On a recent Monday, two of the people behind Washington’s Bluejacket brewery did something ambitious. Even though the place isn’t scheduled to open until 2013, head brewer Megan Parisi and all-around ideas man Greg Engert produced their first beer by flying to Tampa and meeting up with counterparts at Cigar City Brewing and from the Boca Raton-based Funky Buddha Lounge & Brewery.
The trip to Cigar City, one of the most acclaimed breweries in the South, marked the start of an unusual and perhaps unprecedented brewery launch strategy. Parisi and Engert will begin releasing Bluejacket beer in June, trying to generate local and nationwide buzz while also stockpiling kegs for Bluejacket’s own tasting room and restaurant.
“We will have 10 different beers under our belts before we open,” says Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which is launching the brewery near Nationals Park. “It would not be a stretch that we’d be at 15, at the least. And maybe more.”
Beer lovers can get a taste of their first collaboration beer, an imperial porter, at Birch & Barley and ChurchKey on June 7, before the SAVOR craft beer festival that weekend, along with other hard-to-find beers from the Florida breweries. Thick, dark and about 10 percent alcohol, it was inspired by the Funky Buddha head brewer’s recent love affair with salted chocolate. The end product will be a movie-snack-themed beer laced with Florida sea salt, cacao nibs, vanilla beans and dry-roasted peanuts.
Parisi brewed two other collaboration beers this week during her trip to California for the 2012 Craft Brewers Conference. Outside Los Angeles, she worked with Patrick Rue’s the Bruery on a syrupy Belgian-style quadrupel with rosemary and local plums. In San Diego, at the Pizza Port Ocean Beach brewpub, she helped brew a Scotch ale containing house-smoked malt.
Even though what Bluejacket is doing is rare, it isn’t entirely unheard of. The District’s 3 Stars Brewing, for example, released several collaboration beers during the past year while its brewery was under construction.
But 3 Stars was working with relatively low-profile regional breweries, whereas Bluejacket’s approach is set apart by Engert and Parisi’s ability to leverage their many relationships with talented brewers farther afield. (They also have more financial and logistical support than many brewing start-ups, thanks to NRG.) Later this year, Parisi will brew at Dogfish Head’s Rehoboth Beach brewpub and at Peekskill Brewing, in New York, where the head brewer from Maine’s Allagash Brewing also will participate.
Of course, Parisi and Engert intend to collaborate with breweries closer to home. Engert says he has had promising conversations with the brewers behind DC Brau, Alexandria’s Cabinet Artisanal Brewhouse and Baltimore’s Stillwater Artisanal Ales and the Brewer’s Art.
What accounts for Bluejacket’s early fervor? Parisi cites one factor, which has helped make collaboration beers a fixture of the U.S. craft beer scene: They give brewers opportunities to hang out with friends and learn from one another. “That’s the most fun thing about these collaborations,” she says. “You really see how these other brewers think. How would they approach it differently?”
Bluejacket, however, isn’t just pursuing collaborations because they’re fun. Engert says the strategy will allow him to start selling Bluejacket-branded beers as soon as possible, with regular releases coming out over the course of the summer and beyond. Many of the beers also will be appropriate for cellaring or barrel-aging, enabling him to save some for when Bluejacket actually opens.
Engert hopes the collaborations will put Bluejacket on the fast track to establishing a national reputation. “I would love to be able to sprinkle our beer all over the place little bits at a time,” he says, pointing out that Bluejacket’s collaborators will be selling the beers through their own distribution networks. “It would be great to get people excited about our beer on the West Coast, in the Pacific Northwest, in the Midwest, in the Southeast, you know?”
Eventually, Engert adds, the collaborations will take on an international flavor as well. He anticipates working with Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, of Denmark’s Mikkeller, and Ron Pattinson, an Amsterdam-based blogger and beer historian who has collaborated with several breweries on replicas of historical British beer styles.
“We’re lucky,” Engert says, “because between Megan and I, we have some good friends.”
Starting in June, Washington area beer drinkers will be lucky, too.
Fromson, a freelance writer, lives in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @dfroms.