It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your local brewers are tonight? If it’s a Friday, there’s a good chance they’ve traded their rubber boots for a pair of Doc Martins or blue suede shoes, strapped on a Les Paul or a Fender Jazz Bass, and are about to test the mics and crank up their amps.
There are enough brewery bands in Northern California that Celebrator Beer News sponsors an annual Beerapalooza: Battle of the Brewery Bands. In recent years, the Sierra Nevada Band, Roots Blues from the Lagunitas Brewery, and The Hysters from Anchor Brewing have tuned up along with The Rolling Boil Blues Band (order DVDs of the event at celebrator.com).
But even if they’re not playing right now, chances are there’s somebody at a brewery near you who has been in a band or is about to start one.
At Victory Brewing, playing music runs through the company from the top down. Ron Barchet, one of the founders and brewmasters, plays both acoustic and electric guitar, while four of his brewers also play instruments.
“Working with a team of brewers is a like playing with a band,” Barchet says. “We’re all working together to create something. People know me as the brewmaster and the owner and they may say, ‘I think your pils is excellent.’ But I realize how many people it takes to make that beer. I can’t do it without the band.”
Two Alaskan Brewing crew members, bassist/vocalist Damien Horvath and guitarist/vocalist Darin Jensen, are founding members of the rock power trio Brown Haven, which takes its name from the gunk found on the inside of brewing tanks. Horvath and Jensen cite influences ranging from Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd to Pearl Jam and Tool for their hard-hitting original sound and songs. The Brown Haven album “Home Grown” is available at rockalaskarecords.com.
Gordon Biersch founder and brewer Dan Gordon is a jazz musician who has played trombone since he was nine. He still performs in big bands in the Bay Area and plays the occasional pickup gig professionally. “You strive for perfection in music,” says Gordon, “And there is a similarity in brewing.”
Stone president and brewmaster Steve Wagner has fulfilled two major fantasies of many American males in one lifetime: playing in a rock band with label deal and owning a brewery. “I feel extremely fortunate,” says Wagner. “I’ve realized that’s what I’m good at—turning hobbies into careers.”
In the eighties, Wagner’s most famous band, The Balancing Act, recorded several albums for I.R.S. Records, the label that launched R.E.M. and The Go-Gos. Wagner’s surreal songs, including “A TV Guide in the Olduvai Gorge” and “The Neighborhood Phrenologist,” were probably precursors to the irreverent names of his most aggressive brews.
“Arrogant Bastard is definitely a rock and roll beer,” he says. “It’s like, ‘We’re too good for you guys—you’ll never understand our genius.’ “
Like most musicians turned brewers, Wagner admits that he’s probably making a lot more money now than he ever would have if he’d stuck it out in a band. But he says brewing beer has a gratification that’s pretty damned close to rocking out.
“What makes me happy is to do something or make something that makes other people happy.” Wager says. “That’s what I always got out of music. Standing on stage and seeing people singing the words to a song you wrote, it doesn’t get any better than that. And I feel the same way about beers that I design and brew. To see people going off and getting rapturous about something you made, that’s just the ultimate for me.”