Pittsburgh craft beer scene pairs well with local musicians | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh craft beer scene pairs well with local musicians

click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM // CP ILLUSTRATION: ABBIE ADAMS
CP photo: Jared Wickerham // CP illustration: Abbie Adams

What does music taste like? For Pittsburgh alternative punk band Swiss Army, it’s loaded with big hop flavor and aroma. Multi-talented solo artist Clara Kent’s album Aura tastes like blackberry, apple, lemon peel, and sage; a mixture as diverse as the genres she covers. And Jonny Goood, hip-hop artist and Lady Gaga’s touring bassist? His style of music tastes like a light but strong, two-hopped brew.

As both the local music scene and craft beer industry in the city grow, so are collaborations between the two, with local brewers developing custom flavors for Pittsburgh musicians in special one-off collaborations that are quickly becoming more popular.

At the end of 2017, Pennsylvania had a total of 282 craft breweries, according to the Brewers Association, an independent brewer’s trade organization based in Colorado. This number rose to 354 at the close of 2018, making it the sixth-highest in the nation. Last year, Pennsylvania produced more than 3.7 million barrels of craft beer — the most in the nation. 

Pittsburgh has also seen a rapid expansion of craft beer too. Breweries like Cinderlands have expanded. Larger craft breweries have recently opened, with several more Pittsburgh locations planned. And suburban towns are getting their own microbreweries at a rapid pace.  

The music scene in Pittsburgh has experienced a similarly fast expansion. Since the start of the year, the city saw both the Thunderbird Café & Music Hall and 222 Ormsby reopen; two record stores pop up, The Government Center and Preserving Hardcore; two new event centers debut, the UMPC Events Center and the Rivers Casino Event Center; and an abundance of dance nights take off. 

And as City Paper pointed out in June’s Music Issue, “concerts aren’t just taking place at standard music venues anymore; shows are popping up in clothing stores, bowling alleys, and even plant nurseries.

With an influx of regional breweries and a rapid growth of both local artists and national touring acts performing in the city, how do breweries and musicians set themselves apart from the rest? In Pittsburgh, they’ve joined forces, with cans flying off the shelves, leading to more beer sales for local craft brewers and extra exposure for the artists. 

click to enlarge Members of Swiss Army (Brandon Lehman, Dave Yarkovsky, Chris Hawthorne, and Jeff Morgan) - pose for a portrait with owner Andrew Witchey (right) and operations manager, Mike Dunlay (left) at Dancing Gnome Brewery - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Members of Swiss Army (Brandon Lehman, Dave Yarkovsky, Chris Hawthorne, and Jeff Morgan) pose for a portrait with owner Andrew Witchey (right) and operations manager, Mike Dunlay (left) at Dancing Gnome Brewery
Getting Creative

Beer and musician collaborations are nothing new. Trooper Beer, a golden ale collaboration between Iron Maiden and the UK’s Robinsons Family Brewers has been around since 2013 and was sold at local bars during Iron Maiden’s August Pittsburgh stop. Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, a pale ale made with Dogfish Head and brewed with granola, wildflower honey, and American hops, came out the same year. But just as Pennsylvania only recently began expanding the locations to buy beer, wine, and booze, Pittsburgh beer and music collaborations are just getting started.

"We're seeing more of these types of collaborations, but that's likely mostly do to the fact that there are more breweries in more places, so even if the rate is the same, the total number of collaborations is going up," says Bart Watson, Ph. D., chief economist of the Brewers Association. "I'd also add that in a more competitive marketplace, this type of collaboration can be effective marketing for both brewer and musician and give lovers of the brand or band a reason to check out the other side."

Dancing Gnome’s first band beer came out in January 2018 with Minnesotan emo revival band, Tiny Moving Parts (TMP). The beer was an American pale ale named after the band’s single, “Swell.”

“Music has always been a huge influence to us both in life and in beer,” says Andrew Witchey, owner/head brewer of Dancing Gnome. “The industries are different, but still quite similar in how the human component comes into play, and we'll always be involved musically in some aspect moving forward.”

Since then, the Sharpsburg brewery has made creations with Punchline, Delta Sleep, Nappy Roots, and now, Swiss Army, who was inspired by the Tiny Moving Parts release to ask to participate in a collaboration.

