How Craft Brewers Find Inspiration in Beer Collaborations - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How Craft Brewers Find Inspiration in Beer Collaborations

It was 2001 when Adam Avery of Colorado’s Avery Brewing and Vinnie Cilurzo of California’s Russian River Brewing discovered  that they both had Belgian-style beers named Salvation.  In many cases, knives might have been drawn—or, rather, lawyers called. In this case, though, a collaboration was born.


“We didn’t know each other back then” says Cilurzo, “but when we met and talked about it, Adam said, ‘I’m okay with both of us making a beer with that name.’ ” To Avery’s relief, Cilurzo agreed. “Adam said, ‘Good, I just printed 100,000 labels for it,’ ” recalls Cilurzo. That’s where things stood until April 2004: each brewer making his Salvation, both strong ales, Avery’s a golden color and Russian River’s a darker beer. Then, on a trip to California, Avery visited the Russian River brewery, and he and Cilurzo decided to move beyond “live and let live” by blending their two beers together. Cilurzo’s wife and partner, Natalie, christened the new beer Collaboration Not Litigation Ale.


Cilurzo and Avery weren’t the first brewers to collaborate on a beer, though the beer’s story and the word “Collaboration” in the name have brought it extra attention. In fact, the past decade or so has seen a variety of brands partnering up. Many are small-batch productions, only available at the brewery or in its immediate area, but some have brought together bigger breweries with wider distribution.


Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing, for example, has teamed up with Seattle’s Elysian Brewing. In 2008, Elysian began producing some of its beers at New Belgium’s facilities in Fort Collins, allowing them to expand production and distribution. At the same time, New Belgium found Elysian’s small-batch brewing system a good place to work on low-production beers. Bryan Simpson of New Belgium says it’s a model for expansion that bypasses traditional contract brewing; it has also resulted in the breweries’ collaborative Trip series, which began with the Trippel IPA—a marriage of New Belgium’s abbey-inspired brewing and the West Coast’s signature beer style. It was followed by Trip II, a golden ale, Trip III, a sour brown ale and Trip IV, a rye ale.


And American brewers aren’t the only ones teaming up: Belgian brewer De Proef has made several collaborative brews, inspired by Washington State’s Long Shadows winery project, for which wine industry veteran Allan Shoup invited winemakers from around the world to make wine from Washington-grown grapes. De Proef brewmaster Dirk Naudts has partnered with the San Diego area’s Lost Abbey and Port Brewing, Maine’s Allagash and Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery.




Brewing Out of the Box

What actually happens when brewers collaborate? Blending two beers together, as Avery and Russian River do, is actually unusual. The story behind Moaten, a Flemish red ale created by Two Brothers Brewing in Warrenville, Illinois, and Belgium’s Urthel Brewery, is more typical. “We collaborated on a recipe via email,” says Two Brothers co-founder Jason Ebel, “Then Hildegard [van Ostaden, Urthel’s brewmaster] came out and brewed with us. She came back again when it was finished, for the release.” Ebel says the aim was for both to brew something different than they normally do. “We didn’t want to just brew another tripel. Flemish reds are a style I tend to love—sour beers—so we cultured some lactic bacteria from barley kernels to add a certain level of sourness. We also wanted it to have a unique yeast character, so we fermented with a champagne yeast we got from California. It was a few years in the making.”


Brewers often view collaborative beers as a chance to let loose and create a beer outside their typical style. When Jean-Marie Rock, the brewmaster at Belgium’s Orval, a Trappist brewery, came to the U.S. to work with Steve Pauwels at Kansas City, Missouri’s Boulevard Brewing, they made a beer far removed from Orval’s dark, earthy brews, opting instead for an imperial pilsner based on a recipe Rock had first made about 30 years ago for the now-defunct Lamot brewery in Mechelen, Belgium. Different, too, from Pauwels recent brews. “We had been doing a lot of crazy stuff; this beer was back to basics: 100 percent pilsner malt, 100 percent Saaz hops, cold fermentation,” says Pauwels. They bottled it last December and are waiting to see how the beer is received before they try collaborating with other brewers.


While it’s a joint project, the straightforward-named Collaboration Series #1 is Boulevard’s beer to distribute and sell. Even domestic collaborators tend to brew and distribute their beer through a single host brewery, since navigating state and federal beer-shipping regulations can be tricky. Collaboration Not Litigation Ale is sold through Avery’s distribution network, not Russian River’s, and both beers for the blend are brewed separately at Avery in Colorado and then blended together. Cilurzo says that federal Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulations make blending beers made at different breweries a complicated bureaucratic challenge. “We decided to brew it at Avery since at the time we were only distributed in California. Avery is more widely distributed, so it gives a lot of people a chance to taste something we’re involved with.”


San Diego’s Stone Brewing has been making collaborative beers for the past couple of years, preferring to work as part of a trio; in 2009 they released the Juxtaposition Black Pilsner, which they made with Scotland’s BrewDog and Massachusetts’ Cambridge Brewing, as well as a Kona Coffee, Macadamia, Coconut Porter made together with Maui Brewing and San Diego homebrewer Ken Schmidt. The challenges of incorporating 1,000 pounds of coconut, 300 pounds of macadamia nuts and 200 pounds of Kona coffee into their brew taxed even Stone’s considerable resources—they had to borrow equipment from another brewery.


A three-brewer collaboration is hardly the limit, though; after a visit to Belgium, the guys from Russian River, Lost Abbey, Allagash, Avery and Delaware’s Dogfish Head all got together to make Isabelle Proximus, a sour ale inspired by beers they had tasted during their trip.


