Anyone who’s ever been to an independent brewery or picked up a can of craft brew has likely seen the term “collaboration” on a menu or can. Scroll through the Untappd app and many breweries list pages upon pages of collaborations.
But what does that really mean? How does collaboration occur? Who decides what is in the beer?
How do they serve their partners, consumers and society?
Beer collaborations or “collaborations” are generally cross-promotions between breweries, fashion brands, foods, sports teams, charities – pretty much anything. The workload ranges from a quick “Sure, let’s do it” to dozens of emails back and forth to decide everything from what style of beer to make to what the label will look like.
When breweries collaborate, “it’s mutually beneficial,” says Zach Fowle, Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. marketing manager. “We’re reaching groups we might not necessarily reach within our core customer base, and we’re telling our story to people who might not have heard it before.” And that allows breweries to spread the word about beers, businesses or causes they like and support.
Collaborations generally fall into three types: A brewery that promotes awareness of a non-profit organization and often donates a portion of the proceeds, a brewery that joins marketing forces with a non-beer business, or two breweries that work hand-in-hand on a unique brew . Although a nonprofit or business sometimes has a say in the type of beer brewed (lagers, IPAs, stouts, etc.), the final flavor profile is up to the brewers.
Many of the most rewarding collaborations are beers made for a cause. Centered around International Women’s Day on March 8 each year, hundreds of teams around the world join forces to create a beer with the Pink Boots Society, a group that helps women and non-binary people in the adult beverage industry move forward with the career.
“Any brewery in the world can participate in a Pink Boots brew,” says Sue Rigler, who has been involved with the group for six years, long before she opened Hundred Mile Brewing Co. in Tempe in late 2022. “I’m really excited to have my own brew day,” she says, adding that her Pink Boots brew will be out in early April.
Some breweries donate $1 per pint to the cause; others a flat donation. Half of the funds raised by the Pink Boots Society collaboration go to the local branch and half to the parent organisation.
Rigler says it’s great for women in the industry because “we get to travel and we learn.” She attended an educational retreat where she learned more about fermentation and other aspects of brewing. But most partnerships with non-profit organizations benefit a variety of causes beyond the beverage industry itself.
Tyler Smith, the owner and founder of Kitsune Brewing Co., launched his brewery with a triple collaboration of sorts. Working out of the brewery at Simple Machine Brewing Co., he participated in the national Black is Beautiful beer campaign that raised money and awareness for police brutality reform.
Since opening his own location in north Phoenix, Smith created a beer called Know History for Black History Month in February to benefit Black Girls CODE. When brewers choose a cause, he says, “it’s something that means something to us in our hearts. It always feels like it’s real and organic.”
In a brand collaboration, Arizona Wilderness created a “Superb Owl” beer in February with the Audubon Society as a nod to the big game. It has also produced beer to benefit the Arizona Trail Association, Equality Maricopa (which provides scholarships to LGBTQ youth), the MS Society and the Pat Tillman Foundation. The brewery does between 20 and 30 collaborations each year.
Wren House Brewing Co., which has about 10 collaborations a year, has worked on beer with charities ranging from the Audubon Society and Wild at Heart raptor rescue (a natural tie-in with the bird theme) to LGBTQ organizations, Ryan’s House Children’s Hospital, and others.
“We definitely encourage our employees to bring their own personal stories to the brewery,” says Drew Pool, co-owner of Wren House Brewing Co. “Often we hear about an organization or issue from our employees – something they are passionate about and something they are involved in.”
The amount donated from a collaboration varies based on the size of the brewery. Smaller breweries can raise $500, while larger ones can give $2,500 or more.
It’s not just about the money though – it’s about raising awareness. When Wren House has a collaboration, it publicizes the other cause, business or brand to its nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram. Fowle of Arizona Wilderness says affiliates are introduced to his 125,000 followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Brewery-to-brewery collaborations, meanwhile, give brewers the opportunity to expand their market, enjoy camaraderie, learn from each other and work together on new creations.
“It’s reconnecting with some of our closest friends in the industry trying to make a delicious beer,” says Dylan DeMiguel, co-owner and director of sales for The Shop Beer Co.
Collaboration also involves “techniques and tricks of the trade that we might share with each other to make both of our breweries a little bit better,” Fowle says, such as discussing new hop styles, how long to age a particular beer, or how to process different yeasts .
Some less scrupulous breweries simply slap their name on a can without being involved, Fowle mentions, adding that he believes “if you want to put your name on another brewery’s label, the brewery has to go out and spend time with another brewery and be part of the experience of making beer.”
Because a collaborative beer is marketed to two customer bases instead of one, brewers can get a little more “crunchy,” Pool of Wren House Brewing Co. says. “It’s a way to expose devoted drinkers to new things.”
For example, Wren House teamed up with Superstition Meadery to create Nojoch Mul, a mole mead made with 100 ingredients. And it partnered with North Park Beer Co. from San Diego to create Wren Park, a combination of both breweries’ gold medal-winning IPAs, Spellbinder and Art is Hard.
Smith of Kitsune Brewing Co. says that it is also beneficial for larger breweries to collaborate with small ones like his because there is not as much risk when making smaller batches. “If it doesn’t come out right, we waste five barrels and they waste 150, which is a bigger pill to swallow,” he notes.
Co-working allows brewery staff to work with people they admire as well. DeMiguel says The Shop Beer Co. was excited to work with Pizza Port Brewing Co. from Carlsbad, Calif., on Tickle Fight because “they’re the cool older brother that every brewery loves. We got to work with the people who created some of our favorite products and some of our favorite brands.”
Breweries also cross-promote other businesses so that everyone gets exposure. It can lead to some wild ideas too.
DeMiguel says they talked to Greg Eccles, owner and partner of Tops Liquors, about hand-selected barrels of bourbon and did a collaboration with their empty barrels. Shop Beer Co. aged imperial stouts in three different barrels – Elijah Craig, Weller and Blanton’s – for 23 months as a tribute to the three generations of the Eccles family, who have been a vanguard of the craft beer industry in the Valley.
And Wren House recently partnered with JL Patisserie and Zaks Chocolate to create a beer inspired by JL Patisserie’s chocolate turtle croissants.
“With Zak’s Chocolate, we talk to him about flavor profiles we want to target,” says Pool. “He wants to get us … some cocoa specifically for that beer. We’re definitely leveraging each other’s contacts to do that.”
Pool summed up the concept of collaboration by saying, “It takes a ton of work from everyone, from the brewing team to the management team to the collaborators… [but] I think it’s a wonderful way to impact the community and raise awareness of so many wonderful things going on.”