Author: Lucy Corne
When I travel, there is almost always a beery element to the trip. And whether we’re sipping in the taprooms of Brooklyn, tackling London’s Bermondsey Beer Mile or simply taking a weekend break from our home in Cape Town, one thing is always abundantly clear: craft brewers love to work together.
Collaboration brews have long been a feature of the craft beer landscape, but in recent years beers conjured up by a duo of breweries working together have become almost commonplace. Scan the beer list of your local taproom and you’re likely to spot at least one beer created in conjunction with a guest brewery.
The M.O. is always pretty much the same. “Once you’ve identified a brewer to work with, a torrent of emails and WhatApps go back and forth while you agree on the style and the recipe,” says Dissident Beer’s Shawn Duthie, who recently collaborated with Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery. Of course, even the act of choosing who to brew with can be tricky, especially for a well-known brewery. “We get asked literally every week,” says Louise Grant of Fierce Beer in Scotland. “It’s hard because we don’t have enough tank space or time. We usually collaborate with breweries that are our friends but also who we can learn from, still being a young brewery ourselves.” Fierce have a whopping 16 collab brews lined up for 2019, largely due to their single hop series.
Brewing with a beer in hand
Working out the recipe can be a lot of fun and an interesting learning experience, but it’s the actual brew day that brewers really look forward to. “Above all, we do collabs because they’re fun,” says Eben Uys of Mad Giant in Johannesburg. “I also feel like there’s less pressure because it’s not just you thinking about the recipe, you’re working with a brewer with different experience and different ideas.”
Shawn of Cape Town-based Dissident also relishes the more laidback nature of a collab brew. “I started, like many people, as a homebrewer and whenever you turn your hobby into a job, you inevitably lose some of the sense of fun,” he says. “I have fond memories of drinking beer with a group of mates as we waited for the wort to boil and I kind of miss that. When you’re doing a collab, the first thing that happens in the morning is that everyone grabs a beer while they’re mashing in.”
The bulk of the work in a collab falls to the host brewer, while the visitors tend to carry out key tasks: a stir of the mash, the ceremonial tossing in of hops, shovelling the spent grain when the brew day is over and of course, ensuring that everyone is kept refreshed with a cold beer.
Exchange of ideas
It’s not all about cracking open some beers and having a good time though. For most brewers, the collab is as much about learning as it is about socialising. “You learn a lot,” says Eben. “Different brewers have different methods, different areas of knowledge, so it’s such a nice pool of experience to draw from. Plus it gives you the chance to do something totally out of the ordinary, something crazy.”
Brendan Hart of Frontier Brewing, also in Johannesburg likewise enjoys the experimental nature of a collab brew. “There is usually only one beer geek in a small brewery – co-workers are often technical or financial or whatever, so your true counterpart exists in another brewery,” he says. “Doing a collab is a bit of a geek-out, something creative and inevitably you both end up brewing something you would not have otherwise done so there is some progressive learning,”
There is a third, slightly less romantic reason that brewers love to collaborate: sales. For a smaller, newer brewery, it can be a huge boost to team up with a well-known brand. And everyone benefits from the “FOMO” nature of a once-off beer. Drinkers always want to try something that’s limited edition and unlikely to ever be repeated, plus the accompanying social media drive serves to push both breweries into the limelight for a while.
Brewers will wax lyrical about why they love collab brewing, and sometimes it seems tough to find a taproom that isn’t selling a beer created in conjunction with another brewery. But the question few seem able to answer is why this habit of teaming up with your competitors seems to be almost exclusive to brewing. I recently took to social media to ask people to name other industries where collab culture is so prevalent. Music and fashion – two inherently creative realms – were the responses, but few could name another sector of the food and beverage industry where producers come together to create collaborations on a regular basis.
I wouldn’t like to say that cheese making, coffee roasting, chocolate production or artisanal baking aren’t as creative as brewing, but for some reason, these producers don’t seem to unite and release limited edition creations as frequently as the craft brewing industry does.
Maybe it’s due to the limited shelf life and distribution of some of the products. Perhaps it’s because other industries lack the fanatical followers that craft beer boasts. Maybe it’s because beer is an intrinsically sociable product. Or perhaps it’s simply because hanging out with fellow cheesemakers nibbling on brie is just not as much fun as standing around a mash tun with a cold beer in hand.
Pictures: Lucy Corne