The Collaborator Project

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by Laurie Yadon

Early in 2007, fellow Oregon Brew Crew member Jeffry Fisher convinced me to brew beer with him in his kitchen. “It’s just cooking,” he said, “and you love to cook!”

He had brewed a few times before; I had only just begun to appreciate the wonderful craft beers that are brewed here in Portland (aka Beervana). But I instantly fell in love with homebrewing, and just three months later our third batch of beer, an attempt to clone the award-winning German wheat beer Aventinus, was named a winner of the 2007 Collaborator competition.

The Collaborator Project

Established in 1998, the Collaborator Project is a joint effort between Widmer Brothers Brewing and the Oregon Brew Crew, one of the oldest and largest homebrewing clubs in the U.S. Sometime back in the 1990s (no one seems to remember exactly when), the two “ordinary” brothers mentioned in current Widmer Brothers advertising made an offer to local homebrewers that evolved into an extraordinary opportunity.

Rob Widmer explains, “Before there were ‘smack packs’ of brewers yeast, having a clean, vigorous pitch of yeast on brew day was a valuable thing for homebrewers. At Widmer we always had plenty of pitchable yeast, which we offered to members of the Oregon Brew Crew. We asked them to share with us a bottle or two of the resulting beer, which gave us an idea of what our yeast strain was capable of doing. So many of the resulting beers were so good that it seemed a shame not to do something with the recipes.”

Brew Crew members submit their best homebrewed beers to an annual Collaborator competition, usually in May. There is no preset number of winners; there have been one to four per competition so far, depending on the quality of the beers submitted and how interesting (and feasible) the judges believe it would be to professionally brew them.

According to Noel Blake, four-time Collaborator winner and a member of the committee that organizes the project, “The judges are chosen to maximize the diversity of the panel. We like to have some BJCP-certified judges, some lay judges, some people in the industry, and at least one representative from Widmer Brothers.”

The winners (31 so far) are brewed at Widmer Brothers’ pilot brewery in Portland, a few blocks from the main brewery. The pilot brewery’s 10-barrel system is used primarily for brewing specialty beers to be served at Widmer’s Gasthaus, their nearby brewpub. Collaborator beers are served on tap at the Gasthaus and sold in kegs by Widmer Brothers’ distributor to establishments in the greater Portland area.

The homebrewers assist with all aspects of planning and brewing their beers, working with Widmer brewer Ike Manchester to scale up their homebrew recipe in preparation for brewing batches of up to 10 barrels each. It’s common for three batches of each Collaborator beer to be brewed, a month or two apart, so each beer is usually available on tap in Portland for at least three months.

It isn’t necessarily easy to figure out how to scale up a 5- or 10-gallon, sometimes extract-based homebrew recipe, to brew a much larger all-grain batch! Recipe adjustments are sometimes needed between batches. When our scaled-up recipe was first brewed, the results were a bit surprising.

According to beer writer Fred Eckhardt, who was present when the first keg was publicly tapped, “It was a good beer, and not at all like your usual run of the mill. What you did was invent a new style. Unique and distinctive.” We’re exploring that avenue further, but at that time we decided to stick with our original agenda. After adjusting the recipe a bit, the second and third batches turned out pretty much as we’d hoped—not quite identical to Aventinus, but delicious!

Ike Manchester, Backbone of the Collaborator Project

Bill Schneller, who has won Collaborator three times with his brewing partner Chris Johnson, says, “Ike is an unbelievably talented brewer who completely knows the technical side of things, but he doesn’t bring any ego to the Collaborator beers. Before we first brewed together, we spent 30-40 minutes on the phone going over points of the recipe and the style. I really felt like he wanted to recreate the beer I had brewed at home, not just a ‘Widmer version’ of it. He doesn’t cut corners, and I was really struck by his precision in all aspects of the brewing process.”

Blake concurs. “Working with Ike is very easy. He understands that the Collaborator Project is about the participating homebrewers first, and that he is making someone’s dream come true when he works with them to bring their idea to life.”

Manchester has worked for Widmer Brothers since 1995, when the pilot brewery was under construction, and it has been largely his domain. He said, “It has been my pleasure to be involved in the Collaborator Project throughout its 11 years and have the opportunity to brew with so many avid and excellent homebrewers. I know of a few breweries around the country that have done similar projects, but as far as I know not to this extent. It’s fun and challenging to take someone else’s recipe, try to understand what they want to achieve, and scale it up from 5-10 gallons to 300+ gallons.”

Manchester said that the Collaborator brewers are as varied as their brews. Some have a great deal of brewing experience; others don’t.

“Some want to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the whole process, while others want to stand back and watch,” he said. “Either way is fine with me…but I never mind if they want to help grain out or stir the mash!”

