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Craft Brewing : A Culture of Collaboration

There’s nothing quite like an adrenaline rush. Looking back on my days in the wild, I relished the feeling of out-foxing hounds and horses, peering out at the fray after going to ground. They pranced around regally, still pumped-up from the day’s chase. There I lay, panting in my brush hole, wondering when they would scatter, watching them with fire in my eyes … proud of my own endurance, executing my craftiness, showing a broad intelligence for which my breed has become known. Hey, this Beer Fox needed a beer!

In the Grand Hall of the Great American Beer Festival, the feeling is much the same. I arrive early, watching the room fill with beer celebrities – the brewers, the owners, the sensory specialists. They are the foxes, avoiding errors in the brewkettle, calculating fermentations for maximum complexity, anticipating victory.

In the background, a faint smell of beer permeates the air. But here, I am much like one who has initiated the chase, filling that role in past days as beer judge. In totally blind tastings, we rolled the liquid over our tongues, inhaling deeply, feeling its resiliency in the back of our throats, identifying breadiness, or fruitiness, or warmth in the finish.

Pride crackles through this hall of energy, some smiling like Cheshire cats, others holding tensely to their hopes and dreams. The victors often win multiple medals, and it does not go unnoticed by the fans or the media. You might expect pride and prejudice, but in craft brewing, bonds run deeper than competition.

“Let’s collaborate,” becomes a common theme in the aftermath. Award-winning brewers know their own strengths, while recognizing the innate artistry in another. As in other endeavors, whether artistic or scientific, collaboration provides the opportunity to achieve far beyond the limits of individual strengths. It is evident in the success of the F-A-E Sonata, the Skunk Works, Grammy Award-winning movies, and the Free Software Movement that resulted in the GNU/ Linux operating system.

But in the normal practice of capturing market share, brewing companies worldwide, particularly the mega corporation brewers, steadfastly file claims in court to quash the opposition. In 2003, DB, a subsidiary of Heineken and the second largest brewer in New Zealand, trademarked the name Radler, a German beer style; then threatened legal action against small artisanal brewers who specified that style in their beer titles. Similar legal threats happened in the U.S. too, including tiny Rock Art Brewery in Vermont, who battled the giant Hansen Naturals of California, makers of Monster Energy Drinks, for the right to use the title VermonsterTM for their anniversary beer. More commonly, however, craft brewers form alliances.

Collaboration stands out as a force that has advanced the craft beer industry with a flourish. In 2004, Adam Avery of Avery Brewing, Colorado and Vinnie Cirluzo of Russian River Brewing, California discovered they had both brewed beers named Salvation. By 2006, they joined recipes to create a blend of the two Belgian beers, naming it Collaboration Not Litigation Ale at 8.72% ABV. This beer became the standard bearer for a new wave of thought throughout the industry.

Pairings are common. Sierra Nevada joined with Orval to create the Ovila Abbey Ales, with proceeds fueling the restoration of the Ovila Chapter House on the grounds of the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. Dogfish Head of Delaware created Life and Limb in a marriage with Sierra Nevada as a tribute to the Calagione and Grossman family farms. And Larry Sidor of Deschutes merged ideas with Steven Pauwels of Boulevard to craft a Belgian White IPA for their Conflux/Smokestack Series of beers.

The Brett Pack – Sam Calagione, Rob Tod, Adam Avery, Tomme Arthur, and Vinnie Cirluzo – took their collaboration, Isabelle Proximus American Wild Ale on a rock-star Beer Tour cross-country, where it was celebrated by world-class chefs in city after city.

Perhaps the most renowned of collaborative breweries is Stone Brewing Company of Escondido, California. Since 2008, Greg Koch, CEO of Stone, and Mitch Steele, Stone’s Brewmaster, have solidified a portfolio of triumvirate collaborations a mile long. Current count sets the number at a dozen collaborations, with more setting-up in the Green Room.

John Trogner of Troegs Brewing Company in Pennsylvania joined with Mitch Steele and 2011 AHA Homebrew Competition champions Jason Fields and Kevin Sheppard to create Cherry Chocolate Stout using cacao liqueur and 9,000 pounds of cherries. “Collaboration beer,” said Trogner, “describes what our industry is.”

After Hurricane Irene hit Waterbury, Vermont on August 28, 2011, Mitch Steele and Jamie Floyd of Ninkasi Brewing in Oregon invited John Kimmich of The Alchemist in Waterbury to brew More Brown then Black IPA to benefit the Waterbury Good Neighbor Fund. Steele called it “a major success beer.”

Collaboration allows brewers to come together to do what drives them, to do what they love, without the constraints of normal business operations. It allows their creativity to run wild, stepping into the experimental boxing ring, without being roped-in to style guidelines. New processes are tested and unfamiliar ingredients examined for their effect on flavor profiles. While one brewmaster may have far-reaching experience with hops, another may be a master who pushes the boundaries in defiance against the norm. This exchange of ideas is nurturing and benefits the millions of beer lovers who celebrate diversity in the glass.

While the mash tuns are humming, I’ll be tucked inside my foxhole, drinking a glass of Highway 78 Scotch Ale, the collaboration between Chuck Silva of Green Flash, Jeff Bagby of Pizza Port Carlsbad, and Mitch Steele of Stone. This one is spicy, earthy and warm … a Beer Fox kind of beer.


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