If you put aside the recent hellish lawsuits and squabbles over fonts that have been plaguing the international craft beer movement, beer is actually quite a sociable thing.
From ancient Amazonian tribes bonding over a lager in the deepest, darkest depths of the rainforest to a couple of old boys down their local gulping down pints of proper ale, and from stone age Celts sipping on a spiced honey Braggot, to the sharing paddles of the modern era, beer is, and always has been, an extremely powerful socialising tool.
But beer’s socialness extends far beyond those that merely drink it; the brewers themselves are quite promiscuous with regards to who they brew with.
“Collaboration between brewers has always traditionally been part of the brewing industry culture in the UK,”
said Bill Dobson, Brains’ Head Brewer and so, unlike many industries with players creating a similar product, brewers collaborate rather than compete.
“Brewers have always looked to share knowledge and knowhow and it is just one of the things which makes this industry such a great one to be part of,” Bill continued and it’s a sentiment that is held not solely by Wales’ largest brewery, it is echoed by the UK’s craft beer king, James Watt, BrewDog’s Co-Founder.
“Collaboration is the cornerstone of the craft beer industry,” he announced before last year’s CollabFest that saw 16 unique collaboration brews made with the likes of Alechemy, Ticketybrew and The Celt Experience, who themselves have a whole range of beers dedicated to collaboration brews, and so it is a part of the brewing culture to not only drink together, but to work together.
“It shows unity and the real community feeling that there is in the craft brewing scene,” said Rhys Watkins of Cardiff’s new boys, Crafty Devil. “They bring together fresh ideas and it’s a chance for brewers to learn off of each other,” he continued.
As well as meeting other brewers to learn something new, collaboration allows brewers to broaden their horizons, open up their minds to new processes and ideas and thus reach new heights and brew beers that may not have been possible to do so on their own.
“We can get stuck in a rut,” explained Rob Turner of the Mumbles Brewery, who has worked together with both the Hopcraft and Grey Trees breweries.
“Talking with another brewer can free your spirit,” he continued and he’s not alone in thinking that collabs allow brewers to break their own moulds.
“As brewers, we are always learning and wanting to try new styles of beer and ingredients and in the modern brewing world, collaboration brews provide us with the ideal platform for brewers to do this, sharing ideas with other brewers and at the same time producing some great beers,” Brains’ Bill continued, but Brains not only collaborates with fellow breweries (such as Hardknot. which saw the birth of Gordian Knott, a West Coast IPA), they also brew collaboratively with a whole host of other collectives of people.
From beer bloggers, writers and journalists, such as SommALEier Melissa Cole (who has brewed collaboratively with a host of other breweries), Pete Brown , Tim Hampson and Marverine Cole, to their own publicans, employees and organisations, such as Thinking Drinkers and The Craft Beer Nation, Brains’ craft brewery has brewed with them all and even hosts annual collaboration challenges.
Such a stance not only helps breweries to work with, and learn from other brewers, it opens up the brewing process to industry commentators, enthusiasts and the drinkers themselves and enables the breweries to brew beers that their punters ultimately want to drink.
“Collaboration brews have been essential in building the reputation and excitement around Brains Craft Brewery,” explained Danny Champken, Brand Manager at Brains, who last year brewed a Mexican lager spiked with lime, with his employer, entitled Mexican Wave. “There have been approximately 100 new beers brewed by the Brains Craft Brewery team, many of which have seen collaborators join us to share their expertise and passion,” he continued, and it is the sharing of this passion that enables the Welsh giant to add a whole new dimension to their beers and allows them to continually innovate and release new styles and flavours, but it isn’t a stance that is limited to Brains.
Further along the Welsh coast, you’ll find Boss Brewing. A recent player in Cymru’s craft beer uprising, Boss, located in Swansea, is set on carving out a niche that will see them fully involve their drinkers, fans and followers in their brewing process.
“Our tagline is ‘craft beer democracy’ and the whole ethos of our brewery is to involve the people, our drinkers, as much as possible in the beers that we brew” said Boss’ Co-Owner, Sarah John.
Such a stance is a significant shift from the brewing dictatorships of the likes of Doom Bar, Greene King and Marstons, who impose their beers and their brands upon the beer drinking public and proves that although the craft beer revolution is going from strength to strength, it’s not all out rebellion and anarchy, there is at least some level of democracy behind it.
As such, Boss Brewing will be launching their ‘You’re the Boss’ range, which will see their drinkers vote on the various aspects that will make up the beers that are brewed, and so, although the beers aren’t directly a collaboration with one particular person, their process is a large scale, open collaboration. Afterall, they are the ones that will be drinking the finished product.
“Their ideas will form the backbone of many of our special edition beers and they’ll be the directors. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to involve the drinkers in the beers that we craft. We didn’t want to be another brewery that brews the beers that we like,”
This interest in brewing beers for the drinkers rather than to stroke the ego of the brewer is something that is at the heart of what one of the UK’s pub goliaths, Wetherspoons, is trying to achieve.
“We wanted to get interesting and different beers on,” said Jon Yates, ‘Spoons’ Senior Marketing Manager.
“The customers are aware of all of these brewers from around the world, like Mikeller and Stone, so for us to get them over was really interesting,” he continued.
Whilst some, like BrewDog and Wetherspoons, brew collaboratively on a large scale in order to bring together brewers from across the world in a celebration of beer, others do so on a smaller scale, but with the same values motivating the projects.
“When we do a collaboration,” explained Gazz Williams, the Head Brewer and Co-Founder of one of the UK’s most dynamic and innovative breweries, Tiny Rebel. “It’s got to be worth doing. It’s got to be with someone that it’s worth doing it with. We won’t do it willy nilly with anyone just for the sake of it,” he continued.
“A lot of people will do it just to sell a beer. We are in a fortunate position where we don’t have to do it to sell extra beer,” he continued, but for some, the financial side of a collaboration is perhaps more of a motivating factor than anything else, such as Wychwood Brewery who collaborated with rock Gods, Status Quo, to brew Pile Driver.
“There’s not masses of money in it or anything at the moment but I’m sure that that’s one of the considerations,” hinted Francis Rossi of the band, whose beer recently surpassed one million pints, which has seen it secure a permanent spot on Wychwood’s roster of core ales.
There is no denying therefore that a cleverly crafted collaboration can have significant impacts on a brewery’s profit and loss account and suggests that collaborations aren’t always about working together; they are also an incredibly powerful marketing tool.
There is also no denying on the other hand that the real motivations for many brewers is to come together as one and craft something, simply for the love of that craft, not to compete and not to sell an extra pint down the local. Collaborative brews keep the craft beer revolution fresh and alive with new ideas constantly being born and allow the drinker to crack open more than just an industry standard IPA.