Sam Calagione loves a theme. In 2014, the founder and brewer of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery opened Dogfish Inn, a boutique hotel in Lewes, Delaware. Guests can explore the area on a Dogfish-branded Priority bicycle while wearing a pair of trail runners the brewery created in collaboration with Merrell in 2019, a flannel from the 2014 Dogfish Head x Woolrich capsule collection, or a SeaQuench Ale-themed jacket from its 2019 collaboration with New Balance.
“From the outset, we wanted to be more than a beer company,” says Calagione. “We believe in the good karma that comes with focusing on collaboration rather than the negative energy that comes from focusing on competition.”
Cross-industry collaborations aren’t limited to Dogfish Head’s business model or Calagione’s karmic vision. In recent years, Deschutes Brewery, Victory Brewing Co., and countless other breweries have partnered with brands outside of beer to produce ice cream, cheese, skateboards, and much more.
Cynics might argue that the intersection of craft and capital is riddled with potholes, but brewers say these cross-industry collaborations are more about building community than selling one’s creativity and copyrighted logo to the highest bidder.
Two things can be true at once. As craft beer has grown from a niche movement to a $115 billion industry, the roles it plays in art, commerce, and communities have changed. The question isn’t whether breweries should dip their toes in designer sunglasses or sneakers. It’s do these extracurricular projects pay off, and for whom?
Going Beyond Beer
There are three main reasons why craft breweries collaborate on products that aren’t beer, says Ben Butler, the Pittsburgh-based owner of a marketing agency, Top Hat, and brewery, Necromancer. A smaller operation might launch a product with a like-minded company to grow its audience. Or, a brewery might lend its brand authority and marketing muscle to a cause its staff is passionate about, like environmental conservation or human rights.
Finally, some brewers launch products simply because they can. “Somebody like Dogfish Head is so established, they’re just doing stuff they think is cool,” says Butler. “They don’t really need to do it. They just do it because it’s fun and they want to.”
While that sounds appealingly punk rock, it’s also fraught. Who a brewery partners with matters as much if not more than what they create. As a 50-year-old brewer or 15-year-old TikToker can tell you, everything and everyone is a brand. Publicly align yourself with one that doesn’t share your values, and you can spend a lifetime doing damage control.
That’s why Victory Brewing co-founder Bill Covaleski is choosy about who he asks to dance.
“Often, there’ll be a company that you admire and that inspires you, and you just want to roll up your sleeves together and learn from each other,” he says. Over the last decade, Victory partnered with a local chocolatier to create beer-infused truffles, and debuted a line of ice creams inspired by its beers using milk from a nearby co-op.
For Covaleski, it’s crucial that any potential collaborators make sense for Victory and its audiences. Marketing comes later. “Obviously, both partners are focused on delivering something to the consumer that will resonate with them, but it begins more as a collaborative discovery.”
Calagione agrees, noting his first step in any collaboration is to research a potential partner and discuss it with his wife, Mariah. “We’ve known each other since high school, our sense of the universe is totally synchronized,” he says. Once they’ve determined a partner is a fit, they weigh future collaborations against products they’ve made in the past.
Ethos and Influence
Covaleski advises against collaborations that are or seem solely about sales. “This is certainly not to take a swipe at a brewery I have a lot of friends at and admire, but, when you see something like Boston Beer and Mountain Dew, it will probably be a delicious product, but, in my opinion, this is clearly two partners identifying a market opportunity. They aren’t really saying, ‘What is the heart and soul of our products, and do they work together?’ That’s more of a shotgun wedding to me.”
The Boston Beer Co. is the parent company of Dogfish Head.
Such marriages tend to be short-lived. Similarly, some corporate multinational breweries launched cross-industry collaborations with up-and-coming brands to essentially exchange cash for cachet. In 2016, for instance, Heineken created limited-edition products with fashion labels like Garrett Leight and Kith as part of an influencer campaign. The program was entirely focused on branded gear, with no heartfelt mission statements about shared ethos or goals.
When executed with care, however, partnerships of any scope can address the needs of a moment. That’s how Jacqueline Cain, a Boston-based writer, feels about an item she picked up at Notch Brewing in April 2020. It was a heady time, one month into COVID-19 quarantines, and Cain drove 45 minutes to support the brewery.
When she went to place her digital beer order, she saw that Notch was also selling collaboration merchandise from Buff, an outdoor apparel company her father likes. She impulsively added a neck gaiter with Notch’s logo on it to her cart. “I didn’t need one necessarily, but I did have the sinking feeling I was going to need more masks. I thought, ‘This is the only fun thing about this moment.’”
Fashion and function can coexist, Cain says. “It seemed practical and it connected me to my dad and to one of my favorite breweries.”
Brewers probably aren’t getting rich off of Notch gaiters, Victory ice cream, or SeaQuench sneakers, but there’s more than one way to quantify success. “At the heart of it, it’s not really the point,” Calagione says about tracking sales to an individual collaboration. “It’s more like a brand halo.”
That glow can inspire consumers to buy more beer, but it can also inspire something deeper. It connects us to our favorite breweries. And, in the best of circumstances, it reminds us why we fell in love with craft beer in the first place.
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