Editor’s note: Collaboration Central occasionally looks at collaborations outside of the media to glean lessons for what works elsewhere. This story looks at collaboration in the Brooklyn food scene to explore inspiration for media organizations.

Collaborative brewing is widespread enough that in 2010 Craftbeer.com ran a lengthy list of collaboration beers under the headline, “Peace, Love and Collabeeration.”

But when Garrett Oliver started doing it, he was a pioneer. He started as the Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster in 1994, and just a few years later began working with breweries including Brakspear and J.W. Lees in England, Amacord in Italy, Achouffe in Belgium, and Kiuchi in Japan, among others.

“I thought of it as a situation where I could learn something,” Oliver recalled. “After awhile, it became one of the signatures of Brooklyn Brewery.”

‘très Brooklyn’

Collaboration is also a signature of the Brooklyn food scene.

The New York Times recently reported young Parisians using the phrase “très Brooklyn,” to mean “a particularly cool combination of informality, creativity and quality.” Part of that creativity seems driven by taking inspiration from others doing quality work.

Oliver and Hans-Peter Drexler of Schneider-Weisse Brewery in Germany had been friends for about 10 years before collaborating on Hopfen-Weisse, and Oliver said it was his most fun cooperative effort — the brewers made each other’s beers, picked each other’s hops, and really got to explore each other’s thinking and processes.

Oliver’s latest book, “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” involved 166 experts in 24 countries, covering 1,120 subjects, and Oliver said his role as editor was to work with the contributors to make it seem cohesive and whole.

Oliver has also collaborated closer to home, working with the Nighthawk Cinema, not far from the brewery in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, to create film montages that pair with beers — on-screen scenes of bitterness to match a bitter IPA, for example. Oliver graduated from Boston University with a film degree, so he had specific ideas for the montages, but the end result was actually deeper and richer because of the execution of John Woods, the cinema director.

“It’s a good example of what collaboration can be,” Oliver said.

food collaborations

Gaia DiLoreto runs a shop called By Brooklyn, which, as the name implies, sells products that come from the borough. She easily rattled off several collaborative food products just by glancing at her shelves:

  • Raaka Virgin Chocolate infuses cocoa butter with Cafe Grumpy’s Heartbreaker Espresso for a candy bar featuring local coffee and chocolate, and ages cocoa nibs in oak baby bourbon barrels from Tuthilltown Spirits, a small New York whiskey distillery, for its Cask Aged Bourbon bar.
  • Liddabit Sweets makes beer and pretzel caramels with Brooklyn Brewery’s Brown Ale and East India Pale Ale and Martin’s Pretzels chunks. DeLoreto added that Liddabit, which declares on its website, “We make everything by hand in small batches every few days, using premium ingredients — as many locally sourced and organic as possible,” also works with Ronnybrook Farm Dairy in New York’s Hudson Valley for the cream in its caramels.
  • Brooklyn Brine and Finger Lakes Distilling joined forces for Bourbon Bread & Butter pickles made with McKenzie Bourbon Whiskey, Whiskey Sour Pickles made with McKenzie Rye Whiskey, and Whiskey Barrel Sauerkraut aged in McKenzie barrels.
  • Salty Road salt water taffy features the popular Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie flavor salty caramel apple.

DiLoreto said everyone sources their ingredients locally — “it’s just what you do now,” she said — but collaboration is different from one company acting as a vendor to another.

Collaboration is a Conversation

“It’s a conversation, versus taking a product and using it to make something else,” she said, pointing to the example of Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione approaching Shamus Jones at Brooklyn Brine to suggest they come up with a product together — as opposed to Brooklyn Brine knowing it needed beer as an ingredient and simply choosing one with the right flavor.

McClure’s Pickles and Better Made began working together because of a social media conversation — a tweet suggesting Better Made potato chips flavored like McClure’s pickles prompted Better Made to contact brothers Bob and Joe McClure.

