A Collab on Collabs

We’re only halfway through, but 2021 is very much shaping up to be the “Year of the Collab.” In the last few months, we’ve seen a plethora of collaborations hit our shelves and fridges, from the more traditional collabs between breweries to collaborations with vineyards, coffee roasters, restaurants, artists, dépanneurs and even content creators. But why are we seeing so much collaboration on the scene right now? What is driving this massive spike?

Although it is surprising to see these kinds of projects making a rise considering the circumstances that the world has found itself in for the last year or so, there does seem to be an obvious reason why. Our need and calling for human interaction, which has so far been very lacking in our lives, has played the largest influence in the rise of people in the beer industry coming together. This can not only be seen in the increase in brewery collaborations, but also in the increasing number of content creators, podcasts. Case and point this article is a collaboration within itself. Joining me on this journey to write about collaborations is Mike Davis, Mr. Beerbrit himself, and also a guest writer for Beerism, run by the beer king, Noah Forrest. Long live King Forrest. An Aussie and a Brit, could it get any better? It’s a Commonwealth collab. Mike and I decided it would be a cool project to smash our heads together (from a distance of course) and come together to ask ourselves the ultimate question: Are collaborations worth it? 

There are many reasons that two breweries might come together to hammer out something special. But what drives them to pursue such a project? In the most straightforward sense, a collaboration between two breweries entails them working together to create a recipe for a beer, deciding at which brewery they will brew the beer, and then to road-tripping over there and do the thing they do best: brew! 

Besides the growing sense of community during this last year, another reason we are seeing so many collaborations, is that they are incredibly popular with brewers themselves. For Derrick Robertson, Head Brewer at Pub Brewskey, the benefit is as plain as can be, “I love collaborations because it allows me to work with another head brewer and talk about everything beer with someone in a very similar position that I am in. It’s also a great reason to have a few beers with like-minded people.” From a brewer’s standpoint, collaborations also act as a way to learn something different that they may not have otherwise not known. In almost every industry its common to feel that its impossible to know everything, but in the brewing world the way to grown and learn more can be as simple as reaching out and working closely with a person or group that is knowledgeable in that particular area. As Derrick explains, “there are beer styles that you want to learn how to do and having someone to collaborate/teach you how to do them is a great step forward.”

It helps that as an industry, micro brewing in general emphasises a culture of togetherness. “A lot of great beer ideas come from collaborating but we also help each other problem solve and improve,” explain Keegan Kelertas and Mike D’Ornellas, both owners at 4 Origines. This aspect of solving problems with the same people who are essentially your competitors is not something that’s common in other industries, but in the brewing community it is considered a great way to keep a close knit community together to fight the big beer conglomerates. “We’re all fighting against macro beer and the overall realities of running a small business. We feel like its healthy competition. We probably wouldn’t collaborate with just anybody though.” Indeed, Keegan points out that is very important for microbreweries to be open with one another, because while a single small business does not standing against the power of Big Beer, many coming together like the Power Rangers, seems to be a great solution to defeat the evil, ABinBev-ita Repulsa. 

This is all the more important as the macro beer producers tend to find sly ways to push more and more microbreweries off the shelves; standing together and sharing trade secrets is therefore a good way forward, Derrick echoes much the same belief as Keegan, “Sharing information is a huge reason why the craft beer scene is where it is today. Craft beer only survived because people helped each other get better. There is enough easy to access information right now that can make anyone into a proficient brewer, and all if it comes from people that were willing to give that information out. We are all very much in the pay it forward mindset, people before us are open with their information and as such we do the same to the newcomers.” Derrick brings up a good point concerning the potential fear that a collaboration might lead to one brewery replicating the recipes of another for themselves. “There [are] also so many factors into making a product, that replication is nearly impossible,” he stated. “Brewers and breweries inherently have “flavors”, and raw materials vary broadly (especially hops). I can easily give someone my recipe and be assured that the beer will come out tasting different.” 

