Craft brewers find collaborations keep competition friendly

When craft brewers put collaboration above competition everyone wins -- especially craft brew drinkers. 
Competition is an interesting thing.

As a way to determine supremacy in a given field, it can be used as a measuring stick, a way to see how two entities stack up against one another or as a means to gain an edge over a rival company.

It can be ruthless.

"Friendly competition" we've been taught, is somehow different. If everyone means well, then no feelings will be hurt, and even if you lose you you can still learn something from it all.

But what's the endgame? Even in the most "friendly" of competitions there can only be one true victor, only one player can start at quarterback, only one team can win the title. Magic and Isiah may have kissed at midcourt during the 1988 NBA finals but only one of those guys would hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy at the end of the series.

There is, however, one place where competition does little to determine a winner and loser, but instead instills both participants with a desire to learn, to improve, and to share the fruits of their knowledge with the very person or people with whom they are competing.

The craft beer industry prides itself on this kind of friendly competition. When one company learns something new about its art, discovers new technology, finds a new way to engage customers, that information is shared with friends and cohorts at other breweries.

This spirit of improving one to improve the whole is best showcased in the practice of collaborative brewing where two or more breweries come together to create, brew, and market a unique beer using the talents and knowledge of all involved.

"It's all about sharing the wealth in this industry; The better beer Southwest Michigan has the better it is for all of us," says TJ Waldofsky co-owner of Kalamazoo's One Well Brewing.

Opened in 2014 by Waldofsky and Chris O'Neill, One Well quickly jumped on the collaboration train, brewing a milk stout with Final Gravity Brewing in Decatur. The beer debuted at the 2014 Kalamazoo Beer week and came not only with a sweet chocolaty finish but a great back story as well.

"We met (Michael Christensen and Kevin Christensen of Final Gravity Brewing) at the Kalamazoo Beer Festival, and were picking their brains, and they were awesome guys," Waldofsky says. "They were more than willing to help us. They went through a lot of the same problems (as us) when they were opening up. They're always there to help if we need extra grain, or whatever, so we figured our first collaboration should be with the guys that had been supporting us, and we wanted to support them."

Collaborations aren’t just between little guys helping each other gain traction in the market, however. Even the heavy hitters of the industry enjoy working together from time to time. In fact, when two state-of-the-art companies come together more than simply brewing a beer is on the table. What's at stake can be the state of the craft beer industry and what they can do to help shape its future.

During the summer of 2014 Bell's Brewing Company was enlisted by industry giant Sierra Nevada of Chico, Calif. to take part in an epic collaborative brewing project and road trip. The Beer Camp Across America event began as a way for a group of 12 regional craft breweries to work with Sierra Nevada on a beer of their choice, to have the opportunity to release that beer in markets they may otherwise not be currently selling, and to then participate in a cross-country bus tour promoting the product and the craft beer industry as a whole.

"Each of the brewers we picked does something very dynamically well and helps move the bar forward for all of us," says Brian Grossman of Sierra Nevada. "All of these people help us make better beer."

And each of these brewers are contributing to something that does not fit the standard definition of "friendly competition."

"I think other industries look at this as really an anomaly, because most other industries are going to be very competitive, very secretive about anything they create, anything that they do," says Jack White of San Diego's Ballast Point Brewing, one of the 12 Beer Camp breweries.

This wide-scale collaboration gave brewers an opportunity think about not only brewing a single beer, but how that beer will fit into a grander theme, with each brewery filling a niche within the limited edition box set.

"You've got some that are going to be really dry and beautiful and delicate and others that are bold and hoppy and in the end it's almost like this meal and I thought, 'maybe we'll make dessert'," Bell's Brewer John Mallet says.

The "dessert" that Mallet and company came up with was Maillard's Odyssey--an 8 percent ABV Imperial Dark Ale brewed with three varieties of hops and seven malts. Named for the Maillard reaction that creates the caramelized and roasted malt flavors in many darker beers, Sierra Nevada describes the beer as "a robust dark ale layered with complex malt flavors of toffee, caramel, chocolate, coffee, and dark fruit."

Currently available in 20 states, Bell's was able to use the collaborative Beer Camp experience as a way to introduce its brand into markets it has yet to reach. In many ways it is the very same thing One Well and Final Gravity did with their collaboration, though they were simply hoping to put Sweet Teats into the hands of new customers in Kalamazoo, instead of putting a beer and brand into the consciousness of consumers in new states. 

"It's a great way to market one another and encourage the success of both breweries," Waldofsky says. "Guys like Sierra Nevada and Bell's are on a much larger scale than we are, but it helps promote both breweries and gets the word out."

Both Sweet Teats and and Maillard's Odyssey were limited-run, small- batch releases, which is often the case with collaborative offerings. Sometimes, however, the demand for the beer far outweighs the brewers' initial intention. That happened to be the case with Repunzel, a White IPA brewed by Battle Creek's Arcadia Ales and Flint's Redwood Lodge.

"That was initially kind of a one-off beer, draft only, but that beer has been popular enough with our customers and staff, so we've taken that and started packaging in it in bottles," Arcadia's Dave Sippel says. "Very rarely do you see collaborative beers turn into anything that are regularly produced."

With much of the day-to-day operations of the company moving to Arcadia's new Kalamazoo facility, the company now has more room to experiment, and there's a chance that more collaborations might find their way into general rotation.

"That allows us a lot more freedom to play around and experiment at our old brewery in Battle Creek," Sippel says. "Collaborating with other breweries is something we want to start engaging in now that we have more flexibility in our brewing capacity. Before, we were selling every drop of beer we could make and didn't really have time to do fun stuff like that."

Fun is the key word here. Rarely will a collaborative beer make or break a company's fortune. Sure they're great in terms of marketing and for bringing something a little bit more experimental to market, but all things being equal, collaborations are usually more about brewers getting together for a fun afternoon than creating a groundbreaking final product.

"Brewers are a very collegial bunch, we're all friends," Sippel says. "We like to visit each others breweries; we see each other at festivals. It just stems from that--having fun."

Kevin Christensen seconds that notion, but adds that there is an educational factor involved, especially for folks who are just starting up.

"The whole idea is, number one, to have a good time, and the other thing is to see some things that they're doing that might work at our place. We saw some things they (One Well) were doing that we thought we'd implement. They're just small things, but we came back with three or four small things, and they're going to make a difference."

Each collaborative beer produced by a Southwest Michigan brewery contributes to the beer culture and knowledge of the area. Creations like The Livery and Brewery Vivant's Eruption Red Sour Ale; and the cleverly named OH-MI, an English Mild produced by Saugatuck Brewing Company and Buckeye Brewing of Cleveland, Ohio prove that everyone can be a winner (especially craft beer fans) when breweries compete together to make amazing beer.

Jeremy Martin is the craft brew writer for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.
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