What's Brewing at CBC
Most people familiar with the craft beer world have heard of breweries collaborating with one another. Perhaps unique to our industry, these collaborations have their roots in the earliest beginnings of American craft beer. Information on practical brewing science and techniques was virtually nil, quality ingredients were scarce, interesting and reliable yeast strains non-existent unless you were able to culture up your own. Educational centers like U.C. Davis and others at the time primarily focused (and were endowed by) large breweries and which taught techniques for cereal cooking, sterile filtration and pasteurization, and massive bulk blending – all skills I swore I would never use.
Brewers starting out in the ‘80s and ‘90s would write or call one another to ask questions and share information, which is strange behavior for a capitalist endeavor. However, we all knew we were small potatoes in the much bigger battle against “the man,” also known as Bud/Miller/Coors and the dominant but crappy (to our standards) “industrial light lager.” We needed to help one another in order to survive, and this fostered a sense of fraternity amongst craft brewers which was not to be found in the U.S., nor in Europe with its history of brewers guilds and brewing secrets. This fraternity has flourished and is largely responsible for making the U.S. the world capital for craft beer. Information is freely offered, ingredients loaned, and many beers shared and enjoyed by men and women who could rightfully be considered competitors.
True collaborations began when we moved from “hey, how do you use this ingredient,” “what’s your fermentation profile when using this yeast strain” or “can I borrow eleven pounds of Cascades” to “hey, we should get together and make a beer!” An oft-told story is that Avery Brewing in Colorado and Russian River in California found that they both made a beer called Salvation. Rather than bring suit and fight it out over the rights to the name, they together created Collaboration Not Litigation, a blend of the two beers and a supreme show of neighborly love and respect. CBC is one of dozens of breweries who have also brewed across the country and around the world with other brewers, sharing our mutual love of brewing and enjoying great beer.
In our own “collaboration not litigation” experience, we met our brothers from Magnolia Brewery (CA) at the Great American Beer Festival back in the late ‘90s or early ‘00s. It seems that, fans of the Dead and Phish as was I, both of our breweries had inexplicably produced an unhopped herbal beer called Weekapaug Gruit. Instead of laying claim to the naming rights, we gleefully agreed to each continue brewing this beer. Years later in 2011 we finally got together at their brewpub in San Francisco and brewed a beer together, and in the spirit of sharing in the gruit named it Collaborative Groove.
We’ve also brewed in San Diego at Stone Brewing Company, in a three-way collaboration with Stone and Scottish brewers Brewdog, yielding an “imperial black pilsner” called Juxtaposition. This extraordinary beer, Stone’s first lager beer and most expensive beer they had ever produced, had the tickers in fits! At trip to Denmark to brew with Anders Kissmeyer at Copenhagen’s Nørrebro Bryghus produced an amazing trip to the island of Fanø to pick fresh heather flowers, which went in to a Danish version of CBC’s Heather Ale. Anders has since returned the favor several times, visiting CBC to brew with us – Imperial Skipsøl and Citra Tripel.
Upcoming in September will be a trip to the U.K., to the village of Devizes where I’ll have the distinct honor of brewing at the Wadworth Brewery. This classic English brewery, founded in 1875, will be collaborating on a brew to be served exclusively throughout the pub chain J.D. Wetherspoon for their annual cask ale festival. Cool!
This past May we invited four new Boston-area breweries to join us in making a beer in honor of Boston Beer Week. CBC’s Lead Brewer Jay Sullivan wrote a great little blog post about the experience, which led to a very tasty little beer called Mass Appeal. And we also repeated our collaboration with our friend Todd Bellomy, sake master and founder of BostonSake.com, brewing our infamous Banryu Ichi a second time and nailing it!
Most recently we had the extraordinary opportunity to brew with some incredible guest brewers from Norway, Belgium, Quebec, and Colorado. As 12% Imports and Shelton Brothers planned an amazing beer festival in Worcester, drawing brewers from around the world, we took the opportunity to invite a few of them to join us at CBC and see what we could do together.
Kjetil Jikiun and Tore Nybø of Grimstad, Norway’s famous Nøgne Ø collaborated on a beer, just released as I type this, which we dubbed Higgs Boson Brown Ale after the timely discovery of the Higgs boson particle by physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. After our initial discussion (in San Diego at this year’s Craft Brewers Conference) of collaboration we wrote many emails discussing what beer we would like to brew, then hammered out our recipe. All of the ingredients were procured before their arrival so on brewday we just went at it. The sight of Kjetil, a massive Viking of a man, perched atop our platform mashing in was quite impressive! Originally, this smoked brown ale was planned to undergo several months of oak barrel aging before release. However, as we tasted this beer during fermentation and maturation the Brew Crew (Jay, Sean, and Adrian) and I felt that the subtle complexities of this big, malty imperial brown ale were at risk of being covered up by charred oak and bourbon spirit in the barrel. We wrote to Kjetil and Tore and expressed our desire to not only serve this beer straight from the stainless steel serving tanks here, but to also brew a second batch of the same beer and send that one to the Barrel Cellar. They were excited by the prospect of one recipe yielding two different expressions of the same beer, so even after they had flown home to the Land of the Midnight Sun, the decisions affecting the care and presentation of the beer were shared. Next, we need to travel to Grimstad in order to reproduce this beer at their brewery!
