Written by Austin L. Ray (@austinlouisray)
Stumbling upon a Surly Brewing Co. beer at your local bottleshop can be similar to the experience of finding a Sepultura album lurking in the soft-rock section at a record store. The labels for brews like SŸX, featuring a horned demon in devil red, and Darkness, which in its most recent edition sported a blood-guzzling werewolf, tend to stand out among the bucolic nature scenes and animal motifs that have become standard tropes of craft-beer design.
If there seems to be a kinship between these dark and brooding bottles and the imagery of heavy metal, that’s no coincidence: The two worlds are colliding like never before, with bands inspiring—and even helping to create—a broad range of extreme suds that aren’t afraid to flaunt pentagrams, skulls, and 10% alcohol-by-volume.
In many ways, this confluence of heavy metal and craft brewing is just one small offshoot of a broader movement to bring beer and music together, with partnerships ranging from the overtly corporate (Justin Timberlake shilling for Bud Platinum), to the creative (Dogfish Head’s ongoing series featuring suds inspired by everyone from the Grateful Dead to Pearl Jam), to the downright head-scratching (see: MMMhops, a pale ale from Hanson). Even Mumford & Sons just announced that they’ll be teaming up with the Sussex-based brewery, Harveys, to create a 4% ABV golden ale to be served at a British music festival later this month. Yet of all these projects, the suds spawned by down-tuned guitars and howling vocals seem to be the most fully realized and organic—try as you might, it’s tough to sniff out any stench of big-business meddling or overly fussy artistic posturing. The question is, what makes them feel so right?
Craft breweries and metal bands are cut from the same cloth—both made a name for themselves by pushing boundaries and extending a middle finger to the status quo.
Talk to enough craft brewers, and one part of the picture beings to emerge—simply put, many are fans of heavy music. Cigar City founder Joey Redner speaks fondly of growing up with the sounds of Black Sabbath, Metallica, and Motörhead. Scott Hedeen, owner and brewmaster at Atlanta’s Burnt Hickory, remembers transitioning from superheroes to KISS as a 10-year-old because “they were basically Spiderman singing about hooking up.” Todd Haug played lead guitar in 1980s thrash metallers, Powermad, long before he joined Minnesota’s Surly Brewing Company as brewer in 2005.
In much the same way craft-beer fans transition from cheaper, lighter macros to saisons, stouts, and IPAs, there seems to be a moment for each of these brewers where mainstream music just didn’t cut it anymore—a point where they needed something heavier and more complicated, just like the beer they’d one day brew.
But the connection runs deeper than mere taste—in so many ways, the two scenes are cut from the same cloth. Craft breweries and metal bands are both the outcast little brothers of two very big, very well-funded household industries—beer and rock ‘n’ roll—that have made a name for themselves by pushing boundaries and extending a middle finger to the status quo.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that they’ve found each other, growing close through their struggle for recognition. Not letting money get in the way has certainly helped. As I found talking with members of both sides, the vast majority of band-brewery collaborations have grown out of mutual appreciation rather than boardroom powwows about synergy and brand equity. But that’s not to say they’re in mom’s basement plastering band stickers onto bombers of homebrew—craft beer and metal are each experiencing a critical, commercial, and artistically diverse renaissance, and coming together helps keep them grounded in shared underdog values.
In a world where Kid Cudi designs labels for Becks, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have their own wine label, and booze brands sell their wares through celebrity retweets, what heavy metal and craft beer have achieved in their little corner of the sandbox is all the more remarkable. And what’s most surprising of all is that it all started in a small town in Indiana.