For the past few months, breweries all over Colorado have been taking time out of their normal schedules to team up on collaboration beers for this month’s Collaboration Fest. Some are old friends, some have worked with each other in the past, and some are forging new bonds.
The festival, taking place on Saturday, March 16, will showcase more than 100 beers, most of them small-batch, one-off or experimental projects that were brewed just for the occasion.
But the crews from Strange Craft, Chain Reaction Brewing, Black Sky Brewery and the Brew on Broadway didn’t have to make any special arrangements to put their beers together. They didn’t have to take time out, make any introductions or rearrange their schedules. That’s because the four small breweries have been gathering every single Wednesday for the past fourteen months, rotating between all four, to brew small batches of unusual beers as part of their Traveling One Barrel Wednesdays program.
“For us, it’s about getting together, hanging out for a few hours with our friends and getting craft-beer camaraderie back to what it was,” says Chain Reaction co-owner Zack Christofferson. “It’s also a nice escape for us to be able to get away from our own breweries for a while.”
One week it might be Earl Grey IPA at Chain Reaction, which specializes in spiced beers, and the next it could be a true-to-style ESB at the Brew on Broadway, where owner Paul Webster likes English styles. It could be Hot Chocolate Porter, or a sour red ale with tamarind paste, lemon zest and coriander. It could be Apple Crisp Amber or a pickle-flavored gose. The sixty or so creations have all turned up on tap at the four breweries.
“Sometimes it’s a hit. Sometimes it’s a miss. That’s the fun part — that some of them don’t work. But we're always learning," Christofferson says. “We all do a few things better than others, and we all do a few things worse."
The group just brewed its fourth and final beer for Collab Fest at the Brew on Broadway this week.
The program began at Strange Craft five years ago when Black Sky Brewery owners Harry Smith, who was still working at Breckenridge Brewery, and his wife, Lila, would join Strange Craft owner Tim Myers to play around on Myers’s one-barrel pilot system. Many breweries have small systems like these that they use for unusual beers or for dialing in recipes that they're testing.
Over the years, a number of would-be brewers stopped in to practice before opening their own breweries, using Strange as a de facto training ground and incubator. Webster was one of these. Zack and Chad Christofferson stopped in as well. So when the idea to take One Barrel Wednesdays on the road arose, “it was a pretty logical group to put together,” Myers says. Of course, it didn’t hurt that all four breweries also have one-barrel pilot systems (one barrel is roughly the same as two kegs).
Webster loves the fact that he decided to buy a one-barrel system — which he calls his “artisanal system” — in addition to his larger ten-barrel brewhouse. “It’s added so much fun to the job,” he explains. “We create some amazing, crazy-ass recipes that we’d never do any other way.”
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Although the concept took a little while to catch on, Christofferson says business began to pick up for all four breweries last October or November, when customers began to realize that they had to come by every Wednesday to try the new brew — and that they disappeared fast.
For Collab Fest, the brewers created four separate collaborations: a Belgian Abbey-style beer with American hops from Brew on Broadway; a saison with white grapes from Black Sky; a Belgian-style golden IPA from Strange Craft; and, uh, a ramen beer with ramen spices and ramen noodles from Chain Reaction. All four were fermented with Strange Craft’s Cherry Kriek yeast.
Did we say ramen beer? Yes, we did. Although many brewers cringe at the notion or turn up their nose at the idea of a ramen beer, Christofferson notes that the One Barrel Wednesday crew members try not to take themselves too seriously. The idea, he adds, came about one day when he and Danny Wang, owner of the now-defunct Caution Brewing, were drinking, and... The beer was brewed in collaboration with Fermly, a company that Wang and his wife, Emily, own; Fermly is doing full ABV testing on all the beers at Collab Fest.
Well, you’ll just have to try it at Collaboration Fest. The sixth annual fest takes place at the Hyatt Regency Denver on March 16. Showcasing the collaborative nature of the craft-beer industry, the festival will serve beer from brewery teams from all over the state — and a few from other states and countries. "Each beer is brewed specifically for this festival, so expect some of the most interesting, exciting, rare and delicious beer tappings," say event organizers. Tickets, starting at $65, are available on the Collaboration Fest website.