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What Happens When a Beer Collaboration Gets Awkward?

Collaborations in the craft-beer industry, like the ones that will be showcased at the fifth-annual Collaboration Fest taking place this Saturday at the Hyatt Regency, celebrate the spirit of camaraderie and cooperation. They can be experimental or educational, weird or wacky, sublime or surprising. Usually, the beer turns out beautifully, a showcase for the two or three or four breweries involved. Other times, not so much.

But every once in while, a collaboration ends up landing with an awkward thud, but not because the beer itself isn’t worth drinking. In fact, quite the opposite. Sometimes a successful beer can cause hurt feelings or difficult conversations if one brewery takes the spotlight while the other stands in the background or doesn't get credit. Sometimes one brewery changes course or even closes before a beer is tapped.

What Happens When a Beer Collaboration Gets Awkward?
Oskar Blues

In 2016, Beer Advocate published an interesting piece by Martin Cizmar titled “The Etiquette of Cooperation: 7 Simple Ground Rules for Successful Collaboration Beers,” delving into some of these issues. The first rule: “1. Whoever owns the system and sells the beer, makes the rules.” Seems simple enough, but it doesn’t always work. Here are four recent examples of Colorado collaborations that took a strange turn.

What Happens When a Beer Collaboration Gets Awkward?
Shamrock Brewing Facebook page

Death By Coconut

Last September, Shamrock Brewing in Pueblo posted a curious note on its Facebook page about the upcoming tapping of a beer called Cheating Death Chocolate Coconut Porter.

“As you know, our collaboration with Oskar Blues was a huge success,” the brewery wrote. “So much so, Oskar’s decided to trademark, mass produce and distribute. It is uncertain who owns the trademark, but since the recipe changed so much, we do not want to have any confusion. So what better name than Cheating Death! I think we got our point across.” Ouch.

The message was a reference to Death By Coconut, a beer that Shamrock and Oskar Blues had teamed up on way back in 2014 for the first-ever Collaboration Fest. An Irish porter aged on coconut and dark chocolate, the beer was a clear standout, and fans demanded that Oskar Blues, which had hosted the collaboration brew day at its spot in Lyons, make it again.

“It was truly a collaborative effort,” says Jason Buehler, who was the head brewer for Oskar Blues’s Lyons location at the time. Buehler, who previously had worked for Shamrock, had kept in touch with the new brewer there, and they came up with the recipe together.

“When we made it, it was so expensive, we never thought we’d make it again or that it would become a regular thing. But once it came out...people loved it,” says Buehler, who has been the head brewer of Denver Beer Company since leaving Oskar Blues in 2015. When Buehler called Shamrock to let them know that Oskar Blues planned to can the beer on a regular basis, Shamrock asked if its logo could stay on the package. Buehler said no. Shamrock also asked if it could continue to use the Death By Coconut name. Again, Buehler said no, saying it wouldn't make sense for two breweries to make a beer with the same name.

“In a collaboration, 99 percent of the legwork is done by the hosting brewery, and most are truly created in the cellar, in the weeks after,” he explains. And as a veteran of more than a hundred different collaborations over his career, Buehler says the subject of who gets the rights to a beer has never once come up. “That’s just not what brewers worry about. We are worried about having a good time and learning from each other.”

Oskar Blues took home a GABF silver medal in 2014 medal for Death By Coconut, and the beer later became a screaming seasonal success in cans for the brewery.

Shamrock co-owner Shawn Sanborn didn’t return an email seeking comment on this story, but it’s safe to say, based on Shamrock’s Facebook post, that the brewery felt a little cheated.

What Happens When a Beer Collaboration Gets Awkward?
Our Mutual Friend

Dreamy Thing

Brettanomyces-fermented farmhouse ales are one of the most nuanced beers around, and the palates at both Cerebral Brewing and Our Mutual Friend are refined enough to produce some of the best examples of this style in Colorado. So, in 2016, the two breweries, who have been friends a long time, got together at Cerebral before the third Collaboration Fest to create Dreamy Thing, a a Farmhouse Pale Ale brewed with Citra, Centennial and Sterling hops and then fermented with Cerebral’s house blend of a dozen Brettanomyces strains.

