Beer meets rock, right in the bottle

January 22, 2013

The label on the beer looks like an album cover, with a floating reptilian eye and two gray pyramids that bring to mind Pink Floyd. Scan its QR code with your smartphone and a music video appears: the Baltimore indie group Lower Dens performing their droning, nihilistic number “In the End Is the Beginning.”

The music, in a sense, is also in the bottle. A pour reveals a hazy orange beer called Sensory Series Vol. 1, brewed by Brian Strumke of Baltimore’s Stillwater Artisanal Ales. He had hoped to translate the song’s sound into aroma and taste. The result? A Belgian-influenced saison with berrylike depth and a hint of smoke.

Strumke’s new, esoteric project embodies an intriguing trend. Across the country, brewers have been making beers in collaboration with musicians or otherwise inspired by music, a phenomenon that sheds light on how rock, heavy metal and other styles have influenced the iconography and culture of craft beer.

“It’s cool that I’m seeing more projects like this pop up, because beer is artistic, or at least it can be,” says Strumke, who once roamed the United States and Europe as a professional DJ and wants to release three more Sensory Series beers this year. “The more we can bring other artistic elements into the world of beer, the more it is validated as being a possible art form and not just a manufacturing industry.”

Strumke is hardly the first musically inclined brewer to unite his two passions. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s Sam Calagione — “I played sax a little bit in grade school and then fell in love,” he says, especially with punk rock and jazz — is well known for the beers in his Music Series, which he launched in 2010.

Those include Hellhound on my Ale, a double India pale ale that tastes like caramel and citrus peel and is a tribute to Robert Johnson, the blues guitarist who has been called “the grandfather of rock and roll.” Last summer, Calagione released Firefly Ale, the official beer of Delaware’s Firefly Music Festival, which was headlined by rock acts including the Killers and the Black Keys.

Locally, music influences Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock, the co-founders of DC Brau, who regularly spin records at U Street Music Hall and elsewhere as the Brothers Brau. Two weeks ago, they collaborated on a beer with Colorado’s Ska Brewing and the D.C.-based ska band the Pietasters. Eventually, they hope to brew beers with the punk band Regents and the heavy-metal group Darkest Hour.

The Pietasters collaboration, a German-style doppelbock laced with cold-brewed coffee, will debut in March, and DC Brau will donate the profits to a scholarship fund honoring Todd Eckhardt, the late Pietasters bassist, says Skall, DC Brau’s chief executive. The beer is called Taster’s Choice, a nod to the instant-coffee brand and a Pietasters song of the same name.

In fact, DC Brau often sneaks songs and lyrics into the names of its beers, Skall points out, such as the brewery’s Your Favorite Foreign Movie (a Steely Dan lyric), Ghoul’s Night Out (a punk song by the Misfits) and Thyme After Thyme (a Cyndi Lauper reference). Music has also shaped DC Brau’s branding in other ways. The winged skull on the label of its double IPA, On the Wings of Armageddon, for example, was inspired by the aesthetics of heavy metal.

Setting aside the brewery’s homage to the iconic performer of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” those decisions reflect a pattern that might, by now, be obvious. The music in question is almost always some sort of rock, also a touchstone for Strumke, Calagione and too many other brewers to count.

The rock-beer connection is at least partially based on demographics such as race and gender. According to data cited last year by the communications firm Beverage Media Group, 80 percent of craft beer, by volume, is ingested by white consumers, most of whom are between the ages of 21 and 44. And 75 percent of the total volume of craft beer is consumed by men. Meanwhile, according to the most recently published Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted in 2008 by the National Endowment for the Arts, men and whites tend to like rock music more than women and members of other races. People in the 18-to-44 age bracket are also the most avid fans of contemporary rock.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that a new experiment by Tomme Arthur, director of brewery operations at California’s Port Brewing and its sister brand the Lost Abbey, was so successful. Last fall, beer geeks paid a whopping $450 for limited-edition “Ultimate Box Sets” of a dozen barrel-aged Lost Abbey beers, “Tracks” 1 through 12.

The bottles were packed in black vinyl road cases with aluminum edges and named for songs by the likes of Iron Maiden and Van Halen.

“The basic premise was a box that looked like it could be loaded onto the truck going to the next show,” Arthur says.

He adds, “If we’d come out with a classical-music set, I’m not sure it would have inspired the same kind of fervor.”

Fromson writes about beer monthly. Follow him on Twitter: @dfroms.

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