All Together Now: Beer Choir Unites Drinkers in Song

For Love of the Craft by | Oct 2017 | Issue #129
Illustration by Eric Diotte

With the help of brave drinkers across the country and, in September, a major signal boost from Minneapolis Public Radio, composer Michael Engelhardt and an organization called Beer Choir are reviving the historic link between beer and singing—the drink and the music of the people, respectively. Engelhardt began Beer Choir at an event in St. Louis, Mo., in 2015 with the modest goal of combining his passion for beer and choir. But thanks to an all-are-welcome mentality and a free “hymnal” of 21 songs—including untouched originals up to 400 years old and classics rewritten with jaunty beer lyrics—he and a merry band of vocal enthusiasts have tapped into something deeper and broader than expected.

“It’s become more and more about building community and social connectivity,” says Engelhardt. “There’s this sort of sneaky meaningful angle where once you’re in public singing, friends and strangers alike, there is this camaraderie that maybe you don’t get from a sports bar watching a team play. Everyone’s contributing.”

There are now 25 active chapters nationwide, from the Seattle area to Phoenix and Long Island. In fact, online applications to start new ones have been suspended since Engelhardt and Adam Reinwald, the national director of chapters and events, were reviewing a backlog of 125 in August. An initially relaxed attitude to chapter creation has already matured to a more thoughtful process, with a packet of best practices guiding new leaders to repeatable local success. At the moment, the organization recommends quarterly events, though one of the newest chapters, Memphis, drew 55 participants at its launch in June, saw closer to 90 the next month, and expected at least 100 for Wiseacre Brewing’s outdoor Oktoberfest celebration in late September. July’s host brewery, Memphis Made, stayed open two extra hours for Beer Choir and was awed by the experience—and the sales.

“It was crazy. Everyone sang, and every one of them drank. It tripled our business,” says taproom manager Vanessa Flohr. She absolutely expects to host the group again. “I just sat there and was amazed. The acoustics made some people’s voices sound like I was at the opera.”

With singing, “you are the instrument; that’s a truly universal thing,” says Reinwald, who also runs the Twin Cities chapter with co-leader Paul Wilson. “When you sing next to somebody, it actually changes your body: You start to breathe together. Then you’re having a beer at the same time, clinking glasses, and doing something you may not have the chance to do in a busy work week.”

The Twin Cities chapter held its first event last January, expecting 50 to 100 friends. Instead, over the course of three hours, 550 people moved through the beer hall at St. Paul’s Summit Brewing Company, which only holds 250 individuals at a time. People lined up outside, braving the Minnesota winter for a second sitting.

After such a huge start, the Twin Cities chapter (currently the group’s largest) kept its momentum, drawing hundreds more in April. At a third event this summer, Reinwald tried to suppress numbers by gathering on a Thursday night instead of the weekend, but still attracted 350 revelers. The major struggle has been finding venues big enough for everyone who shows up. So, citing the trusty “go big or go home” adage, the chapter teamed up with Minneapolis Public Radio (MPR) to host a real barn-burner in September to coincide with Oktoberfest, a natural fit given the boisterous musical nature of that traditional German celebration.

This time, Beer Choir was at Summit’s outdoor events venue, where Reinwald was hoping for 1,000 attendees. A $15 ticket fee facilitated the bigger space and granted access to special musical guests and new beer releases from the host brewery. Partnerships like this should serve as a pilot program for other chapters, says Engelhardt. “We’re not just looking to them to help us, we want to help them. For the brewery, we want to bring in more patrons, create more regular customers, and make their space be a vital community space. For media partners, we’ve got a demographic they’re really seeking.”

Engelhardt is referring to the coveted 25 to 35 age range, Beer Choir’s main demographic, and 35 to 45, its second biggest pool of participants. According to him, these are young professionals looking for meaningful things to do with their time and money, a particularly attractive audience to listener-supported radio stations like MPR. “We believe in so much of what public programming has to offer, championing the arts,” he says.

Alongside more media partnerships, Engelhardt’s list of goals includes a more robust hymnal, international Beer Choir tours, destination conferences (perhaps alongside major beer events like the Great American Beer Fest), and thriving chapters in the top 20 beer cities. “We dovetail with cities [that] are really supporting their local artisans, small businesses, and fine arts,” he says. Reinwald estimates that 5,000 people in the US have already attended Beer Choir events, a number that could double by mid-2018.

Fifteen new chapters—including Portland, Ore., and Canada’s first entry, Winnipeg—are expected to launch by the end of 2017. You know what that means: Warm up your pipes, because Beer Choir is rolling out the barrel in a city near you.