As at the megaplex, where Avengers: Endgame is proving once more that people love superheroes fighting together, craft beer drinkers love a good team-up.
Collaboration beers are a hallmark on bottleshop shelves and tap room chalkboards. And like Marvel movies, they include a wide array of characters. Some are made by two or more breweries. Others pair breweries with bars or restaurants, or other compatible pursuits, such as coffee roasters and chocolatiers.
The possibilities are vast, and local beer makers are taking advantage. Last month, in one of the bigger and more prominent collaborations to hit the Midlands, three breweries (River Rat, Swamp Cabbage, and Cottontown Brew Lab) and one beer bar (Craft and Draft) teamed up on a citrusy New England IPA for the Columbia Food and Wine Festival. This week, Cottontown unveils a dry-hopped blonde ale brewed in collaboration with local rock band Dear Blanca for the group’s daytime Joint Effort shindig Saturday at the Cola Town Bike Collective.
On the scene since 2017, Cottontown is one of Columbia’s newer breweries, and one of its more experimental. When Free Times stopped by to chat with head brewer Brandon Evans, the tap list included a Watermelon Gose, a Neapolitan Stout and a series of fruited milkshake IPAs. Aside from last month’s Food and Wine collaboration, Cottontown has mostly teamed with bars and restaurants, efforts that have helped expose local drinkers to the brewery’s adventurous lineup.
“We have the ability to do a cool collab with somebody, send half of it to them, and keep half of it here, and when they release it we can release it and do a cool little thing,” Evans explains. “And a lot of these places that wanted do collabs actually like the idea of that because they probably have some clientele that we wouldn’t normally see, we have some clientele they wouldn’t normally see, and now it’s cross-promotion.”
The depth of non-brewers’ involvement in Cottontown’s collaborations varies greatly. Motor Supply Co. Bistro offered a bourbon barrel for aging along with feedback and enthusiasm when Cottontown brewed the restaurant a pair of cocktail-inspired beers. Dear Blanca bassist Cam Powell co-founded the Columbia Brew Bus and writes about beer for Free Times. The band leaned on his expertise, dictating specific flavoring, bittering and dry hop additions for the Joint Effort blonde. Others don’t get so invested.
“Some of these beers that have been quote-unquote ‘collaborations,’ basically the guys just called me and told me what they wanted, and I brewed it,” Evans says. “One or two of them would send their social media team over for like a photo opp on brew day or something. But as far as like true collaboration, it was just like, ‘I want a pale ale with a fruity, hoppy profile.’ ‘Gotcha, man, we’ll get it brewed up for you, you throw us a cool name and we’ll write it on the keg collar.’”
Cottontown learned the hard way it’s important to approve those names before they’re announced. One unfortunate nitro cream ale got tagged with the title Cream Your Jeans.
River Rat head brewer Drew Walker also speaks to the branding power of collaborations. These days, the brewery has a variety of beers in distribution and is a hub of weekend activity thanks to its ample outdoor space. But back when Florida’s widely and highly regarded Cigar City Brewing visited in 2015 to brew a sweet potato-infused imperial stout, River Rat, not yet two years old, was a strictly local commodity. It was a big stamp of approval, Walker reflects, though he’s not sure how many people noticed.
“We were just in South Carolina, and just chugging along,” he says. “I don’t know how many doors that opened for us because maybe we were a little too young, maybe we didn’t have a big enough footprint and not enough people knew about us or had heard about us or followed us on social media.”
At this point, River Rat has done at least a dozen collaborations, with other breweries in South Carolina and ones in California, Maryland, Chicago and elsewhere. Walker seems most excited about the opportunities these beers present to experiment and learn. While brewing with Cigar City, the team switched out a valve on the River Rat brewhouse at the guest brewer’s suggestion, a change that remains to this day.
But even with collaborations that don’t deliver such a lasting impact, Walker enjoys the opportunity to try out ideas with reduced pressure. Craft beer drinkers get excited about collaborations, he explains. They’re pretty much always going to buy them up — even if they don’t turn out quite how you intended.
“As long as you make a beer that tastes good coming out, it doesn’t have to be perfect,” he says. “You can use it almost as a test, seeing, ‘Are my customers open to these flavors?’ or ‘Would this particular hop or malt work in this particular style of beer?’
For Matt Rodgers, collaboration has been the go-to marketing tool for his forthcoming Hazelwood Brewery, which he hopes to open by early July, incorporating hops and other ingredients from his Hazelwood Hop Farm. The new endeavor will be housed in the same repurposed mill complex as Lexington’s Old Mill Brewpub, where he works as head brewer. Rodgers has completed a new collaborative brew every couple of months in the two years since announcing the new brewery.
These collaborations help him refine and expand his identity as a brewer, particularly with the hazy IPAs that have become his trademark. He’s brewed New England IPAs with River Rat and Conquest, the second a sour variation of the style, and his excellent HAZE Is a Four Letter Word series with Anderson’s Carolina Bauernhaus is now in the teens.
“Whenever you can go and hang out at somebody else’s place and see their system and how it works and get ideas, it’s always valuable time spent. But it’s just fun,” he says. “It’s a chance to kind of show off your stuff to people that normally wouldn’t get a chance to try your beers, so it’s a little bit of arrogance there of just wanting to show off a little bit.”
Rodgers doesn’t fret much about the possibility of revealing the tricks of his trade during collaborations, though he adds that his approach varies from beer to beer.
“Every situation is a little different,” he reasons. “It depends on what the other brewery’s specialty is. If I’m going to a place that makes a lot of New England IPAs, I’m hoping to learn something from them. I brew a lot of those beers, too, but I expect them to know a certain amount of what goes into that style of beer. But if I’m going to a farmhouse brewery that makes all wild ales, then I have to take a step back and just hopefully contribute whatever I can.”
Walker echoes Rodgers’ sentiment.
“Everyone’s equipment is different, so your process is going to be a little bit different,” he says. “If you piecemeal everything together from a dozen different places, or you’re going and buying old farm dairy equipment and making it into brewhouses and stuff like that, I can show you exactly what I do and you can’t replicate what I do.”
Evans would like to see local collaborative efforts expand, hopefully building camaraderie among local breweries, as it did with the Food and Wine IPA.
“We kid around because we went over there to River Rat and did that beer, and Eric [Lachenmyer], their assistant brewer, basically did everything. On one leg might I add. What a f#!king hero,” he laughs. “He did basically the entire brewing process. We did a couple of fun photo opps. We went up and like dumped some hops in when we were doing all the whirlpool hop additions at the end. Aside from that we pretty much ate lunch and drank beer and talked.”
What: Joint Effort: A Beer Blanca Day Party
Where: Cola Town Bike Collective, 711 Elmwood Ave.
When: Saturday, May 18, 4-8 p.m.
Price: $10 (beer included while supplies last)