With more than 3,400 craft breweries now dotting the American landscape and dozens more joining the fray each year, there’s widespread competition in the field. And while beer rivalries are not unheard of, a much more positive trend of collaborative brewing is emerging. Many of the most interesting beers on the market today are a result of two or more breweries teaming up to produce one stellar beverage.
Retail buyers, bar managers, industry consultants and brewers all agree that cooperative brewing is a fast growing trend. Breweries working together to create a unique product "doesn’t happen on this level in any other alcoholic beverage" category, says Bart Watson, chief economist of the Brewers Association.
"Beer is, first and foremost, a convivial drink," explains Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at New York's Brooklyn Brewery and editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer. "So we are colleagues, brothers and sisters first, and competitors second." California-based craft beer consultant Jen Schwertman added, "collaborations send a positive message to everyone, and they are a reminder of the comradery that the craft beer industry has historically been known for."
Surprisingly though, many of the lauded beer collaborations were birthed from brewers with seemingly opposite specialties or approaches.
That amiable spirit is reflected in the roots of many beer projects. Ask an array of craft beer lovers from around the country to list their favorite joint brews and the answers stretch far and wide. Schwertman favors the Deep River from Knee Deep and Kern River Brewing Company, two California breweries known for their India Pale Ales. Cory Bonfiglio, the general manager of two New York City beer havens, Proletariat in Manhattan and Beer Street in Brooklyn, fondly recalls Gypsy Tears, a sour stout aged in Brunello barrels that was a collaboration between Stillwater, Mikkeller and Fanø. "At 8.5 percent, it was full bodied, though having been fermented entirely with brettanomyces [a wild yeast strain], there was an acidity present that provided a bit of levity in mouthfeel." He also noted that six months in red wine barrels moderated the beer's fluctuation between overtones of dark fruit, chocolate, earth, coffee and wood.
Surprisingly though, many of the lauded beer collaborations were birthed from brewers with seemingly opposite specialties or approaches. For instance, Schwertman champions the beers that have resulted from synergy between San Diego-based Green Flash Brewing Company and the 140-year-old Belgian St. Feuillien. Meanwhile, Brian Sturmke, the gypsy brewer (a brewer that brews beer in space rented from other breweries) behind the Stillwater brand, quickly named his project with Millstone Cellars, a Maryland-based cidery, as one of his favorites.
For most of these brewers, collaborations represent a ticket out of their comfort zones. And the beers that result from these co-helmed experiments usually yield brews atypical to each of the players' established styles. For example, Stillwater is best known as one of the premier American saison brewers, the lighter, zestier beers that were once produced as midday refreshment for Belgian farmhands. However, the brewery's work with Millstone culminated in a uniquely complex cider. "We had been carrying their cider at my bar in Baltimore [Of Love & Regret] and they later asked about a collaboration and my first question was 'Can we smoke the apples?' because I never heard of doing that before and thought it would be a cool approach to making a cider."
Ultimately they smoked the fruit over fresh juniper and applewood. "The idea was then to deconstruct my beer Debauched—brewed with whole juniper bushes, farmhouse ale yeast, brettanomyces and a touch of smoke—so it’s a blend of smoked apples, barrel fermented brett-forward cider, and a portion of dry-hopped cider." The result, Stillwater/Millstone Remixed Debauched Cider, won high scores and raves from the crowd at ratebeer.com.
At Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri, beer collaborations have proved fruitful enough that each year the brewery chooses a different partner with which to pair up and create a new brew. Last year Boulevard teamed up with Ommegang on a spiced saison, while in 2013 they worked alongside Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project on a stingo-style beer called Collaboration No.3. In 2012 and 2011 they worked with Portland, Oregon's lauded Deschutes and Belgian brewery Orval, respectively.
For most of these brewers, collaborations represent a ticket out of their comfort zones.
Yet no brewery has embraced the spirit of teamwork more than San Diego-based Green Flash. Their efforts with St. Feuillien have gone beyond three co-produced beers. The Belgians now brew Green Flash’s signature beer, West Coast IPA, at their facility in Le Roeulx, Belgium for European distribution. And this beer is the ultimate proof that opposites attract in the beer world. St. Feuillien is known for traditional yeasty and sometimes slightly sweet Belgian styles like Dubbels and Tripels, while Green Flash has made waves with its aggressively hoppy and sometimes bitter IPAs.
The relationship began in 2009 when St. Feuillien’s CEO Dominique Friart toured Green Flash's San Diego facility and was impressive with the brewery's meticulous approach. Eventually the two producers teamed up on Bière De L'Amitié, a Belgian Strong Ale brewed in Belgium with American Amarillo hops. The beer was warmly received when it debuted in March 2010. Two years later they followed up with Friendship Brew, a Black Saison made with St. Feuillien’s secret spice combination. In 2013 they released their third work, Belgian Coast IPA.
"As brewing partners, we have always been humbly enthusiastic to learn from one another," says Green Flash brewmaster Chuck Silva, when describing the evolution of his rapport with St.Feuillien brewmaster Alexis Briol. "This mutual respect allows us, as international counterparts, to find common ground."
The Green Flash-St. Feuillien endeavor represents the next level of brewery teamwork and set the stage for partnerships like Nya Carnegiebryggeriet, a new brewery in Stockholm from Brooklyn Brewery and several Swedish partners. Nya Carnegiebryggeriet will create beers that weave together both American and Scandinavian traditions.