It turned out beautifully, and Cerebral entered Dreamy Thing into competition that fall at the Great American Beer Festival, where it promptly took home a silver medal.

Cerebral’s Sean Buchan wanted OMF to be recognized as well, but GABF rules don’t allow for two breweries to be honored for one award, or even for the other brewery to be mentioned. So he ordered extra medals for OMF and gave them to the brewery afterward. Now, rather than both breweries making their own version of Dreamy Thing, Cerebral and OMF have agreed to brew the beer just once a year — and to do it together.

While Buchan says the beer technically belongs to Cerebral, he takes a different approach than Denver Beer Company’s Buehler when it comes to playing by a set of unspoken rules. “We’ve done other collabs that we would have loved to have made again, but we don’t,” he says. “We wouldn’t do something without explicit approval from the other brewery.”

In Buchan’s view, it’s okay to do similar beers as long as the name is changed or tweaked; for instance, after he and L.A.’s Mumford Brewing made a session IPA at Cerebral last fall called Should’ve Brought a Jacket, Mumford decided to do a similar version at home in California — but the brewery called it Brought a Jacket, Didn’t Need It instead.

It helps, Buchan adds, if the two breweries are familiar with each other. “But you never know exactly what to expect, because everyone thinks something different.”

Don't cry for OMF, though. The brewery won a silver medal at GABF in 2017 for Saison Trystero, a farmhouse saison.

Wicked Weed's Walt Dickinson with James Howat of Black Project.
Wicked Weed's Walt Dickinson with James Howat of Black Project.
Black Project

Black Project/Wicked Weed Collaboration

In 2016, as Black Project Wild & Spontaneous Ales was gaining fame across the country for its sour ales, the brewery teamed up with Asheville, North Carolina's Wicked Weed — then a darling of the craft-beer industry — to do two collaborations, one in Denver and one in North Carolina. But in the spring of 2016, Wicked Weed sold out to Anheuser Busch InBev, the makers of Budweiser. It was a hard blow for Black Project.

AB InBev had already purchased nine formerly independent breweries at that point and used them to leverage sales. Because of the corporate giant’s business practices and the craft industry's perception of them, Black Project, like many other independent craft breweries, doesn’t support AB InBev or its subsidiaries. As a result, Black Project decided to dismantle its half of the collaboration, blending the beer that was supposed to have been a part of it with another beer in order to make something different. The brewery also asked Wicked Weed to take Black Project’s name off the version of the collaboration that was aging in North Carolina.

“In Denver alone, we've seen several instances of highly aggressive, predatory and what we consider to be unethical practices,” Black Project explained in a May 2017 blog post. “We truly believe that AB InBev intends to systematically destroy American craft beer as we know it. We don't personally buy, seek, trade or acquire any of their products for this reason, and we've been known to encourage our friends to do the same.”

What Happens When a Beer Collaboration Gets Awkward?
Epic Brewing

Common Interests

In September 2017, The Commons, a well-loved Portland brewery, surprised the craft world by announcing that it would be closing its doors; founded in 2011, the brewery had gathered nothing but accolades and attention over the years. The news was especially shocking at Denver's Epic Brewing, especially since the staff there found out while they were "literally chopping up honeydew melons..." for a collaboration with the Commons.

The beer, called Common Interests, was a sour ale brewed with Oregon red winter wheat and Colorado honeydew melons, and it debuted during GABF. But rather than being a celebration, it served as more of a wake.

But the closure explained why Epic had been having a hard time getting ahold of anyone at The Commons for the previous few weeks. Epic national sales director Darin McGregor, who was heavily involved in the project, said then that he was more empathetic than upset. "A lot of breweries are having a hard time making the ins and outs balance," he told Westword at the time. "I think that is what this beer represents. It’s hard to even complete a collaboration because of how quickly the sands are shifting."

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