Two heads

Matt Curtis dissects the current trend for collaboration, and asks what makes a successful marriage

Back in 2008, New York City’s Brooklyn Brewery produced what would eventually be regarded as a landmark beer in collaboration with Munich’s G.Schneider & Sohn. The Bavarian brewery is, of course, best known for its Schneider Weisse brand and this union would place an altogether more modern twist on its classic weissebier. The influence of Brooklyn’s ebullient brewmaster Garrett Oliver would bring a very American twist to the resulting beer, in the form of liberally added North American hops. The resulting Hopfenweisse was considered by many to be one of the first modern examples of the now commonplace collaboration beer.

What Brooklyn and Schneider unwittingly did was set a precedent for what would become one of the fundamental values within modern brewing culture. Brewers from what were essentially rival businesses had occasionally worked together on a recipe, but until this point it was unusual to take advantage of such camaraderie and use it to promote both brands. In 2017, collaboration beers rank among the most highly rated and sought after, with a seemingly endless flood of them hitting the market on what feels like an almost daily basis.

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Over the past decade, brewers have used collaborations as an opportunity to share knowledge and glean experience from one another. Many of those that have entered the beer industry during this time have come from amateur brewing backgrounds,without any formal brewing qualifications. Working together is a golden opportunity to learn, but it also has several other advantages, such as seeing your brand appear in different markets, which in turn helps your business to grow.

Consumers are now desperate to get their hands on the latest collaboration beers. These are often a partnership between a hyped-national brewery and one from overseas, whose beer doesn’t ever touch these shores. The influx of American brewers visiting the recent Beaver town Extravaganza beer festival spawned countless collaborations, as an example. However, at what point does the consumer eventually tire of these endless releases? With what feels like a never-ending stream of collaboration beers flooding the market, some consumers may be beginning to feel a little fatigued.

Stop, collaborate and listen

For Bristol-based brewery Wiper & True, collaborations have been an effective vehicle for engaging with both consumers and industry peers. Co-founder Michael Wiper sees this kind of activity within the modern beer industry as “flying in the face of conventional business thinking”. It’s a good point too, as beer feels very different to a lot of other niche industries, inspiring not only collaboration between peers but fierce loyalty from consumers that could be described more accurately as fans. This behavior mirrors that of the independent music industry a few decades ago, when artists and labels would routinely collaborate on material. Just look at David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop’s “Berlin period” as an example.

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“[Collaborations are responsible for elevating the quality of beer being produced and progressing our craft through seeing what we do every day via a different perspective,” Wiper says. “Sharing ideas and experiences is the best way to learn and grow as a brewer… it’s almost impossible to separate the benefits to industry and consumer.”

Wiper came into the beer industry like many others who’ve entered the fray over the past decade, from a home brewing background. “

The support and generosity of established brewers with their knowledge and time has got us to where we are today,” Wiper continues. “Brewing collaboratively with another brewery, or indeed anyone outside of the brewing industry – with a different perspective on flavour or a different passion that inspires us – is challenging, rewarding and has progressed us in our journey.”

For some brewers, the art of collaboration can have a deeper meaning than simply brewing together, and learning from the experience. With hundreds of specialist beer festivals happening all over the world, many brewers spend much of the year on the road. This gives the brewers an excellent opportunity to explore international markets. And what better way to do that than to brew a beer with friends within that market.

Sometimes it’s about more than just brewing a beer though. Spending a lot of time on the road can be a lonely existence, which is perhaps why some of the strongest relationships within the beer industry are forged through collaboration. A fine example of this is the relationship between Denmark’s Dry & Bitter and Manchester’s Cloudwater, as the latter’s co-founder Paul Jones explains.

“Collaborations give us a chance to showcase the closeness we love with friends in the industry through working relationships and overlap in tastes,” he says. “We’ve worked with Soren at Dry & Bitter a few times now, and see him many times a year. It’s always great to have the chance to hang out, talk over a recipe and production process, and put both our names on a beer we’re both proud of.”

The duo’s most recent collaboration was a Double IPA called Mobile Speaker, which references a little in-joke between the two friends.

“Collaborations are a chance to get together with people we like and whose beer we admire.”

Both enjoy carrying a little Bluetooth speaker around with them on bar crawls, keeping the party atmosphere flowing between venues It demonstrates something happening in this partnership that’s greater than simply beer – and lets the consumer in on the fun too.

“Collaborations are a chance to get together with people we like and whose beer we admire,” Dry & Bitter founder Soren Parker Wagner explains. “The idea is often to do something that we, as brewers, really want to do and get to learn from each other’s way of working. This way we both get something professionally out of it, while at the same time we get to hang with friends that we really like.”

