Oregon is justly famous for its beer culture, between the thousands of home brewers experimenting in their basements and the handful of large breweries who sell the state's beers around the world.
But collaborations between the large and small are far less well known, though they are flourishing.
Oregon's largest brewer, Widmer Brothers Brewing, has worked for 10 years with some of the state's smallest home brewers, creating some two dozen beers that otherwise might never have made it to shelves.
The project, known as collaborator, has given home brewers the chance to work in a professional brewery. Nationally, the project recently helped inspire the Denver-based Great American Beer Festival to create a similar, but smaller, program.
Collaborator beers are first formulated and brewed by members of the Oregon Brew Crew, a home-brewing club, which selects candidates in an annual competition. The winning brewers then work with Widmer brewer Ike Manchester and others to scale home-brew recipes up to commercial-size batches at Widmer Brothers Brewing's pilot brewery at the Rose Garden.
Widmer's distributor, Maletis Beverage, sells Collaborator to a half-dozen accounts, and Widmer's Gasthaus in North Portland usually has a Collaborator or two on tap.
The project has produced beers like an authentic German Klsch or schwarzbier or a relatively new style such as the recent Collaborator Cascadian Dark Ale.
"Collaborator is about sharing a great beer that doesn't get enough attention," said Brew Crew home brewer Michael Rasmussen, who helped formulate 1999's vividly named Hallucinator strong ale. "It's about trying something new."
The project wouldn't exist without Kurt and Rob Widmer, home brewers before they quit their day jobs to start Widmer Brothers Brewing in the mid-1980s. These days, Widmer Brothers Brewing is a big business, brewing about 8.8 million gallons of beer in 2007.
It's even bigger when considered with its new partner, Redhook Ale Brewery. The two breweries together are called the Craft Brewers Alliance, and it's the second- or third-biggest craft brewer in the country, with production of about 20 million gallons a year.
Collaborator production accounts for a tiny fraction of those big numbers &
just 3,100 gallons, or about 0.035 percent of Widmer's 2007 total, so it's not exactly a profit center.
The Widmers devote resources to the program because they haven't forgotten their home brewer roots. Collaborator, Rob Widmer said, puts the fun back in the beer business.
"Every home brewer who's worked in the brewery helping to make his Collaborator beer says it's one of the best days of his life, and that takes you back to the old days and how exciting it was to brew your own beers," Rob Widmer said.
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