A Brief History of Collaboration Beers

Since Russian River and Avery launched beer's first "collaboration beer" in 2006, high-profile partnerships between breweries have become a fixture of the industry. But how many of them are actually greater than the sum of their parts? Aaron Goldfarb on the collaborations that have defined craft brewing history.

Back in the early-2000s, when I was still in my nascent days as a beer geek, there was one brewery whose beers I yearned to try more than any other’s. California’s Russian River may have had a miniscule distribution footprint, but they were already receiving national acclaim for their uber-hopped IPAs and barrel-aged Belgian ales. But before the days of online trading and a flourishing secondary market, you basically had to fly to California to drink Pliny the Elder and Supplication. Without the loot to book a flight to the West Coast, I was mostly shit out of luck.

That remained true until 2006, when Colorado’s Avery Brewing—a larger brewery that distributes to New York—partnered with Russian River for what was being dubbed a “collaboration beer.” Collaboration Not Litigation Ale, my first chance to taste anything Russian River had a part in making, is now widely considered the collaboration beer that launched a thousand collaboration beers.

A decade later, it’s hard to find a brewery that hasn’t released one. Every March, Denver hosts a Collaboration Fest with hundreds of participating breweries. For big breweries like Avery or Sierra Nevada, collaborations are a chance to show they still have one foot in with the little guys—like an A-list movie star “slumming it” for scale on an indie film. The reverse also holds true: A small brewery can be elevated into the national consciousness after collaboration with one of America’s big boys.

In recent years, collaborations haven’t even necessarily been between breweries. Brewers have teamed up with cideries and meaderies, famous chefs, rock bands, sports teams, clothiers—even TV shows, in the case of Ommegang’s Game of Thrones series (though I’m guessing George R.R. Martin doesn’t show up at the Cooperstown brewery on brew day). Last year First We Feast produced a series in which Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione brews beers with off-beat collaborators like rapper Mac Miller and NBA hoopster Chris Bosh. Hill Farmstead, perhaps America’s best brewery, even has a subsidiary brewery—Grassroots—specifically set up for the task of collaborating.

Yet if you follow many of these aforementioned breweries on social media, “collaboration days” often look more like an excuse for brewers to visit fellow brewing friends, spend all day drinking, then write off the little vacation as a work expense (while selling the brewed results to suckers like me).

Even if it’s mostly about shooting the shit, you’d think getting two talented brewers together would have all the potential to produce a great beer. Unfortunately, too often the beers created are uninspired, standard styles with by-the-book execution. I suppose this isn’t a surprise—why would a brewery waste a great idea on a shared one-time project?

But there are exceptions. Of the countless collaboration beers to hit the market, there are those few that have indeed been greater than the sum of their parts. Below, some of the collaborations that have defined craft brewing history and the best recent examples of the trend.

Collaboration Not Litigation Ale (2006)
Russian River Brewing (Santa Rosa, CA) and Avery Brewing (Boulder, CO)

Generally identified as craft brewing’s first collaboration beer, the joint effort arose through an unfortunate coincidence: Russian River and Avery discovered that they each had beers called Salvation. But instead of one of them relinquishing naming rights, they decided to blend, respectively, their Belgian strong dark ale and golden ale into something palatable. They obviously liked the result; since 2006, Collaboration Not Litigation has been produced regularly by Avery and released nationally.

Isabelle Proximus (2008)
Allagash Brewing (Portland, ME), Avery Brewing (Boulder, Co), Dogfish Head Brewery (Milton, DE), The Lost Abbey/Port Brewing (San Marcos, CA) and Russian River Brewing (Santa Rosa, CA)

One of the few masterpieces in collaboration history started with a group trip. In 2006, Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione was researching his book Extreme Brewing and wanted some brewing buddies to join him in Belgium, where he planned visits to famed lambic producers Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen—breweries that, at the time, didn’t quite have the cult following they do today. Inspired by their classic Pajottenland offerings, the group (who were cheekily referring to themselves as the “Brett Pack”) decided to brew an homage to lambic upon returning home. Utilizing barrels and house sour cultures from each participating brewery, they blended together 17 different barrels for their 2008 release of 3,000 bottles. It was a massive hit, and still stands as one of craft beer’s all-time whales. Rumors continually abound that a sequel is in the works.

Infinium (2010)
Boston Beer Co./Samuel Adams (Jamaica Plain, MA) and Weihenstephan (Germany)

Sam Adams might not be the first name that comes to mind when thinking of an American upstart capable of disrupting Germany’s staid brewing industry. But in 2010, one of American beer’s true pioneers partnered with literally the world’s oldest brewery in Weihenstephan (first opened in 1040). Though the resultant beer followed Germany’s stodgy Reinheitsgebot purity law—in which only hops, malts, yeast and water may be used—a new type of beer was created, one never before brewed in Germany. While it’s undeniably one of the most important beer collaborations of all time, the Champagne-like offering—the obscure style is called “Bière de Champagne”—was pilloried by many beer drinkers (unfairly so, in my opinion).

