United We Brew
Craft beer maker Sierra Nevada has spent 36 years perfecting the brewing of hoppy beers. One might think it would carefully guard the knowledge it has gained so competitors wouldn’t get it.
Yet earlier this month at its brewery near Asheville, Sierra Nevada openly shared its dry hopping techniques with members of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, a national trade association.
The anecdote illustrates a feature of the craft beer industry that participants say distinguishes it from other industries: While companies in many industries do whatever they can to gain advantage over rivals, firms in the craft beer industry are more likely to collaborate than compete.
Area brewers say a sense of camaraderie still pervades the relatively young industry and that brewers share a common love for what they consider to be an art form.
“We’re all kind of trying to do the same thing,” said Bill Manley, product manager for specialty brands at Sierra Nevada’s brewery in Mills River, N.C., about an hour’s drive from Greenville. “And that is to introduce people to new beers and new flavors and new ideas about what beer is and what it can be.”
Sharing insight with other brewers — over a beer, often — is one of the best ways to learn, said Tom Davis, owner and brewery manager at Thomas Creek Brewery in Greenville.
“Brewers should learn every day,” Davis said. “There’s no brewer on the face of the planet that knows everything.”
Ryan Kurlfink, director of craft brewing systems for SMT Brewery Solutions, a builder of craft brewery tanks, said craft beer makers have a self-interested reason to help one another.
When more-established craft brewers share their knowledge with startups, it can help keep bad beer off the market, preserving the industry’s good name, said Kurlfink, who started in craft beer more than 20 years ago and brewed with Blue Ridge Brewing Co. in downtown Greenville for a decade.
If a startup begins selling an inferior product, “then it puts a black eye not just on that brewery, but it tarnishes our segment of the market,” Kurlfink said. “It tarnishes our whole category.”
The spirit of camaraderie among craft brewers is most evident when they collaborate to make unique beers, a common practice in the industry. The partners decide on a recipe and name for the beer before working together to brew and market it. Which brewery does what varies by project.
Manley said Sierra Nevada has participated in such collaborations many times over the past eight years. For one project last year, he said, it worked with 30 other breweries to produce a 12-pack of different beers that was sold across the country. Sierra Nevada promoted the offering, called Beer Camp America, at six beer festivals from coast to coast.
“It’s always great to sit down with another brewer and see how they look at the world and how we can work together,” Manley said.
Davis said Thomas Creek’s second-best selling beer, an India Pale Ale called Trifecta, was the result of a 2011 collaboration between Thomas Creek, the owners of Greenville’s Community Tap taproom, and Don Richardson, co-founder of Quest Brewing, another craft brewery in Greenville.
Today, Trifecta is distributed in seven states and is Thomas Creek’s best-selling beer, except for its red ale. It’s also one of the top-selling IPA beers in Greenville, according to Davis. Trifecta is not as popular outside of Greenville, “but we’re working on it,” he said.
More recently, Thomas Creek has teamed with 13 Stripes, a new brewery in Taylors, to produce 10 barrels of a Bavarian-style steam lager in one of three collaboration beer projects it is currently working on, Davis said.
“It’s as simple as they called us and asked us to,” he said. “And it’s somebody we haven’t collaborated with before. I’m looking forward to it.”
Davis founded Thomas Creek with his father, retired architect Bill Davis, in 1998. Today, the company turns out 15,000 barrels a year from its plant at the intersection of White Horse Road and Piedmont Highway.
In addition to making its own beer, Thomas Creek makes beer on contract for eight other firms, mostly from Florida, but also from Atlanta and South Carolina, Davis said.
His brewery served as a business incubator of sorts for another Greenville-based craft beer brand, Birds Fly South Ale Project, which contracted with Thomas Creek to make its beer before launching its own brewery near downtown in September.
Working with Thomas Creek “allowed us to distribute our beer before we opened our brewery, so it was very helpful to us,” said Lindsay Johnson, who founded Birds Fly South with her husband, Shawn Johnson.
Now they make their beer about a block from the Swamp Rabbit Trail in a former cotton warehouse, where they have enough room to store barrels for Quest Brewing.
“Everybody’s very willing to help each other out, even though we are competitors,” Lindsay Johnson said. “We can all work together and there’s usually enough business to go around.”
Richardson, who founded Quest Brewing in 2013 with Andrew Watts, said craft beer has grown rapidly over the years but still accounts for just 15 percent of the beer sold in the United States each year.
“As small brewers, we like to work together to gain more market share for all of us,” said Richardson, whose brewery near the Greenville Downtown Airport produced 3,000 barrels last year.