Todd Ahsmann isn’t sure if he’s ever seen live music without a beer in his hand. The Goose Island president and former music industry vet says beer and music go hand in hand.
“We should be collaborating,” Ahsmann says. “The half-joke used to be that rock radio was funded by beer because beer companies were mostly buying advertising. Concert venues and festivals make just as much off beer sales as they do ticket sales. They’re dependent on each other.”
Since 2013, Ahsmann’s Chicago craft brewery has partnered with musical groups like Japandroids, Sharon Van Etten, and Parquet Courts for exclusive beer releases during the Pitchfork Music Festival. The first collaboration was a Belgian wheat ale with Run the Jewels. When Ahsmann first pitched the idea, festival founding director Mike Reed instantly said yes.
“That was before Run the Jewels even had their first album out. I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s amazing,’” Ahsmann says. However, he had one stipulation: “Are they willing to truly collaborate?”
Key to most beverage collaborations is how much the band is involved in every step of the process. For Run the Jewels, they’ll tour breweries and rub hops. What is the duo looking for? “If it pairs well with weed,” RTJ manager Amaechi Uzoigwe says with a laugh. “Most of the time, breweries are coming to us, but we also want them to blow our minds.”
Since that initial release, Run the Jewels has since released more than 30 beers, partnering with local craft breweries across the country. The group’s latest beverage—the Ooh La La pink lemonade hard seltzer—is a collaboration with City Water of Naperville, Illinois. Up next for rap duo El-P and Killer Mike is a rum, craft bourbon, and international beer releases in Mexico, Western Europe, and India.
“These are things we’ve had in the works, not just because people are doing it now,” Uzoigwe says. “We’re creating products based on something that’s real to us and that we feel makes sense to our audience. It’s something deeper than a business—it has to be a collaboration. We’ve gotta like them, and feel like they represent what we represent.”
Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch had the same spirit when collaborating with Metallica on the Enter Night pilsner. Thankfully, drummer Lars Ulrich took lead on the taste tests and recipe development.
“We’re not interested in just brewing anything that people would drink a lot of,” Koch says, alluding to a rock star he’d rather not name, who asked to partner with Stone Brewing in the past. “That’s like inviting a musician over and saying, ‘Hey, I want you to help me with a song.’ So you’re like, ‘OK, what?’ And they go, ‘I don’t know, man, whatever, just give me some notes.’ It doesn’t resonate.”
Other bands like …And You Will Know Us by The Trail of Dead are looking for beers “they can drink 10 of,” Gordon Allison of Sire Brew Company says. The Austin, Texas rock band partnered with the Denver-based brewing company and Ratio Beerworks for a German Kolsch-style beer. Allison started the business with his friend Will Sanderson, and both have a history of working in the music industry.
“The entire concept for Sire is based around our musical background,” Sanderson says. “We wanted to work with artists and ask them, ‘If you had your own personal supply of beer, what would it be?’ The flip side to that is that the audiences get to try that beer, too.”
If the beer seems like a gimmick, Sanderson says audiences “can see through it straight away if it’s just a band name on a can.” However, for the beer drinker who has no clue about these bands, the majority of these brews are no joke. Run the Jewels’ Stay Gold IPA collab with Brooklyn’s Interboro Spirits & Ales won Draft Magazine’s best IPA in America in 2017. Another mainstay in the band/beer cross-section is Deftones. The hard rock band’s initial Phantom Bride IPA with California’s Belching Beaver Brewing currently has a 90, or outstanding rating on beeradvocate.com.
“The idea [for Phantom Bride] came about when we were releasing Gore. We looked at it as a way to market the single along with putting out a good beer,” Deftones singer Chino Moreno says, mentioning that he, drummer Abe Cunningham and keyboardist Frank Delgado are the beer drinkers of the band. “Over the years, we realized we were spending a bunch of money on filming music videos that would just end up on YouTube. This has helped to market the song and bring awareness to the beer as well.”
Including the Phantom Bride IPA release, Deftones has released its fair share of exclusives with Belching Beaver, including last year’s Ohms pale ale and double-dry-hopped White Pony IPA. Up next, the band will release a beer to celebrate the release of the new single “Ceremony” as well as a second run of its tequila collaboration with Abre Ojos.
The potential for these types of collaborations is only increasing.
Jeremiah Zimmer, co-founder of Chicago’s craft brewery Hop Butcher for the World, recently collaborated with Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan on the Soul Head IPA, which was released just in time to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary of Gish. Though this is Zimmer’s first and only music-oriented collaboration to date, he doesn’t think they’ll end anytime soon.
“The more breweries open up and the more people convert to craft beer—all of those people are bringing their own experiences and preferences to beer, musically and otherwise,” Zimmer says. “It’s exponential in terms of where music can intersect with beer.”