Although this is certainly true, there is still room for adjustments with that dynamic between macro and micro, especially in terms of branding. More and more consumers are becoming familiar with microbreweries, even those who would not usually consider trying something so far out. But the numbers suggest otherwise, as macro beer still dominates the overall market. While this may take a while, or, to be honest, may never change Derrick does offer insight from a different perceptive, “Macro beer is a lot about marketing, and a stability of taste. A fair bit of science that has informed much of the dry-hopping has been coming out of Sapporo, and they have been highly open with the information. Macro has the volume, micro has the hype we are no longer in a dominance market, there is room and need for both.” 

The friendship and comradery amongst this industry also seems to unite them when it comes to choosing who to collaborate with. “In some cases it’s because they are friends and you just want to do something with them, Derrick explains. “In other cases its that they are a brewery that you respect and want to work with them.” Echoing Derrick, Keegan and Mike offer similar reasoning: “We get to hang out with passionate people that have crazy ideas. Breweries we respect, that take care of the quality they put in the can and are generally just nice people looking to have a fun brew day with others that share our values.” Coming together and opening trade secrets with friends also tends to, at times, feel like a therapy session. You get the opportunity to vent with each other the kinds of problems you are having and get offered solutions. As Derrick explains, it essentially works like a round table session: “I learn something from everyone I brew with, it’s a major reason I do collaborations. Interestingly enough, it usually has nothing to do with the beer we are brewing. When we brew collaborations, it often means talking a full day with passionate people about processes they do in their brewery. Often time, we all deal with similar issues and being able to talk it through with someone is always a great help.” 

One question arises from all of this though—isn’t it more difficult to brew on a system that isn’t your own? According to Derrick, “you never end up brewing on another system, the most you may do is put a grain in or pull the spend grain out. When we collaborate on recipes, it is the head brewer of brewhouse that will be making the beer that defines limitation, and this is very crucial when we start going near capacities of the equipment.” With this in mind there is certainly a little less stress about the technical side of the collaboration which could open the doors for a very fun, yet still work heavy day of brewing a collaboration together. But while all these breweries are having fun collaborating together. Are we as consumers enjoying it as much as they are? Keegan believes that their limited run creates a sense of excitement for the consumers and combined with Derricks understanding of the consumers attraction to an interesting product as well as the ability to try a beer from a brewery that maybe wasn’t easily attainable, this drives the hype and pull from a consumer standpoint. But what do consumers feel about this? 

Before writing this article, we polled almost 100 different consumers on Instagram. Of those who responded, a massive 96% proclaimed themselves to be a fan of collaborations. By far the most popular reasoning for this was that beer geeks love seeing two (or more) of their favourite breweries coming together. Indeed, among the favourite collabs cited, the names of Montreal and Quebec’s best loved breweries– Messorem, Sir John, Brasserie du Bas Canada, BreWsky etc.– kept cropping up, suggesting that where there is hype, it only increases exponentially when breweries team up.

Interestingly, however, when asked if collab beers live up to the hype, our respondents were much more divided. Just shy of 60% believed that the hype usually translates well to the final product, but the other 40% claimed to generally be disappointed by the beer that comes out. The impact of high expectations becomes even more apparent when reviewing the names of collaborations these consumers thought had fallen short of the mark, where many of the same breweries mentioned above also appeared, showing consumers are very divided on what makes a collaboration work.

Despite this and all the restrictions in place, however, the pandemic might actually also have increased the number of collaborations happening. With health restrictions being imposed since October 2020, few breweries have been able to celebrate milestones such as their anniversaries. Usually, these events are big occasions where plenty of new beers will be released and members of the beer community, from fellow brewers to beer geeks, will show their support. This year, however, we’ve seen this support come in the form of big lineups of collaborative birthday beers from the likes of Gallicus, BreWsky, 4 Origines, Kahnawake Brewing Co., 5e Baron and Third Moon. With the demand for such beers clearly present, it’s definitely been a nice way for the breweries to mark the occasion with a little something out of the ordinary in these very weird times.

Since travel abroad and even between provinces has also bee heavily restricted, brewers and breweries have become more tuned in to local markets and we’ve seen lots of team ups between close neighbours (e.g. Messorem x 4 Origines, Kahnwake x Champ Libre, Bas Canada x 5e Baron) as well as big names reaching out across their provinces (e.g. Emporium x BreWsky, Isle de Garde x Auval).  Even with the borders closed, 5e Baron teamed up with Foam for a virtual collab, collaborating on a recipe online. Lagabière and Trailway also did a collaboration which involved creating a recipe together but brewing it separately on their individual systems and sold in their local markets. The Trailway version can now be found here in Quebec while Trailway is currently being distributed in New Brunswick. And of course I had to taste it together side by side, and even though the two were brewed with the same recipe they tasted vastly different. This solidifies Derrick’s belief that even having shared a recipe replication is not as easy as one might think. 

