Craft Beer Collaborations, Part I: A History of Partnership

Collaborations define a unique and growing segment of the craft beer landscape. What once was a trickle of collaborative beers on the market has turned into a steady stream as more brewers have jumped into the mix. Even as competition increases, the overall attitude and philosophy of partnership continues to grow. Perhaps it’s a specific mindset that allows these types of relationships to exist, but whatever it is, it’s something that’s almost entirely unique to the industry of craft beer.

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Stone Brewing has been one of the most prolific collaborators in craft beer.

The sentiment is perhaps best described in the partnership that emerged in 2004 between Avery and Russian River. The two breweries had both been brewing a beer called Salvation, but instead of suing each other for the name rights – which is what would happen in almost any other industry – the two brewers, Vinnie Cilurzo and Adam Avery, decided to bring their beers together to create one awesome collaborative project. In fact, the name of the beer goes a long way in summing it all up: Collaboration Not Litigation Ale.

“There’s a sense of camaraderie and community within the craft beer industry that encourages and supports collaboration,” says Brady Walen, Brand Manager for Widmer Brothers in Portland, Oregon. “Because collaborations are so prevalent and accepted, beer drinking consumers almost expect, and in some cases demand them from their favorite breweries. It comes back to creating something unique – an aspiration shared by many brewers – and collaborative efforts usually result in something different from what would have happened without the collaboration.”

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The first in a series of Game of Thrones beers by Ommegang

In recent years, collaborations have become increasingly more diverse and creative. The recent release by Widmer Brothers and Cigar City called Gentlemen’s Club, for instance, introduces three variations of the same beer, each aged with different types of oak/barrels. In addition to collaborations between breweries, we’re also seeing collaborations between breweries and brands, events, celebrities… even breweries and TV shows, such as Ommegang’s Game of Thrones beer – a collaboration between the brewery and HBO’s hit TV series.

From a marketing perspective, partnerships like this are fascinating because the limited nature of the releases, combined with the inherent cool factor of beer, and the cool factor of the people/brands/breweries involved, makes releases like Ommegang’s Game of Thrones series incredibly sought after and buzzed about. The most recent release I personally geeked out over was Stone’s w00t Stout – a collaboration between Stone head brewer Greg Koch, Star Trek The Next Generation star Wil Wheaton and Fark.com founder/internet celebrity, Drew Curtis. As someone who is a fan of (a) craft beer, (b) Star Trek, and (c) Internet geekdom, the w00t project had me going from liquor store to liquor store trying to collect all three of the limited edition bottles.

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Drew Curtis, Wil Wheaton and Stone’s Greg Koch

“The benefits of collaborations do extend beyond kinship,” says Walen. “Collaborations offer some great learning experiences, where brewers are able to share and riff on each other’s ideas, challenge perceptions of what’s possible, and encourage one another to do things we may not otherwise consider. These experiences and learnings live well beyond the life of the beer that comes as the result of the collaboration, and can impact decisions long afterwards. Another great benefit is the opportunity to share a unique beer, project and experience with fans of each brewery – often times in markets where one or the other may not currently be available.”

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Two recent collaboration projects from Widmer Brothers – Gentlemen’s Club and Kindred

And that’s certainly the case for the Cigar City/Widmer Brothers collaboration which I’ll explore deeper in Part II of this series. When you have a brewery like Cigar City that only distributes within a small radius of its Florida roots, a project like this can open the brewery up to any number of new markets. Which is not only great exposure for a brewery, but it’s also great for consumers who may get an opportunity to try a beer they may not otherwise have access to.

In addition to pushing creative and distribution boundaries, collaborations also allow breweries to divert course from their normal brand direction under the context of a definitive “side project.” Take Redhook’s recent collaboration beer produced with likeminded Seattle brewer, Hilliard’scleverly called Joint Effort. This session ale brewed with hemp seeds celebrates the legalization of marijuana in Washington and allows the two breweries to pronounce their support of cannabis without putting the sole focus on their core brand.

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In short, collaborations are one of the truly unique aspects that sets craft beer apart and makes it such a great business environment, not only for the breweries involved, but also for the consumers that benefit. In this series, Craft Beer Collaborations, I’ll be taking a look at some of the recent collaborative projects that have been buzzing up to the top.

Next up, a deeper dive into the Gentlemen’s Club trio from Widmer Bros. and Cigar City.

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