Brooklyn Brewery’s European Collaborations (multiple)
Brooklyn Brewery (Brooklyn, NY), G. Schneider & Sohn (Germany), Amarcord (Italy) and Carlsberg (Sweden/Norway)

Even more so than Sam Adams, Brooklyn Brewery has aspired to introduce Europe to American craft beer via collaboration. In the mid-aughts, they teamed with Germany’s famed Schneider for a stellar series of weizenbocks. A couple years later, brewmaster Garrett Oliver assisted a small Italian brewery, Amarcord, in producing a table beer using Sicilian orange blossom honey and water from springs that, “date to Roman times.” Biggest of all is Brooklyn’s ongoing collaboration with the Carlsberg Group, which has helped set up American-style craft breweries, not just beers, in Sweden and Norway.

Class of ’88 (2013)
Deschutes Brewery (Bend, OR), Goose Island Beer Co. (Chicago, IL), Great Lakes Brewing (Cleveland, OH), North Coast Brewing (Fort Bragg, CA) and Rogue Ales (Newport, OR)

Fifty-five microbreweries hung their shingles in 1988, right as the industry was about to begin its climb to prominence. Only 12 of those 55 remained 25 years later, five of them—Deschutes, Goose Island, Great Lakes, North Coast and Rogue—among the breweries that define the industry today. In 2013, Deschutes decided to celebrate their fellow classmates by brewing a beer with each of them. From a barleywine with North Coast to a golden ale with Goose Island (now owned by InBev), this series proved that the esprit de corps the American craft beer movement was initially built on still persisted—even if these five breweries were now 100 million dollar companies.

The Stone Collaborations (multiple)
Stone Brewing (Escondido, CA) and various other breweries, homebrewers and minor celebrities

If there’s one brewery you wouldn’t expect to collaborate with the little guy, Stone might top that list. One of the ten biggest craft breweries in America, they’ve long promoted themselves with massive bravado—their marketing materials dotted with slogans like “You’re not worthy” and “Arrogance is good.” Which makes it almost hard to believe that Stone boasts the brewing industry’s largest commitment to collaboration beers, with dozens released every year. While these collaboration are mostly humble partnerships with small breweries you might not have heard of (Monkey Paw) and talented homebrewers you certainly haven’t (Juli Goldenberg), the results are almost always more adventurous—and often better—than Stone’s regular offerings. A popular, now-yearly release, w00tstout, is brewed with celebrity homebrewers like Wil Wheaton and Aisha Tyler.

Beer Camp Across America (2014 and 2016)
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (Chico, CA) and countless others

One of the most intriguing collaborations ever—and it’s still ongoing—has been between Sierra Nevada and, well, pretty much every brewery in the country. In 2014, Chico’s pioneering brewery teamed up with a dozen different American brewers to produce 12 beers for a boxed mix-pack. Sierra Nevada decided to up the ante in 2016, partnering with 30 more breweries. For many Americans in far-flung places, these well-priced, readily available box sets have provided an opportunity to try offerings from small-timers like Wicked Weed (North Carolina), Trillium (Massachusetts) and Funky Buddha (Florida).

Wild Friendship Beer (2015)
Brasserie Cantillon (Belgium), Allagash Brewing (Portland, ME) and Russian River Brewing (Santa Rosa, CA)

Cantillon’s beers are so coveted they hardly need the buzz a collaboration provides. But the famed Belgian lambic maker’s beers are in high demand precisely because of America’s immense love affair with them. Thus, perhaps as a show of thanks, Cantillon teamed up with the two American breweries making the closest thing to a stateside lambic. (Like Champagne, lambic is a location-based term, long thought to be a style impossible to replicate anywhere else until breweries like Allagash and Russian River proved that theory wrong.) Each brewery contributed a portion of their own spontaneously fermented beers for two ballyhooed blends.

Green Street/Street Green (2015)
Other Half Brewing (Brooklyn, NY) and Trillium Brewing (Boston, MA)

Anticipation flooded the message boards when Instagrammers noticed Other Half was brewing at Trillium. The brewers jokingly labeled the beer an “Obvious Pale Ale”—as there was obviously only one style these famed hoppy beer-makers would even want to produce. Green Street, released first, was a super juicy, New England-style IPA. The second version, Street Green—which was brewed at Other Half in Brooklyn—was released to a line of beer geeks that stretched around several Carroll Gardens blocks. For what it’s worth, Other Half truly seems to work well as a “better half,” as their collaborations with Tired Hands and Bunker have also produced fantastic beers.

Leaner (2016)
Casey Brewing & Blending (Glenwood Springs, CO) and Side Project Brewing (St. Louis, MO)

Rarely has a collaboration become an “insta-whale,” as the nerds say, but when two of America’s best small-scale, barrel-aged sour makers teamed up, it was almost predestined. Brewed last summer and released in early January, Leaner is a boozed-up version of Casey’s house saison, fermented with both breweries’ wild yeast cultures and then aged with Colorado peaches. Beer drinkers have already crowded the ISO/FT message boards, looking to land a bottle of what could end up being one of the top beers of 2016. (A Side Project-based version of Leaner is set to come out later this year.)