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Collaboration beers: Where creativity meets marketing

Brewery Ommegang collaborated with HBO to prduce Iron Throne, a “Game of Thrones”-themed ale. (Brewery Ommegang)

The beer, Andrew Minucci says, began with a T-shirt: a DC Brau T-shirt, sold in March, that riffed on the D.C. United soccer team’s star-and-eagle coat of arms. “We saw them do that, and I called them up,” says Minucci, D.C. United’s marketing manager. “They thought I was calling to, you know, cease and desist them.” Minucci, however, had in mind not litigation but collaboration. The result was a golden ale, brewed in honor of the team and named the Tradition, which the brewery introduced in June, recently re-released and might package in cans next year.

“I think it speaks to the moment we’re at with craft beer,” Minucci says. That is, everybody wants in on the action.

This year DC Brau has collaborated on beers with local ska band the Pietasters, the restaurateurs behind the Red Hen and DGS Delicatessen, and the staff of the Heurich House Museum. (The latest of those efforts, an homage to the pre-Prohibition lagers of Christian Heurich Brewing, will debut in August during DC Beer Week.) Meanwhile, similar joint projects have been springing up at breweries nationwide. Fueled by the desire to build community and, at least sometimes, by savvy marketers, these beers suggest how the craft phenomenon has touched society at large — and how trendy chefs, HBO executives and countless other parties are reaching back.

To be sure, “collaboration beers” have been coursing through taps for a long time: The term typically has referred to what emerges when employees from multiple breweries gather to brew, swap tricks of the trade and maybe blast some heavy metal. But a broader meaning is taking hold. “You used to see a lot of just brewery-and-brewery collaborations, and now it’s branching out,” says Tim Prendergast, who helps oversee the beer program at the Columbia Heights beer bar Meridian Pint and who estimates that since 2011, staffers there have brewed 18 collaborations alongside local brewers. “I definitely see the collaboration definition expanding.”

Particularly notable have been the creations that demonstrate craft beer’s move into the fine-dining world, typically the province of oenophiles. This past spring, for example, Bay Area upstart Calicraft Brewing bottled Chez Panisse Farmhouse Ale, a limited-edition beer honoring the 33rd anniversary of Alice Waters’s famed Chez Panisse Cafe in Berkeley.

“I’ve done more collaborations with restaurants than I’ve done with other brewers,” says Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso, the Danish brewer behind the Evil Twin beer brand. His says his newly released Nomader Wit, a light, Belgian-style witbier fermented entirely with a Brettanomyces yeast strain and brewed for the Manhattan restaurant the NoMad, will be distributed widely, and most likely in the District. In the past, Jarnit-Bjergso has collaborated with Chicago’s the Aviary, Copenhagen’s Noma and the Toronto outposts of the Momofuku group.

“It’s like, all right, now you have wine people drinking beer, beer people drinking wine,” notes Sebastian Zutant, a partner and sommelier at the Red Hen in Bloomingdale, which collaborated with DC Brau on a Belgian-inspired saison matured in a wine barrel with sauvignon blanc lees. (A follow-up effort, a version of DC Brau’s Penn Quarter Porter aged on red wine lees, is slated for a fall debut.) “It’s a unique way for friends to not only work with each other but also promote each other — and make each other money,” he says.

That development has a downside, too: As more brewers partner with people whose hearts lie further and further from the world of beer, the results can seem less like true creative efforts and more like mere cross-promotion.

For example, it doesn’t take a sensitive nose to detect a whiff of marketing in breweries’ many collaborations with musicians, such as Mmmhops, a pale ale brewed for the Hanson brothers, of “MMMBop” fame.

Then there’s the sought-after new series of beers inspired by the HBO fantasy drama “Game of Thrones,” from upstate New York’s Brewery Ommegang. The first beer, a blond ale named Iron Throne, is billed on Ommegang’s Web site as “the result of a creative collaboration between Brewmaster Phil Leinhart and HBO.” But Leinhart says he doesn’t view it in the same light as he does projects with brewers in Belgium, in which both parties are actively involved in the hands-on work. “I would consider it less of a collaboration and more of a partnership, I guess,” he says.

Still, Leinhart points out that the branding has brought his product to an entirely new consumer base, one that might not normally buy craft beer — a noble outcome indeed.

In that sense, almost any collaboration can be a good one, a view held by DC Brau’s president and head brewer, Jeff Hancock. “We don’t ever just turn away an idea when people come to us,” he says. “What I want to convey and show people is we’re not a one-trick pony. We can do a lot of different stuff and work with a lot of different people.”

He adds, “With each year, you kind of gain more converts.”

Fromson, a Web copy editor at the New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn, writes Beer monthly. On Twitter: @dfroms.



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