Home > Stories > COVID Collaboration

COVID Collaboration

Collingwood brewers team up on a fresh & zippy beer to stimulate flagging sales.

On March 17th, the coronavirus pandemic shuttered bars and restaurants, including Black Bellows, a newly opened brewpub in Collingwood, Ontario. At the same time, The Collingwood Brewery, an established commercial brewery, saw bar sales, which accounted for 30 to 35 per cent of their revenue, cancelled overnight.

Rapid switch to online sales & local delivery

Two brewers were suddenly left with a puzzle, the answer to which would influence the survival of their businesses. “The obvious answer for us was to push our retail store sales and to ship across the province from our online store,” comments Chris Freeman, Head Brewer and Partner at The Collingwood Brewery. Peter Braul, Head Brewer and Partner at Black Bellows, came to a similar conclusion.

The two quickly hatched a plan for a so-called ‘COVID Collaboration’. “We wanted to produce a unique beer that you could only get at the brewery,” explains Freeman. “Our beers sell at the LCBO as well as at our respective establishments, so we wanted a compelling reason to shop with us directly as well as at the LCBO.”

A witbier made with 200 kg of key limes

The answer was Lil’ Zippy, a Belgian-inspired witbier that is anything but traditional. “Back before our brewery was open, we brewed the first production batches of our flagship witbier with Chris at The Collingwood Brewery,” recalls Braul. “It seemed like it would be fun to revisit those first brews now.”

Witbier is traditionally made with a Belgian strain of yeast that lends a fruity, spicy and phenolic taste to the beer. Witbiers are traditionally brewed with orange peel and coriander—Hoegaarden and Belgian Moon are well-known examples.

What Freeman and Braul landed on what something that neither of them had ever heard of before—a Belgian witbier made with key limes. Lots and lots of them, 200 kilograms of purée to be exact. “It puts a pucker on your face, that’s for sure,” says Braul. “For this beer we ventured into unknown territory together, as neither of us had produced a similar beer in the past. Collaborations like this are why we love being craft brewers. It really gets at the essence of our mission, which is to experiment, be creative, and to continuously improve.”

A tart witbier rather than a ‘sour’ in style (its acidity is produced by citrus rather than lactic acid bacteria), Lil’ Zippy’s lime purée goes in after the initial fermentation. The few sugars in the lime purée are fermented out by the Belgian yeast before it goes into the bright tank, which makes for a nice, dry beer. Lil’ Zippy is brewed with coriander, which is traditional for a witbier, but lacks orange peel, the other traditional ingredient. It also contains a lot of unmalted wheat, which is unsprouted, raw wheat. This gives the beer a hazy appearance and a silky-smooth, slightly doughy flavour. At just 4 per cent alcohol by volume, the beer is super light and dry.

Sales not sour

Both Freeman and Braul found that the beer helped to stimulate retail sales and develop a loyal group of drinkers. “We had people calling to make sure they could come in and get it, down to the last case,” remembers Freeman.

Sales have picked up for both brewers since the start of the pandemic, but proportions have changed. For The Collingwood Brewery, licensee sales are still down significantly overall, but at the same time their retail sales have doubled and sometimes tripled over the same periods the year previous.

For Black Bellows, a brew pub, tables must be widely spaced both inside and out on the patio, which has impacted their volumes. But again, retail sales are strong. “Like with Freeman’s operation, the ecommerce and free home delivery that we began offering in April proved immensely popular,” says Braul. “Now home delivery has tapered off a bit, but the community is incredibly supportive and people are still coming in droves to take home their favourite beers.”

The duo does not yet have another collaboration planned, but they say it’s not far off. “We’re still in COVID,” says Freeman. “And now that we’re heading into the gray days of November, people will be looking for some cheer. So yes, we’re talking about our next collab.”