The collaboration trend in beer is one that needs reconsideration as they are often beers of dubious worth.
Trends in beer are impossible to avoid. Like any consumable, things fall into and out of favour. Beer is no different in that styles, methods and flavours come into fashion and fade away as well. Outliers will remain, but change is constant and impossible to avoid.
In recent years we’ve seen trends in incredibly bitter beers, highly aromatic beers that are late and dry hopped heavily, sour beers, and barrel aged beers. Many of these beers are considered mandatory in a modern brewery’s lineup, whether they are standard or seasonal offerings. While new trends are notoriously difficult to predict, there is a market segment that is quickly becoming relevant to the industry.
The collaboration beer is often overlooked by many, and the number of offerings available to the consumer is on the rise. Recently we have seen an upturn in the numbers of these beers, and they are likely to increase for some time to come.
Just what is a collaboration beer? While there is a decided lack of a solid definition, the general premise is that two breweries work together to develop a beer, and release it with the branding of each. The mechanics of each individual collaboration beer vary greatly, but here are a few examples. Sometimes a brewer will visit another, brainstorm and then produce a beer at one brewery. This is the typical model, but some go in a far different direction, with both breweries using the same recipe but brewing in their own facility for example. We’ve seen this done many times, but some take it even further where each uses its own yeast strain, thus creating two very different beers. There are a multitude of ways that a collaboration that can be done, and while the details are important, these are beyond the scope of this article to list in exhaustive detail. As would be expected though, the consumer is typically asked to pay more than the norm for these beers, sometimes substantially more than average.
Perhaps one of the most interesting (and I would argue one of the best) collaborations is Ovila beers from Sierra Nevada that are high quality and a portion of the profits go to a higher calling. The collaboration in this case is not a brewery, but rather Monks that provide a portion of the raw ingredients.
But back to the point of this piece. I am going on the record here to say that collaboration beers are largely over-hyped, underperforming beers that need a serious re-thinking.
I’ve heard some attack collaboration beers as a chance for brewers to play hookey and drink beer together, but that is of no real concern. What should be a concern to many is that a great number of collaboration beers simply are not good enough.
One would expect that if a beer worthy of two sets of credentials is being produced, then the resultant beer should be something truly special. The nature of its ‘specialness’ is certainly variable, from process, to ingredients, to inspiration or even pushing an envelope of some sort. The point is that the beer is one that should be something special, worthy of extra consideration (and of course price) and something that the collaborators likely would not have produced on their own. This glut of collaboration beers is likely to increase in the future as it is profitable for the breweries in question, and has great potential for marketing the companies in question.
In a large number of cases, collaboration beers are simply not as good as they should be. I use ‘good’ in this case to denote uniqueness, rarity, pushing limits, and not as a measure of technical quality – which should be excellent and should go without being said.
Often we see collaboration beers that simply don’t bring much of true interest to the consumer. I have had many collaboration beers lately (let’s call it research) and an example that comes to my mind was a pilsner style brew that was slightly higher ABV than the norm. The beer itself was a good one, but at only slightly higher strength than the norm, really wasn’t anything special enough to merit mention as a special offering. To be truly honest, any good professional brewer should be able to produce a decent pilsner-style beer and merely upping the strength of it is not that much harder. It certainly isn’t necessary to involve another brewery to add a little more base malt and hops.
Similar under-performing beers can be found in many other collaboration beers, and this is not to speak of beers produced for cultural phenomena such as movies, television shows and the like which are often a great letdown to craft beer fans. The issue, like many in craft beer, is tied in to education.
Craft beer fans need to appreciate that certain collaboration beers are not up to snuff, and we need to speak up. We need to encourage brewers to experiment, but we also need to let them know that they need to put out products that are worthy of extra attention and our spending money.
Will I continue to buy collaboration beer? Of course I will, and I will encourage others to do the same. We as consumers though, need to separate the wheat from the chaff by not throwing money at “special” beers that really aren’t all that “special.”
By reinforcing the production of good quality collaborations and avoiding the more mundane offerings, we can exert a large measure of change over the future of collaboration beers. And this change is needed to move beer to better and better places, which is something that is to benefit all.