More recently, of course, Wood Brothers and Third Moon also teamed up for a very unique take on a collaboration. Rather than share a recipe and brew it on their own systems, they decided to brew an already existing recipe of their pals but on their own respective systems! Third Moon snagged Wood Brothers’ recipe for Ripple and brewed it at their Milton facility, while Wood Brothers took Third Moon’s recipe for Double Den of Thieves and brewed it in their Glenn Roberston facility. “We’ve been talking for a while about things like business, working with licensees, processes and things like that so we’ve built a strong friendship and trust” recalls Bibo from Third Moon. “We wanted to do something fun and different, but between the shutdowns and the long distance between us, we knew it had to be virtual. Mark from Wood Brothers came up with the idea of swapping recipes and labels and branding it as Take it to the Grave. It was a big deal to open up the books and share full recipes, processes and everything which I think makes the whole thing resonate with our fans!” 

Initially, the logistics were a little complicated for everyone to wrap their heads around. As Bibo recounted, “When I first heard about this collaboration I did first find myself a bit confused as to what I was seeing, or how the beer was being sold where. My mind was a stir!” But once I looked at the images closer it all came together in my mind for a ‘well that’s interesting’ moment, thank God I wasn’t the only one who was flabbergasted. Such is the case with a new idea, especially one that hasn’t been done before in Ontario, and even the customers took a while to catch on.  “Explaining the idea to customers and the presale (buy Third Moon’s version of Wood Brother’s beer on Third Moon’s website to pick up at Wood Brothers) threw some people for a loop”, Bibo explained, but  “In the end, people loved it and we had a lot of fun. We plan to do more and really deepen the friendship we’ve built up!” As a newer concept, the challenges they faced with this take on a collaboration seem to have focused around how they could keep their schedules for their own brews work whilst the same time dropping this collab collectively and having a trust in the always unexpected results of feedback from Untappd. But overall, my dude Dan from Wood Brothers feels the experience went as smooth as can be! “The guys over at third moon are amazing people and were great to work with, so this thing went off without so much as a hiccup I dig the overall idea of a recipe swap, fun for us brewers and hope it has been exciting for those trying to get their hands on the cans (they went very fast)!” 

So, after all this, are collabs worth it?

In theory, a collaborative beer should bring together the best of both worlds. At least, that is what most consumers likely expect when a new collab is announced. They imagine that it will marry to the two profiles they know and love perfectly, creating a beer that is twice as good as any they’ve tried before. In reality, however, this is often far from the case, leaving many disappointed that their overly inflated expectations were not met.

In fact, perhaps the best-case scenario in a collab is that instead of creating a perfect union, the brewers in fact achieve a decent compromise of flavours, showcasing elements that they are both known for in the same beer. The closer the breweries are in style, the more likely they will be able to achieve this, producing something that will please their customers. If they tend to brew rather different styles, the result can vary a little more wildly, creating some fun experiments along the way, but something that might please some more than others.

Moreover, as we have seen, collabs are often opportunities for brewers to experiment with something new, trying out a new technique they learned from their counterparts or a new ingredient everyone wanted a good excuse to use. As a result, the beers are often a little different to what the consumers have come to expect, again conflicting with expectations they may have had in their heads. 

At the end of the day then, it is hard for the breweries to win 100% of the time. Instead, the impetus needs to be on us as consumers to give brewers free reign to collaborate when and how they like, exploring new styles and learning from one another so that craft will improve more and more with time. In the meantime, we should enjoy the experiments for what they are and not get so wrapped up in conflated understandings of hype and misconceptions of what a collaboration should be. In the end it also acts for the consumers as an exploration into these experiments and we will always be the guinea pigs!

Words by Kaiser Dwayne (Hopcitizen) + Mike Davis (Beerbrit)
Photography by Hopcitizen

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