There’s only one thing better than drinking a beer from a brewery you love: drinking a beer from two breweries you love… or three… or four!
Collaboration beers are all the rage right now, with super-group beers by multiple breweries being a common sight at your favorite taproom or bottle shop. It’s the beer drinking equivalent of Captain America and Iron Man joining forces to fight an alien invasion. It’s a no-brainer: if A is good and B is good, then A+B? AWESOME… and lucrative!
We’re lucky here in the Northwest that a community of brewers has bonded over a mutual love for hops and esters, complex malt bills and the nerdy fun of fermentation. But in any collaboration, there must be compromise and in any business, there must be a consideration: just how chummy do you want to get with the competition? When financial futures are at stake, how much of your secret method for making the Best Beer Ever! do you want to give away to the rivals across the street?
I reached out to three Oregon master brewers responsible for some of the most delicious and successful collaboration beers in the region to get a look behind the fermenter.
JACK HARRIS (FORT GEORGE BREWING)
Fort George had one of the most successful beers of the summer in Oregon with its Three-Way IPA collaboration with Boneyard and Block 15. This was the second summer in a row that they teamed up with two other breweries to craft a masterpiece IPA; if you got to try it, consider yourself lucky. The 16 oz cans flew off shelves and kegs kicked faster than bartenders could replace them.
I asked Jack about the Three-Way’s origins, why he chose to collaborate with two breweries rather than just one, and how many brewers constitute too many brewers in the brewhouse.
“I guess it was my idea to do our first collaboration with two other breweries,” Jack told me. “I had been friends with Van Havig [of Gigantic] and Jerry Fechter [of Lompoc] for years and when we decided to try our hand at a collaboration [last year’s inaugural batch of Three-Way IPA] they came to mind immediately.
“It is interesting in retrospect that so many of the standards for this project came about at our first meeting. Even the name of the beer ended up becoming the project name. None of that was intentional, but it seems to work. We never started out with a broad concept of doing a three-way collaboration on an IPA every year, but here we are.
“I would guess that having more breweries in on it would start to interfere with the creative and practical processes that bring it about. I don’t see a Four-Way (aka Swinger IPA) on the horizon anytime soon.”
BEN EDMUNDS (BREAKSIDE BREWERY)
Of all the breweries in Oregon, you’d be hard pressed to find one that is more prolific, eclectic and experimental than Breakside. They brew amazingly hoppy IPAs, layered and complex Belgian saisons, malty English style strong ales, and puckering, punishing sours. And I’m convinced that no ingredient exists on this planet that they’re afraid to brew with. Recently, they’ve had success collaborating with both Ninkasi on the India Golden Ale that has become such a summer hit amongst hopheads and Widmer with the Saison à Fleurs, a delightfully herbal saison with chrysanthemum, jasmine, and szechuan peppercorn.
As a brewer who has seen both sides of a collaboration–hosting in the case of Ninkasi and visiting with Widmer–I was curious to learn what the advantages were on both sides of the collaboration equation and how it’s decided who will play host to a joint brewing venture.
“A lot of this has to do with how large a batch you are planning to make,” Ben confided in me. “Interestingly, we have rarely collaborated with breweries who are the same size as us. We’ve worked with folks who are much larger (Ninkasi, Widmer, Deschutes) and smaller (Upright, The Commons), so sometimes the host brewery is determined by default. We only wanted 30 barrels of India Golden Ale the first time we made it, so we brewed with Ninkasi at our place. Saison à Fleurs was a 200 bbl batch with national distribution, so that was brewed at CBA.
“The host brewery takes on nearly all of the responsibility for the beer: financial responsibility, marketing responsibility, quality control. As a collaboration partner, you have to trust that the host brewery is going to come through 100% on those fronts. I don’t think we would ever do a collaboration where I wouldn’t trust every brewery involved to make a great beer, regardless of where the beer is being made.”
