Dark Arts: Brewers Find Success Connecting with Horror Fans

For Love of the Craft by | Apr 2015 | Issue #99

“I wasn’t too big of a horror guy,” says Mark Hellendrung, president of Narragansett Beer, as he attempts to explain the overnight success of his company’s new Lovecraft Honey Ale, named for the influential horror writer and native Rhode Islander H.P. Lovecraft.

Released in January, the beer was exclusively distributed along the Eastern Seaboard and in Portland, Ore. (although this detail seems almost like an afterthought; the entire batch—available only in tallboy six-packs—sold out the instant it hit the market). Hellendrung credits its success to social media and a rabid H.P. Lovecraft fan base. The release of Lovecraft Honey Ale became one of the top trending stories on Facebook and was covered by almost every horror and pop culture website.

Although Hellendrung may not be able to quote Lovecraft line and verse, what comes across in conversation is his deep-seated pride in the brewery’s Rhode Island roots, and a genuine desire to use beer to celebrate his state’s accomplished citizens. The project has even piqued his interest in the genre. “This is not a gimmick or a Halloween beer,” Hellendrung clarifies. “This is a beer that acknowledges what H.P. Lovecraft means to our community.”

Providence-based artist A.J. Paglia created the label artwork for Lovecraft Honey Ale, and shares this enthusiasm. “As born and raised Rhode Islanders, we’re really proud of [Lovecraft’s] work, and will always leap at the chance to celebrate it,” says Paglia.

“We try to be transparent and collaborative for a project like this,” explains Hellendrung.

It is this sense of transparency that aligns Lovecraft Honey Ale with a recent trend among breweries: using branding to reach fans of pop culture subgroups.

Jamie Floyd is co-founder and founding brewer of Oregon’s Ninkasi Brewing Company, which makes Dawn of the Red, an India Red Ale commemorating the 1978 George Romero zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead. For Floyd, the success of horror branding in beer speaks to an innate need for creative subcultures to connect.

“Craft beer is one of the last independent things that people are passionate about,” explains Floyd. “It’s natural that horror people and craft brewers should inspire each other. For the past 30 years, beer ads [from large brewers] were aimed at ‘bros,’ not at creative types. That is starting to change.”

Floyd also wonders if craft beer and horror might share a similar project. “Good beer and good horror can both rattle people’s perceptions,” he says.

Lance Curran and Chris Tourre, co-founders of Arcade Brewery in Chicago, echo Floyd’s sentiments. In 2012, Arcade teamed up with comics author Jason Aaron and illustrator Tony Moore from The Walking Dead to produce Festus Rotgut: Zombie Cowboy, a hoppy black wheat ale sold in six-packs featuring a horror comic that plays out across the bottle labels. The 200 case-release in 2014 sold out quickly, prompting the planning of more “6-Pack Stories” for 2015.

“Niche communities look for authenticity,” says Curran. “People can tell what we do is genuine; that we get it. For example, we didn’t brew the beer until we had the art and story [for Festus Rotgut]. We let them inspire the beer. A dark ale with a nice bite seemed completely appropriate for a zombie cowboy.”

“Yeah, you can’t just make a bad beer and put it in creative bottles,” adds Tourre.

By all accounts, the horror and comics communities seem to welcome the trend. Jonathan Maberry, a New York Times bestselling author of horror novels like Rot & Ruin and Ghost Road Blues, says he makes a point to stock horror-themed beers at his book release parties. “These brews allow for a bonding experience that really brings fans together,” he says. “We can hoist a few while discussing why we love things that go bump in the night.”

Maberry is an unabashed beer enthusiast, but there is room to wonder if Lovecraft, a known teetotaler, would have appreciated this kind of tribute. While he didn’t partake himself, Lovecraft’s creative work does not avoid alcohol consumption. In fact, in his tales drinking sometimes correlates with perspicacity and access to truth—however terrifying and monstrous. Then again, Lovecraft once wrote an entire story (1919’s Old Bugs) explicitly to dissuade a friend from trying alcohol before Prohibition took effect.

For Hellendrung and brewmaster Sean Larkin, the success of their latest beer may be all the answer they need. Narragansett is planning to release three more Lovecraft-themed beers this year, beginning with Innsmouth Old Ale. And there is every reason to believe a ravenous horde of horror fans will be waiting to snap them up.