THOUGHT PIECE the carling team
Why Do Brewers Collaborate?
We are used to seeing pop records featuring someone you have not heard of alongside someone you have. The artists say there is always room at the top and records sales to two groups of fans instead of one will be beneficial to the promoters.
Is beer any different? Will the name of another brewer on the pump clip enhance sales more than if the brew was a solo effort? We shall explore these cooperations and joint promotions from the world famous Czech icon Budejovice Budvar with smaller fry, quite a number of UK regionals with smaller fry and the more famous smaller fry amongst themselves.
Brewers have long cooperated but maybe not at the end product area of the market. We used to visit each others’ breweries, we would ask questions and were rarely told ‘sorry I cannot divulge that’. The old Institute and Guild organised technical meetings throughout the winter and the old Head Brewer would make it obligatory for you to attend without reimbursing any expenses. We played each other at cricket and bowls. Happily younger brewers in the Midlands still meet to brew a special brew which is usually highly approved of at the annual Brewers Dinner. Happily that event too continues but probably with fewer diners than in days of yore.
I am told that the Burton brewers all met for lunch once a month on the occasion of Allied Breweries’ pay day. Before mobile phones were invented, my respondent remembers trying to hold a conversion with the personnel director while crouched under the bar of the Royal Oak public house trying to muffle the surrounding hubbub and pretend he was still at his desk in the brewery. Brewers often surmised that digestive biscuit manufacturers probably did not have a sample room, have technical meetings to exchange information and certainly would not have held Pay Day Piss Ups! Your old blogger even diverted a load of brewing sugar to a nearby rival as they had run out; never thought twice about it but HQ may not have approved!
Friendly rivalry between production staff seemed to be the order of the day. There were a lot more brewers about so perhaps more opportunities for intercourse. Your blogger has long left the side of the mash tun but the sections of the combined Institute and Guild, now enjoying long sought after Chartered status does not seem to have too many winter meetings nor go on so many visits. Is this the effect of industry consolidation, do brewers work so hard during the day that they are too tired to continue into the evening, is mingling frowned upon in high places or are the truncated winter programmes just not interesting enough to support their continuing professional development which now becomes a compulsory aspect of being chartered?
I do not think that SIBA holds regular regional meetings so how do smaller brewers communicate? Is the urge to collaborate connected with a need to talk to other brewers and find out what they are doing? Or learning the nuances of today’s burgeoning number of aroma hop varieties or simply sharing knowledge about how to run a small business in a very competitive marketplace? Would a traditional regional brewer not want to brave a Citra sodden golden ale in his own portfolio but would be happy if a newcomer’s name was added to the pump clip? Does Budvar want to spread the message of good Czech brewing practice of double decoction, cone Saaz and prolonged conditioning around the world without perhaps intending to learn anything themselves? All these are sound reasons for comparing notes with other brewers.
There are pitfalls. Fyne Ales in a lovely part of Scotland has an annual FyneFest to welcome in the summer. This year’s event take place for three days from May 31 and will feature some 40 live bands and there will be 150 beers on sale. Brewers are inevitably attracted and proprietor Jamie Delap offers them a chance to brew a beer. A dozen of them probably turn up with throbbing headaches to collaborate. Discussion will be earnest but probably muted as most of them will wish they were still in bed. Those who stay will most likely get in each others’ way, not know which valves to open and set off early to the sample room. It is not recorded how successful such a collaboration might have been.
There is a view, particularly on social media, that it is an excuse for brewers to visit their friends, spend all day drinking, then write off the little break as a work expense. However, properly planned and executed, a collaboration will certainly foster this fun and camaraderie. They are enjoyable experiences for brewers. It allows them to work with peers, share their passion for brewing and enjoy the process of creating something novel. It allows brewers to pool their expertise and creativity, leading to the development of innovative products. Combining different perspectives, brewing styles and ingredient choices can result in beers that will stand out in the market. These exclusive often one-off products can drive demand, encouraging consumers to seek out and try the special offerings created through collaborations. Excitement and buzz can be created amongst consumers attracting attention from beer enthusiasts and increasing visibility for both breweries involved. This marketing strategy can help brewers reach new audiences and create a positive image for their brands.
By bringing different perspectives together, the collaboration lets brewers exchange knowledge and learn from each other during the exercise, sharing brewing techniques, ingredient knowledge and insights into the industry. This exchange of information can benefit both breweries and can encourage mutual growth and development. It may bring economic benefits too and lead to cost-sharing, making it more financially feasible to experiment with new ingredients or brewing methods. This is especially relevant for smaller breweries with limited resources.
In a crowded market, collaboration can be a strategic move to stay competitive. By teaming up with rivals, breweries can demonstrate a willingness to push boundaries and explore new avenues, while helping to build a sense of community within the brewing industry. Collaborating with rival firms may seem counterintuitive to the wider business world but can lead to mutual benefits if implemented successfully.