JOHN HARRIS (ECLIPTIC BREWING)
John Harris is a legend in the brewing community, putting in decades behind the mash tun for McMenamin’s, Deschutes and Full Sail and inventing pretty much every beer that converted you from American adjunct lager drinker to craft beer aficionado. His personal brewery, Ecliptic, just celebrated its one year anniversary, but John has already collaborated with breweries from all over the country and one outside of it; since leaving Full Sail, John has teamed up with The Netherlands’ Bronkhorster, Florida’s Cigar City, Utah’s Squatters, California’s 21st Amendment and local favorites Pelican, Gigantic, and Boneyard.
I asked John what goes into the logistics of brewing a beer with someone whose geography is so distant from your own and if the cost and hassle of traveling discourages such collaborations.
“Well, the local ones are easy,” John said. “[As for the others,] I flew to Cigar City in May of 2013 to do the brew. I was in Tampa for 24 hours. Flew in, they were having power problems. Perhaps the brew might not happen I learned. Well it did. As far as the Dutch brewers they were in Portland for OBF. One would weigh the cost versus the marketing potential.”
THE FORT GEORGE/BREAKSIDE/ECLIPTIC COLLABORATION… INTERVIEW
In my interactions with Jack, Ben, and John, I found that they were remarkably transparent and open with me about the behind-the-scenes creative and business decisions that go into crafting collaboration brews, so of course I tried to see how much more dirt I could dig out of them.
When I asked about the genesis behind a collaboration beer and whether formal meetings take place behind closed doors at the brewery or if they were more often the result of running into a friendly rival brewer at a festival, all three brewers agreed that it happens both ways, with Ben pointing out that “In some instances–say our collaboration with Widmer on Saison à Fleurs this year, that was a more formalized process because it was part of a larger series of collaborations they had planned. Other times, these collaborations have been more of the ‘hey we should brew a beer together’ type.”
John added that the gestation period of these jam sessions varies wildly. “It could be something that takes years to happen or days.”
Meanwhile, Jack warned against the dangers of being too spontaneous in working up a collaboration plan with a fellow brewer over an evening at the bar. “It is not always great to jump on an idea you have after 5 beers.”
But once a partner and beer style is agreed upon, what about the financial considerations? I had always assumed that visiting brewers get a percentage of the revenue on a collaboration beer, but Ben, John, and Jack disabused me of that notion. “If you brew the beer,” John told me, “it’s yours to sell and make the money on.”
And if a beer is re-released after the initial collaboration, like say Breakside and Ninkasi’s India Golden Ale, does the host brewery owe its partner collaborator any stake of the financial pie?
“India Golden Ale is a Breakside beer that Jacob Leonard designed in collaboration with Jamie Floyd,” Ben clarified. “We still credit Ninkasi in our sell sheets and media notes for the beer, but they don’t have a financial or executive stake in the beer in any way. In my experience, that’s usually the case.”
So if money isn’t a major temptation for collaboration beers (at least for the visiting brewery), what are the biggest benefits to working with the competition?
“You would only collaborate with people you know and admire,” John told me. “If you are in their brewery you take the back seat and the driver’s in yours. The visiting brewer really has more fun. Hanging out, chatting. The hosting brewer has to get the work done.”
Jack added the host brewer “takes on all the risk of making, packaging and marketing the beer. Hopefully the other breweries are interested in the collaboration for educational, entertainment and marketing purposes, but there is no real risk to them unless we put out something terrible.”
He continued by listing what Fort George looks for in a brewing partner: “ breweries that have slight differences to us, slightly larger, smaller, using different packaging or no packaging at all; it is a great benefit for a non-packaging brewery to have their name on a can;  breweries that have equipment we are curious about such as filters and centrifuges, for example, are great because we get to learn about them; last year we learned a lot about manipulating water with salts, something we have never done here;  geography is important; getting our beer on the map in Bend and in the Valley was important to us with the last collaboration; and  of course it is nice to hook up with someone that is hot in the market right now; Boneyard is hot.”
Ben echoed that last point, admitting, “There’s no doubt that in 2013, when we had just opened our production brewery, a collaboration with Ninkasi interested many bar owners/beer buyers who would not have otherwise considered a Breakside draft. But we’ve never decided to do a collaboration only to increase our sales or our visibility. Those are the post hoc benefits.
