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.
The Influence of Three Floyds
In talking to more than 20 brewers, band members, writers, and fans to better understand why craft beer and metal make such a natural pair, I discovered that almost all of them pointed to a single brewery as the first to consciously associate its beers with metal: Three Floyds.
Founded by three Floyds—brothers Nick and Simon, and their father, Mike—the Munster, IN brewery started out in 1996 with the goal of brewing “intense” beers that served as an alternative to what they considered was a “fairly bleak” regional craft-beer scene in the Midwest at the time. After developing a cultish fan base in the region, working with metal bands came about organically. “The first one we did was with Pelican [2010’s The Creeper Doppelbock],” says Three Floyds Vice President Barnaby Struve. “That started it. We wanted to do it because they’re friends of ours and we all love the music. We decided to do it that way, and it sorta started snowballing.”
Struve stresses the fact that Three Floyds and metal are brothers from another mother. “To the detriment of the marketing of our brand, we’re putting out beers with EyeHateGod and Lair of the Minotaur,” he says. “It’s not like we’re trying to expose ourselves to new markets. In fact, we’re probably detracting from it. It’s what we love. The ultimate goal is to make the best beer possible, but if we can’t do it in a fun way and with our friends, then what’s the point?”
In addition to Pelican, Lair of the Minotaur (Evil Power Pils), and EyeHateGod (In the Name of Suffering Black IPA), Three Floyds has collaborated with Pig Destroyer (Permanent Funeral Pale Ale), Municipal Waste (Toxic Revolution Stout), and many more. And even when they aren’t associated with a band, Three Floyds beers can often be identified by their unflinchingly gory labels. Such is the case with the forthcoming Warmullet Double India Pale Ale, which promises to “make you want to grow a mullet (if you don’t already have one) and go to war (if you’re not already).”
Taking their collaborations beyond the bottle, Three Floyds held its first annual Dark Lord Day in 2004. The event has been serving two purposes since: unveiling the year’s Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout (attending the event is the only way you can purchase the coveted white-whale brew and actually have your money go to the brewery as opposed to a scummy eBay reseller) and showcasing some of the best metal bands from around the world. In recent years, High on Fire, Powermad, Pig Destroyer, Amon Amarth, and many others have played Dark Lord Day.
Through the event, Munster remains the epicenter of the metal-and-beer world, which these days has spread its influence far beyond the unassuming Midwestern town.
From Shredding to Brewing: The Surly Story
Along with Three Floyds, Surly is a name that’s unavoidable when discussing metal and beer. But in this case, the connection is even more obvious: As it turns out, brewer Todd Haug may have never found a career in craft beer if not for his previous life as a rocker. “The discovery of beer with flavor came in my late teens when I joined Powermad,” Haug says. “Touring became the vehicle for trying local beers all around the country, which led to homebrewing.”
Powermad’s bassist, Jeff Litke, was the one who first turned Haug on to craft beer; after catching the bug, he began making his own brews between stints on the road. This hobby led to a part-time packaging gig at a local brewery when he had finally turned 21. Surly founder Omar Ansari eventually met Haug at the 2004 Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego. They got to know each other and discovered that not only did they both live and work in the Twin Cities (Ansari developing a business plan, Haug by then brewing for national brewpub chain Rock Bottom’s Minneapolis location), but that they’d actually attended the same junior high school. Ansari decided that “the slightly hostile beer maker was bitter enough for the title of Surly head brewer,” and Haug quickly joined the team.
For close to 10 years now, the Minneapolis brewery has earned a fiercely loyal following with its occasionally-flame-covered 16-ounce tallboy cans brandishing extreme names like Furious (IPA), Cynic (saison), Abrasive (double IPA), and Hell (German-style Helles lager). Meanwhile, its complex seasonal and anniversary beers like SeVIIn (Belgian-style strong ale with Brett), Darkness (Russian Imperial Stout), and Smoke (oak-aged smoked baltic porter) sport intricate labels that wouldn’t look out of place on a Relapse or Nuclear Blast album cover.
Haug fully embraces the osmosis of beer and music, but he’s wary of it being exploited. “There’s an anti-establishment thing with craft breweries that definitely connects with metal, but it’s a fine line,” he says. “As long as great local breweries support metal for the right reasons, we’ll see even more connections.”
