Note: This profile originally appeared in Issue 56 of Beer Advocate Magazine
Collaboration is not a trend amongst craft brewers, it is much more integral than that. There is no #collaboration hashtag floating around the twittersphere that a handful of breweries saw and thought it might be fun to try working with another brewery to come up with something neat.
Just as the labels creativity and craftsmanship have become synonymous with the better breweries around the country, so too has collaboration. At breweries like Bridge Brew Works in Fayetteville, West Virginia, collaboration between co-owners and brewers Ken Linch and Nathan Herrold is the norm.
While Linch and Herrold worked together to develop Bridge Brew Works’ portfolio (see sidebar), the brewing duo wouldn’t be real collaborators unless they brought in different brewers to come up with something unique. There is just one problem—there aren’t too many breweries near Fayetteville. Of course, that’s exactly why BBW was founded in the first place.
“If you look at the state and where breweries are located, there’s nothing around us in West Virginia,” Linch said. “We figured we’ve got good tourism here and people from out of state, a lot of them, have their own local brew pubs and breweries. When you’re traveling you like to try out the local beers, at least I do, and we felt that this area… had a pretty good opening for a small brewery.”
One of BBW’s first customers was a local restaurant, Pies and Pints, that specialized in gourmet pizza and craft beer. The restaurant’s owners were stoked to see a new brewery launching close by, and put them on tap quickly. When those same owners mentioned an interest in brewing their own beer, Linch and Herrold were happy to welcome owner Dave Bailey and employee Ryan Heastings in to collaborate on a brew.
The result was a hoppy pale ale, a certain departure from Linch and Herrold’s more balanced and malt-forward approach, and BBW’s first seasonal. Part of the project is to have fun and to brew interesting beer, but from a business standpoint Linch sees the collaboration as an opportunity to work with BBW’s customers at an intimate level.
“There is a certain amount of wanting to do business with the locals as much as we can. We do enlist the restaurants that buy our beer,” Linch said. “We do try to go around and do a little video or take a picture of us at their establishment and help them with their sales. We try to be active on Facebook and try to pump them up as much as we can. I think they appreciate that – it’s a hands-on approach that they certainly don’t get from the macro brewers and distributors. I think that’s a value added that we can offer.”
Linch and Herrold recently collaborated with West Virginia BJCP beer judge and home brewer Rich Ireland on a Kolsh. Brewed with German malts and noble hops, Ireland developed the recipe during one of his many trips to Bavaria.
Linch and Herrold’s daily operation is an exercise in collaboration. The duo officially started pumping out beer in January of 2010, the two have been discovering their own niche within the company since.
“It’s a joint effort,” Linch said. “We work, maybe that’s surprising to people that we work really closely together on both aspects. My background is in engineering and Nate (Herrold)’s background is in business management. His father ran a business, and so far it’s been a pretty good match. I’ve had plenty to learn from him on brewing on the big-boy scale, and there’s a lot—anything that requires math skills and some other computer skills or whatever that I can pick up the slack there.”
Although both are longtime home brewers, Herrold, the younger of the two at 37 to Linch’s 50, brings the professional brewing experience to the group. He got his start at a brew pub in Morgantown, West Virginia called West Virginia Brewing Company, which has since switched owners and names. But Herrold also brings in the bold personality that served him well as a white-water river guide on the nearby New River Gorge (the brewery takes its name from the iconic New River Gorge Bridge).
“I’ve met a lot of the owners of local business around here, but I think it also helps when we have the opportunity to go to shows and kind of market your product,” Herrold said about the personality quirks that go along with somebody who spends his summers guiding tourists through rapids and on fishing trips. “I think it kind of helps in the personality aspect in order to sell your product. When you’ve got to cold-call somebody on the phone or you go to a potential account, I think that has given me, with having experience in that realm, it’s given me a lot of confidence to do that.”
Linch and Herrold have found a way to effectively blend their unique skill sets and personalities to the point where brew days have become a quiet affair that hardly requires any back-and-forth between the brewers as they perform their roles in a monastic manner of quiet collaboration—and this harmony is on full display in the beer.
Brewed to Style
So many new brewers boast that their beers do not fit comfortably into style guidelines. This attribute of craft brewers seems to represent a sentiment that since the brewer is already bucking conventional beer (what Light American Adjunct Lagers became in this country), he or she may as well buck all convention and brew truly unique and expressive beer.
That approach does not sit well with Linch.
“There’s 300 or so recognized styles of beer around the world,” Linch said. “In this area and I think its similar around the country – there’s some small breweries or brew pubs that are putting out beers that they don’t necessarily classify into a style. I loosely consider that beer to be hippie beer.
“To me, that’s a slap in the face to brewers and recognized styles. That’s not to say we won’t put something out that is in between styles, but we feel there’s enough known styles out there that we don’t need to hide behind anything. If you use the best ingredients and make an honest product then you can stand behind that.”
For that reason, BBW’s two flagship beers, available only on draft, focus on using traditional ingredients to brew traditional beers. Linch describes the Long Point Lager as a Dortmunder. It is brewed with German malt and Noble hops in the late additions. Bridge Brew Ale is an ESB brewed with Scottish malt and English hops for flavor and aroma.
“We definitely try to make strides in those directions,” Linch said. “Like I said, they’re recognized styles and we feel that especially just starting out that we kind of need to prove that we can brew a beer to style. Maybe later on if we want to do something more creative people will follow along a little better than if you start off brewing with, I don’t know, raisins and crazy stuff.”
Linch and Herrold do step out from the style guidelines a bit with their latest beer, which was still pending label approval at the time of this writing, dubbed Trubbel. At 11% ABV and fermented with a Beligian yeast strain, it comes off like a Quad, except it is pale. Linch calls it a Strong Blonde, and it is one of a handful of higher-gravity beers brewed by BBW that finds its way into 750-ml bottles.
With quality beer focused on traditional values, Linch and Herrold are banking on the fact that trends will pass, but great beers live on.
Sean Lewis is a freelance writer and home brewer. He is currently working on his first book.