Beer Rocks: The Organized Chaos of Brewers and Their Music

Feature by | May 2007 | Issue #5

The Hysters | Photo by Tom Dalldorf

Music has a way of getting under the skin and directly into our souls, touching us in ways that seem almost magical. A few notes from an old tune can transport us back in time and allow us to relive memories. Meanwhile, a new song can infect us with a desire to dance, commune with friends or just holler to the heavens. As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche quipped, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

Only beer can make this experience more intense. Alcohol is called a social lubricant for good reason. When enhanced by the inhibition-releasing power of beer, music comes alive and worms its way into our very being. As Nietzsche later wrote, “For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.” So it is that brewers provide an invaluable service to humanity’s progress and spiritual evolution: They create the catalyst that allows great music to flourish while giving each of us a simple way to enhance life’s pleasures. For this reason, music and beer make a pair like no other—a combination that’s way bigger than the sum of its parts. In the way a good beer just makes music sound better, a good song practically cries out for a brew.

To the outsider, both beer and music seem to flow chaotically; and yet both are very ordered and mathematical. The best of brewing is both art and science, and brewers who make a consistent beer are fastidiously organized. There is a level of precision integral to the process, from determining how long the boil lasts to the exact moment to add in the hops and in what amount. Likewise, music, as free as it is, can be endlessly ordered into time signatures and tempos. In each craft, measures are crucial. Both musicians and brewers express themselves as artists by putting a lot of themselves into their craft; be it a new Stout or a new song. But beyond that, because of the nearly infinite combinations of 12 notes and four basic ingredients, both pursuits are a kind of ordered chaos. It’s no huge surprise then, given these fundamental similarities, that many brewers are also musicians and many breweries have their own bands. Music and beer are in this together.

Left to right: The Hysters (Photo by Mike Lee), Marty Jones (Photo by Mark Manger), The Rolling Boil Blues Ban, The Pain Relievaz

Left to right: The Hysters (Photo by Mike Lee), Marty Jones (Photo by Mark Manger), The Rolling Boil Blues Ban, The Pain Relievaz

Marty Jones & The Brewbadors
Oskar Blues

“Lead singer-slash-idea man” Marty Jones is without question the godfather of beer industry music—having also been called the Bard of Beer Songs, the King of Barn Rock, and the Duke of Drunkytonk. Growing up in Texas, Jones taught himself guitar, drawing inspiration from Chicago bluesmen, rockabilly and Texas blues, and has been writing songs most of his life. While working in the beer industry for the past two decades, he and his Pork Boilin’ Poor Boys have put out two CDs to a good deal of acclaim. The first effort was chosen by the Denver Post as one of the top 10 country albums of 2000.

For the past few years, Jones has been singing the praises of beer at the Oskar Blues Grill & Brewery in Colorado—well-known for their Dale’s Pale Ale, the first microcanned beer. After a two-year hiatus mending some bruised vocal cords, Jones’s new band, the Brewbadors, has been wowing audiences with a whole new batch of straight-up good-time beer songs. Jones grew up in the culture of roadhouses and juke joints, where the songs were either “in pursuit of a good time or about easing your pain.” As a result, almost all of his new songs have something to do with beer. As Jones explains it, “Other than maybe sex, what goes better with beer?”

Some of his new tunes have lines like, “What good is salvation without your favorite libation?” and “Jesus, when you get here, turn my water into beer.” When pressed for philosophy, Jones finds a way to equate indie music with craft beer, pointing out the two are after the same thing—authentic, good stuff created in small batches for discerning consumers who don’t care for the mainstream. He sees both movements as “crucial to our mental health and crucial to the world’s; so that by choosing both, we’re closer to our goal of making the world a better place.”

The Hysters
Anchor Brewery

Undoubtedly the oldest of the modern brewery bands is The Hysters, made up of employees at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewery. They’ve been playing together in one form or another since the Anchor Christmas party of 1978. When bassist Bruce Joseph joined Anchor in 1980, he’d already played in several local bands in the vibrant Bay Area music scene. Fellow bandmate and head brewer Mike Lee, a drummer, originally got him the job at Anchor and the pair are still brewing and making music today. A Hyster is a brand of forklift, though Joseph doubts Anchor actually ever owned one—they use a Toyota.

