A rising tide lifts all boats -- at least in the craft beer industry.
That refreshing business ethos was the main gist of a lecture given by Mitch Steele, head brewer of Stone Brewing Co., as he spoke Friday to students in Arizona State's "Cultural and Chemical History of Beer" class.
Steele, who's been with Stone five years, focused on teamwork in the craft beer industry and collaborations between competing brewers.
"This industry is all about the camaraderie," Steele said. "I can call and ask a brewer a question, and usually they're willing to help."
Steele's the appropriate guy to give such a talk -- Stone is what we would call prolific in the collaboration category. The brewery has worked with about a dozen different brewers and churns out at least on new collaboration ale each year. The latest is Highway 78, a Scotch ale brewed in conjunction with Green Flash Brewing Co.'s Chuck Silva and Jeff Bagby of Pizza Port Carlsbad, and coming up soon is a cherry chocolate stout crafted with Pennsylvania's Tröegs Brewing Co. and a local homebrew contest winner.
Steele said Stone decided early on to do collaborations with three brewers because it results in a "true" collaboration, rather than one brewer simply making his beer on another's system. He also noted that his brewery prefers to take a backseat in the process, allowing other brewers to take the helm in developing a recipe while helping the smaller brewers out with their expansive barrel capacity and distribution system.
There are some difficulties to working with other brewers, Steele admitted.
"Getting brewers together is a lot like herding cats," he says. "We're all so busy, we have to do most of our planning and decision-making through email --and brewers as a whole don't really like email."
Collaboration brews also tend to make use of more exotic ingredients, which pose their own set of problems. Steele shook with horror at the memory of brewing Aloha Plenty, a collaboration beer that required the shipment of a few thousand pounds of Hawaiian coffee, macadamia and coconut.
"That beer was a nightmare," Steele said.
Before he wrapped up, Steele took the opportunity to drop a few hints on upcoming beers. He said the brewery just finished unpacking a shipment of 210 whiskey barrels from Scotland, which are sure to house some of their bigger, badder beers. He also intimated that this year's anniversary brew -- Stone's 15th -- will likely mark a return to their obscenely hoppy, American-style roots. Here's hoping that plan's soon set in stone.