Though only in its second year, Denver's Collaboration Fest is already on its way to becoming the most relevant craft beer event in the industry. (Yes, Great American Beer Festival, that's a challenge.) Earlier this month, thousands of craft beer enthusiasts clinked glasses with their favorite brewers to toast 75 limited edition, one-time-only brews that more than 100 brewers created as collaborations for the festival. Here's what it was like to sip and sample at this year's sold-out shindig hosted by the Patti Stanger of the craft beer industry, brewery matchmaker Imbibe Events:
Thirsty fans line up outside of Mile High Stadium. Inside, volunteers nervously practice their pours for brewers who eagerly taste their hot-off-the-barrel creations. Of course, it's too late for adjustments—and with all of these experiments being one-offs, most of this beer won't exist tomorrow, anyhow.
With the event officially underway, I seek out a beer made by all of the brewers in Golden, Colorado, including Cannonball Creek, Barrels & Bottles, Mountain Toad and AC Golden (a subsidiary of MillerCoors). Josh Norton, Golden City Brewery's assistant brewer, pours me the impressively balanced and drinkable saison, dry hopped with Hallertau Blanc hops. With five different cooks in the kitchen, Norton explains that the collaboration was more about the breweries "talking about ingredients and what style the beer should be."
Back in October, Redstone Meadery and West Flanders Brewing Company had previously blended a dry-hopped mead with a tripel to create Nectar of the Hops for GABF. Now, they've collaborated on Kingdom of the Hops, an IPA blended with dry-hopped mead featuring a lovely touch of sweetness to balance the bitterness of the beer. West Flanders head brewer Devon Allred points out that his collaboration was a little different than most, since the two brands mixed finished products.
With attendees now streaming in, I corner brewer Doug Hyndman of Dry Dock in Aurora, Colorado, and cofounder Brian McEachron of Steamworks in Durango, Colorado, before they get mobbed for their second ever collaboration together, the fantastically refreshing apricot chile beer called Flaming Apes. "We didn't think very long on it," said McEachron. In fact, Hyndman says they nailed the recipe on the first try. After tasting the spicy brew, I can confirm that they certainly did.
Next I check out The Tinder Box, a smoked Scottish Wee Heavy crafted by Liquid Mechanics and Grimm Brothers. As he pours me a sip, Grimm's Russell Fruits reveals that his favorite part of collaborating was just "bringing down a shit ton of beers and hanging." Liquid Mechanics head brewer Seth Townsend, however, teases Fruits for not doing any of the work. "Hey, we brought yeast!" contends Fruits.
I experience an intense wave of chile burps from the apricot beer.
I run into Thomas Larsen and Zach Coleman, head brewers for Ska and TRVE Brewing, who prepared barrel-aged imperial brown ale for today. The two wax rhapsodic on the bonding opportunities collaboration creates, especially since their two breweries are a six-hour drive apart. "This event is one of my favorites because it brings the brewing and drinking communities together," says Coleman.
It occurs to me that I haven't eaten a morsel of food, taken a sip of water or used the bathroom once since arriving. I hit the head and then sample some of Duke's Small Batch Smoked Meats. Tasty! But it's not enough to keep me going for another two hours of heavy drinking. On to the next snack booth.
While inhaling a basket of chicken fingers, I meet research brewer Ross Koenigs of New Belgium, the largest brewery at the festival. During a long conversation, Koenigs mentions that the spirit of this event is why New Belgium started brewing in the first place. "Though we will soon become a national brand, we still want to connect with people on an intimate level...and flex our creative muscle."
Koenigs invites me to try New Belgium's collaboration with Verboten Brewing, which, judging by the never-ending line of people waiting to do the same, might have been the most popular creation at the fest. A black and tan made up of Top Bunk (New Belgium's nitro peppermint stout) and Bottom Bunk (Verboten's chocolate brown ale), it undoubtedly wins for cutest title: The Sleepover.
The festival is winding down, and like most of the other 2,000 attendees, I'm just about spent. Of course, I still have room left for one of the most talked-about beers of the night: a sweet basil cherry blonde ale from Strange Craft and Copper Kettle Brewing. It smells like a Totino's pizza roll and tastes like a cherry Jolly Rancher, and it's like no other beer I've ever had before—one that only two stellar craft breweries could come up with together when pooling efforts. Cheers to collaboration.