Several years ago, Stone began work on a holiday ale together with Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin and Norway’s Nøgne-Ø. They made the same brew three different times, each at a different brewery; the recipe starts the same, but when it comes to aging and finishing the beer, the host brewery puts its own twist on the final product. Jolly Pumpkin, for example, barrel ferments their beers, which creates a funkier rendition. That version will be released in late 2010.




A New Family Tree

San Diego, Michigan and Norway: given that geographic spread, these breweries may not have been competing for market share anyway. But what about Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada? While located on opposite coasts, both are well-distributed across the country and appeal to much the same types of beer drinkers. Nevertheless, the two recently collaborated to release Life & Limb, a 10 percent ABV dark ale.



Sierra Nevada’s founder Ken Grossman and Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione became friends after serving on the board of the Brewers Association. “I talked with Sam about our Celebration Ale, and he said it was the first beer that opened his eyes,” says Grossman. Before long, they were brainstorming about a possible collaboration. “We went back and forth over hundreds of emails,” recalls Calagione. “I came up with the idea of using maple and birch syrups, representing the two limbs of the craft brewing tree.” The maple syrup comes from Calagione’s family farm in Massachusetts and is used during the primary fermentation, while the birch syrup is used during bottle conditioning to provide the carbonation of the beer. The malt comes from Sierra Nevada’s estate in California. Life & Limb was brewed at the Sierra Nevada brewery in Chico, and bottles were released nationwide through their distribution network last October. The beer was planned as a one-time release, but the response has been so enthusiastic that Sierra Nevada spokesperson Bill Manley says there’s been talk of a second release in 2011.



As for the merits of cooperation versus competition, Calagione says, “I think it’s very symbolic of the craft-brewing world, altruistic and mutually supportive.” More practically, he says, “One brewer who might not have a following in a market will be reaching new people.”


Many collaborative beers incorporate ingredients that represent each brewery’s origins. In the Jolly Pumpkin/Nøgne-Ø/Stone Special Holiday Ale, juniper and rye provide the Scandinavian touch alongside Californian white sage and Michigan chestnuts. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, has been making collaborative brews since 1998, working with breweries like Brakspear and J.W. Lees in England, Achouffe in Belgium and, most recently, Kiuchi in Japan, maker of Hitachino Nest. Oliver and Hans-Peter Drexler of Germany’s Schneider- Weiss Brewery make two versions of their collaborative Hopfen-Weisse, one in Brooklyn and the other in Bavaria, each using the same malts and grains but with Schneider’s house yeast strain, and hops from the host brewery’s country—but chosen by the guest brewer. “We have one recipe, a straw pale weissbock, but I chose a Hallertau variety,” a classic, earthy German hop, says Oliver.


When Drexler came to Brooklyn to brew the other version, “He had 15 different aroma hops in front of him and two hours to decide; he chose Palisade and Amarillo.” Both varieties have a citrus and floral character typical to many West Coast pale ales. After the first year, when the U.S. version of Hopfen-Weisse was only available as a draft beer, its success led to limited release of a bottled version; the German version is offered on draught and in bottles in the U.S and across Europe.



Where No Beer Has Gone Before

Prodding from an importer brought a bigger beer player into the game; Germany’s Weihenstephan Brewery, Bavaria’s state brewery and the oldest continuously operating brewery in the world, is working on a new beer with the Boston Beer Company of Sam Adams fame. “We have the same importer in Sweden,” says Boston Beer Co. brewer and founder Jim Koch, 60. “He said to one of the Weihenstephan people, ‘You should get together with Sam Adams.’ They called [us] out of the blue. It was sort of like the Pope calling and saying he wants to say grace at your house.”


The two breweries set out to create a new beer style made within the tradition and constraints of the Reinheitsgebot, Germany’s beer purity law, eventually aiming for a high-alcohol beer—over 10 percent—but with a Champagne-like texture, despite the fact that usually achieving that level of alcohol means lots of unfermented dextrins and a rich, heavy texture. Koch says the still-unnamed beer should be ready later this spring, but the release could easily be pushed back as they work on perfecting the unusual brewing process.



Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver is taking a different tack these days, collaborating not only with other brewers, but with chefs and mixologists. In 2009 he developed Brooklyn’s spiced wheat ale Cuvée de Cardoz with Floyd Cardoz, executive chef at Tabla, an Indian-inspired restaurant in New York City. And his Manhattan Project, developed with cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, replicates the flavor profile of a classic Manhattan in beer form, using rye and an infusion of many of the herbs and spices found in vermouth. Oliver says the creative process involved when working with others keeps him learning and thinking about new possibilities.



It reminds Vinnie Cilurzo of the freedom and creativity of home-brewing, where efficiency isn’t as vital as trying new things. In 2008 he hosted Agostino Arioli of Italy’s Birrificio Italiano after the two met at the Slow Food Salone del Gusto in Turin, and they made a version of Arioli’s beer Fleurette. “It’s made with honey, rose petals, black pepper and violets,” says Cilurzo. “He had a whole suitcase of dried violets. It was a crazy brew cycle; there’s a sour mash involved, and pepper in the kettle. There’s no way you could do that on a regular basis—Agostino only makes it once a year—but it’s a really good reminder not to get narrow-minded and to stay creative.”

Enjoy This Article?

Sign up for our newsletter and get biweekly recipes and articles delivered to your inbox.

Send this to a friend