When Nathan Cooper attended the opening of Bale Breaker Brewing Co. in 2013, owning a brewery of his own seemed a far-off dream.
Five years later, Cooper, now owner of Wandering Hop Brewery in Yakima, recently worked with the brewers of Bale Breaker and Cowiche Creek Brewing Co. on a beer called Wandering Creek Juicy IPA.
“We always looked up to them,” Cooper said about Bale Breaker, whose brewery is near Moxee. “We’re honored to have our name in the same sentence.”
Craft beer lovers locally and nationally are the beneficiaries of these increasingly common collaborations — the product of the craft beer industry’s collegial and friendly nature. And they are able to try new beers as a result.
Fresh-hop beers, those made with fresh, undried hops, are common this time of year. But many local breweries opted to team up for their latest fresh-hop offerings. Bale Breaker and Single Hill Brewing Co., a Yakima brewery that opened earlier this year, worked together on a fresh-hop pilsner, The Per Diem Pilsner. Varietal Beer Co. in Sunnyside also worked with Bale Breaker on a fresh-hop India Pale Ale, or IPA, called Fresh off the Funny Farm.
For local breweries, collaborations provide opportunities to try something new, socialize with other brewers and, most importantly, help the craft brewing industry in the Yakima Valley up its game.
“I liken it to a bunch of musicians who get together and jam,” said Meghann Quinn, co-owner of Bale Breaker Brewing Co.
Talent and skill on display
Such “jam sessions” are so common that it’s not unusual for some U.S. breweries to have a sizable portion of their offerings devoted to beers from collaborations, said Julia Henz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, a Denver-based trade association.
The Great American Beer Festival, a national event in Denver organized by the Brewers Association, had a separate contest for collaborations for the first time this year that attracted 49 entries.
While collaborations with other breweries are the most common, breweries also work with other types of hospitality and beverage entities, such as wineries, distilleries and restaurants, on new brews.
Collaborations are a “whole other way to display your talent and skill set,” Henz said.
When Justin Derek Leigh opened Dwinell Country Ales in Goldendale more than a year ago with wife and co-owner Jocelyn Dwinell Leigh, he worked to learn about different beer styles. Leigh had focused more on farmhouse-style beers, ones in which the flavor is generated from wild yeast, rather than the hop-forward beers popular in this region.
These days, breweries are approaching Dwinell Country Ales to collaborate so they can learn about the farmhouse-style beer Leigh makes.
“Everyone has their own special way of doing things,” he said. “It’s really insightful to see how other people are making beers we don’t have as much experience in.”
The beer made in a collaboration reflects a blending of different beer styles, techniques and even ingredients. For a recent collaboration with The Ale Apothecary, a brewery in Bend, Ore., Leigh brought water that he said came from the Simcoe Mountains. He felt that the water provided a creamy flavor to the beer.
“Sometimes it’s water, sometimes you bring a bag of hops,” Leigh said about what each brewery can bring to a collaboration. “Sometimes you just show up.”
The business details of a collaboration — including promotion and selling — can vary. So can what each brewery brings to the table. Some of those details are worked out in conversations in the weeks and months leading up to the brewing while others opt to brainstorm while making the beer.
Quinn, of Bale Breaker, said that in its past collaborations, the hosting brewery — where the beer is made — will usually take the lead to name the beer and come up with a plan to market the beer, though it will gather feedback from the other brewers involved.
The amount of beer made during a collaboration can influence how it’s sold and promoted. A small experimental batch may be sold only at the taproom of the breweries involved, Quinn said.
Other collaborations may be promoted on a larger scale and be distributed to retailers and restaurants, she said.
For example, Bale Breaker’s recent collaboration with Bend, Ore.-based Crux Fermentation Project, a fresh-hop Imperial India Pale Ale called Way Two Fresh, is available in the breweries’ taprooms and in cans at retailers throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Keeping an open mind
Brewers generally have had positive experiences working with other breweries, but there can also be challenges.
Sometimes it’s getting used to uncertainty, said Cooper, the Wandering Hop Brewery owner. While it’s fun to explore new styles and techniques, that also means greater uncertainty in how the beer may turn out.
The key thing is to go “in with an open mind,” he said. “There are always new styles, new beers, new techniques.”
Leigh, of Dwinell Country Ales, said that during one collaboration, the wild yeast strain used had problems and the beer ended up being not drinkable and they had to discard it.
“At the end of the day, nobody wants to put out a bad beer,” he said.
Still, the learning opportunities and the opportunity to work with other brewers generally outweigh the occasional mishap, Leigh said.
“We’re in Goldendale. It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “It’s a nice opportunity to invite people over.”
Indeed, Cooper, the Wandering Hop owner, said collaborations can strengthen bonds with other brewers.
Next month, Wandering Hop will work with Blewett Brewing Co. in Leavenworth on a new beer. Blewett has had a strong relationship with Wandering Hop; the brewery’s owners help the Yakima brewery gain distribution in the area.
Now Cooper looks forward to working with Blewett’s brewers and trying out some beer styles that his brewery doesn’t usually make.
“It’s another excuse to hang out with another brewery, have an absolute blast and call it a workday,” he said. “It’s one of the great things about the beer industry.”
A bigger message
Quinn, the Bale Breaker co-owner, remembers when she could count the number of breweries in the Yakima area on a single hand just a few years ago.
While the Yakima Valley has gained a higher profile for the sheer volume of hops grown in the area, its local brewery scene is in its infancy, especially compared to areas like Bend, Portland and Seattle.
These collaborations are a key tool in promoting the Yakima Valley brewing scene, she said.
“We’re fortunate to be one of the high-profile breweries (now),” Quinn said. “By collaborating with other Yakima breweries and putting it out there to our customer base, we’re hoping to (share) that bigger message.”
Cooper said he believes all breweries want to make Yakima more of a top-rate craft beer destination.
“We want to help each other and make sure we’re all promoting Yakima and providing quality beer,” he said.