A Shared Philosophy
While this positioning may seem a little clique-y to an outsider, that’s the thing: These guys are outsiders. And though their counter-cultural stance is often less intense than it may come across on paper, craft breweries and the metal community have something to prove. When they’re written off as too “hoppy” or “noisy” without any legitimate analysis on the part of the consumer, it’s a similar sense of pride and artistry that keeps them from throwing in the towel.
“Beer can be a creative outlet that lets you set lines and draw up borders,” says Hedeen, speaking about his work with Burnt Hickory. “Punk used to be like that, but now it’s on parade in every mall and high school. Heavy metal is still not accepted and still looked at as hooliganism. In music, the best stuff is the stuff that pushes the boundaries, makes people think. The modern age of metal is doing that as well. Bands like Baroness, Torche, Goatwhore, and Mastodon are leading the charge in keeping us on our toes. I’d like to be that way with my beer. Make you think. Make some people scared. Inspire.”
No wonder, then, that many of his big-flavored brews bear the band-approved imagery of extreme acts like Charred Walls of the Damned, Killdozer, Corrosion of Conformity, the Jesus Lizard, and Die Kreuzen.
Jester King co-founder Jeffrey Stuffings points to similar underlying motivations that drive the cross-pollination between the two scenes. “One of the reasons I enjoy metal is the questioning of commonly held beliefs regarding religion, politics, morality and culture,” he says. “Beer made thoughtfully can question various norms as well. In terms of beer making, there can be both aggression as well as subtlety and sophistication, just like in metal. Finally, in a perhaps less flattering light, metal is male-dominated and so is craft beer. We’d like to see that change with time.”
As a result of Stuffings’ soul-searching about culture and his industry, Jester King is making some of the most exciting metal-influenced brews in the game right now. Among the 20-plus beers coming out of the stunning farmhouse brewery located in Texas Hill Country, some of the most coveted are extreme-music–inclined selections such as Mad Meg Farmhouse Provision Ale (“The name refers to a peasant woman form Flemish folklore who leads an army of women to pillage hell”); Thrash Metal Farmhouse Strong Ale (“An homage to thrash metal music, which often rules us during our daily chores at Jester King”); and Gotlandsdricka (translated as “Drink of the Land of Goths,” this style was originally brewed off the Swedish coast in ancient times, and “was once the beer of Vikings”); and Black Metal Farmhouse Imperial Stout.
None of us are in our respective crafts—metal and beer—to get rich, and as such I think we’re fighting pretty similar fights on a daily basis.
Stuffings says Jester King heard from Norwegian black metal band, Immortal, about the latter. “They were concerned that the corpse paint on our Black Metal label was too similar to Abbath’s,” he says referring to this man, the band’s lead singer and guitarist. True to the nature of craft beer and metal community, Stuffings was happy to respond. “They were right, and we changed it. They were really friendly about it.”
This art-over-commerce is another commonality that came up time and again in my conversations, and it seems to be a key factor in keeping the collaborations from going off the rails. “None of us are in our respective crafts—metal and beer—to get rich, and as such I think we’re fighting pretty similar fights on a daily basis,” says Nick Nunns, owner of TRVE Brewing Company. “That sort of devotion to a craft is apparent in your output and generally just in the way you carry yourself. I think we each pick up on that. Charles Eames may be a weird person to reference in this discussion, but his phrase ‘take your pleasure seriously’ has been resonating with me lately and I think sums it up perfectly.”
Self-described as “Denver’s true metal brewing company,” Nunns and his TRVE crew strive to “create beers that are beyond the pale,” according to their mission statement: “To us, this implies new ideas, channeling Loki, and embracing chaos.” TRVE’s beers pair oft-adventurous styles with recognizably metal names—there’s a salted wheat beer called Prehistoric Dog, a smoked tea saison called Diotima, and a session beer called Death Ripper. You get the idea.
Inspired by a visit to Kuma’s Corner (a Chicago bar with hamburgers named after bands like Slayer, Iron Maiden, and Neurosis), Nunns “decided Denver needed something in a similar vein.” Citing Surly and Three Floyds, who he says have “always been leading the pack” of breweries with metal underpinnings, Nunns has mostly wanted to create something that felt genuine. True, as it were. “It really is just an extension of my personality and the personalities of the incredible people I’m lucky to have working with me,” he says. “I think that genuineness is truthfully what I’m referring to when I say ‘true metal brewery.'”
