Why Do Brewers Collaborate?

I’ve been increasingly interested in what drives collaboration brewing and what impact it has on the beer industry, so I packed up my bags and flew out to Denver to experience Collaboration Fest 2016, held on Saturday March 19th in Sports Authority Field At Mile High Stadium (that’s not how to squeeze a lucrative stadium sponsorship into an established venue name by the way), home of the current Super Bowl champs, the Denver Broncos.

The festival operates at a pretty significant scale – 2,200 tickets sold out in a mere three days, and 151 brewers were involved in producing an impressive 85 one-off beers for the event. The deal is that every collaboration must involve a Colorado brewery (notice the absence of the label “craft” there; more on that later) and any Colorado brewery can only be involved in a maximum of two featured beers.

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My mission, apart from sipping as many of the exhibited beers as possible (I managed 23 out of 85 – I hang my head in shame) was to get to a few of the underlying themes of collaboration brewing. More specifically...How does it come about? What’s the process? What are the advantages and burdens it places on a brewery? Is it a growing trend? What are its limits?

An appropriate interrogation subject is the Colorado Brewers Guild, so I headed to their stall to chat with Brendan Wills and Jennifer Hensley who were repping for the CBG. First up, why is Colorado pioneering a festival showcasing collaboration?

“I would say this, but Colorado is at the leading edge of brewing. We have nearly 300 breweries, many of which are pretty established and most of which are very experimental,” Hensley told me. “To support and grow our brewing industry we need a stream of new ideas and techniques, and collaborating brings that.”

“And it gives people a reason to drink a beer,” chimed Wills. “There’s over 2,000 passionate beer drinkers in this hall and tickets sold out in three days. People want to come and try new, experimental beers.”

There were plenty of experimental beers at the fest. Nothing was pedestrian, but there were some standouts, such as an Imperial barrel-aged Gose, brewed with Colorado peaches by Trve Brewing (pronounced "true" brewing), Oklahoma’s Prairie Artisinal Ales, and a Chocolate Orange Cream Ale from Big Choice Brewing and Black Bottle Brewing: a pale, light ale that tasted a lot like orange flavored chocolate.

“Breweries like Trve are pretty experimental anyway,” commented Jennifer Hensley, “But when it comes to this festival they get really creative. There’s an audience here craving unusual beer, so the breweries exhibiting can go for it.”

The opportunity to learn and improve from collaboration was not lost on Titus Bentley, brewer at Fort Collins’s Horse & Dragon Brewing Co. “I’m always looking to improve and learn new techniques,” he told me, as I sipped Smoka, a coffee mocha porter they brewed with Oskar Blues. “The experience of working with brewers who do things differently to the way I’m used to will always broaden my horizons.” Is there anyone Bentley wouldn’t collaborate with, I wondered? “From my point of view, no. I’d work with anyone. I don’t care about the personalities or the politics – any collaboration would be a learning experience for me,” he replied.

I was able to put the same question to Justin Tilatto, head of sales and marketing at Boulder’s Twisted Pine Brewing Company. Twisted Pine were showcasing a punchy Double IPA brewed with fellow Coloradans, Blind Tiger Brewing, and a zippy kolsch brewed in partnership with SoCal stalwarts Pizza Port. “We’ve never been approached to collaborate with anyone we didn’t already have a great relationship with,” Tilatto commented. “But I just don’t think the process would work if we were asked to collaborate with strangers. You need a lot of trust and tolerance to make a great collaboration beer: toes will get stepped on and a lot of ideas fly around, so there can’t be any territoriality or the end result will suffer.”

I saw no better example of this fraternity than when talking to North Colorado sales manager Dess Leeper of Epic Brewing Co. and Adam Dunbar, District Manager for San Diego’s Green Flash Brewing Co. The pair’s employers had partnered up to brew a lime- and kumquat-infused saison appropriately named Epic Flash.

“The name is funny in more ways than one,” Leeper explained. “This beer almost didn’t happen. We know the guys from Green Flash well and we’re both with the same distributor in Colorado, and the idea came up in conversation just a few weeks ago. We had to work hard and fast to make a beer this good that quickly – you can only do that with people you consider friends.”

