Let's get it on - part 1

In the first of a two-part look at the tradition of collaborative brewing, Adrian Tierney-Jones unpacks its surprisingly short history and asks what makes a successful partnership


It is collaboration day in a brewery somewhere in the UK. The snaps have been taken and the poses and pouts of the brewing teams uploaded onto social media. Followers are asked if they know what style of beer is being produced – “not a pastry stout, I hope” writes one outlier. The mash-in has begun to a soundtrack of musical mayhem in the background, which isn’t that good for any hangovers suffered in the name of cooperation from the night before. Then the mash is over and the boil begins, while one of the visitors might be handed a spade for shovelling out the spent grain. The day continues, pizzas from the taproom’s onsite food truck turn up for lunch, and then finally the beer flows like a magical river to the fermenting tanks. The day is done and it is time perhaps for a few more beers.

“In my experience, they're always fun days,” says Andy Parker of Elusive, which regularly produces beer with other breweries. “Of course, a beer needs to be actually brewed and the physical work needs doing, but it's expected that the visiting brewer will muck in and help, especially with digging out the mash tun. They're usually quite relaxed days overall though and a chance to socialise and chat. When we host here at Elusive, we try to ensure we don't have too much else going on, so we can focus on helping our guests relax and feel welcome. Once they've dug out the mash of course!”

PHOTO: Thornbridge

The first collaboration brews began in the UK in the 1990s, with Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster Garrett Oliver believing that the one he did with the now closed Brakspear in 1997 was deemed to be one of the earliest in the UK if not the world (though an American beer writer tweeted me that he thought there was an earlier one in Oregon in 1994). Ever since those heady days, and achieving a real sense of momentum in the late 2000s, this act of spirited cooperation has veined itself through the body of modern beer. It seems that as soon as a new brewery is established, it is not long before a collaboration is announced. In my own experience chatting socially with brewers over a beer, collaboration remains an essential part of brewing curiosity as head brewers and brewmasters from different companies and beer traditions come together to celebrate the art and science of brewing and hopefully produce an excellent beer. Sometimes the beers made are a riff on the host brewery’s specialities — hazy pales, beers from the family of lager, pastry stouts with all sorts of adjuncts, the odd mild or it can be something entirely different, maybe involving barrel-ageing. 

The latter was on the agenda in 2007, when Garrett Oliver partnered with Thornbridge to produce Alliance, a remarkable 11% barley wine, some of which was aged in Pedro Jiminez and Madeira casks. As I recall, looking at my tasting notes, when opening the PJ Reserve edition three years after, it was a noble caress of a beer, spirituous, soothing, calm and far-reaching in its effect on the palate. I wish I had kept it longer (and got more).  

Kelly Ryan, who now brews with Boneface Brewing in his homeland New Zealand, was then at Thornbridge and one of the brewers on the day itself. Having known him since that period, I emailed him to see what he remembered of the day, which had started off not long after 6am when the then head brewer Stefano Cossi did the first mash (because of the strength of the beer, two mashes were planned). Ryan and the rest of the team came in at 7am.

The first collaboration brews began in the UK in the 1990s

“Garrett was staying at the Hall with Jim and Emma [Harrison, Thornbridge founders],” he recalls, “and rocked in at mid-morning, looking as cool as a cucumber in a three-piece tweed suit assembly. We knew there and then that he probably wouldn't be digging out the mash tun! The brew day was about 16 hours from start to finish. Being a young brew team focussed on the important task at hand (and of course having brewing royalty like Garrett around), we neglected to think about dinner! I think it would've been around 9pm that night that Garrett came to the rescue. He'd made a bunch of hand-made samosas for dinner in the Hall and rocked up with a few for us to snack on. To this day, it's the finest samosa I've ever had…”

Since then and after moving back home in 2010, Ryan has taken part in many collaborations both in New Zealand as well as Britain, where the wonders of Zoom have seen beers being brewed with the likes of Thornbridge, Magic Rock, Verdant and, more recently, Westerham. For him, collaborations still remain valid in that they are about sharing knowledge with other likeminded souls about beer, brewing, techniques and ingredients. 

