Limited edition releases are nothing new to the rock world. Seattle label Sub Pop Records launched its limited edition, monthly Singles Club in 1988 by releasing 1,000 copies of Nirvana’s debut seven-inch “Love Buzz” to club subscribers. Today that rarity sells on eBay for more than $1,000.
In the craft beer world, Lagunitas’ series of five limited edition beers brewed to commemorate rock icon Frank Zappa’s first five albums are much more unusual. The inspiration grew out of owner Tony Magee’s respect and admiration for Zappa’s skills as a composer. “I studied music and composition as a kid,” he explains, “and Zappa figures up there in the world alongside Philip Glass and Stravinsky, as far as I’m concerned.”
In 2006, Magee realized that Zappa’s debut with his band the Mother’s of Invention, Freak Out, was turning 40 and he had the idea to do a limited-edition seasonal bottling to commemorate it. He contacted Zappa’s widow, Gail, with the idea to “create the beer equivalent of an album.”
“She was all for it,” he continues. “It was just a handshake. There was no written agreement. I didn’t see any need to.”
To Magee, creating the beer equivalent of an album meant brewing beers that captured a moment in time, much as an album does. “The idea is that an album only gets released once [in its original form] and then it’s out there in the world,” he explains. “We thought we’d do the same thing with the beer. We’d do it for a very short period of time—the two-month window of any of our seasonals—and when it was done it was gone and the recipe would go with it too. I used it as an opportunity to experiment with recipes.”
Between 2006 and 2008, Lagunitas released five Zappa beers, each commemorating a different album: Freak Out (“a strong pale ale”), Kill Ugly Radio (“a showcase for Amarillo hops on a wheaty base”), Lumpy Gravy (“an imperial brown thing”), We’re Only In It For the Money (“a Belgian Tripel”) and (“a chocolate pepper stout”). They produced 8,000 cases of Freak Out, while subsequent releases in the series were bumped up to 15,000 cases and all were bottled in 22-oounce bombers and sold for less than $4 each.
Unfortunately, the series came to a premature end when Gail Zappa vehemently disagreed with Magee’s decision to donate some of the Zappa beer for a memorial concert for one of Zappa’s former bandmates, drummer Jimmy Carl Black, who died in 2008 and had long been estranged from Zappa and his estate. “The [Zappa] family and the original band members don’t really talk anymore,” offers Magee, as an explanation of Gail’s objection to his donation. “Gail really stands hard and firm on a certain set of principles about the music being more important than anything. She defends the fortress in her own way.”
Gail’s withdrawal of support for the Zappa beers not only prevented Lagunitas from getting too deep into Frank Zappa’s vast catalog, it also may have made the five original releases that much more valuable to both beer enthusiasts and rock fans alike.