“I love the opportunity to show a different side to the industry,” Jones adds. “Most of the time we keep a face of professionalism and focus here at Cloudwater, when behind the scenes we have a great deal of fun and occasionally party pretty hard too.”

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BORED TO DEATH So far we’ve looked at what brewers get out of collaborations but haven’t explored what consumers get out of it for themselves. It’s all well and good a brewer gushing about a shared learning experience and getting to party with friends from the other side of the world, but how does this experience translate to their customers? Many folks can’t get enough of the latest collaboration beers, especially when a brewer from overseas that doesn’t distribute over here comes to brew with a popular UK brewery. Cloudwater’s collaborations with Other Half and The Veil, from New York and Virginia respectively, plus Beavertown’s with Boston’s Trillium are examples of this.

However, it can be tough for consumers to keep up with what, at times, feels like an unrelenting tide of one-off, limited edition beers. Is the market becoming oversaturated with collaborations and will this in turn have the knock-on effect of turning the consumer off them? Consultant and beer sommelier Robert Parker of Beer & Brew isn’t convinced that collaborations will stay the course.

“I see collaborations as something that typify a scene that is trendobsessed, ripe for a backlash, and grabbing at ideas to maintain momentum,” he says. “‘Beer geeks’ might love it, I find it exhausting and a real turn off.”

Parker continues: “Small breweries need every foothold to make the smallest dent, and collaborations are one such foothold. The industry isn’t a big love-in where everyone’s looking to help you out; it’s hugely competitive. But, if you are making brilliant beer, a collaboration is an amazing tool for reaching a wider audience and prominence in an overcrowded marketplace.”

"The industry isn’t a big love-in where everyone’s looking to help you out; it’s hugely competitive."

Parker makes a salient point; that craft brewers may be collaborating to maintain the kind of relevance that keeps you at the top of the pile. Craft beer in the UK is incredibly trenddriven, with even the most fussedover breweries not immune from being shoved through the revolving door by fans when the next big thing comes along. However, looking a little deeper, I think that overall there is something genuine in the camaraderie of collaboration, and consumers will continue to get a buzz out of drinking these beers for a while yet.

PLANTING ROOTS For some start-up breweries, collaborations are an obvious way of gaining a foothold in a busy beer market. Although Beer Sommelier Robert Parker may have described it as overcrowded and despite there being significantly more competition than there was a decade ago, I still feel positively about the amount of opportunity the UK beer market has for newcomers. Although, more often these opportunities need to be created,as opposed to just being expected.

Miranda Hudson and Derek Bates plan to open Duration Brewing in Norfolk next year. However, before they’ve even broken ground at their site they’ve been busy producing as many collaborations as possible in order to establish a name for their brand.

“Collaborations have helped us reach new audiences and build brand recognition,” Hudson says. “We decided early on that we were going to share our journey and invite people to be part of Duration as it’s built, so having a product helps make what we are doing more tangible”

Bates was already a relatively wellknown figure within the UK brewing industry before he and Hudson began establishing their business. He’s perhaps best known for his stint as head brewer at Brew by Numbers in London and has so far had the opportunity to collaborate with Brixton Brewery, Left Handed Giant in Bristol and Cloudwater. Hudson jokes that collaborations are a way to prevent Bates from becoming rusty before they open their brewery in 2018, but there’s a more serious side to it too, as he elaborates.

“People weigh in on spurious collaborations that have no knowledge exchange and, thankfully, we’ve only had encouragement about releasing pre-launch beers so far,” he says. “For me a collaboration beer should bring a new offering and everyone should get something from it. We stay involved beyond the brew day through fermentation, packaging and the release of the end product, working with breweries’ artwork and events team to stay collaborating for the whole ride.”

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It remains to be seen if collaborations will remain as in vogue as they are now. The buzz around certain breweries will always ebb and flow, and new players will be keen to follow the example set by those currently seeing the most success. But as the beer market matures on both the industry and consumer side, I predict they may lose some of their sheen. Breweries will expand and invest in themselves,while consumers will gradually settle into habits and perhaps not invest as much time chasing limited releases. This, in turn, will make them less viable for the breweries that choose to produce them.

For now though, collaborations are here to stay and, as Duration’s Derek Bates points out, there’s still plenty of fun to be taken from them by brewers and drinkers alike.

“Just like with chefs or musicians, I think collaborations happen because ultimately they’re fun and a way to progress in your craft,” he concludes. “Saturation happens when something ceases to push forward and iterations of the same thing become dull. If beer collaborations continue to evolve and change to stay relevant then demand for them will also remain.”

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