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Beer: When two heads are put together

Ken Grossman, left, and Fritz Maytag have collaborated on a new ale that bears their names. (Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.)

Every beer begins its existence as a barley soup, but the adage “too many cooks spoil the broth” doesn’t necessarily apply to brewers.

Collaboration is the hot new trend among America’s specialty beermakers. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, Calif., just released Fritz and Ken’s Ale, the first in a series of one-time-only releases to celebrate the brewery's 30th birthday. The brew is a joint effort between Sierra Nevada founder and president Ken Grossman and Fritz Maytag, president of San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co. It’s an imperial stout, a style neither of these gentlemen has ever tried his hand at.

Fritz and Ken’s Ale comes in a 750-mililiter cork-and-wire-cage bottle that retails for $10 to $15. It is ebony-colored, with a clingy, cocoa-colored head that almost reminds you of that old breakfast drink Ovaltine. It’s got an aroma full of bittersweet chocolate and leafy hops, and a big, roasty flavor that stops just short of being ashy, with notes of licorice and burnt molasses. The 9 percent alcohol-by-volume content remains unobtrusive.

Sierra Nevada will follow up in May with Charlie, Fred and Ken’s Lager, described as an “Imperial Helles Lager.” Imagine a golden bock beer similar to Sierra Nevada's Glissade Bock, but with considerably more body and alcohol. Assisting Grossman will be homebrew pioneers Charlie Papazian (president of the Brewers Association and author of "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing") and Fred Eckhardt (columnist for All About Beer magazine and author of "Treatise on Lager Beers: How to Make Good Beer at Home").

In mid-July, Sierra Nevada will debut Jack and Ken’s Ale, a joint effort with Jack McAuliffe, who built the first from-the-ground-up microbrewery, New Albion Brewing Co., in 1977. A modern-day Moses, McAuliffe pointed the way but never entered the promised land himself. His brewery folded in 1983 and he exited the industry. Jack and Ken’s Ale, an American-style barleywine, will be his first professional brewing effort in more than a quarter-century.

Meanwhile, Boston Beer Co. chairman Jim Koch has been conferring with the world’s oldest brewery, Weihenstephan in Freising (est. 1040), to craft an entirely new style of beer. The wheat-based brew, yet unnamed, will follow the dictates of Germany’s Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law), promises Koch. He describes it as high in alcohol yet champagne-like and light on the palate -- quite different from a traditional German double bock. Look for its release in November.

Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif., is joining forces with two of the East Coast’s most innovative craft brewers (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del. and Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, Pa.) to make Saison du BUFF, an ale spiced with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. "Those herbs really work well together," says Stone president and chief executive Greg Koch, who helped brew the maiden batch in early March. Dogfish Head and Victory will do separate versions of the recipe.(Check here for a release schedule.)

One of the more interesting team-ups first took place in 2001, when Adam Avery of Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo., and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, Calif., discovered that both were making a beer named Salvation. But there was no overlap in marketing territory, and “we realized that neither of us had any issue with it,” says Avery.

So instead of unleashing the lawyers, the two brewers decided to create a new brew by blending their respective beers: Avery’s is a hoppy, golden ale, Cilurzo’s is darker, more in the style of a Belgian dubbel. (Read here for the full story.) Batch #4 of Collaboration Not Litigation was released this past winter.

Not all collaborations pan out well enough to be worth a second batch. Life and Limb, for example, the strong ale with birch syrup that Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head whipped up last year, drew some brickbats as well as raves on the online rating guide, with some purchasers  finding it a little underwhelming for the price. 

“It takes time after time to refine a recipe,” says Bill Metzger, who publishes American Brewer magazine and the Brewing News. “I’ll take a beer that’s tweaked to perfection any day.” But he admits that collaborations are “a great marketing tool and also help with camaraderie.”

According to industry consultant Bump Williams, the smaller breweries have a knack for working together to grow the craft beer category as a whole, operating on the assumption that a rising tide will float all boats.

Big beermakers such as Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors, on the other hand, are constantly “cutting each other’s throats to see who can go up half a share point.”

Can you imagine these corporate behemoths collaborating on a beer?

Actually, something like that did happen 25 years ago. Coors, Molson and Germany’s Kaltenberg Brewery pooled their efforts to formulate a beer called Masters III, which was marketed out of Reston and tested in four cities, including Washington. The intent was to produce a domestic beer with the fuller body of an import. According to Philip Van Munching’s book Beer Blast, the new beer pleased no one. It was too heavy for Coors drinkers, too light for import fans, and the plug was yanked after nine months.

Basically, the beer was a Michelob/Beck’s/Heineken clone, not far enough outside the mainstream to justify the hype or extra price.

You can't say that about Fritz and Ken’s Ale.

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  March 29, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags: Greg Kitsock, beer  
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