"These collaborations are a great way to elevate brands and bands to new audiences.”

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“Our bassist Jeff [Morgan] went to a release there and while he was making his purchase, he heard them playing Tiny Moving Parts, a band in a similar genre,” explained Brandon Lehman, Swiss Army vocalist and guitarist. “They always play great music there. He asked one of the guys, who turned out to be Mike Dunlay, our main contact there, how they ended up working together with TMP for their release. After a pretty quick discussion, we were on our way to a collab of our own.” 

The result is Host, a 3.6 percent session ale named after Swiss Army’s latest single. Lehman says the beer “won't knock you on your ass and you can enjoy a few through the evening” and it’s “the perfect concert beer.” Not everyone drinks, however, and Lehman says the beer wasn’t about the alcohol content, anyway. 

“It's about the teamwork that goes into creating something new with inspiring people,” he says. “Dancing Gnome has its own audience that we are hoping to introduce ourselves to, as well as our own audience who may not know about their beer. These collaborations are a great way to elevate brands and bands to new audiences.”

click to enlarge Pressure Pale Ale, the collaboration between The Commonheart and Grist House
Pressure Pale Ale, the collaboration between The Commonheart and Grist House

Swiss Army and Dancing Gnome premiers Host with cans and drafts starting at 4 p.m. in the Sharpsburg taproom on Fri., Oct. 11. The band will put on a special acoustic performance, and Blue Sparrow food truck will be on site. Then Swiss Army moves to Mr. Smalls Theatre for a show alongside Jack Swing and Hearken. A limited number of Host will be available at the performance.  

“Our beers are in and out pretty quick,” says Witchey. “I wouldn't expect Host to be around for more than a week.” 

The Commonheart’s August collaboration with Grist House, Pressure, sold out in 15 days. The craft brewery made 1,440 cans of the hazy pale ale, which came in at 5.5 percent ABV, to coincide with the release of the band's new album of the same name. 

“Being a pale ale, it didn't fly the way some of the splashier styles do,” explained Bailey Allegretti, marketing manager at Grist House, “but once the word got out about collab, it sold quite well. … When two breweries collaborate on a beer, we want to try something we've never tried before, combine our knowledge and do something weird, but when collaborating with a band, the focus is on the fans, the audience. Do they want to be jamming to The Commonheart with a 6.5 percent, full-bodied, fruit dessert sour with lactose? Some of them, heck yeah, but that's not the goal here. With this collaboration, we got to dial everything back a bit and concentrate on creating a beer that was smooth and approachable while still being interesting and delicious.”

click to enlarge Clara Kent poses for a portrait with her own beer, called Aura, with Travis Tuttle, owner of Butler Brew Works - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Clara Kent poses for a portrait with her own beer, called Aura, with Travis Tuttle, owner of Butler Brew Works

Taking Flight

Dancing Gnome debuted its first beer-music collab in early 2018. Seven months later, the nation's first Black brew festival took place at Nova Place on the North Side. Created by Mike Potter, the founder of online magazine Black Brew Culture, along with Day Bracey and Ed Bailey, the voices of popular podcast Drinking Partners, the goal was to show diversity within the craft beer industry. And one of the biggest elements in the craft beer industry is collaboration. 

“Collaboration is something that music and craft beer have in common,” says Allegretti. 

“Collaborations have gone from one-time rarity to almost the norm for craft brewers,” says Cat Wolinski in an April 2018 VinePair article about the increasing populatiry of beer collaborations. “Two or more breweries join forces to make a beer and ultimately sell it with both brands on the label. It’s community-driven, it’s marketing savvy, and, at its best, it’s a learning experience.”

click to enlarge Jonny Goood's collaboration with Full Pint Brewing - PHOTO: MONTANA EFAW
Photo: Montana Efaw
Jonny Goood's collaboration with Full Pint Brewing

For Fresh Fest, collaborations were just one of the unique parts of event, which already is the U.S.’s first event with all-Black brewers and beer owners. According to CP’s Maggie Weaver in an article about Fresh Fest earlier this year, “Potter views these partnerships between community members and local breweries as a way to ‘unite all cultures with projects that everyone can benefit from.’ It opens the door to dialogue, connecting businesses, artists, and activists, and neighbors who might not know the other exists.”