The Hysters’ lineup is constantly changing, but they are always a big, rollicking band complete with a horn section (The Foghorns), back-up vocalists and several singers. Kendra Scott, one of the leads, has been singing with the band for almost a decade. She has a soulful voice and presides over several of the R&B tunes, though the Hysters’ repertoire includes plenty of swing, jazz, blues and straight-up rock & roll. Trumpet player Dave Burkhart even has a Grammy for a classical recording he played on. The Hysters play only a few gigs each year, including some Bay Area beer festivals. Despite practicing only occasionally, the shows have a legacy of high entertainment value—and they usually headline.

The Rolling Boil Blues Band
Celebrator Beer News, Hayward, CA

The Rolling Boil Blues Band—in honor of the type of boil brewers maintain during the first stage of brewing—started out innocently enough sometime around 1989 as a series of jam sessions in Roger Lind’s old brewery in San Leandro, California. Then, publican Judy Ashworth (whose Lion’s Depot Brewery Pub was one of the first to feature craft beer in California) invited the ragtag musicians to play at her pub. The initial lineup consisted of brewers, beer journalists and Celebrator Beer News publisher (and erstwhile guitarist) Tom Dalldorf taking well-known R&B, blues and rock tunes and subbing in new lyrics to yield beer-themed parodies such as, “Hop This Town” (Stray Cats) and “Every Girl’s Crazy ’Bout A Homebrew Dude” (ZZ Top).

Their first “industry” show was at the GABF in 1992 and since those early days, Dalldorf has kept the band going strong. In 2000, The Rolling Boil (or RB3) released a CD from two live shows recorded at Pyramid Brewing in Berkeley. RB3 plays about a dozen gigs each year at festivals and industry events, though the lineup often changes from place to place, with local brewers filling in where needed. There’s no shortage of beer types out there who can belt out the 20 or so songs in RB3’s repertoire. The band has never practiced—instead, they rely on jam sessions to prepare its ever-rotating roster for the limelight. What matters is they always put on a fun show—people get right out of their seats and dance.

The Pain Relievaz
Dogfish Head

Little-known fact: Dogfish Head’s Pain Relievaz are the “greatest beer-geek brewer hip-hop band of all time.” The band consists of owner Sam “Funkmaster IBU” Calagione and lead brewer Bryan “MC LilGuy” Selders. The pair debuted with “I Got Busy With An A-B Salesgirl,” an instant classic from their first EP, Check Your Gravity. To supplement their follow-up, 2005’s Untether the Blimp, Calagione and Selders created a pretty damn hilarious video for “Pinching Pennies,” a dig at breweries who buy used equipment for as little as possible. Despite being mainly uproarious good fun, the songs are actually very well done and are infectious little tunes in their own right—hit their MySpace page and hear for yourself. The duo will be going back into the studio later this year to record their third effort, a punk album entitled Habitat For Calamity.

For Calagione, the Pain Relievaz is just one more part of his off-centered approach to business, and life, for that matter. For him, the band is equal parts education and entertainment—especially since they often perform in between courses at beer dinners. He sees most of what’s being created by beer people as indie music, in a direct parallel to craft beer. Just as three companies control 85 percent of beer sales in the US, five or six record labels control 80 percent or so of recorded music.

On Untether the Blimp, Calagione, the consummate showman, throws down the gauntlet to his West Coast friends with “Looking for Flavor…” in which he calls them “poseurs” and hurls insults at their hoppy beers—suggesting that the East Coast beers are, in fact, hoppier.

In fine smack-talk form, Ben Love from Portland’s new Hopworks Urban Brewery, along with at least Dave Takush (from Pelican Brewery) and Jamie Floyd (from Ninkasi), will be putting out a West Coast rebuttal album to be titled This Is No EP, This is Volume 1. The lead track, “Your Mama Took Me On a Tour of Your Brewery,” will be a direct slap to the Pain Relievaz. Other songs will include “Why Would IBU?” and “No Randall Required.” The CD should be ready for the GABF, where a live showdown concert may be planned. Watch your back.

Brewmasters of Reality, The Breaking In

Brewmasters of Reality, The Breaking In

Brew Masters of Reality
Northampton Brewery

Another brewer/showman is Chris O’Connor, head brewer at Massachusetts’s Northampton Brewery. He’s done many a musical theater and opera performance in his time, and when he’s not singing with local bands like Hammerbone and Sugar Giant, he’s putting together elaborate tribute bands for local “Battle of the Brewery Bands” competitions. One of these projects, Malt Loaf, has been described as a “beersoaked lesbian-infused rendition of a Meat Loaf tribute,” and won the “Golden Keg” in the 2000 contest. Later, he put together The Brew Masters of Reality, a Black Sabbath tribute, for Harpoon’s Brewstock, complete with metal Ironman costume. As he awaits his next inspiration, O’Connor continues to sing and plays the occasional tambourine, proudly stating, “I went to the Davy Jones School of Tambourine.” He’s currently performing in an area production of Godspell.

