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Collaboration Brews

Brewing something up together

Buckets filled with hops. Buckets filled with fresh hops. One bucket shows a shovel inside
Two men are filling hops into the brewing copper

More and more, different brewers are arranging to meet up for a day at one of their breweries. These ‘collab brews’ bring about friendships and unique beers. Is this all just fun and adventure, or do brands also benefit from it economically? 

A metal bucket is lifted high and the hops are tipped into the tank. Scott Jennings from the Sierra Nevada Brewery shakes the bucket so that the last remnants of Hallertau Tradition, Amarillo and Chinook hops drop into the tank. This isn’t his brewery’s tank though; he’s at the Bavarian State Brewery Weihenstephan. This is where ‘Braupakt’ started being brewed at the beginning of 2018. 

Breweries that brew together, brew better

This is a collaboration brew with two very different partners. On the one side there’s Weihenstephan, which has been in business for almost a thousand years, and which is known and loved above all for its wheat beer. On the other side there’s the comparatively young Sierra Nevada brewery from California, USA, which was a pioneer in the field of craft beer, and whose green-labelled Pale Ale has a cult status on the scene. So, is it a clash of different cultures? Scott Jennings sees it differently. The master brewer from Sierra Nevada is raving about the ingenious combination of Bavarian tradition and modern North American brewing. 
The two breweries’ different portfolios are also reflected in Braupakt’s recipe: a fruity, hoppy wheat beer that shines with American aroma hops. That’s how things should be with a good collab. Both partners contribute their core competencies, and the end result is something that no one could have created by themselves. 

The world’s first collaboration brew

The first brewing collab in the world was a transatlantic project as well, most probably, and it happened long before the term ‘collaboration brew’ was even invented. The protagonists were Georg Schneider from Schneider Weisse in Kelheim, Germany, and Garrett Oliver from the Brooklyn Brewery in New York, USA.
The two have known each other for more than twenty years. Back then, Garrett Oliver was organising an Oktoberfest in Brooklyn and he decided that Georg Schneider’s presence would sprinkle some Bavarian authenticity over the beer hall tables. So, a weekend trip across the Atlantic? Georg Schneider called it “a really stupid idea”, but he agreed to it anyway. 
When he arrived at the Brooklyn Brewery, Garrett Oliver was all ready at the grill. Dressed in knickerbocker trousers, an Irish tweed jacket, a Tyrolean-style hat and red stockings, he was turning the Weißwürste enthusiastically. “Shit, what have I just walked into?” the Bavarian brewer suddenly thought. But the two men went on to develop an excellent friendship. 

 
Three men are clinking with beer glasses

While Germans are thinking, Americans are rolling up their sleeves

In 2006, they’re sitting with Hans-Peter Drexler, the Kelheim master brewer, philosophising about how terroir influences raw ingredients and about the taste of the beer. Garrett Oliver argues that the influence is quite significant. Georg Schneider, on the other hand, cannot imagine that it is. “What’s the difference between wheat from Gäuboden and wheat from the Midwest?” And, as always, while the Germans were still thinking, the Americans were already rolling up their sleeves. 
Garrett Oliver’s motto is: “We'll never know unless we try it.” In no time at all, they developed a recipe containing lots of hops and a huge amount of malt. No single ingredient should dominate any other, but both should have an intense taste. 
A few months after Drexler and Oliver came up with a recipe, they met up first at the Kelheim brewery, and then afterwards in Brooklyn, and they brewed a top-fermented bock-style beer with a strong hoppy flavour. Sort of like a cross between a wheat beer and an IPA. Today, it’s known as ‘Hopfenweisse’: a hopped wheat beer. At the tasting a few weeks later, Georg Schneider admitted he was wrong. 

The influence of raw ingredients is enormous

The influence of the raw ingredients cannot be denied: the beers taste completely different. American restaurateurs and traders became curious to know the outcome of this experiment. Within only six weeks, both beers had sold out – all 300 hectolitres of the version made in Bavaria and all 120 hectolitres of the one made in the USA. And not a single bottle was sold in Germany. 
To this day, the ‘Hopfenweisse’ is still Schneider Weisse’s best-selling beer in the USA, together with the ‘Aventinus’. For the Kelheim brewery, the great level of public attention brought about by the collab was an unplanned but very delightful plus. Georg Schneider summed it up by saying: “If this was a planned PR activity, it would have cost me a lot. But, if we had been in financial trouble back then, it wouldn't have saved our arses.”

“Collabs have to fit with a brewery’s identity”

Despite all the success, he hasn’t set up another collab brew since then. And it isn’t due to a lack of enquiries. “The project needs to fit with the brewery’s identity,” says Schneider. “If someone asks to brew anything other than wheat beer with us, we won't do it. That would feel fake for us.”
When you ask breweries about their experience with collab brews, the answer always sounds very similar. The planning isn’t complicated, and the excitement of the project is at the front of everyone’s minds. It's definitely nice to see your brand becoming a little better known in another country. On the other hand, at least according to official figures, you can’t always expect a sudden surge in sales because of a collab brew – at least not in saturated markets like Europe and North America, where beer sales have been stagnating and even falling for several years. 

 
Two men are posing in front of a poster with beer in their hand

Pioneers in the Far East

If you leave the Western circle and turn to the Far East, for example, it’s a completely different situation. First and foremost: it’s an unsaturated market. While more than 100 litres of beer per capita are consumed per year in Germany, in China it’s just 40 litres. The bar scene in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing is lively though. The Chinese like to drink and are willing to pay good money for it. 
However, foreign brands have a hard time getting a foot in the door there. According to the market research company Euromonitor International, seven of the ten most successful breweries in the Asia-Pacific region are local companies. If you want to sell beer there, you definitely need local brewery contacts. What better way to achieve that than through an informal, non-binding collab brew? 

First to the karaoke bar, then to the brewery

Jann van der Brelie, master brewer at the Weißen Elster brewery in Leipzig, Germany, tried to do exactly that and brewed an imperial gose with a small brewery in Chengdu. He was supported in this bold project by business economist Simon Frank from Frank Enterprise GmbH, who, together with his Chinese wife, wanted to boost German–Chinese trade relations. For something like this to work, you have to understand the host country’s cultural differences. 
For the Chinese, a friendly relationship with business partners is very important. Of course, this does not come about overnight, nor does it via email, Skype or conference calls. 
The things that are important are personal meetings, extended dinners and, despite all the clichés, a visit to a karaoke bar together. “They almost only had Chinese songs available, so you had to improvise on stage,” says Jann van der Brelie when recounting about his experiences. What you sing doesn't really matter though. The main thing is that you’re there taking part. Once you’ve broken the ice, there is nothing standing in the way of a day of brewing together. 

Short-lived or evergreen

Sometimes it really only lasts for one day. You have a great time, you produce a few thousand hectolitres of pretty decent beer, and then everyone goes their separate ways again. Above all, you’re left with lots of nice memories of the day. Things can also go like Schneider Weisse and Brooklyn though; the ‘Hopfenweisse’ has been a permanent portfolio fixture since the collaboration started. It is also possible to find a middle way or another form of long-term cooperation, or to export your beers to a new market. But, as Garrett Oliver would say: “We'll never know unless we try it!”