During the initial Fresh Fest, there were 30 collaboration beers, ranging from brewery-brewery to brewery-barber shop, and of course, brewery-musician. Some of the latter partnerships included Dr. HollyHood and Butler Brew Works, Byron Nash and Helltown Brewing, and Mars Jackson and Burgh'ers Brewing. Photographer sarah huny young created a Brut IPA with Rock Bottom Brewery called This World Is Yours, in which musician Clara Kent modeled for the can design (Kent also performed at the event). This year, Kent had her own music and beer creation at Fresh Fest. There were 45 collaborations in total. 

The organizers of Fresh Fest chose the partnerships, and Kent was paired up with Butler Brew Works. 

“To be honest, Clara's brand and what she does is completely different from ours,” says Travis Tuttle, head brewer and co-owner of Butler Brew Works. “That's what made it so awesome, though. Bringing fresh ideas and a completely new perspective is what creates originality. …  Our beers often contain nontraditional ingredients or blur style guidelines, so this collaboration was not outside of our comfort zone. What differed in this beer was the inspiration and influence. Clara was able to feed me with ideas that I couldn't come up with on my own. When I collaborate with other brewers, we tend to follow the same train of thought when it comes to recipe creation. With Clara, we talked more about teas and cocktails than we did beer.”

For their first meet up, Kent and Tuttle went to Mixtape in Garfield. Kent says that Tuttle “is extremely open to my expansive ideas and is a top tier craftsman, so I was able to give him all the flavor ideas I had for this ale without worry. I made the can design and chose the ale flavor and Travis made the beer himself.”

However when it came time to try the creation, Kent was nervous — she isn’t a big beer fan.

click to enlarge Clara Kent's Aura - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Clara Kent's Aura

“[But] it turned out better than [imagined] honestly,” she says. “Travis took the vision and manifested it perfectly. It’s a beer that craft brew fans and people who aren’t brew connoisseurs can enjoy together. … Usually artists are limited to digital ads, social media, or hand-to-hand for music promotion. This touches on the all of that, plus gives a boost to word of mouth, and nothing beats that! It also helps that my album cover is on the can itself.”

Butler Brew Works made about 22 cases of 16-ounce cans, most of which were sold in-house. The rest were sent out for distribution. Those 22 cases sold out about three weeks after the release.

“Today's craft beer consumer constantly expects new and creative products,” says Tuttle. “Anytime we bring out something fresh like this, it does well. The real payoff was getting this beer in front of the fresh fest crowd, many of which did not know about our brewery. … Beer is art, as much as music is. These collaborations create something that would not otherwise exist. It's beautiful and I hope I get the opportunity to do a lot more of it.”

The collaboration between Jonny Goood and Full Pint Brewery, Bass Hop, was also available at this year’s Fresh Fest. Like Kent, he performed at the inaugural event. 

“I was excited to get the call to actually partner up for the 2019 festival and make a fresh tasting brew for the city,” he says. 

What excited Goood the most, however, was introducing his creation to the people of Pittsburgh. 

“I loved going around the city to places like Aiello's, Time Bomb, Daily Bread, ReFresh, and Primanti Bros., dropping off cases to them to try and seeing the positive feedback was a great time. I also got to crash Randy Baumann's morning show on WDVE. We cracked a can live on air and they loved it! To me, that was an unforgettable moment for myself and Bass Hop.”

In addition to playing with Lady Gaga, Goood plays bass while rapping as a solo artist, a sub-genre of hip-hop he says he has been working on the last five years to introduce to his hometown. 

“The Bass Hop brew was a very fitting way to introduce my musical taste and our beer to the community,” says Goood. “I believe as I continue to grow as an artist, both the beer side and music side of Bass Hop will merge as one.”

At its core, beer and music are very similar. The same elements — water, a starch source, a brewer’s yeast for beer; melody, chords, notes for music — can result in almost unlimited combinations; you just have to get creative. 

“Art is always in a state of collaboration, whether it be something or someone inspiring an idea, or a collective of people coming together,” says Kent. “We all are here to create and share our lights with the world. Don’t limit yourself to one way of expressing your ideas or artistry. There many colors to use on the canvas of life.”

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