On Tour: Meet Metal’s Most Hops-Obsessed Bands
Just like Surly’s Haug, a lot of metal artists trace their interest in new beers to traveling for shows, which brings with it the opportunity to sample unfamiliar styles in different regions. For GWAR lead vocalist Oderus Urungus, leaving the country was a pivotal experience. “At first, it was as simple as touring Europe,” he says. “We had only played shows in America [for a while] and assumed all beer tasted like shit. This was before craft breweries had begun making American beers that actually tasted like something.”
Clutch drummer JP Gaster recounts a similar experience, adding that the quality and alcohol content of craft beers made for a certain efficiency and, counterintuitively, a sense of well-being, for a touring band. “Drinking 15 cheap beers is the best way to wake up feeling like shit and playing a crap gig that night,” he says. “I learned early on that touring was a great way to discover local, fresh brews. Some of my early favorites were Red Hook ESB, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.”
This passion for good beer in the metal community has set the scene for various fruitful collaborations. A chance meeting between Clutch singer Neil Fallon and brewer Eric Salazar, who heads up New Belgium’s trailblazing sour program, led to a budding friendship, a VIP brewery tour for the band, and, ultimately, Fallon’s pitch to team up with the brewery for a namesake sour stout. “The band flew in for brewing,” Salazar recalls. “When I say ‘brewing,’ I mean they dumped malt bags, added the hops, they were a part of every step of the process—a true collaboration.” Fallon even made the logo for the bottle, released as part of New Belgium’s Lips of Faith series.
Traveling for a living, often ending up in a brand-new city—or even a new state—every day, is enough to make BeerAdvocate and RateBeer‘s trader forums green with envy. While a regular office drone on a work trip out of state can pick up a few regional selections to stow away in his checked luggage on the trip home, a rocker on a bus can gather quite a haul without much effort.
When I called up Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor and asked him for some of his favorite beers, he rambled on happily, listing IPAs and Trappist selections and recounting tales of recently “scoring” a rare, seasonal wild ale from Kansas City’s Boulevard (Love Child #3), as well as the five Westvleteren offerings he picked up while touring Belgium. He sees his band’s world and the craft beer world as aesthetic parallels. “For craft brewing, especially with a lot of IPAs and Imperial stouts, you’re going for this really extreme and complex flavor, and that would be true in metal as well,” Dailor says. “Especially with our band, we try to make it as complex as possible, to challenge ourselves and the listener. I think they appreciate a little bit more, you know? They can handle the time changes, and the complexities that can exist in music, but rarely do anymore.”
As we’ve seen with Haug, some metalheads even make a full transition from the band life to the beer life. Keri Kelli, proprietor of Las Vegas beer bar Aces & Ales, has played with Alice Cooper, Slash, and Skid Row. And Jeff Olson, who works as a part of brewery operations at Portland, ME’s Allagash, has spent time in bands like Trouble, In-Graved, and Retro Grave.
“Metal and beer are good together like sports shouting or loud concert conversations,” he says. “We feel good or bad trying new beers and then we say it loud: This is my beer!“
On Fans and the Importance of Authenticity
Beyond that feeling of pride and sense of brotherhood, there’s a palpable feeling of authenticity that seems to tie together all the best craft beer–metal collaborations. “There are some bands that slap their name on a product because they know they can sell it and make money,” says Adem Tepedelen, who writes for the metal Bible Decibel. “They don’t have much personal connection to the product. That’s the case with the AC/DC beer, I would imagine. However, the Mastodon beer that Germany’s Mahrs Brau made came from the heart. There’s an actual connection. The Mastodon guys are stoked to have their own beer.”
Stoked, indeed. As Dailor tells it, the band was on tour in Germany, playing with Metallica, Anthrax, Down, and “a bunch of bands.” A friend of theirs showed up with the Mastodon-branded beer, surprising everyone and making a few of the groups “totally jealous.” Ultimately, he feels like the commonality between craft beer and metal is the desire to create something better than the competition, rules be damned.
You can be as weird as you want to be because it’s appreciated by the fan base. It’s the same mindset in making craft beer.
