Anatomy of a collaboration

Brewers team up for unique beers

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Jason Buehler

Let’s put a pair of leather chaps in the mash, or cactus or tumbleweed.” That was the first idea Jason Buehler, head brewer of Oskar Blues in Lyons, had for Hi*Beams Honky Tonk Ale, a collaboration beer made not with another brewery, but a honky tonk band. No chaps or tumbleweed made it into the final brew, but cactus did, and the beer has become a dark horse favorite among some of the regulars at Oskar Blues Grill and Brew. 

Hi*Beams Honky Tonk Ale was just one of the many collaborations Oskar Blues brewed in 2013, with a different collaboration being produced almost every month in 2014.

No two collaborations are alike, and “they come about in different ways, so sometimes we do them just for fun,” says Buehler. “It gives us a better presence in a certain market and so we’ll look at that market and say, ‘What breweries would make sense to do a little collaboration with?’ We look at things like who’s canning, or who makes beers like ours, or who’s up and coming.”

As the former brewer at Shamrock Brewing in Pueblo, Colo., Buehler naturally wanted to do a collaboration to connect with old friends.

“I approached them about doing a collaboration for the festival [Collaboration Fest, put on by the Colorado Brewer’s Guild],” Buehler says. “We basically decided we would do one at each place, and I think I had the idea of maybe we should do one that kind of flipped the beer styles of each brewery, so do an Irish kind of theme here and do a hoppy beer down there. … [Shamrock’s head brewer Keith Hefley] said maybe we could do something with chocolate or coconut or maybe both,” says Buehler. And thus the 2014 Great American Beer Festival silver medalist for chocolate beer, Death by Coconut, was born.

Other smaller breweries might have difficulty brewing such an ingredientintense beer, with both the chocolate and coconut coming with prices steeper than your typical ingredients of hops and grain. Buehler says being part of a larger brewery like Oskar Blues affords him the flexibility to experiment, whereas some smaller breweries have to concern themselves with extra expenses as each batch makes a larger impact on their bottom line. This can help spur on collaborations between brewers though, as a cheaper ingredient for one may be a luxury for another. This was the case for both brewers in the initial steps of the process of Death by Coconut, as Buehler says coconut was harder for him to source, while Shamrock didn’t have the access to certain specialty hops.

“I ended up having [Hefley] buy the coconut and I just drove it up from Pueblo, and we did our second batch down there, and we traded hops for coconut straight up,” explains Buehler.

Oskar Blues’ most recent collaboration is with recent startup Blank Slate Brewing in Cincinnati, Ohio. Tim Matthews, head brewer in Longmont for Oskar Blues, suggested a companion for Cincinnati’s famous chili. The team also wanted to incorporate some of the spices used in the chili, but didn’t want to overwhelm the beer, so Buehler suggested an alternative method: “How about we spice the barley and then smoke it?” Buehler recalls. The beer will likely be featured at an upcoming craft beer festival in Cincinnati, introducing Oskar Blues to a new market, and giving Blank Slate credibility from working with a veteran brewery.

Buehler says he can’t emphasize the impact of the knowledge gained from collaborating with another brewery.

“Huge, humongous, huge, absolutely. You know, as a brewer, anytime you go into any brewery you will always learn something,” says Buehler.

But in the end, it’s all about brewing with friends, as Buehler says of most collaborations, “You have a friend that’s at another brewery and you just want to make a beer together for shits and giggles.”

Editor’s note: Cody Gabbard is a lead bartender at Oskar Blues’ CyclHOPs.

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