process came to be. Our brewers love this beer, and the process of super-heating rocks and caramelizing wort continues to be one of the most interesting things we do here at the brewery.
Tonya and I divided the recipe in half. She was tasked with creating the grain bill as I worked on the hops and tweaked the fermentation to take advantage of my understanding of our brewery processes. In doing so, we brought together a shared idealism, and the resulting beer has become one of our most award-winning recipes (a lager no less). If you’re keeping score at home, that’s one for Collaborations and zero for the Duds.
The role of collaboration is complicated. Sometimes it’s educational. Often, it can be technical if a smaller brewery works with a larger, more sophisticated brewery. It can be celebratory or even improvisational. There are few rules for collaborative brewing, but singularly the one that guides me is that too many cooks in the kitchen can yield less than ideal results. This happened to me and some of my best brewing friends once in Chico, CA.
A group of us worked to produce a heritage lager in a sort of “Esprit de Saint Louis” sort of way. It featured wild rice, purple potatoes and even some “beachwood” collected from both the shores of Delaware and San Diego. All told, the beer turned out fantastic. Yet it really didn’t “do” anything.
So we were ushered to a super-secret lab where we played around with all kinds of concentrates and natural additives. Ultimately some carrot juice and cucumber essence jumped in to support the lager. As we set out to improve the beer, the cooks in the kitchen crossed our fruit and vegetable streams in a disastrous those-ingredients-are-better-left-for-salad kind of way. With apologies to Stevie Wonder, I learned that unlike ebony and ivory, cucumbers and carrots do not always go together forever in perfect harmony …
Thankfully, there are more successes than misses, and collaborative beers are here to stay. They present the consumer with amazing opportunities at every turn. What remains to be seen is how many duds the shelves can support before there is a rejection of the artistry. I know that we’re not done with our collaborations here at the brewery, and we’ll continue to be selective about whom we partner with and hope the rest of our craft brewer brothers and sisters follow an equally rooted example.