With hundreds of breweries in Colorado and more on the way, it might be tempting to think that the spirit of competition is poised to outstrip craft beer’s well-known spirit of cooperation.
But collaboration — which some say is inherent in beer, from learning how to brew in the first place to sharing the goods in the end — is alive and well in this industry.
“The culture of collaboration is exponential when it comes to small and independent craft brewers — unlike anything I’ve seen within any other business community,” said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association.
You don’t see much like it, said Paul Olk, a professor in the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. Olk studies business collaborations and alliances. “What is going on in the beer industry is unique, I believe. It’s the type of collaboration that I’ve not seen before.
“You’re getting feedback from your peers, but you’re also giving up your ideas,” he said. “And that’s a level of trust and a level of respect for each other. … It’s a unique mind-set.”
Adam Avery, founder of Avery Brewing, said: “It’s one of the weirdest industries and weird in a really good way. I don’t know of any other industry where the competitors within the industry are actually as friendly as we are.”
That’s not to say breweries don’t compete. But most say it’s a friendly rivalry, and besides, the culture of collaboration has its benefits.
For one, craft beer’s consumer base seems to appreciate it. Saturday’s Collaboration Fest at Mile High — which features collaborations from 149 breweries — is sold out. For fans, it’s a chance to try something that’s new and relatively rare, because collaborations often are limited-release beers. (That’s also a boon for brewers: In a February analysis, Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, wrote that there’s no one craft beer trend for 2016 — rather, the movement is toward differentiation, diversity.)
It’s also exciting when two favorite breweries get together for a collaboration. “I would liken it to when two Hollywood stars start to date each other,” Herz said.
Some brewers get caught up in the excitement of collaborations as well.
Jesse Brookstein, of Call to Arms Brewing, called Collaboration Fest “probably my favorite event in the whole wide world.”
There are a lot of festivals out there, he said, but “this festival is, as I perceive (it), almost 100 percent beers I’ve never had before. And I think 20 percent of people at this event will be brewers themselves.”
Brookstein and his fellow owners at Call to Arms met while working at Avery. For Collaboration Fest, they worked with Avery to create a hoppy stout inspired by a mistake Call to Arms’ Chris Bell made while brewing Out of Bounds Stout once, back when he was new at Avery. (Bell used the wrong hops, but the original mistake was good, Avery said. They called it Out of Spec and sold plenty of it in the tap room.)
Brookstein said that while it’s possible for a collaboration to go south, they tend to be happen in an ego-free environment. “Collaborations are really just one guy working and five people drinking,” he said. “They’re really laid-back, if anything. And, like anything, it’s who you choose to work with.”
The pragmatic side of collaboration
The culture of collaboration has become part of craft beer’s identity. And as far as branding goes, collaboration is “super important,” Avery said. “It really drives home the differential between big beer and craft beer.”
“We know that together, we are strong.”
Randy Mosher, a Chicago-based author, brewery owner and creative consultant , said collaboration is a key part of how he personally defines the industry. “In craft beer, people sit around and say, ‘hey wouldn’t it be cool if,’ and then they do it,” he said. (The corporate way is work backward into that from market projections — standard new-product development, he said.)
Collaborations can be strategic for the small breweries, Mosher said, offering them the chance to think about the people and breweries with whom they want to be aligned and even the geographic areas where they want to sell beer.
“You think about that pretty deeply,” he said. “You want to be with someone interested in the same things.”
For breweries on the larger end of the craft spectrum, such as Avery or even New Belgium, which recently released a Fat Tire “Riff Pack” of collaborations celebrating 25 years of their famous amber ale, collaborations can pose logistical challenges. “They’re usually planned out a year in advance for production schedule, there are personalities to deal with, you might be sourcing unusual ingredients,” Herz said. “They take thought and planning, and I think flexibility.”
Avery said that although he enjoys collaborating with people whose beers he respects, it can be tough to fit in.
“We have no capacity to make these extra beers,” he said. “We’d like to make new beers, but we’re putting them into our lineup.”
“That said, we’ve done lots of tiny little things. But we don’t really chase them.”
The scale of his production was a bit different back in the early 2000s, when a mutual friend told Avery and Russian River Brewing’s Vinnie Cilurzo that they had a beer in common. Both breweries made a beer called Salvation. Avery walked up to Russian River’s booth at the Great American Beer Festival, he said, and it was quickly apparent that neither brewer was worried about claiming the word “Salvation” as their own. (“My attorney hates me,” Avery said, “because I don’t really worry about trademarks.”) Instead, they decided to collaborate.
The resulting beer, Collaboration Not Litigation, has been reissued most of the ensuing years, Avery said.
Innovation in collaboration
Branding aside, brewers tend to like getting together with other brewers.
“Most of us are home brewers gone amuck,” Avery said. “So we come from the same lineage; we’re of the same stock.”
Laura Bruns, who owns Factotum Brewing with brother Chris, said that since they opened their own brewery, she doesn’t go to others as often — she’s just too busy. A collaboration is a good excuse to get together.
Late last year, the Brunses got together with Tow Yard Brewing in Indianapolis to create a collaboration ale inspired by Peyton Manning (before he told the world, post-Super Bowl win, that he was “going to drink a lot of Budweiser”). The result of that collaboration, Oatmaha, will be at Collaboration Fest.
“It was so much fun, and I think we have lifelong friends (at Tow Yard),” Laura said.
Factotum is, in some ways, built on the idea of collaboration. Chris brews in collaboration with a guest brewer, whether the guests are experienced home brewers who want to make a big batch and throw a release party or enthusiasts who have never brewed a thing but have an idea for a beer.
“It makes me a better brewer, because you never know what idea’s going to walk in the door,” Chris said.
Creating a collaboration beer does the same thing — you learn what other brewers are doing, feed off of each other’s ideas.
Collaboration is good for innovation, Avery said.
“We’re pushing the boundaries,” he said. “Most of them are on the crazy side. They’re on the experimental side, and that makes it fun for the brewers and the fans.”