In 2002, Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado, released a Belgian-style ale and named it, in the brewery's tradition of alluding to doomsday and other things epic, Salvation.
Thing is, the name was already taken — given, incidentally, to a Belgian-style ale at Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa. Each brewer quickly learned of the other's Salvation, but they didn't butt heads. Instead, they put their heads together and in 2006 brewed up a joint effort to commemorate the accident. They called the beer — yet another Belgian — "Collaboration, not Litigation Ale."
Theirs was not the first collaboration beer, but it showcases what this increasingly popular concept in brewing is all about: brewers sharing ideas, resources, and even customers in an endearingly neighborly community. But are the beers actually twice as good, or are we being served a gimmick?
A little of both, said Rebecca Boyles, owner of Beer Revolution (464 3rd St., Oakland): "These breweries are popular because they make amazing beer. Put them together and you get a better beer."
Vic Kralj, owner of The Bistro (1001 B St., Hayward), also recognizes the pros and cons of collaboration beers; collaborative brewing, he says, brings brewers together, promotes creativity and evolution in brewing, and can lead to bright brewing ideas. "They're also a great selling ploy," Kralj said. "They're almost more about marketing than the fact the beer will be tremendous or new-founding in some way."
A recent release called Ovila Abbey Ale from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in partnership with the Abbey of New Clairvaux — a monastery located near the brewery — is one of the best beers Kralj has ever had, he said. Sierra Nevada also recently released a 30th anniversary imperial stout made in collaboration with Anchor Brewing in San Francisco: Fritz and Ken's Ale, now on tap at The Bistro. The beer is worth sampling — jet black and swimming with flavors like chocolate, tart fruits, licorice, and dried figs and raisins.
At Beer Revolution, two unique double IPAs made jointly by Mikkeller and BrewDog — I Hardcore You and I Beat You — are available in the bottle, as is Gnomegang, a Belgian-style blonde beer from Ommegang and D' Achouffe breweries. The beer is caramel-colored, fruity and zesty, and offers up some faint cheese and barnyard scents.
Lagunitas Brewing Company recently partnered with two Chicago beer bars to release a strong blonde lager called Zephyr, named for the Chicago-San Francisco Amtrak line. It's out as of June 6 and pouring at Lagunitas Brewing's Petaluma pub. And coming out on July 4 is Shmaltz Brewing and Pete's Brewing companies' Reunion, an imperial brown ale brewed with chocolate, vanilla, and chipotle peppers in the pot.
When two brewers align to make a beer that combines their respective powers, they're bound to make it a special one. But whether the average collaboration beer is one so innovative, so unique, and so resourcefully made that a single brewer could not have made it alone is less certain. In the end, the most distinctive thing about a collaboration beer is the obvious: two or more brewers made it. But did they need to?