Hunter Smith sat on a sack of malt in his new Charlottesville brewery and talked about what it’s like to join the band of brewers in the craft beer business.
He had followed a well-traveled path: Tried a micro ale as a young man. Loved it. Started brewing at home. Loved it. Took a course at a community college, then went to the Harvard equivalent of brewing school, the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. It was a “trial by fire,” but he loved it.
Now, being the head brewer at his month-old Champion Brewing Co. means long hours and trying to combine the creative challenge of culinary artistry with the rigors of science and the acumen of a savvy businessman in an increasingly competitive scene.
And guess what? He loves it.
“You’ve got to love it,” he says. “There’s no reward if you don’t love it.”
Smith’s passion is shared by many craft brewers, and that shared trait has led to a growing trend of breweries teaming up for collaborative beer recipes.
Champion and Devils Backbone Brewing Co. in Nelson County joined forces to brew Lloyd’s Revenge, their Chocolate Oatmeal Plum Milk Stout. Hardywood Park in Richmond and Midnight Brewery in Goochland paired last summer for Banana Pancakes, a maple weizenbock. Brewers at Ashland’s Center of the Universe worked with a Seattle brewery on an IPA to benefit Operation Homefront, a charity providing emergency assistance to military families. Five breweries in the Charlottesville-Albemarle-Nelson region have combined for batches of Brew Ridge Trail Black IPA to promote economic development.
Nationally, large breweries such as Samuel Adams and Dogfish Head have joined forces to explore innovative ideas (they collaborated on a beer using rosewater and dried flowers).
Trae Cairns, founder of Midnight Brewery, voices a common theme: “For me personally, it’s not all about [Midnight]. It’s all about craft beer.”
In my experience, camaraderie among craft brewers has been a defining and refreshing trait of the industry since the infancy of America’s beer revolution. The passion for creating fine, flavorful beer is infectious. So is the creative process that embraces pooling resources, whether expertise, equipment or ingredients.
And, of course, there’s fun to be had. Banana Pancakes?
That batch began as a gauntlet flung by the folks at Brown Distributing Co. The challenge: Devise a unique recipe using locally sourced ingredients and brew it before midnight of the same day.
Cairns teamed up with Hardywood founders Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh. They started by perusing items on the Farm-to-Family Farm Bus. A jug of maple syrup from Highland County caught their eyes. Next, they discussed grains and hops with Tony Ammendolia of Original Gravity, a wine and beer brewing supply shop in Lakeside.
They didn’t have to peel any bananas: The esters in brewing wheat beers commonly yield banana flavors. Combine those with the taste of flapjacks and maple syrup, and you’ve got a hit.
Their gentlemen’s agreement was it would be a one-time batch, but “we still get calls for it,” Cairns says. He was just getting the word out about Midnight, so the time with McKay and Murtaugh was golden.
“Here are two guys who just opened and were making a lot of good waves in the market, and they took the time to come out here on a Saturday,” Cairns says. “It was a fun day for me.”
There was no arm wrestling about who pays for what, no product liability safeguards, no non-compete clauses, no legal skirmishes over recipe rights.
“The [craft] brewing industry is pretty non-litigious,” says Smith at Champion.
In the Champion and Devils Backbone collaboration, Jason Oliver, mastermind brewer at Devils Backbone and a former brewing instructor of Smith’s, came up with the style. They exchanged copious e-mails about ingredients, such as using cocoa nibs, and other details.
Lloyd’s Revenge (the name is inspired by the movie “Dumb and Dumber”) is scheduled for release next month. Because Devils Backbone is a restaurant, it can sell other beers, so a special arrangement was made with the distributor to buy Lloyd’s Revenge at cost.
“They’ll make their markup, so everybody wins,” Smith says.
But what about competition?
“Until everybody in Virginia is drinking a Virginia beer, maybe then it gets competitive,” he says. “But brewing is such a cool job, everybody wants to do it.
“We’re all in this together.”
Good article! Way to go Hunter. I am looking forward to trying a Champion beer!