I asked the two what the pros and cons were of such a last-minute, unplanned for beer on the market. “It’s a good illustration of a niche collaboration actually,” Green Flash’s Dunbar reflected. “There are only five kegs of this beer. One of them is here, and we have to use the remaining four carefully. In the right account with the right consumers it can make a real impact. We have tons of loyal accounts in Colorado, and if this beer goes crazy on BeerAdvocate or RateBeer I may get a few phone calls. My usual answer is, “There’ll be another great beer coming soon”!”

I was able to probe this area with another veteran beer salesman in David Boone, VP of Sales & Events at Denver’s German-inspired Prost Brewing Company. Prost had two interesting beers on offer at the fest: a Baltic Porter brewed with Lafayette, CO’s Post Brewing (yes, it was called Prost to Post – a dyslexic’s nightmare) and a Roggenbier brewed with perhaps the most famous collaboration machine out there, Dogfish Head.

“I don’t see any disadvantages in selling a collaboration,” Boone told me. “It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s limited. All of those are instant selling points with a retailer. There are some logistical challenges, obviously, but they aren’t dramatically worse than with any limited release. Generally I find collaborations really whet the appetite of both retailers and consumers. Selling collaborations helps me sell the rest of my beer.”

Of course, I had to ask Boone what working with Dogfish was like. “Great for everyone involved!” came the enthusiastic response. “I’ve known Sam [Calagione – like you had to ask] for a while because we brew a beer for Avanti [an “eatery collective” in Denver that Calagione is involved with]. He was in town a few weeks ago and I floated the idea of a beer for Collaboration Fest and he jumped at it. He and his team really know how to execute a collaboration, and they made our whole team feel like partners throughout.”

So what benefits does a famous “hot” partner brewery bring in a collaboration? In the case of the Prost-Dogfish Head example...plenty. There was a line at Prost’s stall from the get-go, as Dogfish Head clearly acts as a signal to the curious beer geeks who filled the hall. Likewise, there were long lines for the beers involving up-and-coming or buzz-worthy breweries like Spangalang, Tivoli, Trve, Upslope, Crooked Stave and Evil Twin (the last two having brewed together), as if people knew their beers would be worth the wait before tasting them.

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You know where there weren’t lines? At the stands featuring ABI-acquisitions Goose Island and Breckenridge, whose recent buy-out gave Colorado its first taste of ABI’s craft-brewery-collecting habit. Which was kind of a shame, as Goose’s collaboration with local upstarts Beryl’s Beer Co. – a rich, malty Weiss bier called Papa Eder Weisse – and their White IPA, White Out, that Breckenridge had brewed with Starr Hill were both pretty good. Does collaborating with “big beer” make you look like the guy who invited the boss to drinks after work? (As a note: the line at the Ballast Point/Spangalang collaboration was just fine.)

I got the chance to reflect on this and the whole event with Chris O’Leary, founder of Brew York and a friend of The Brew Enthusiast, who also happened to be in town. “I think this is a very specialist audience,” O’Leary commented as he sipped on a sample of L’Brett D’Lil B, the (frankly delicious) funky dark sour that Crooked Stave and Evil Twin had brought to the party. “And don’t pay too much attention to the lines – they vary so much during the day anyway.”

“There is definitely a “branding” component to a collaboration which will influence people’s initial perceptions, and these beers come and go so quickly that people rarely have the time to try them more than once,” O’Leary, continued. “For example, today Funkwerks and Wicked Weed have teamed up, and that works in my mind. I sort of know what I’m in for. Then you get a beer like this collaboration from Crooked Stave and Evil Twin, who are known for very different things, and you’re driven to try it by sheer curiosity.”

I asked Chris where he sees collaboration brewing heading: “I think it’s a growing trend, for a number of reasons. It gives beer geeks a chance to geek out over experimental one-off beers, it gives brewers a chance to learn from each other and improve their skills, and it enables big, popular breweries to shine a spotlight on smaller guys. It’s win-win-win.”

A final thought from Chris: “I’ve been to this festival two years running, and this year is a lot more exciting and well organized than 2015. I can’t wait to see what next year’s will be like. And you know what? I would LOVE to see something like this on the East Coast. Colorado does this sort of thing so well, but we shouldn’t let them own the show!”

Amen. And thank you very much to the organizers of Collaboration Fest 2016 for inviting me to the event, especially Two Parts who put the thing together. Like Chris O’Leary, I’m already looking forward to next year.

Jon UrchUrch