Number of the Yeast: The Rise of Heavy Metal Brewers
Usually when people talk about metal's effect on beer, it's in the context of discussing canning versus bottling. And while some of you out there are surely turned on by "under lid gassing" and "seam calibration," there's another metal influencing the brews we drink that most will find much more interesting than aluminum. All around the country, brewers are finding inspiration from and collaborating with legendary metal musicians – and the results are often exceptional.
Of all breweries with obvious metal ties, Three Floyds Brewing of Munster, Indiana, is arguably the largest and most visible, having collaborated with over a dozen bands for metal-themed beers. Their first, a Doppelbock called "The Creeper," was brewed with post-metal band Pelican in honor of their 10th anniversary, granting the band a percentage of the beer's sales: "Generally way more than record companies give them," says Three Floyds Co-Founder Nick Floyd with a laugh.
But the brewery's most commercially successful collaboration thus far is an Imperial IPA called Permanent Funeral, made with grindcore band Pig Destroyer. "Usually we can only make [these band beers] for a year, contractually speaking," explains 3F Head Brewer Chris Boggess. "That beer turned out so good that they wanted to keep it going. Permanent Funeral is going to be a permanent fixture in our lineup." The beer is a liquid manifestation of the relentless aggression put forth by Pig Destroyer, showing just how directly the music inspires Boggess and Floyd when developing recipes for bands.
Not all beer/metal collaborations are as genuine or organic, though. Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Motorhead, and Kiss have all recently marketed beers – and if the reviews at Ratebeer.com are any indication, beer flavor and quality were hardly a priority for any of the hard rock legends. "I always get a little nervous when so many bands are paying brewers to make beers for them," says metal guitarist and Surly Brewing's Director of Brewing Operations, Todd Haug. "A [brewery's] collaboration with a band [should be] a personal thing, not just, 'Instead of making t-shirts for us, make beer!'" That’s why Haug defends Nick Floyd’s approach so vocally: "He works with the bands on what they want. He's not a merchandiser of metal beers—he's actually creating with the bands, and that's the way it should be done."
Taking Three Floyds' lead, Three Weavers in Inglewood, CA, recently brewed an Imperial Red IPA with their neighbors Prosthetic Records dubbed "Blood Junkie," after a song by former Prosthetic band Lamb of God. Sure, the explicit name might turn some casual beer drinkers off, "but I usually like to say 'fuck 'em,'" says Brewmaster Alexandra Nowell. The heavily hopped, blood-red, 8.7% ABV beer is unquestionably big, but also incredibly balanced with a label designed by renowned metal album artist Dan Mumford. "He came up with some really demonic shit," she says with a laugh. Nowell assures, "We didn't hold back on it in terms of ingredients, addition, color, [or] assertiveness. The entire package rings true to who Prosthetic Records is."
While an outsider might see this one bottle as a bit of a scary looking albatross amongst a lineup of otherwise decidedly un-metal-branded beers, the collaboration makes sense if you know a bit about Three Weavers. "It was really important to [Three Weavers brewer] Chris [Gonzales] and me because of the music that we love and listen to," Nowell says. The match-up was just as meaningful to Prosthetic Records co-owner E.J. Johantgen, who claims his obsession with beer runs back two decades. "[The collaboration] came from passion about beer [and] passion about the music—it's not from a marketing angle by any stretch of the imagination…. I don't think it would have happened if everyone [at Prosthetic] wasn't always over there [at Three Weavers], and we didn't create this friendship together."
Meanwhile, some brewers are living and breathing metal on a whole other level. Allagash Brewing's Jeff “Oly” Olson was a founding member of doom metal pioneers Trouble and a drummer for The Skull. Oly's two careers collided two years ago when he brewed an Imperial Stout with cranberries called Red Howes, each bottle of which was sold with a CD full of music from his longstanding solo project, Retro Grave. Oly even participates in a monthly group called "Stouts and Metal," during which he and other Allagash employees drink to metal all night long.
