Planes, Trains & Collaboration Brews: International Collaborations Celebrate Global Beer Culture

Feature by | Jun 2014 | Issue #89

Illustration by Nolan Pelletier

Stone’s Greg Koch has climbed up onto the roof of a train car and has his hands raised up in the air. He’s ecstatic. For the last four hours, he’s been jounced down a hundred-year-old railroad track through humid mountainous rainforest and dark craggy tunnels, sipping on the finest Brazilian craft beer and making fast friends. After professing to an eager and buzzing crowd that they renounce fizzy yellow beer, Koch stage-dives off the train into their outstretched arms.

On that trip to Brazil, one of the world’s de facto ambassadors of craft beer brewed an IPA with cacao nibs with Bodebrown brewery. Dubbed Cacau IPA, it has been the country’s top-rated craft beer ever since. About Koch’s visit and the collaborative brew day, Bodebrown brewmaster Samuel Cavalcanti says he feels blessed and appreciates the knowledge—and validation—Koch gave Brazil’s craft beer movement.

Apart from Bodebrown, Stone has brewed a Green Tea IPA with Ishii in Guam and Baird in Japan, and a Black Belgian-style Double IPA with Scotland’s Brewdog. In 2008, this same global mindset had Koch calling Jolly Pumpkin brewmaster Ron Jeffries about brewing a beer with the Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø.

“We got together with Mitch Steele [Stone’s brewmaster] and Kjetil, the owner of Nøgne, and had some conversations first about a philosophy or idea for the beer,” says Jeffries. “From there, the ingredients and the style of beer.”

Koch brought them all out to California to sample Steele’s pilot batches. Then they brewed 200 barrels of a “Special Holiday Ale” with juniper berries, Southern California white sage, chestnuts, caraway seed and of course plenty of hops. The next year, the beer was re-created at Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter, Mich., and again that summer in Norway.

“It’s really eye-opening to talk that intimately with other brewers about their beer. You really learn a lot,” says Jeffries. “When brewers get together, we obviously talk a lot about beer, but going to each other’s breweries—to actually be in another person’s brewery and see the nuances and techniques and philosophies—you can only get that from being there.”

The collaboration bug has hit Jeffries too, and he’s made plans to brew collaboration beers once a month almost through 2014, especially now that his new, 70,000-square-foot brewery is up and running. On the schedule: domestic breweries such as Perennial and Stillwater, and also international projects with Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller this August, and Mikkel’s brother Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin in September.

Illustration by Nolan Pelletier

Illustration by Nolan Pelletier

The Brothers Collab
The feuding twin brothers from Denmark are a hot ticket in the collaboration brewing world—their gypsy brewing businesses practically have collaborative brewing built into their model. Separately (of course), they’ve brewed with the likes of Westbrook, Prairie Artisan Ales, Crooked Stave, Three Floyds and Anchorage Brewing Company.

“With Mikkel, it’s not so much a collaboration as it is brewing his beers in the Anchorage brewing style,” explains Anchorage’s brewmaster Gabe Fletcher. “He’ll send me a recipe, and I’ll tweak it and put it through the same process I do my beers. We use different yeast and different Brett, for one.”

Mikkel has plans to head up to Alaska and brew a beer using wild yeast from Copenhagen and wild yeast from Alaska. “Wild yeast from two continents,” says Fletcher. “That’s the goal.”

That’s essentially the ambition of international collaboration brewing: to bring together brewers—and their different approaches—in an environment where they can share and learn, and build something that is perhaps greater than the sum of its parts. “It just strengthens the relationship between Europe and the US,” Fletcher explains. “Before, Europe was very separate from the US, with a very old brewing culture, and they had the better beers in the world. Now it’s sort of a shift, and they’re looking to us now, realizing that wow, the US is making some of the best beers in the world.”

“A Doff of the Cap”
“Collaborations? Yeah, we were just at Oskar Blues on Monday,” says John Allen, senior brewer at Scotland’s Brewdog brewery. “We maxed out the mash tun. It took three hours to sparge!” Allen and I sit down off to the side on the expo floor at the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver.

