Photos by jdn and James Cridland/Flickr CC
It started the way most collaborations do, over a few beers. Which is fitting, since this was a collaboration between two brewers--two of the biggest in the craft brewing world, Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione and Sierra Nevada's Ken Grossman.
The two come from opposite ends of the brewing spectrum--Calagione is famous for wild experimentation, while Grossman is a sort of elder statesman of the craft-beer establishment. But Calagione and Grossman had gotten to know each other through years of conference-going and beer-festival appearances, and they'd built up a sense of mutual admiration, for each other and their beers. So it was only natural that, during a drink at last year's Craft Brewers' Conference, the question would arise: Why not collaborate on a beer?
"We get together four times a year or so, to talk about beer and the beer industry," says Grossman. "So we decided making a beer together would be a fun thing to do."
The result, released in November, is Life & Limb, a 10 percent ABV ale brewed with maple syrup from Calagione's family farm in Massachusetts and hops from the Sierra Nevada estate in Chico, California; just for fun, the pair used the mash a second time to brew Limb & Life, a 5 percent ABV "small" beer (so-called because second-run brews have many of the characteristics of the first run, but much less alcohol and character).
What makes collaboration between putative competitors work?
"Dogfish is a brewery first and a business second--all of our decisions are made around the ideal of making the beer better and more distinct," says Calagione. "Plus we thought it would be cool to get our brewery culture peanut butter into their brewery culture chocolate and vice-versa."
The Dogfish Head/Sierra Nevada beer was one of the most widely anticipated releases of 2009, but it was hardly the first collaboration. Colorado's Avery has teamed up with California's Russian River, Brooklyn Brewery has worked with Germany's Schneider, and Indiana's Three Floyds has collaborated with Denmark's Mikkeller. Even Sam Adams, the Goliath of the craft world, has a collaborative release in the works with Weihenstephan, one of Germany's oldest breweries.
Why is collaboration suddenly so hot? "Today's craft beer consumer is demanding more variety," says Grossman. "They're all about trying new beer styles." And it helps that craft beer drinkers know enough of the ins and outs of different breweries to get excited about the possibilities in combining the legendary Sierra Nevada hops with the zany adventurism of Dogfish Head.
Allagash, a brewery in Portland, Maine that specializes in Belgian-style beers, has done two collaborations, both with Belgian breweries--the first was a strong ale called Les Deux Brasseurs, with De Proef, the second was a pale ale called Fedeltá, with De Struise. Both were extremely limited releases, and both sold out in a few days.
In both cases, says Jason Perkins, the head brewer at Allagash, "The fun of it was a huge part of doing it," but it was also "a great opportunity to work with someone from across the pond," particularly two of the most respected breweries in Belgium. The Belgians brought their mastery of Old World techniques, while Perkins and Allagash brought their skills at finding new and unique ingredients to tried and true styles.
What makes collaboration between putative competitors work? Booming business helps: The remarkable 10 percent annual growth of the craft beer sector makes competition for consumers an afterthought. "We're hardly struggling to fill capacity," says Perkins. Plus, even larger craft breweries have regionally limited distribution networks--California beers may have great reputations on the East Coast, but it's not their market, so it's safe to collaborate with brewers from there. But above all, say brewers, it's the grassroots origins of the industry. Virtually every craft brewer started out as a geek brewing beer at home, reliant on a community carried through newsletters, clubs, and (these days) websites for help along the way.
"The craft brewing industry in the U.S. is like no other industry in terms of communication," says Perkins. "If I have a problem with a piece of equipment I can call up ten brewers and they will take the time to send me spare parts or manuals. We're in competition, but craft brewers don't see it that way."
In fact, says Sierra Nevada's Grossman, collaboration beers can be a good business move, allowing brewers to cross-pollinate not only ideas, but customers, too. "If you like Dogfish Head or you like Sierra Nevada and you're not familiar with the other brand, this gives consumers a chance to try out that other brewery."