“Really, my interest in these projects is learning from and sharing knowledge with peers who I respect. I think that the best collaboration comes when two breweries focus on contributing something each from their area of expertise, or when two brewers use their combined knowledge to try some sort of new process or experiment.”
I could see where all these guys were coming from, but I had to ask, as the skeptical, cynical outsider I am, what was to stop a particular brewery from abusing a collaboration partnership and reaping ridiculous fortunes off the partial creative input of another brewer who received no financial cut?
Let’s play a thought experiment and go extreme for the sake of making a dramatic example. Let’s say that a major brewery like Sam Adams comes along and collaborates with Ecliptic, Fort George or Breakside on a beer that becomes so popular they decide to replace Boston Lager with that brew as their primary offering around the country and the world. Sure, our Oregon brewer gets a substantial marketing boost from the joint venture, but meanwhile, Sam Adams is making millions off it. I couldn’t imagine any other industry where a saleable creative product worked on by two separate businesses didn’t have some kind of financial split. Did it really just boil down to informal gentlemen’s agreements and scenarios where everybody’s happy to have just brewed together?
Ben fired back with this:
“I think that the case you’re outlining would serve as justification to collaborate only with brewers who you don’t view as your direct competitors–this might mean breweries who don’t package their beer, or breweries who don’t sell in the same market as you. In that case each brewery might still be able to produce the beer on their own system and sell it to their market without direct competition.
“I’m sure there are some breweries out there that would want more formal agreements put into place to prevent this sort of disproportionate advantage from happening to a “competitor” brewery, and some breweries (Rogue, for example) have a strict policy against collaborations.
“But, I do think that most of these collaborations go down as the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ or ‘everybody’s happy to have just brewed together’ scenarios. There are also other ways for the visiting brewery to reap benefits, albeit indirectly (not from sale of the beer), from a collaboration.
“From a distance these types of collaboration offerings seem to be a quirky business proposition and depend more on the collegial nature of the craft beer industry than anything.”
Quicky business propositions aside, there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of great collaboration brews on the horizon from Oregon brewers. I asked Jack, Ben, and John to name their favorite collaboration beers from other breweries and tease us with who they’ll be working with next to get us all prematurely salivating.
“We have plans for next year’s collaboration,” Jack admitted, “but I am waiting until we suss out some details for what we are making before spilling the beans. [As for a favorite collaboration beer], it is kind of mainstream maybe, but I have appreciated a lot of the homebrewer collaborations that Widmer has done. I think it is pretty gutsy to use a brewery that size on a specialty beer like that.”
John also pointed out Widmer as a brewery that’s been doing some solid collaboration brews and added Sierra Nevada’s name as well. “The Sierra Beer Camp box set had some good ones in it,” he told me, before mentioning that he is “discussing the return of TICWITTIC with Gigantic, and Cigar City will be traveling out here to brew. Date not set. I will [also] be brewing at Stone in March along with Wicked Weed Brewing.”
Finally, Ben spilled a few beans about what to expect from Breakside. “With the Craft Brewers Conference coming up next year in Portland, we do have a few collaborations that we’re planning with out-of-state brewers and breweries who we love. We’ll be having some folks come out in the next few months to brew beer into barrels that will likely age until just before the CBC in April. I can’t let the cat out of the bag about who we’ll be working with, but tentatively we have four beers coming out around then.
“Before then, though, we will be doing a draft collaboration with Fat Head’s. Matt Cole, the brewmaster there, is one of the best brewers I know, and I’m really excited for him and Mike Hunsaker (Head Brewer) to open up. Portland beer lovers are in for a real treat from these guys. We’ve talked about a few ideas– a yuzu beer, or a gose with umeboshi (salt plum), but nothing is set in stone yet. We’ll be doing something with them that will be released before the end of the year for sure.”
And favorite collab beer? “For me, the Brooklyn-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse is still the benchmark for all collaboration beers. It really elegantly combined areas of expertise from each brewery involved to create a beer that’s wholly unique.”