Not Just an Ego Trip for Homebrewers

The Collaborator project is an excellent opportunity to brew styles of beer that otherwise might not get produced, such as milk stout, English old ale, saison and Belgian pale ale. Some of the proceeds from the beers are donated to a scholarship fund honoring late Brew Crew member Bob McCracken that is dedicated to the Fermentation Sciences program at Oregon State University.

“I don’t know of any other pro-am programs that do that, and it’s one thing that makes Collaborator unique—that and the fact that the Widmers were doing this before anyone else even really thought about it,” said Schneller. Collaborator-related contributions to the McCracken Fund total over $5,000 to date.

“Collaborator has been very much a win/win situation for all involved,” said Manchester. “Widmer Brothers Brewing has an awesome group of brewers with a wide range of knowledge of beer styles, but it’s always great to be introduced to other ideas, and Collaborator does just that.”

Beer consumers in the Portland area also benefit. Blake commented that the Collaborator releases receive exposure on a number of tap handles around town. “Eventually the beer-consuming public began to embrace seasonal, one-off and experimental beers. We were a part of that, so I have to believe that we’ve had an impact in the growth of this industry.”

Back to Our Beer…

Jeff and I were the last of the four 2007 winners to have our beer brewed. On August 12, 2008, we arrived at the pilot brewery to learn as much as we could and help with the labor involved, some of which I found physically challenging. I actually rather enjoyed graining out after the mash, but Ike had to move the garbage cans I filled with spent grain because they were too heavy for me. At one point I lost control of a high-pressure water hose and ended up blasting Manchester in the back! Fortunately, he has a good sense of humor (and wears rubber coveralls).

Collaborator homebrewers are allowed to name their beers. The names start with Collaborator as the “brand” rather than Widmer, and Jeff and I decided to call our strong wheat beer (8.0 percent abv) Collaborator Double River Doppelweizen to honor the Portland area’s two mighty rivers, the Willamette and the Columbia.

A release party for each Collaborator beer is publicized locally in newspapers and beer blogs, and ours was held on September 17, 2008. When Double River was available on tap in various Portland establishments, it was delightful to order “our” beer and watch other customers order and enjoy a beer we’d personally helped brew.

The homebrewer of each Collaborator beer is awarded a Collaborator jacket, similar to a letterman’s jacket, bearing his or her embroidered name and the colorful Collaborator logo. One jacket is awarded per Collaborator beer and Rob Widmer presented our jacket to Jeff, who was by far the senior brewer on our team.

Some Collaborator beers have been served at local beer festivals. Our beer was submitted for judging at the 2008 GABF! Attending the awards ceremony with hundreds of professional brewers, waiting to hear the winners announced in our beer’s style category, was thrilling even though our beer didn’t medal.

Pumpernickel Beer

Blake believes that all 31 Collaborator beers have been excellent. “There’s not a bad beer in the lot, and we’ve done so many styles it boggles the mind.”

One of the more unusual Collaborator beers was the winner of an extra competition held in 2009—Collaborator XI, aka CXI — to commemorate the 11th anniversary of the project (in lieu of celebrating its 10th). CXI was essentially no holds barred: if a Brew Crew member could brew the winning beer at home, Manchester would figure out how to brew it on a larger scale.

Michel Brown, the host of BeerTV on local-access cable and, won with his Imperial Pumpernickel Alt. His homebrewed 10-gallon batch contained three pounds of pumpernickel bread, and before brewing the scaled-up recipe, Manchester had to comb Portland to find a source of authentic pumpernickel rye. Twenty extremely dense three-pound loaves, special-ordered from a local French bakery, were hand-split and added to the mash.

Brown reports, “The beer was fairly easy to brew, but cutting up all that dense pumpernickel rye bread could have given Ben and Ike carpal tunnel! The bread gave the beer nice nutty coffee/chocolaty/herbal flavors and aromas.”

One Collaborator brewer, Ken Johnson, has subsequently turned pro, opening Fearless Brewing Company in Estacada, Ore. He was already well into planning that venture when two of his beers won Collaborator, including the Scotch Ale for which Fearless is well known, but says he nevertheless learned a few things from brewing with Manchester.

The Collaborator project also allows the Widmers to stay connected to the homebrewing community.

“Kurt and I started out as homebrewers, so Collaborator helps us stay in touch with our roots,” said Rob Widmer. “One of the many benefits of the Collaborator Project is that we get to hang around with homebrewers, without exception some of the finest people you’ll meet and damn good brewers!”

Laurie Yadon resides in Portland, Ore., in an 85-year-old cottage with a large garden and two cats. She’s a member of the Oregon Brew Crew, is delighted to have won all three of the club’s annual habañero fudge contests, and has been homebrewing since 2007. So far she has enjoyed brewing wheat beers and Belgian tripels.

Photos © Laurie Yadon