This is a similar attitude that Julie O’Grady, co-founder of Liverpool’s Neptune brewery, shares, making the point that, “for us collaborations are about making a great beer with people that we admire. Not only in the beer they brew but as individuals and their brewery. Learning something from each other always comes with that, whether it be techniques or recipes. We don’t believe in collabs for the sake of it. It has to mean something to each party. It also gives consumers something to look forward to.”

PHOTO: Thornbridge

One of their collaborations, Sirens’ Song, with Montana-based Neptune’s Brewery, came about after the two companies were frequently tagged in each others’ social media. The American outfit visited the UK in early 2020 and headed to Liverpool and the result was a 5.2% amber riff on Neptune’s Brewery’s Siren Song. This is collaboration as a glorious accident.

O’Grady says that a collaboration gives beer-drinkers something to look forward to, but in my email exchanges with Ryan, he raised the point that perhaps brewers were more excited about them than some drinkers. He raises an important point. Even though collaborations continue, to my mind there doesn’t seem the fever pitch excitement that these cooperative brews used to whip up, especially on social media, 10 years ago. With the onset of Untappd and other rating sites, and a drift towards what Ryan calls the ‘new beer every week mentality’, maybe the dedicated craft beer fan, who inhabits the world of social media, is not so moved by collaborations. On the other hand, the fact that they still continue suggests that they are not going anywhere soon. 

The first wave of collaborations involved many of the new emerging breweries at the start of the 2010s, working with each other. This included the likes of Magic Rock, Buxton, Siren, Arbor and The Kernel, who I recall making a Märzen with Dark Star, when Mark Tranter was still there. I think that this was one of the first lagers The Kernel made and I recall it being full-bodied and rather delicious. The next wave of collaborations was when the large family breweries started to get involved, including Adnams, Fuller’s and Hook Norton. Until he retired four years ago, John Keeling was Fuller’s head brewer and his first collaboration with Marble was called Old Manchester and brewed in 2012. 

For us collaborations are about making a great beer with people that we admire

“I knew Marble’s then head brewer James Russell [now owner of Sureshot] from tastings,” he says. “He said let’s make a beer, it should be fun and so I went up there. I told marketing that I was going up to Manchester to make a beer and that it should get us a bit of publicity. It was going to be called Marble ESB. Marketing said no, so it became Old Manchester cause I’m old and from Manchester.”

A few years later in 2018, collaborating with smaller breweries was a common step for Fuller’s. The start of the year also saw the release of the Fuller’s and Friends six-pack of beers, in which collaborations were undertaken with Moor, Fourpure, Hardknott, Marble, Thornbridge and Cloudwater. Even though he had retired as head brewer and was the company’s Global Brand Ambassador by then, this was Keeling’s idea.

“I said that we should use all the six little breweries’ kits as pilots for the recipe,” he says, “and six of our brewers would go up to them and make the beer on their plant and then they could sell that beer in their local area. Then they would come back to Fuller’s and make it as a 160-barrel brew for the six-pack Waitrose was going to sell. This gave our people experience of how other breweries operate.”

PHOTO: Fuller's

This last point was expanded on by Keeling during our conversation and is perhaps one of the clearest explanations of why breweries collaborate with their peers large and small. 

“Collaboration helps to break down barriers and helps to make brewers think,” he says. ‘Craft brewers who are small and go into a collaboration get something different out of that collaboration from what the big brewer gets, but they both get something out of it. I think that the most important thing about collaboration is to get something out of it. And to get something out of it you have to be committed. Those collaborations I would not do would be when marketing would say 'why don’t you make a beer with this brewery'. I would respond, 'well, I don’t know anybody there'. If I know people I will phone them and ask if they want to make a beer. I am not going to be told to make a collaboration with people I don’t know.”

So maybe Keeling gets close to the essence of collaboration; it is about fun, friendship, learning, getting out of your comfort zone and making the kind of beer that will make the drinker’s heart sing with joy. Well worth digging out the mash tun for (and I speak from personal experience). 

Next issue: Collaboration beyond breweries, when collaborations go wrong and what happens next.

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