There was a moment last Sunday morning when I had to answer the question: am I really that guy?
I’ve travelled all around the world for different drinking experiences, but was I the guy that was going to travel to the other side of London just to try and find five unusual beers?
You see, I’d managed to drink 22 out of the 27 beers in BrewDog’s CollabFest. The completist in me was saying GO! While the I’m-hungover-and-it’s-Sunday-and-you-don’t-really-need-to-do-this guy was saying STAY!
CollabFest is an annual event held in BrewDog’s 27 British bars, where each of those bars brews a collaboration beer with a local brewery, then all the 27 bars sell all of the 27 different beers over one weekend. On the Friday afternoon I’d started ticking off the beers on the menu as I drank them and while I wasn’t trying to get through the whole lot, I’d somehow got close enough to achieving it, and by Sunday morning those missing final five were bugging me.
Collaboration beers are an interesting topic and something that’s been common for almost a decade. It gives brewers the chance to get together and make new beers, it’s a chance to hang out with brewing friends, where there’s a brilliant openness to share knowledge, to learn from each other, to be creative, to use different techniques, and to try to come up with something excellent first time – they aren’t perfecting these brews over many months, they are one-shot chances. It’s a fun challenge. And from the drinker’s perspective, it can often mean getting to drink a beer from a faraway brewery that we can’t often or ever find in our area – and that’s a good thing.
The best example of British collaboration brewing as an event in its own right is The Rainbow Project. Originally conceived and still arranged by Siren brewery, the idea is that seven British breweries join up with seven overseas breweries (the first two years it was American breweries then in 2016 it was New Zealand breweries) and each pair is assigned a colour of the rainbow to inspire their brew. All the beers are released simultaneously on the same day and they are always very experimental one-off beers (here’s 2016’s beers which included a sour beer with oysters, mussels and salt, and a barley wine with Riesling grape juice).
What I like specifically about Brewdog’s CollabFest is how it’s the bars who get to pick the brewery to work with and together they develop their beer. BrewDog are especially good at encouraging their staff to learn more about beer, where by actually getting them to brew beer and be around brewers, it’s the best way to learn more.
When you get collaboration beers, it’s rare that they are straight up pale ales or porters or something like that – they are beers those brewers make every day, so instead the brews can veer towards novelty or extremities, and that was definitely true of the CollabFest beers, where almost all of them contained an untraditional ingredient or were very experimental (peanuts, marmalade, mustard and one inspired by raspberry ripple ice cream). As one-off beers, designed and brewed to be sold at a single event, they can be experimental – and they should be. I went along to the bar in the first place because I wanted to try the weird beers and to see which brewers could pull-off the unusual combinations of styles and ingredients on a one-time brew. I didn’t end up wanting pints of many of the beers, but that wasn’t the point.
The answer to my question on Sunday morning was yes, I am that guy who goes on a three-hour round trip on a Sunday afternoon to try five small glasses of unusual beer. Those final five in themselves were probably not worth the trip overall, but to complete the set – and to try beers from brewers I rarely get to see or drink – was something worthwhile and I left there having tasted 27 different beers over a weekend, with many of them making me smile (my favourite was Brighton BrewDog and Brighton Bier’s Hung Like a Gorse toasted coconut imperial stout).
Collaborations give us some of them most unusual and interesting beers of the year. They might not all be wonderful, but they are a good look at the beer world’s outermost creative edges. More than that they show the spirit of fun, friendship and sharing that runs through the beer industry and that’s a great approach to how beer should be enjoyed in general.
Three great collaboration beers that stuck around
Schneider Weisse (and Brooklyn) Meine Hopfenweisse
The brilliance of this is how a traditional German wheat beer brewery linked up with one of America’s foremost craft breweries and truly met in the middle by brewing a ‘Hopfenweisse’ (it’s likely they invented this style). Schneider brought their strong wheat beer base and Brooklyn came with loads of aromatic hops. It was so good, Schneider Weisse now make it all the time.
Buxton and Omnipollo Yellow Belly Sundae
These guys are frequent collaborators and their Yellow Belly Sundae came from the Rainbow Project and is now brewed more regularly – it’s a ridiculous imperial peanut butter biscuit stout that’s insanely decadent and rich and fudgy. An amazing beer.
Siren and Cigar City Caribbean Chocolate Cake
This is a luxurious stout with cacao nibs, lactose for a creamy depth, and aged with cypress wood. It’s deep with roastiness, dark chocolate, latte, berries, coconut,and a general chocolate cake deliciousness.
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