Why collaboration and not competition is the mantra of local craft breweries
Celebration: Brewers Tim Clifford and J.C. Hill (bottom right) and their crews from Sante Adairius and Alvarado Street breweries toast the second batch of their collaboration beer, 38 Miles. Photo by Brock Bill.
Cold hands wrapped around hot mugs of coffee as brewers from 12 craft breweries from Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties crowded around the towering steel mash tuns and fermenters at Discretion Brewing in Soquel. Smiles easily thawed the chill as malted grain was crushed, water boiled, temperatures tracked. These beer folks hadn’t seen each other in a while and were happy to take a rare break from their own breweries to work collectively to create a beer that would represent the Monterey Bay area.
Inspired by local waves and boardwalk treats like salt water taffy and candy apples, members of the new Monterey Bay Brewers Guild decided to make a salted caramel stout. Discretion hosted the event, Alec Stefansky from Uncommon Brewers offered homemade caramel, J.C. Hill from Alvarado Street Brewing contributed barrels to age it in and everyone lent a hand, enjoying the festive atmosphere and company of like minds.
This collaboration brew was one of five made in the region to mark the San Francisco Brewers Guild’s creation of five new geographically defined chapters—San Francisco, East Bay, North Bay, South Bay and Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay. To celebrate, each of the new guilds created a beer to represent itself at the 2018 SF Beer Week opening gala in February.
The gathering at Discretion was not the first time brewers in our area have come together there for a large collaboration brew. Last summer, eleven Santa Cruz County breweries and Venus Spirits cooperated on the “Brewers Unite for David” session IPA. Sales of the beer raised more than $10,000 for brewer David Purgason’s medical treatments after he suffered a serious work accident.
Despite increasing competition, the craft beer industry, seemingly tethered to its homebrewing roots, has embraced the spirit of cooperation, and breweries frequently and willingly share knowledge and equipment in a remarkably supportive environment. Collaboration brews—the result of two or more breweries working together to create, brew and release a beer together—are the drinkable manifestation of this fraternal spirit.
While large-scale collaborations allow brewers to share information, discuss process and equipment and learn from each other, one of the biggest benefits is just getting everyone together. “It seems like a pain to coordinate, but when people are here, it’s really fun to talk to all these brewery owners and brewers. We all like each other and are all so busy trying to run our own breweries that we don’t see each other that often,” says Dustin Vereker, co-owner of Discretion Brewing.
To Discretion’s head brewer Michael Demers, sharing knowledge and even ingredients is the industry norm. He says, “In a way, we have an ongoing collaboration, because I got calls today from two breweries and a distillery asking to borrow ingredients, and we do that too. They say, ‘I’m short on this, do you have any extra?’ We’re doing that all the time.”
While the growing number of local breweries is competing for tap handles, customers and shelf space, it doesn’t yet appear to have damaged this sense of fellowship. Says Vereker, “So far it seems like we can continue to add new breweries and it’s okay. There’s still a feeling of respect and that you can actually love your competitor.”
More craft breweries exist in America today than at any other time in history, and California—with more than 900—has the most. Like the rest of the state, the Monterey Bay area has seen a precipitous rise in craft brewing in the last 10 years, with at least 20 breweries now in operation and a couple more due to open this year.
Photo by Dustin Vereker
Surprisingly, the impetus for the first collaboration beer wasn’t friendship—it was coincidence. In 2006, Santa Rosa’s Russian River Brewing and Boulder’s Avery Brewing realized they both had beers called Salvation. Rather than duke it out over naming rights, they blended their respective beers and Collaboration not Litigation Ale was born. Since then, the number of collaboration brews has skyrocketed nationally, and our area is no exception.
What is the allure of this process? Consumer popularity is certainly one factor. In an industry where the exclusivity of the product is almost as important to the consumer as taste, the desirability among craft beer aficionados for these rarer mind-melds is high. But according to local brewers, the true value of this process lies in the ability to nurture relationships, share knowledge and engender creativity while creating a product that is, ideally, greater than what each brewery could come up with on its own.
