By Cal Meacham
The idea of beer collaborations on paper seems like a win, win for consumers and brewers alike. Big name breweries pairing with other giants as well as some lesser known breweries getting their name out, it is a formula for success. But this successful formula hasn’t translated into consistent, quality beer and therein lies the problem.
One of the first powerhouse beer collaborations that I had a chance to enjoy was the Sierra Nevada/Russian River – Domesticated Wild Ale Brux. A straight Brett refermentation, the beer delivered on the expectations of the names attached to it. It required Russian River to section off an area of their brewery to prevent infecting the rest of the facility and was a pretty big risk. The partnership worked because Russian River was willing to take some risks in the brewing process and was able to utilize Sierra Nevada’s massive distribution channels, bringing the Russian River brand to the Eastern part of the United States. This wasn’t the first collaboration beer but it was the first that struck me as something that was worth the names printed on the bottle. It had me seeking out different brewery collab’s as a way to discover some new/interesting breweries.
Since that time the market has been saturated with collaborations of all types. Breweries like Cigar City, New Belgium, Terrapin and BFM were diving in head first and releasing beers on a regular basis, but this is when things went south. With each quality beer we were getting 10-15 sub standard ones clogging up the shelves. The sub standard beers could be traced to several different issues along the way, but at the end of the day it all comes down to pricing and quality.
The first beer that came up short of expectations was the Widmer Brother/Cigar City – Gentleman’s Club Series which featured 3 of the same Old Ale brew aged using 3 different methods (Rye Barrels, Bourbon Barrels, Oak Spirals). I attended a launch party event and had a chance to discuss the beers with one of the brewers from Widmer. He was quick to point out that the beer tasted best when you blended equal parts of each into one glass, and that they had intended to release the beer that way but hadn’t brewed enough to make it happen. None of the 3 styles while interesting, warranted anything more than a passing sip, but the blend was a heck of a concoction and would have been a great collaboration. It begged a question when I saw the $17.99 price point of each bottle, was the blend not made because of lack of quantity or was it not made because more money could be made by selling 3 different beers?
Several others have popped up along the way including Cigar City/AleSmith – Dubble Dare (two of my favorite breweries), Cigar City/Coronado – Jurata, Terrapin/Shmaltz – Reunion Ale to name a few, but these beers have a not so great thing in common. They are all pretty tame and uninteresting. It points to a nagging suspicion that these are all just clever marketing gimmicks instead of two breweries coming together to craft an interesting or quality beer. This suspicion has been intensified with a new wave of “branding collaborations” which have popped up on the market in the last year including New Belgium/Patagonia and New Holland/Carhartt. While I don’t think that collaborations are a totally worn out idea, it would be nice to see more which are done with focus and purpose such as Cigar City/Terrapin – Southern Slice. Southern Slice was a great example of two breweries who are located in the Southeastern U.S., using a staple of their region (Pecan Pie) and delivering a representation of that region. Even if the beer wasn’t a great drink (which it is) they had a clear focus and theme that made sense for their breweries and that should be applauded.
My idea for fixing the current situation: Have both of the collaborators brew the same recipe (that they have created together) but on their own equipment and with their own locally sourced ingredients. The water quality alone would add a unique taste factor which would create a desire to seek out both bottles. It would put an interesting spin on the current formula and bring more interest to both breweries involved. I know that this is very cost prohibitive but with some of the craft giants tossing out collaborations every few months, it would be a great way to gain traction and respect. Taking Risks!
At the end of the day, I can’t fault the breweries if they are taking an opportunity at a cash grab, but I also cannot fault the consumers for wanting more quality for their money. I am not calling for the end of collaborations, just for more focus on quality over quantity.