Breweries collaborating with bands on beers is not a new concept. Musicians from the Grateful Dead to Run The Jewels have their own beers, and new ones hit the market every year. Just a couple weeks ago, a box of beers from Arrogant Consortia, an imprint of Escondido, California’s Stone Brewing, arrived on my doorstep. When I opened it, the box played Metallica’s Enter Sandman, announcing—literally—the brewery’s collaboration with the band on a new pilsner called Enter Night.
It re-raised a question I’ve wondered for a while: How do these brewery/band collaborations actually go down, and do bands have any hand in the process? Or is it all just a slick licensing agreement designed to sell beer? Press releases about these collaborations extol shared values and mutual fandom and “just coming together to make something great,” but I finally wanted to dig into the nitty-gritty of how these collabs happen. (Yes, I asked my own Ask Kate About Beer question. This is getting meta.)
First, I spoke to Stone Brewing cofounder Greg Koch, who explained that Metallica first approached the brewery about creating a beer together. From there, he says, it was a back-and-forth conversation in which both parties felt each other out.
“Admittedly, my reaction when we first heard from [Metallica] was ‘Wow, that would be cool, but I’m not sure how that would work’ because I didn’t want to do something where someone was phoning it in,” Koch says. “But they were absolutely not phoning-it-in types. They were actively involved types.”
That said, members of Metallica weren’t actually mashing in grains or adding hops to a whirlpool. The band had input in the design of the beer, and Lars Ulrich and a handful of managers toured the brewery before the beer was released. Stone’s brewers created three pilsner prototypes and sent them to the band for approval (luckily, Koch says, the band liked the version Stone liked, which was the most aggressively hopped of the three). But ultimately, the band didn’t put physical hands on the collaboration. Koch makes an analogy: “It’s just like they’re probably not going to be inviting us into the recording studio for tips on how to tweak the EQ levels on a particular track.”
“He’s obviously super busy so it wasn’t practical to get him into the brewery but we talked about things that we liked in beer,” Asbury Park Brewery founder Jeff Plate, a musician himself, told The Takeout. “He was into the bitter West Coast-style IPA and on the East Coast all the craze is the hazy juice bombs, so we did a good mix of the two… He wasn’t really getting in and saying ‘We should add a couple extra pounds of malt’ but more like ‘Here’s what I like; here’s what I like to taste.’”
All the breweries I spoke to were authentically fans of the bands with whom they collaborated, listening to and supporting them long before brewing a beer together was even the seed of an idea. For Joe Ploof, founder and brewer at Hartford, Connecticut’s Hanging Hills Brewing Company, his appreciation of Drive-By Truckers goes back years before he even opened a brewery. Ploof was working as a teacher at the time, trying to write a business plan for a brewery and not getting very far on the funding side of the equation. He was expecting a child, and was growing increasingly depressed that his brewing dream would never materialize. During this time, he says, he listened to Drive-By Trucker’s frontman Patterson Hood’s solo album Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance almost constantly.
“I emailed the band in a state of depression. I wrote ‘I’m listening to the album, and it’s helping me get through this dark time,’” Ploof says. “Within an hour, the band manager [Christine Stauder] emailed me back, saying ‘Patterson loves these messages. That’s so sweet; I’ll pass it along.’”
That was the end of their connection—for a while. Fast forward years, and Ploof finally opened his brewery and created a collaboration beer with The Hold Steady. It just so happened that Stauder, the Drive-By Truckers’ manager, was at that Hold Steady show and tasted the collaboration beer.
“So I emailed her again, saying ‘We did this whole thing and it was successful, can we do this with the Truckers?’” Ploof says. “And she said, ‘The beer was great, let’s do it.’”
The resulting pilsner, Heathen Homecoming Pilsner, was canned and kegged and shipped down to Georgia for the Drive-By Truckers show at the 40 Watt Club, as well as a few beer bars. Wes Freed, an artist with a longtime relationship with the band, designed the beer label. Ploof says the band members themselves were “pretty hands-off” in the process, and he worked primarily with Stauder on the details, which include donating a portion of proceeds to Nuçi’s Space, a Georgia-based suicide-prevention nonprofit that focuses on musicians.
“I explained to Christine that we’re going to lose money brewing this beer. It’s good attention for us though, because the band and fan base are incredible,” Ploof says. “And she’s like ‘Okay, cool, as long as you’re losing money.’”
I asked all the breweries I spoke to about how revenue from the collaboration beers was shared. Stone’s Greg Koch told me the brewery and Metallica have “a revenue sharing agreement” that fairly compensates both parties. Asbury Park Brewery’s Jeff Plate declined to comment on that topic. Ploof says Hanging Hills donated $1,500 to Nuçi’s Space, which was the portion left from the sales of the beer after covering a few small costs. While these collaborations do seem to pay off for both band and brewery—if not monetarily, then at least in increased exposure—I’m not so jaded that I don’t see the genuine enthusiasm the parties have for each other. To put it simply, the brewers are geeked on meeting musicians, and the musicians dig seeing their name on a beer.
“I got a text from Lars [Ulrich] last night and he forwarded me a picture [James] Hetfield had taken at the Whole Foods of the beer on the shelf,” Koch says. “It just shows that they’re enthusiastic.”