For head brewer Hill of Alvarado Street Brewery in Monterey, teaming up with the brewers of Capitola-based Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, whom he had long admired, was a “pinch me” moment. At Hill’s invitation, Sante Adairius and Alvarado made two beers together in 2016 and named them after the distance between the two breweries: 38 Miles, a hoppy, hazy IPA released in a can; and 64 Kilometers, a barrel-aged mixed fermentation saison. The Sante Adairius team joined the Alvarado brewers at their facility in Salinas for a full day of brewing—an experience that Hill feels solidified their friendship and made them want to brew a second batch of 38 Miles in 2017, to coincide with the release of 64 Kilometers.
“Brewing is such a passion-driven industry. We all benefit from that synergy of putting our heads together and seeing what will happen,” says Hill. “It’s so cool to see how someone approaches a beer from inception to creation.”
Business partners Tim Clifford and Adair Paterno of Sante Adairius have fond memories of that brew as well, which they say was born out of mutual respect for the others’ skills and a willingness to share information. “Trading ideas, sharing ideas, challenging each other based on those ideas—all of those are opportunities for growth,” says Clifford.
Beer drinkers went nuts to try the brainchild of nationally acclaimed Sante Adairius and up-and-coming Alvarado, and 38 Miles sold out in a few hours. While both breweries were understandably pleased, they emphasize that the true measure of success is non-material.
“Marketing should never be the purpose. It’s an indirect effect, but we’ll never do one solely for that purpose,” says Hill, who has also collaborated with Santa Cruz’s Humble Sea Brewing Co. “Collaboration brews are a really personal experience.”
Clifford agrees. “The goal is to make something in which we learn collectively, and hopefully we make something in a Voltron kind of sense, bigger than each of ourselves. As long as that’s the intention, then it’s great.”
Paterno says that even as it has grown, craft beer is still the most collaborative industry she’s ever been involved in. “There aren’t that many industries where people are willing to literally share their secrets with their competitors.”
She believes one reason for this is that craft breweries share a common foe—macrobreweries, the largest being Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns more than 200 national and international brands including Budweiser, Corona and Michelob. “The smaller breweries have always banded against that, and that’s been common throughout our industry. It’s us against them,” says Hill.
As a result, craft brewing has become very “open book.” “Everything that we’ve done is something that I’ve learned from another brewery along the way. The reason we’re here is because of that collaborative nature. Bud and Miller have so much power. It’s easy to see why the little guys banded together,” he says.
Without the support and advice of Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing co-owners Emily Thomas and Chad Brill, Brewery Twenty Five in San Juan Bautista might have remained a twinkle in the eyes of owners Fran and Sean Fitzharris. Over the years the couple became good friends with Thomas and Brill, and eventually consulted with them about how to open a brewery of their own. When the time came for SCMB to upgrade its brewing system, it sold its used equipment to the Fitzharrises to help get Brewery Twenty Five off the ground. “We had already decided that if and when we do a collaboration, it has to be with Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing,” says Fran. “In my experience, collaborations are either the celebration of a friendship or the launch of a future friendship. This one is definitely the celebration of a longtime friendship.”
For their collaboration, the two breweries decided to embark on a yeast-driven experiment, dividing a jointly brewed batch of Flanders red ale into four barrels. Each person added a different yeast of their choosing into one barrel, and waited, aging the beer for two years.
“The results were great,” says Thomas. “Each beer was unique and wonderful, and we were able to document the subtle and sometimes not so subtle nuances among the beers.” All self-proclaimed “dog people,” the four brewers gave their beers the names of their beloved pups—Max, Jake, Charlie and Pete.
In addition to celebrating a supportive friendship, releasing the beer with the established SCMB exposed Brewery Twenty Five to many new potential customers.
Looking back, Thomas says she believes brewing has always been a very cooperative industry. “We aren’t competitive with each other because our true competition is the monolithic beer producers and their intent to control independent craft brewers. For 13 years, I can’t remember a single time where a brewer didn’t share resources or information with SCMB. Likewise, I always want to pay it forward.”