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Home Beer We spent a night in the woods with 20 of the country’s best brewers. This is what we learned.

We spent a night in the woods with 20 of the country’s best brewers. This is what we learned.

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Here’s the dirty secret about most brewery collaborations: They’re not really about the beer. Not primarily, anyway. Sure, a beer—usually a pretty good one—is the most tangible result of brewer-to-brewer mashups. But the main goal of a collaboration is usually much simpler.

They’re really just an excuse for brewers to hang out.

We’d like to imagine that brewers making a collab beer share all the duties of creating it, from selecting and pouring hops to shoveling spent grain. But the truly collaborative aspect of a collaboration happens before and after the brewday, when the guys and girls who make the beer take off their boots, crack open a few brews, and get to talking.

In that sense, what happened the night of Wednesday, August 3 was the most successful brewery collaboration of all time.

Let’s back up. A few weeks ago, I received an email from Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. owner Jonathan Buford about a special camping trip he was organizing. The lofty goal, according to Buford, was to give future brewing generations looking for inspiration and historical references one perfect event to look back upon that conveyed the social aspects and authentic values of today’s brewing community. To accomplish this, he’d gather brewers from across the country for an overnight stay in the Arizona wilderness (ha!) with the aim of brewing and fermenting a spontaneous lambic utilizing naturally occurring yeast and bacteria. The men and women invited were, as Buford put it, “the best group of brewers who are willing to cross the barrier of normal.” In attendance:

  • Jean Broillet and Colin McFadden of Tired Hands
  • Drew Fox of 18th Street
  • Blake Tyers from Creature Comforts
  • Brad Clark from Jackie O’s
  • Jeffers Richardson from Firestone Walker
  • Brian Strumke from Stillwater
  • Phil Wymore and Tim Doeschot from Perennial
  • Jester King’s Jeff Stuffings, Garrett Crowell and Averie Swanson
  • Chase Healey of Prairie Artisan Ales and American Solera
  • Other Half’s Sam Richardson, Matt Monahan and Anthony Finley
  • Phil Emerson, Almanac Beer Co.’s Oak Program Manager
  • Jonathan Wakefield, the eponymous owner and brewmaster of J. Wakefield Brewery
  • Mike Murphy and Colin Lenfesty from Holy Mountain Brewing
  • Henry Nguyen of Monkish Brewing Co.

..and several more I’ve undoubtedly missed (there were a lot of brewers present). “This isn’t a collaboration so much as a tribal gathering,” one brewer said, looking around at the group as we gathered at Arizona Wilderness’ Gilbert, Arizona taproom. After a quick breakfast, we piled into a pair of vans and headed to our campsite in the mountains outside Flagstaff.

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Beer was made. The morning of the journey, Wilderness brewers cooked up a quasi-turbid mash—mimicking traditional lambic brewing—then pumped that nectar inside a pair of French oak barrels attached to the bed of a fryer oil-fueled Ford F250 outfitted with a 150-gallon coolship. Once the truck arrived at the campsite/spontaneous fermentation mecca in Northern Arizona, the mash was drawn up from the barrels to fill the coolship. We covered the vessel with a tent to protect it from the rain, but otherwise left it open to allow the yeast and bacteria blooms floating in the mountain breeze to settle inside the wort and begin the wild fermentation process.

(Arizona Wilderness has used this mobile coolship once before, inoculating a batch of lambic out on the Mogollon Rim. That batch, Buford says, is acidifying nicely and will likely be blended with the batch made Wednesday.)

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But again, the beer was simply an excuse to get this group together. Glasses of beer led to discussions of barrel aging (“It’s alchemy, man. It’s this very personal, esoteric expression of flavor,” said Jester King’s Averia Swanson), where to get the best rum barrels for aging stouts, and tips for clearing fruit from a jammed-up cylindroconical fermentation tank. A fireside argument about the true meaning of “sour beer” and the need to differentiate between kettle sours, foeder-aged beers and truly wild ales (like the one fermenting in the back of a truck at the edge of the campsite) faded to tales of beer collaborations past. At one point, a brewer who shall remain nameless grabbed a guitar and improvised beer-fueled songs with profound lyrics like, “I get a boner over the night sky.” I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so hard.

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Matt Monahan and Anthony Finley of Other Half Brewing

And that’s when I realized that this is what this whole camping trip was truly about. I’d like to be able to say that, as I gazed upon the countless stars visible in a sky unpolluted by the lights of the city, I communed with the ancient spirits of brewing. But that’s not what this gathering was for. Out in the distance, a beer was beginning to ferment, but the true collaboration was happening right here, as brewers who live thousands of miles from each other built and solidified friendships.

Perhaps the historians will look back into how we made beer in the 21st century and find evidence of what happened August 3, 2016. They may treat it as a pivotal moment in beer history, when the heads of a dozen great tribes convened to change the industry as we know it. But they’d be missing the point.

This was simply a bunch of people who admire each other hanging out, drinking, laughing, sharing stories and knowledge.

That’s as good a legacy to leave as any.

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