“Companies like Evil Twin are really challenging beer connoisseurs’ taste buds and their preconceptions about what beer is and how far you can take it,” he says. “Mikkeller and Dogfish Head as well—anything goes. There are a lot of bands that exist within the heavy metal genre that do whatever. You can be as weird as you want to be because it’s appreciated by the fan base. I think it’s the same mindset in making craft beer. They’re not looking to make a million dollars. They’re looking to make something that’s quality and interesting and different. That’s important with art in any facet.”
Clutch’s Gaster agrees, further arguing that metal listeners—and craft beer drinkers—are more open-minded and restlessly adventurous than most consumers. “If a metal fan has a Mastodon record, he’s probably going to have a Black Sabbath record, a Minor Threat record, a Miles Davis record, and a Bob Marley record. The same applies to beer geeks. One brewery leads you to another and so on.”
The Legend of Dave Witte, Heavy Metal’s #1 Beer Nerd
Just as Three Floyds kept coming up throughout my interviews as the preeminent metalhead brewery, one man’s name was uttered more than any other when it came to identifiying the biggest beer geek in the genre.
“Dave Witte of Municipal Waste knows more about beer than I do for sure.” – JP Gaster of Clutch
“Dave Witte from Municipal Waste is the biggest beer lover I know.” – Parker Chandler of Windhand
“The most surreal event I’ve had with a musician was when Dave Witte gave me a high five for our IPA. That kind was one of the best moments I’ve had in the time we’ve been open… [He’s] the ultimate beer nerd and metalhead.” – Nick Nunns of TRVE Brewing Co.
“The drummer of Municipal Waste, Dave Witte, he’s the most knowledgeable beer enthusiast I know.” – Bryan Giles of Red Fang
Witte has drummed for countless bands, including Discordance Axis, Melt-Banana, and Burnt by the Sun, in addition to Municipal Waste, who he’s worked with since 2004. His Untappd tally is a thing of beauty. But how did he become metal’s unofficial craft-beer ambassador?
“I’m just helping connect some dots,” he says, humbly. “I love beer, it’s that simple. Good beer, that is. The craft beer world is so inspiring and filled with great people and sharing. It’s all about sharing and turning people on to new things and I love doing that. There’s nothing more exciting than turning a Big Beer drinker onto craft beer. You see that reaction to the new taste, the excitement in their eyes. It’s like catching your first fish. Three Floyds and Surly jokingly call me Johnny Appleseed. I’m always on a crusade to turn people on to their stuff.”
Witte, who actually has a pair of Three Floyds tattoos, first started dabbling in non-macro beer when Exit-13’s Bill Yurkiewicz, who had requested Witte’s drumming services, opened his refrigerator one night. “It was full of all these great-looking, colorful bottles I had no idea existed, mostly Belgians,” Witte remembers. “I explained I wasn’t really into beer, but I was curious, as they all looked so good.”
After Yurkiewicz handed him a Still Nacht strong ale from Belgian brewery De Dolle, his “outlook on beer was changed forever. It’s been a constant love affair since.” One of the songs from that recording session, “Hopped Up,” pays homage to his passion:
“Revived for a bout of wicked liquid clouts form lambics, wizens, stouts
in stein in my grip, nectar raised to lips, a joyous sin each sip
malted incantations foretell my vexation, fiendish inebriation”
“I was never aware [of metal and beer collaborations] until they started running that beer column in Decibel,” says EyeHateGod bassist Gary Mader. The column he’s referring to is Brewtal Truth, which Adem Tepedelen has been writing since June 2009.
“The genesis of the column was Decibel editor-in-chief Albert Mudrian discovering I’d won a beer journalism award at the Great American Beer Festival in late 2008,” Tepedelen says. “I’d been writing for Decibel since 2007, but Albert didn’t know I wrote about beer, too. I had been toying with the idea of doing a beer feature in Decibel, mentioned it to Albert, and he actually suggested a monthly column instead. I got a really good response almost immediately and I quickly realized that a lot of extreme music fans—and musicians—were into craft beer. Additionally, I discovered a growing number of brewers who were staunch metalheads.”