Just four days after the Nøgne Ø collaboration and two days after The Festival (which, should you have missed it, was amazing and you can now commence kicking yourself) we had an even bigger group of brewers in the house (in number if not physical stature as compared to Kjetil and Tore). Yvan de Baets of Brasserie De la Senne in Brussles, Belgium, has been one of my heroes of brewing for some time. He’s a true beer historian and crafts some of the most complex yet simple and enjoyable beers in the world. At a post-conference visit to CBC I broached the subject of brewing together and was beyond pleased when he accepted.
An interest in brewing together had also been voiced by my friend Chad Yakobson, who would also be in town for The Festival, so it became a threesome. Chad is a brilliant young brewer who came to my attention while he was still homebrewing and pursuing his advanced degree in microbiology. His dissertation became The Brettanomyces Project, which I considered a fascinating and valuable online resource for my investigations into fermentation with Brett. Once again, innovation and brilliance was not secreted away but instead posted to the online world and shared freely. Amazing! Chad’s Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project is one of the country’s newest breweries but also one of the most unique and fascinating, focusing almost exclusively on “wild” fermentation with mixed microorganisms in oak barrels.
And then, Bim. Luc “Bim” LaFontaine, that is. Head Brewer at Dieu du Ciel! brewpub in Montreal, my all time favorite place in Quebec, Canada. Mutual friends with Yvan and I, Bim also shares with me a love of sake and Japanese culture. In fact, he is moving to Japan with his girlfriend in just a few weeks and will be opening a craft brewery outside Tokyo in the coming year or two. We had already been discussing a brew together in Montreal at DdC but had so far failed to get it on the calendar. Luckily, it was not hard to convince him to drive down and join us for this brew, making it officially a foursome (though I doubt our foursome would have been anything more than a disaster on the golf course!).
Despite some initial concerns about too many brewers in one brewhouse, we pretty quickly came to an agreement to brew a sort of “old school” saison, using whatever cool local grains we could get our hands on plus a secondary fermentation with a few strains of Brett. Despite the fact that Brett was never intentionally used in saison production, many of these “farmhouse” beers would show Brett character after aging for several months. Farmer/brewers producing saison were making beer to slake the thirst of the farmhands, so low abv was the norm as was the use of local grains and plenty of hops. We’re blessed to have Andrea and Christian of Valley Malt so close to us, and it just so happened that they had been malting a small batch of organic spelt – wheat’s rustic elder cousin. None of us had brewed with it before, so we agreed that it would be a focal point in our grist. Yvan wanted to push the historical boundaries of hopping with 60IBUs in a targeted 3.5%abv beer, but luckily we talked him off of that ledge. We got him back, though, by handing him armloads of spices - coriander, grains of paradise, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc. - to add to the kettle. This made Yvan sad. (Not to worry, no spices were harmed in the making of this beer.)
The brewday went very well, and each brewer chipped in more than their share of physical labor - mashing in, emptying the mash tun, breaking up bales of hops, cleaning along the way – all the while swapping stories of past beers, techniques, and experiences. A particularly fun moment came when putting the mash tun back together: I have a tradition of challenging any new brewstaff or guest brewer to put the heavy steel plates back into the tun, not an easy task even with experience. Each of the three plates needs to be inserted in a very particular way or they’ll come crashing off of the frame which holds them in place. If they get it right on the first try, though, they make twenty bucks out of my own pocket! I have never lost any money. Luc took up the challenge first, and as the plates came loudly crashing off the rim, Chad gave it his best effort to no avail. Yvan, however, showed us all up and promptly got all three plates properly in place, forcing me to hand over the dough. I still say he only succeeded after watching Luc and Chad, but a bet is a bet! The brew was in, the yeast was pitched, and we now had four or more weeks to wait until it would be served. But what to call it?
Naming a beer is something we brewers approach with more than a touch of humor. I had been jokingly referring to De la Senne as the De La Soul Brewery over the months, and since we planned on brewing a 3.5%abv beer I thought it would be a kick to call this beer 3% and Rising. Get it? No? Well, I was one-bettered by Jay and Sean who said we should call it Me, My Spelt, and Rye.
Having the circumstances to spend a day or more in the company of our comrades is a rare thing. Even at conferences and festivals, there is too much going on to manage any real quality time. So collaborations present a great opportunity to learn from one another and to create a beer that is more than the sum of its ingredients, greater than the individual participants, and often something completely unique which would never have been conceived by one brewer alone. More than a couple beers are shared throughout the day but attention is always focused on the brew. I have taken a lot away from these experiences, and they will continue to inform CBC and its history of amazing beer. Thanks for joining on us each of these journeys!