Like Olson, Surly's Todd Haug is the founding guitarist for speed metal innovators Powermad. When Danish microbrewery Amager Bryghus collaborated with Surly on an American IPA, they christened it "Todd The Axe Man," much to Haug's discomfort. "It's not my style or my personality -- I would never, ever name a beer after myself," he insists, embarrassed of the name now that the beer is the consistent number one seller in Surly's new beer hall.
Though Surly produces beers with cheekily edgy names such as "Furious," "Abrasive Ale," and "Misanthrope," neither Haug nor Surly owner Omar Ansari ever had a metal-themed marketing plan for the brewery – unlike TRVE Brewing in Denver, CO, which has openly relished the metal aesthetic from day one. Owner Nick Nunn's intense passion for metal led him to hire album artist Sam Turner to design all of the brand's art, which – with its many pentagrams, skulls, and nearly illegible gothic fonts -- looks like it was lifted straight off of a black metal record.
Yet, unlike nearly all other breweries with metal inclinations, TRVE brews against stereotype, trading palate-busting IPAs and weighty stouts for lighter saisons, sours, and milds. As Nunns attests, "We focus a lot on sessionable beer [and] we're getting into highly nuanced wild ales. None of the beers we do are extreme, punch-in-the-face, flavor bombs." He points out that a subtle gose can be more "metal" than a high gravity, ultra-hopped brew: "If anything…metal [is] a counter argument to certain styles of music. I think that the style of beer that we're brewing counters the direction of craft beer in general…. What we're doing is very metal in its ethos.”
Not playing to trends seems to be the "metal" philosophy that unites all of these brewers. "There's a lot of [metal musicians] playing their asses off out there that are good who are never gonna 'make it,' explains Haug. "A lot of that same hard work attitude and energy has to go into making good beer. People don't need to know you're listening to metal when you make it, but the intensity while you're working to make sure everything is executed right and everything is consistent…it's part of the engrained culture."
Furthermore, as generally curious, experimental, and open-minded individuals, many brewers are naturally attracted to heavy metal. And Prosthetic's E.J. Johantgen explains that passionate, creative metal fans are primed to appreciate the passionate work of creative brewers. "I can nerd out with these guys," he says. "They're fans of the music and…I'm a fan of what they do. To me, the brewers are artists. And brewing is pretty fucking metal." Meanwhile, Haug points out that the fan-dynamic works both ways: "You've got all these metal people that we look up to and listen to in the brewery, and it turns out they're really into craft beer. All these years we've been worshipping them, and it turns out that they think brewing's pretty cool. There's a mutual respect now." Three Floyds' Boggess puts his excitement over collaborating even more bluntly: "Honestly, it's just about the nerding out for me. I was super starstruck when I met Des [Kensel], the drummer for High on Fire," with whom Three Floyds collaborated on Razor Hoof, a heavily hopped saison.
Of course, metal isn't for everyone. "We take a fair amount of heat for some of the beers we've made because they're metal leaning," admits Surly's Haug. "A lot of people still think that there's Satanism involved…All the stupid shit we've been arguing forever." And the loud music can be a lot for some brewery visitors to swallow, especially in a taproom. TRVE's Nunns admits, "I've gotten a handful of Yelp reviews where people are like, 'I hated the screamy death music.' Well, what did you expect when you came to the heavy metal brewery? But most of the time we're not getting those sorts of responses from people. Most of the time people appreciate the fact that we're doing something differently."
But make no mistake about Nunns' ultimate mission: he is most interested in making delicious beer for anyone and everyone to enjoy. "Most of the time, if people don't like [the taproom]," he explains, "they're like, 'The beer's really good, but I don't like hanging out there because I don't really like that music.' That's the most important thing: do you like the beer? Yes? Great. That's what we are. We are a brewery." They might just be a louder one than most.