As founder of Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery in Barrie, Ont., Peter Chiodo has embraced such offbeat ingredients as watermelon, hibiscus, lemonade and vanilla, to name a few. Last year he used a pinch of something entirely different: stardust. The brew, BNL Imperial Chocolate Stout, was made in collaboration with members of the Canadian pop band Barenaked Ladies.
"We just called them up and said, 'You guys wanna brew some beer?'" Chiodo recalled. "They are big beer guys and they thought it would be a great idea. It was as casual as that."
It tapped a nerve, too. Virtually all the limited-edition 15,000 bottles, at $13.95 for 750 millilitres, sold out within three months, Chiodo said. "At least 20 distributors" subsequently contacted him, including from the United States, Spain, Brazil and Mexico, inquiring about inventory. "But it's done. We got nothing. The project ran its course." Besides, Chiodo added, he didn't do it for the money. "At the end of the day, we just wanted to meet cool Canadian artists."
The Barenaked brew, a product of sampling sessions involving band members Kevin Hearn, Jim Creeggan and Tyler Stewart, with Chiodo playing pourmeister, is one of a growing number of collaborations breathing fresh excitement into an industry that has long taken pride in playful experimentation versus the conservative posture of Big Beer.
Motivated by the cross-marketing opportunities but also – brewers stress – by creative synergy and just plain fun, the hoppy hookups have included numerous other bands, visual artists, chefs, even sports organizations. In one of the more unlikely unions, former teen idols Hanson recently launched Mmmhops Pale Ale in partnership with Oklahoma's Mustang Brewing, riffing off the American trio's 1996 hit Mmmbop.
Mostly, though, the unions have been inside-industry affairs. Typically, two or more brewers get together to share secrets, push boundaries, boil up a new batch and order in celebratory midnight pizza. It's the brewing world's answer to a jam session.
That was the case with Maverick & Gose, a German-style malted-wheat ale launched in April by two Toronto craft breweries, Amsterdam and Great Lakes. Spicy and attractively funky and salty, the beer was aged in used Ontario-chardonnay barrels for four months. It's one of the tastiest collaborations I've sampled. Unfortunately, the limited batch, at $6.95 a 500-millilitre bottle, is, like the BNL stout, virtually sold out.
More widely available is Creemore Springs Altbier, an inspired project with Dusseldorf's Zum Schlussel brewery that began last year. Ontario-based Creemore got more than knowledge from the deal; it scored a batch of Zum Schlussel's centuries-old yeast strain, which helps impart the classically crisp flavour to the unusual, cold-fermented-ale style known as Altbier.
From brewery-brewery collaborations it was just a short hop across the gastropub hall, figuratively, into the kitchen. In one of the latest culinary matchups, Toronto restaurant The Ceili Cottage, founded by oyster-shucking world champion Patrick McMurray, last week released a velvety-dark Scrimshaw Oyster Stout with Barley Days Brewery in Picton, Ont. The ebony beer was made with 1,000 PEI Malpeque oysters – shells included – following a long tradition of brewing stouts with mollusks. That's just one of countless similar alliances, most famously captured by Inedit, a German-style weissbier made by Barcelona's Estrella Damm with the help of Spanish superchef Ferran Adria.
Some collaborations have little or nothing to do with recipe inspiration and everything to do with cross-promotion. Craft-industry veteran Matt Johnston last week launched a venture called Collective Arts Brewing, a Toronto company he co-founded that's devoted primarily to good beer but also to plugging artists through bottle-label imagery. The first beer, a fine extra pale ale called Rhyme & Reason, is being shipped to Ontario stores this week with a rotating series of 93 different labels featuring such music acts as Toronto's Strumbellas and Vancouver's Said the Whale, filmmaker Jeremy Kenning of Vancouver and visual artist Migel Grase of Moscow. With a smartphone app called Blippar, consumers can scan the label art – not a QR code – to view artist biographies, songs and more. As in most collaborations, the artists generally receive a royalty in addition to exposure.
"It may feel like a good marketing tool but for me it's much more," Johnston said. "This is all about the passion I have for craft beer and art and music all brought together."
Others are more direct about the marketing dividend. Lake of Bays Brewing Co. of Baysville, Ont., next month will roll out Top Shelf Classic Lager bearing the NHL Alumni Association logo. Stanley Cup champion Mark Napier, executive director of the association – which helps professional players transition into post-hockey careers – said that while he has sampled and loved the beer, he did not get involved in its development. "They just seemed like a really fun business and decent people," he said.
For Lake of Bays, the deal "gives us an introduction to a group of consumers that might not have considered craft beer," said president and CEO Darren Smith. "It also probably says something about the overall visibility of the craft industry, that we're able to deliver at a certain level and be able to go after deals like this and pull them off."
Back at Flying Monkeys, Chiodo has been taking calls from distributors in places like California and Australia asking for his latest musical brew, a collaboration with Canadian singer-songwriter Dallas Green called City and Colour. It's a superb and massive imperial wheat beer made with what tastes like a forest's worth of maple syrup, sweet and luscious yet balanced, with well-integrated 11.5-per-cent alcohol. And he says he's hammering out a new deal with a yet-to-be-named "big iconic Canadian band."
Brew Rodeo? Nickelbock? Tragically Hop? For craft brewers, the possibilities seem endless.