“It’s a doff of the cap to both sides of the water,” says Allen about the collaborative beer named Shipwrecker Circus. The American Barleywine they brewed in Colorado had been brewed once before in Scotland. Brewing in a different country usually means the ingredients have to be tweaked, explains Allen. For Shipwrecker Circus, the original hops weren’t available in Colorado, so “we put in some Nelson Sauvin. Last time, we used Citra and Simcoe. It might end up a little stronger,” Allen says. It ended up close to 12-percent ABV.

“There’s no real design to it. Some are more structured than others, but anything can change on the day,” says Allen about Brewdog’s collaborative ventures. “Most of the time we’re really, really busy.” When two breweries get together to brainstorm a style to brew with each other, it’s more organic than one might think, he says. Still, “we get a lot of people that want to collaborate with us.”

Distributors are some of those people. Brewdog has pioneered a whole different kind of collaboration brewing with their distributors. Sweden is Brewdog’s largest market, so for distributor Cask Sweden, Brewdog made a beer with Swedish cloudberries they dubbed “Hello My Name is Ingrid.” Then there’s Hello My Name Is Mette Marit, brewed for their Norwegian distributor, Cask Norway, and named after the crown princess of Norway.

Brewdog has also traveled as far as Brazil to brew a collaborative beer. With 2 Cabeças brewery, they made Hello My Name is Zé, a Double IPA with passion fruit.

Folding in far-flung ingredients is another advantage to collaborative brewing. Being able to experiment with foreign flavors and ingredients opens up new styles and techniques. They allow brewers to stretch their legs and break the routine. “I look for exotic ingredients because they’re new and fun,” says Jeffries, of Jolly Pumpkin. Look through his beers and you’ll see ingredients like nettles and sumac, kale and tamarind, persimmons and dragon fruit.

And who picks up the tab? Stressing that he can only speak from his own experience, and it often varies, Jeffries says, “Usually the host brewery covers the cost of the brew, and then sells the beer and gets whatever they sell it for.” If the guest brewer contributes an ingredient, like persimmons in a recent Jolly Pumpkin/Upland brew, the host brewer will pay them back.

“I’m definitely inspired by the world and that includes locally as well, because we do work with a lot of Michigan farmers and brewers,” Jeffries adds. “I like to imagine that I view the world through an artist’s eye. I try to find inspiration from everything.”

Illustration by Nolan Pelletier

Illustration by Nolan Pelletier

Nordic Inspiration
Inspiration from ingredients is exactly what Ben Howe set out to show when he started Enlightenment Ales. Now, as head brewer at Idle Hands, he gets to brew his own line in addition to theirs. In March, he invited Danish brewing legend Anders Kissmeyer to brew a Nordic Saison at the Idle Hands / Enlightenment brewery in Everett, Mass.

“Ben became friends with [Kissmeyer] when they brewed together at Cambridge Brewing Company,” explains Idle Hands founder Chris Tkach. “So when he was in Boston on his way to the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver, he stopped in to brew a collab.”

They decided to make a Saison using heather tips, chamomile, rose hips and European Kazbek hops, along with local honey and some Brett Trois. “Once we decided on the general parameters, Anders shot me the most comprehensive recipe formulation I’ve ever seen,” Howe recalls. “Finally, the actual brew day was a bit nerve racking. … Like most breweries, ours is in a state of constant chaos. I wanted to make sure it looked smooth, in control, and above all, clean, which is easier said then done. It made me reexamine many of my habits and ensure that I was being the best brewer I could be. After all, one of my brewing heroes was watching.”

The brew session went great, and they celebrated over beers at a local bar. “The real joy of the collaboration was getting to discuss how we each think about recipe formulation, beer flavor and brewing philosophy,” says Howe, who was surprised to learn how many European brewers come from science and engineering backgrounds, while Kissmeyer was impressed that innovative American brewers have little to no formal brewing education. “Getting to pick Anders’ brain for 14 hours was a joy. It’s always so interesting to get exposed to new and different ways of thinking about beer.”