Seeing double: the rise of collaboration brewing
The old adage that two heads are better than one seems to have been taken as an article of faith by many modern brewers. Collaborative beers have become one of the trends of the day in a sector where, mostly young and hip, beer drinkers crave something new every time they go into a shop or bar.
The trend towards collaboration takes many forms. Some brewers have adopted the misguided notion that there’s value in inviting beer writers to share their expertise in the collaborative process.
More common, and usually more fruitful, are licensing tie-ups with real celebrities, with rock bands such as Madness, Iron Maiden, Motorhead and Status Quo heading the list. The level of involvement depends largely on the degree of the artist’s passion for the process – Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley was so keen that he once bought a stake in the Essex brewery that was making his beer – but it’s safe to assume that few get involved in the nitty-gritty of cleaning out tanks or filling kegs.
But, while such collaborations gain column inches and provide compelling sales stories, it’s the genuine collaborations between two or more brewers that tend to be much more interesting.
Take Serpent, for example, a 10% abv Belgian-style beer made by Jaipur brewer Thornbridge in Derbyshire, with a little help from Garrett Oliver from New York’s acclaimed Brooklyn Brewery.
So far, so sexy, but what really gave it a special twist was the two brewers bringing in another Oliver, Hereford cidermaker Tom.
He provided the lees – residual deposits from his cider and perry fermentation – which the brewing team put in bourbon barrels with the beer for 18 months, resulting in a beer that’s dry and elegant with accessible sourness and a bit of acidity, and whose corked and caged 75cl bottles make it a worthy white wine substitute for the dinner table.
Thornbridge has collaborative form, having also worked with the likes of Magic Rock, St Austell and the Dutch brewer ’T IJ.
Thornbridge marketing manager Alex Buchanan says: “We consider ourselves lucky that we work in such a friendly business where we can speak to almost any brewery and will always get a positive response and many friendships have developed.”
Andy Gibson, marketing manager at Somerset-based Wild Beer, a specialist in natural and mixed fermentation beers, says there is an openness among modern brewers but it’s choosy about projects it takes on.
“We’re very selective about who we work with,” he says. “We get a lot of offers from other brewers that just don’t seem to make any sense because they could quite easily do what they’re proposing on their own. The whole has to be greater than the sum of the parts.”
Gibson says a good example of this was a beer called Violet Underground, which it made with, and at, the sour beer facility of Firestone Walker in California, using Wild Beer’s proprietary Somerset yeast, candied violet petals from France and golden raspberries from the US brewer’s home state of California.
“It was a beer that could never have happened unless those brewers had come together,” he says.
This was part of the annual Rainbow Project, perhaps the ultimate expression of collaborative brewing, of which Wild Beer is one of seven UK breweries that takes part.
Burning Sky replaced Buxton in 2016 in a line- up that also includes Beavertown, Hawkshead, Magic Rock, Partizan and Siren from the UK.
Each is paired with one of seven brewers from the US – after a one-year switch to New Zealand in 2016 – to create a beer inspired by a different colour of the rainbow.
The draw for 2017 also allocated each pair a second colour to be used as the base for a barrel- aged beer to be released in 2018.
The partnerships and colours are drawn randomly each time but Gibson says the random element isn’t an issue, despite Wild Beer’s selective approach. “We’d be happy to work with any of them because they’re always companies with a similar ethos to us and the rest of the UK breweries involved. “We do get some approaches where it seems people just want to come along and learn about our process and stick their name on it, but that’s not a real collaboration.”
Wild Beer’s latest collaboration was Trendy Juice, a New England-style IPA, which it produced with Norwegian brewer Lervig, a style also adopted by Brewdog for its latest collaboration with Manchester-based Cloudwater, arguably the hottest name in craft brewing at the start of 2017.
Brewdog already took the idea of shared brewing knowledge to its logical conclusion last year when it open-sourced every one of the 200 beer recipes it has put into production to date to inspire home brewers and new start-ups.
It’s this geeky spirit that lies at the heart of collaboration brewing, according to Bryan Spooner, co-founder of west London’s Weird Beard, who says the chance to work on beers with 8-Wired of New Zealand and Left Hand of Colorado had been particular highlights.
“It was an opportunity to work with breweries that I really respect, and were a huge inspiration when we were starting out,” he says.
“Modern beer is a lot like the music world – lots of people with the same ideas and passion, meeting at the same festivals, getting along, chatting and bouncing ideas around. It is inevitable that like-minded people will want to work together.
“Other times breweries will approach us as they really like what we are doing, or we will approach other breweries for the same reason.
“The resulting beers are often something that neither brewery would produce on its own – often something neither brewery would dare do – but a collaboration gives you the excuse to just have fun.”
Most importantly of all, collaborations seem to hit the spot with modern beer drinkers who want to experiment and explore.
“It’s a bit of romance,” says Gibson at Wild Beer. “It’s like when people pick a football team from all of their favourite players and try to imagine what that combination would be like.
“Collaboration beers bring that sort of romance to life.”