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The Beer Thinker: Collaboration Brewing

After the heady beer-drinking days of May, when Chicago Craft Beer Week had us forcing an unbelievable variety of brews on our palates and livers, I tried to slow down a bit - you know, drinking only two beers a night instead of four.

I used the small increase in clarity this afforded me to think about some of the ongoing trends in the craft beer world. One of those trends is collaboration brewing, a not entirely new concept by any means, but one that seems to have taken off in new directions in recent months.

Some of the first collaboration beers I remember seeing were three or four years ago, and most often the product of partnership between two or three breweries. San Diego's Stone Brewing Co. has been an especially prolific collaborator, working with Dogfish Head and many others.

In Chicago, several new craft breweries have done some collaboration brewing with other brewers. For example, Half Acre Beer Co. has worked with Three Floyds Brewing, Pipeworks Brewing Co. and Short's Brewing Company from Michigan, among others.

More recently, collaborations between craft breweries and chefs have become increasingly common, not surprising since there is probably a fair amount of overlap between the foodie and craft beer geek audiences. Locally, the most prolific craft beer collaborator on the foodie side is Cleetus Friedman, chef and gregarious host at City Provisions, whose frequent collaborations with local brewers reportedly were a direct out-growth of his dinner events.

We've also seen collaborations between breweries and renowned craft beer bars, such as the partnership between Greenbush Brewing Co. in Sawyer, Mich., and SmallBar Division.

There has even been at least one collaboration series involving a local brewery and some of the Midwestern farms that regular show up at local farmers markets, an idea that leverages both the momentum of the local/seasonal food movement and the timing of the farmers markets appearing in Chicago.

In addition to its chef collaboration series, Goose Island Clybourn has been featuring farmers market collaborations brewed on-site. They have been getting sucked dry too quickly for me to taste one yet, but recent collaborations have included a strawberry recipe with Klug Farms and a blueberry brew with Seedling Farms (The latter still available, according to the Goose Clybourn online menu).

There also have been collaborations that look more like co-marketing schemes, like the one between Finch's Beer Co. and apparel designer Threadless. They produced Threadless IPA, which may sell T-shirts to beer drinkers, and beer to people who wear t-shirts (wow, that's some addressable market).

Collaboration and experimentation are generally good things, as the craft beer hype machine runs on the industry's ability to continue putting new spins on its offerings. Whether these partnerships are between breweries branching out a bit from their own distinctive styles, or between brewers and other businesses wanting to try something new, they have a way of doubling the natural curiosity in the result.

Of course, that is not exactly what craft beer purists want to hear. They think there are already too many styles and recipes, and too much cross-pollinating creates Frankenstein beers like hoppy stouts. They also tend to feel that collaborations force flavors into beer that have no real need to be there.

The cynic will say it's all a big cross-marketing game, in the end a horrible application of big corporate strategy to the little craft beer world that will leave us all feeling a little dirtier. There may be some truth to that.

However, part of the fun of drinking craft beer is a willingness to seek new things, even things that sound a little dicey. Both craft beer brewers and customers can essentially be described as a group of people who weren't happy with the status quo, the predictability of flavor watered down in order to reach the largest possible audience. Their willingness to leave that world behind is what created this ever-growing market, and one of the chief attributes that can sustain it.

That said, I wouldn't blame you if you didn't want anything to do with a green garlic beer that sprang from the mind of a chef, or something called Chicago Parking Meters, LLC IPA (which, thank God, doesn't actually exist).

Here are a few collaboration brews I've tried in recent months:

Finch's Toasted Summer: The second collaboration between chef Friedman and Finch's, after Cleetus Slack Jawed Dunkel, is the better of the two in my opinion. The toasted hops give it a bite that is different from the typical hop spiciness, and it doesn't otherwise overreach into too many other flavors. It's just a recognizable kolsch with an added bite, and a great hot-weather beverage.

Greenbush Mr. Hyde: On this list, the one collaboration between a brewery and a bar, though not just any bar, as SmallBar is a legendary craft beer outpost. The version of Mr. Hyde aged in Journeyman Distillery barrels was one of my favorite beers of 2012 so far, rich and sweet yet very drinkable. The non-barrel version is pretty good, too.

Goose Island Florence: A collaboration with chef Doug Psaltis of RPM Italian, it advertises a tangerine peel aroma and peach flavor. I haven't smelled any tangerines lately, so all I can say of the aroma is that it was powerfully citrusy. I can't say it was overtly peachy, but did seem the perfect beer to be having on the hot June day I visited Goose Island Clybourn.

Half Acre Sanguis: I don't know whether to call this beet-and-blood orange concoction a contract brew or a collaboration. It was produced for the El Bulli menu at Next, but later appeared in 22-ounce bombers at the Half Acre store on Lincoln Avenue. (Half Acre also made a wheat beer, Horizon, for Next; Guys Drinking Beer review here.) I had Sanguis out of the bomber without the benefit of a Next-like food pairing (Full disclosure: It was paired with Ruffles). I was a little taken aback by the overall strongly-beety vegetable juice aroma, and therefore surprised by a generally mild flavor and some not-unpleasant bitterness that didn't really hint at beets or blood oranges, at least to my possibly warped tongue.

Finch's Threadless IPA: Only recently started appearing in cans. I tried it from the tap at a couple craft beer events months ago, and at the time didn't feel it was anything special, but for some reason it's really refreshing out of the can, and a complete hop-monster. I had it with some spicy Thai food, and it worked really well.

Some other recent beer news:

* Speaking of collaborations, Half Acre just announced another one - King Puff, with Rock Bottom Warrenville. Popcorn beer? We'll try anything once.

* A $20 billion beer acquisition? A/B InBev must be involved, this time buying Grupo Modelo.

* Growler Station re-thinks craft beer retail sales and distribution.

* The Chicago Craft Beer Festival (another one?) is this weekend in Old Town.

* The Square Roots Festival is coming up next month.

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Previously in The Beer Thinker:
* Tapping Lincoln Square
* Size Matters
* Lagunitas Changes Everything
* Make Beer, Not War

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Dan O'Shea is The Beer Thinker. He welcomes your comments.



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Posted on June 27, 2012


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