The Breaking In
Magic Hat Brewery

A little father north, at Magic Hat in Vermont, is The Breaking In, a duo consisting of packaging manager John Ravell and brewmaster Todd Haire. Ravell plays guitar and Haire pounds the drums. Their first CD, Darkness Taken Hold Again, is available in local record shops and a second album is coming out this month. The pair has been working at the brewery for over ten years and playing music together for the last four. Practices take place right at the brewery in an impromptu serenade to the second shift. They perform only originals and describe their music, helpfully, as “indescribable garage rock.” Magic Hat is actually something of a hotbed for music; its art department boasts two additional bands, The Theory of Revolution and Led Loco.

Left to right: Brown Haven (Photo by Jay Donig), The Imperial Pints, Smokehouse Gamblers

Left to right: Brown Haven (Photo by Jay Donig), The Imperial Pints, Smokehouse Gamblers

The Imperial Pints
Carolina Brewery

In Chapel Hill, a bustling college town that’s home to UNC and a thriving indie rock scene of its own, brothers Jon and Pete Connolly make beer at the Carolina Brewery. Head brewer Jon has been there since the beginning in 1994, and his assistant, Pete, for almost as long. The brothers have also been writing songs together and playing in the four-piece band The Imperial Pints for the last four years. According to Jon, both music and beer occur at the intersection “where art and science meet.” Their first CD, Fizzyology, consisting of 13 original songs, is about as straight ahead as straight-ahead rock & roll gets.

Brown Haven
Alaskan Brewing

Named for the gunk that builds up inside of brewing tanks, Brown Haven is a power trio featuring two of the crew from Alaskan Brewing, Darrin Jensen (guitar) and Damien Horvath (bass and vocals). They’ve been playing together for seven years and their demo CD, Home Grown, was recorded at their co-op studio, Rock Alaska Records. Jensen and Horvath both believe music “keeps you going”—and they should know, as most of their practices are on the graveyard shift, with fellow brewers for an audience. Brown Haven’s music is wildly eclectic, mostly originals, with influences as far-reaching as metal, reggae, folk, bluegrass and pop. “Each department [at Alaskan Brewing] has its own stereo,” and each one seems to have its own favorite track.

Smokehouse Gamblers
Lagunitas Brewing

The Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma, California is bursting with musicians. Owner Tony Magee plays guitar and performs Mississippi John Hurt blues classics, salesman/saxophonist Marc Cohen (and, for a bit of crossover, RB3 member) plays with several area bands, and cellarman Ryan Marquardt’s band Sex and Machines has recorded a demo, plays up and down the California coast and was voted “sexiest band alive” for 2006. (No comment.)

As if that wasn’t enough for one brewery, packaging guru Matt O’Shea and Jim Jacobs (whose business card reads “Beer Yak”) are two-thirds of the shiny indie-pop trio, Smokehouse Gamblers. Jacobs plays drums, O’Shea plays bass and wine-biz guy Ted Baggert sings and plays guitar. Their first CD, Blood on the Ladder, has them touring California and Oregon, and they’ll shortly be going into the studio to record their second album. Their first gig, over three years ago, was at the venerable Rogue’s Public House in San Francisco. They play a mix of folk, rock and pop, with influences from Dylan to Tool.

Encores

This is but a mere sampling of the brewer-musicians in the industry today—breweries are literally teeming with potential rock stars. Will Meyers, the head brewer at Cambridge Brewing is an opera singer; Dan Gordon, the brewer-half of Gordon Biersch plays jazz trombone; Mike Freeman, brewhouse manager at Flying Dog in Denver, is the lead singer of punk trio Gina Go Faster; and Steve Wagner, co-founder of Stone Brewing, was a member of The Balancing Act, who put out several albums in the late ’80s on IRS Records—and the list goes on. More than food, cheese or cigars, beer and music may be the best pairing of all.

We asked all of the musicians in this article to name their favorites of the hundreds of songs recorded that prominently feature beer (at least, the ones not written by them) and the result is the list below. I suspect your own 12-pack of beer songs may be different, as this is the sort of list that can be debated endlessly. So consider this merely a jumping-off point for your own arguments.

Music & Beer Festivals
While most beer festivals also have live music, a few give music equal billing with the beer, allowing them to share the stage. Below is a selection of some of the better ones throughout the year.