Perhaps the most creative beer festival in the U.S., the Colorado Brewers Guild's annual Collaboration Fest recently enjoyed its fifth year as the headline event of Colorado Craft Beer Week. Held on March 31 at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Denver, the festival featured 123 unique collaboration brews from over 200 breweries based in 42 states and six countries.
Fueled by camradery and a passion for creativity common amongst craft brewers, the numbers represent significant growth from about 50 participants in 20 states and three countries in the festival's inaugural year. And all this despite increasingly fierce competition for tap handles and liquor store shelf space.
When a pint -- or six-pack -- purchased from one brewery often means one less bought somewhere else, why do brewers love this festival, and the collaboration process in general, so much?
Zach Rabun, owner and brewer of Mockery Brewing in Denver, put it best when he said, "With over 6,000 independent craft breweries in the United States making up less than 12 percent of the beer volume sold, it's important that we continue to support craft beer as a whole. Collaboration beers exemplify the ingenuity, creativeness, and comradery that make our industry one of the single coolest industries in all of the world."
And while Collaboration Fest is the best opportunity to find a large number of these group projects on display in one convenient place, collaboration is an integral part of many of the participating breweries' plans all year long.
The Mockery team collaborated on two beers for this year's Collaboration Fest, but they try to participate in as many collaborations as they can each year outside the festival. "We love the collaborative nature of the craft brewing industry and coming up with collaboration beers is one of the most fun aspects" Rabun said.
Mockery's festival collaborations were certainly among those with the most unique origin stories at this year's event. Of Heart of a Hellraiser, a barrel-aged Saison brewed with Virginia's Adroit Theory Brewing Company, Rabun said, "It was one of the craziest brews I've ever heard of, much less been part of brewing."
Driven cross-country in open second-use whiskey barrels, the beer picked up 1,600 miles' worth of microflora. "This is truly an American Terroir beer," Rabun added.
Mockery's collaboration with crosstown peer Baere Brewing Company was in its fourth year. Named Mocking Baered Episode 4: Intercontinental, it concluded the brewers' protagonist's story on the sandy beach of a French colony where he could finally relax and enjoy some French toast, a tasty end to a tale that began with a shipwreck, an island on fire, and an inferno doused with rum.
The folks at Longmont-based Wibby Brewing collaborated on three beers for this year's festival including Throwing Stones Steinbier, brewed with members of Colorado's media, Meat and Eggs Maibock, created with August Schell Brewing Company of New Ulm, Minnesota, and Bière de Mars, brewed with Denver's Station 26 Brewing Co.
While Ryan Wibby, the brewery's co-founder, said the team usually does two to three collaborations total each year, he started out 2018 with the intention of participating in as many as 15 to showcase at the company's lager-only beer fest, Lagers for Lumber, this July.
"It can be easy to forget that we all got into the craft beer industry because we think brewing beer is fun and having fun brewing with friends is a great way for us to get back to our roots," Wibby said. "Collaborations are also a really great way for us to learn. Brewers have their own style, and when we get together with different breweries, we get to learn more about their style which in turn helps us learn more about how creative brewing can be."
Tim Myers, co-founder and head brewer at Strange Craft Beer Company, said that in addition to the three collaborations Strange participated in at this year's Collaboration Fest, the Denver brewery regularly gets creative with its peers.
"Every week, Strange, Black Sky, Chain Reaction, and The Brew on Broadway brew a new Traveling One-Barrel Wednesday collaboration," said Myers. "This adds up to more than 50 new [collaboration] recipes we create every year."
He added that the process is valuable because "[c]ollaborations allow brewers to think outside the box, move out of their comfort zone, and try something new. I enjoy learning from the brewers I work with as it allows me to try a new beer style, a unique ingredient, a different brewing method, or something I might not have attempted on my own."
Two of the three beers Strange collaborated on this year -- StrangeTail Seven, an IPA brewed with Freetail Brewing Company of San Antonio, and Stranger Than Fiction, a saison brewed with Denver's Fiction Beer Company -- included Brettanomyces.
"I have never used [Brettanomyces] before, so these were definitely outside of my comfort zone," Myers said. "But both Fiction and Freetail have brewed with Brett so they held my hand throughout the process, so to speak."
The team at Wiley Roots Brewing Company in Greeley doesn't limit their collaborations to the annual festival, either. Kyle Carbaugh, the brewery's co-founder, said that while participation fluctuates from year to year, he typically tries to complete one to two collaborations each quarter.
"I think it's vital for small breweries to build relationships with other like-minded brewers and breweries," he said of the value of collaboration. "Every problem or unknown situation we've encountered in the last five years of business is likely a set of circumstances another brewery has already navigated. Building relationships and friendships with other brewers through collaborations aids in pooling a knowledge base to navigate the pitfalls within the industry."
Wiley's Collaboration Fest beer this year, a sour blonde ale blend with the moniker Pimms Yo, brewed with Lafayette-based Liquid Mechanics Brewing Co., was my personal favorite of the many excellent creations I enjoyed at the festival. A beer mocktail based on the Pimm's Cup cocktail, it combined citrus, juniper, and ginger in a lightly sour, decidedly irresistible way.
"We took base beers from each brewery and blended them together with some additional adjuncts to create a balanced take on the classic British cocktail," Carbaugh explained. "Seth, Eric, and Davin are some of the nicest people in the industry. They take beer quality very seriously but are quick to remember that brewing is still intended to be fun."