But as much as he was an original documenter of this growing crossover, he’s yet to release his most extensive treatise yet—one that will likely inspire many more future collaborations. Four years in, Tepedelen will release a book inspired by the column in November. The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers draws on his time embedded in both the craft beer and metal worlds, which he wrote about in detail in a recent blog post. “I definitely think there’s a very strong connection between the two,” Tepedelen says. “That’s not to say that every metal fan or musician should or does like craft beer, or all brewers feel some connection to metal, but there are a lot of similarities in both cultures. People who are drawn to both craft beer and metal or extreme music are discerning and have strong opinions about what they like and dislike. They aren’t content to consume whatever the ads aired during the Super Bowl tell them to. Not all craft beer is super challenging, obviously, but to a Bud Light drinker, a well-hopped IPA is about as pleasant as a Justin Timberlake fan getting an earful of Watain.”
The trend certainly shows no signs of dying down in the immediate future, as there are plenty more collaborations already in the pipeline. U.K. brewpub, Signature, which has previously collaborated on beers with Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, Frank Turner, and Ed Harcourt, is now working on a beer with Mastodon: Black Tongue, a double black IPA named for a 2011 song from the Atlanta group. “We were pretty involved,” Dailor says. “We told them the style we wanted, then did a black IPA tasting and pointed to the ones we liked the most. It’ll probably come out as a limited release in a big bottle with a cork stop and the whole deal. The label is being done by a Brooklyn artist named David Cook. He’s done a couple shirts for us.”
Three Floyds has only one collaboration it can discuss currently, a dry-hopped saison that takes its name from High on Fire’s 2002 song, “Razor Hoof.” “Those guys are good friends of ours now, as a result of them coming out for Dark Lord Day,” Struve says. “We have a lot of things in the works, but we don’t wanna talk about what we’re doing before we do it so people don’t freak out.”
And on August 17, craft beer will share the spotlight with some of the biggest bands in metal at the fourth-annual GWAR B-Q in Richmond, VA. In addition to a headlining set from the titular intergalactic rockers, a handful of craft-beer-loving metallers—including Corrosion of Conformity, Municipal Waste, and Pig Destroyer—will perform while revelers enjoy a special brew made for the festival by Tampa’s Cigar City. As with so many metal-inspired beers, this one grew out of real relationships. A mutual friend of the brewery and GWAR, Rob Chalmers, made some beer for the band. They liked it, and at some point the notion came up to make a bunch of it for GWAR B-Q. Rob’s homebrew setup wouldn’t cut it, so he asked Cigar City for help. “Justin Clark [Cigar City VP] and I looked at each other and our eyes lit up,” Redner says. “How could you not want to do a beer for GWAR B-Q?”
The result—a sessionable 5%-ABV pale ale in a 16-ounce can—comes complete with a suitably gory label, and will only be available to fans at GWAR B-Q. (It also comes with a hilariously patriotic one-minute commercial.) “This was a recipe from a GWAR fan,” Redner says. “He sent it to GWAR. They drank it. They liked it. They wanted more of it so they could share it with their fans. You can’t get more organic than that: It was a beer made by a GWAR fan for GWAR which will now be available at GWAR B-Q.”
Craft beer is the extreme music of brewing.
If craft beer and metal continue to enjoy their current critical and commercial resurgence, we’ll no doubt continue to see collaborations like these. As one side defies boundaries with its screams, time signatures, and wild solos, the other will buck conventions with barrel-aging, new hop varieties, and wild yeasts. “I think an argument can be made that beer is more diverse in America than it’s ever been—especially since we were a country dominated by whiskey and cider drinkers until well into the 19th century,” says Chicago Reader music editor Philip Montoro, who writes about craft beer and metal’s intersection every Monday. “Metal is likewise more diverse than ever, for the simple reason that it’s had decades to fragment into more and more sub-genres.”
For those who enjoy both craft beer and extreme music, it’s a pretty exciting time—one that’s limited only by the creativity of the creators in both worlds. Luckily, that creativity feels pretty limitless. “Why is there that shared interest?” Tepedelen asks throughout his book, pondering what connects the people who make craft beer or metal, and, in some cases, those who make both. “What is goes back to is the shared aesthetic for challenging things and a general disdain for the mainstream. Craft beer is the extreme music of brewing. It’s not about being static and doing the same predictable thing over and over. It’s always pushing forward.”