Bob McClure had been experimenting with drying cucumber slices in their Brooklyn location, trying to make a crunchy snack. “It didn’t turn out too well,” he recalled.

McClure’s brought their knowledge of pickle spices, and Michigan-based Better Made — McClure’s also has a Detroit production facility — gave McClure’s access to their expertise in potato chip manufacturing, packaging and distribution.

McClure said the partnership gives their brand exposure in new places. McClure’s Pickles sell for around $12 a jar, a premium product generally sold in high-end shops.

“Before the chips, we were never in a 7-Eleven. Now we’re in every 7-Eleven in Michigan,” McClure said, adding that sometimes fans have talked them up as they bought chips, leading retailers selling chips to inquire about stocking the pickles, too.

potential pitfalls

Collaboration does come with risks.

As just one example, the spring 2012 issue of Edible Brooklyn magazine describes beloved dessert spot Momofuku Milk Bar and organic dairy Milk Thistle Farm as “spiritual counterparts, two small, scrappy businesses that grew together and shared a fierce determination to write their own rules and build something without compromising.” Milk Bar chef Christina Tosi not only used Milk Thistle in her desserts, but called it out by name on the menu and took her staff to the farm for visits — until Milk Thistle folded under financial pressures.

McClure tried to collaborate with other independent food businesses in Brooklyn to establish cooperative distribution. He thought owners would appreciate paying less for distribution while getting more involved in how their product gets into retail outlets.

“It just didn’t work out,” McClure said. Entrepreneurs had their hands full managing their own operations and didn’t have the time to also oversee distribution. “It needed to be its own company.”

begin with the collaborators

Oliver said his collaborations have all succeeded because he doesn’t start with a goal in mind — he begins with the collaborators. He’s worked with North End Grill in Manhattan and Stumptown in Brooklyn because he likes the people and their products.

“I like the idea that you decide who you want on the bus with you, then you decide where the bus is going,” Oliver said. Sometimes different expectations about costs, revenue or goals can challenge collaboration, but liking your collaborators makes it easier to communicate through those problems.

The Schneider-Weisse project, for example, “was an expression of the fact that we were friends.”

Oliver helped found Slow Food USA in 2000, bringing the Italian food advocacy organization to Americans, and he describes collaboration as a foundation of the Slow Food ideals — for example, getting to know farmers to better understand what they really need to make a living, instead of just squeezing them for the lowest price. In community-supported agriculture, cooperative food societies get more than just vegetables; they get a connection to their food source, sharing both the risks and the rewards.

Oliver’s collaboration fantasy involves a variety of artisans — a cheese maker, a baker and a musician, for example — all participating in a salon, sharing ideas, and learning from each other.

“I like the organic inspiration of conversation,” Oliver said. “When you’re a busy person, that’s the hardest thing — to find time to think about what you want to do.”

Collaboration takeaways from this story

  • Collaboration is an opportunity to learn — seek out people who know things you don’t and benefit from their knowledge and experience.
  • Collaborate with people you want to work with — you’ll enjoy the project more and have more motivation to solve inevitable disagreements.
  • Look for inspiration anywhere — a good idea could come from outside your industry or from social media.
  • Be open to new approaches — you might go into a project with one idea for how it should turn out, but your partner could propose a different and better way.
  • You don’t need to wait until you have a clear idea to approach a partner — if you like what someone is doing and want a chance to work together, you might create the idea together.

Businesses mentioned in this story:

Colleen Newvine has been a reporter and editor at daily, weekly and monthly publications, including serving as founding editor of the Insider Business Journal in the northwest suburbs of Detroit and as business editor of the Ann Arbor News. She joined the Associated Press in 2006 and now serves as product manager of the AP Stylebook, sometimes referred to as the journalist’s bible. She went part time at AP in 2011, making time to launch her marketing consulting firm, Newvine Growing, with a special emphasis on farms, farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants. Newvine earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and her MBA from University of Michigan Business School with an emphasis in marketing and corporate strategy. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with her husband, John Tebeau.