The first collaborations undoubtedly came from the States but as late as 2006 when California’s Russian River and Colorado’s Avery got together. Both brewers had beers named Salvation but rather than sue each other to establish rights, they mixed the beers as Not Litigation Ale! Denver still holds a special Beer fest for collaboration beers annually. Over the Atlantic there are now over 9000 smaller brewers competing for around 13% of the national market. In the UK there are some 1800 smaller brewers still struggling after Covid decimated the cask market and today represents only 4.5% of a market which continues to decline overall. So perhaps to enthuse customers, further collaborations could be in order.
UK collaborations have been gathering pace in the last ten years. BrewDog was an early starter in 2014 with an eleven beer extravaganza. Each BrewDog bar worked with a local brewer and on launch night he was in attendance to meet his customers. Since then the number of bars has grown and in 2023 there were 30 brewers featured. 2021 saw Thornbridge do over 50 but some of these were with restaurants, venues and even a coffee roaster. It helps to have a beer club whose members get first dibs at anything new and provide a steady income stream at the same time. There were regular West coast IPAs, lagers, a Belgian style doppelbock and exotica like an orange, ginger and star anise sour and a chocolate dunkel weisse. At other times, beers were brewed at the two breweries, each had an identical grist but one had northern hemisphere hops and the other southern. Sometimes there were nine types of hop and sometimes just the one. Thornbridge went to brew at Adnams making a combo of Ghostship and Derbyshire’s Wild Raven. In a number of cases, profits were donated to health charities.
Adnams had a further outing with Siren at Wokingham. The respective head brewers were old friends which is a good place to start any collaboration but they both admitted that the choice of 3.4%ABV stretched their material choice to get the right balance of malt and hoppiness.
Brewer of the Year Georgina Young now at St Austell concocted beers with Fourpure, Cloudwater, Moor, Marble, Thornbridge and Hardknott while she was at Fullers. The series was dubbed Fullers and Friends.
Last year Brew York celebrated its seventh birthday with five rivals and beers were loosely based on the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest so the series was dubbed Collabovision. This time the other brewers were hardly rivals, hailing from Norway, Florida, Netherlands, Poland and Germany.
Theakstons dipped its toe in the water in 2022 with a venture involving Newcastle’s Wylam Brewery. The grist was Theakstons but the hops were freshly harvested Admiral, Challenger and Pilgrim picked at Brook House in Hereford. The 4.5%ABV beer was named Henry’s Pick after the hop farm manager Henry Smith.
Last August that most traditional of Yorkshire breweries Timothy Taylor got into bed with Thornbridge to produce Artesian, a 4.2% ale with notes of elderflowers and gooseberries along with Crystal, Chinook and Amarillo hops. The brew had been on the stocks since 2019 but became another victim of Covid.
Hogs Back put its own grown supplies of Cascade hops to the test by brewing an American pale ale with London’s Mondo Brewing. Hogs Back MD Rupert Thompson told us that they all enjoyed the experience and this venture would not be the last cooperation.
Thornbridge is off to a good start in 2024 with a collaborative with Stoke on Trent’s Titanic which will brew 5.3%ABV ESB Carpathia using heritage Chevallier barley while Bakewell will produce Britannic also at 5.3% but an IPA with Galaxy and Simcoe.
SIBA organised a three brew collab for last year’s Guild of Beer Writers Awards Dinner. Called Brave Noise it espouses a safe and discrimination-free beer industry. Beers were a 6.3%ABV NEIPA from Hand Brew on tap with canned beers; a hop- forward Pale Ale from Attic Brew and a Dark Mild from Merakai.
Collaborations do not have to be with other brewers. A-B owned Camden Town Brewery has teamed up with HP Sauce to launch a Camden HP Brown Ale at 4%ABV brewed with date puree, spices found in the brown sauce with a bit of souring to add that ‘tang’. Micro Fell Brewery in Cumbria has joined with chef Simon Rogan who has made the Lake District village of Cartmel a bit of a gastro hot spot. Both parties espouse the importance of being local and sustainable with a series of beers progressing through the year.
Imaginative Leeds based Northern Monk is well known in the collaborations world and even worked with Henderson’s Relish, Aunt Bessie’s Yorkshire pudding followed by Jam Roly Poly, Seabrooks Crisps and Ronseal. Labels matched the non beery product begging consumers to give them a try. Safest for the less adventurous was Ronseal Medium Oak Best Bitter and Harvest Gold Saison which simply matched the colour of the famous wood finish.
Robinsons in Stockport and Iron Maiden front man Bruce Dickinson launched Trooper in 2013. The brand has grown with eight limited addition variants and has added some 20,000hL a year to Robbo’s output. It is sold in 68 countries including Sweden where a less bellicose rendition of Maiden’s mascot Eddie was needed on the label! Obviously metal and malt do mix.