If you’ve spent any time watching television in the last several years, you’ve probably had the dubious pleasure of watching Pitbull try to sell you Bud Light. These ads tend to feature the hip hop star in a white suit and dark shades, holding a condensation-dripping bottle of Anheuser-Busch’s biggest seller, surrounded by women wearing so little that you wonder if their party invitations listed the same dress code as Mr. Bull’s. Sometimes he’s rapping, but usually he’s just having a good time, the very essence of his existence thus successfully equated with the fun (and proximity to anonymous underdressed women) that Bud Light will grant you.
The role of pop culture icon as product pitchman is nothing new, of course, but artist-brewer alliances have become increasingly weaponized in the escalating culture war between corporate and craft beer. Pitbull is an unpretentious, mainstream-approved rapper, associated more with his ability to soundtrack a good party than with any distinctive musical aesthetic. His sound is the product of rigorous market testing, and his success is owed mostly to the fact that he and his management understand what a certain type of party-bro wants to hear when they want to get fucked up. He is not, in other words, the kind of guy you listen to while you sniff your beer.
A growing number of brewers are looking to form alliances with musicians who do sniff their beer, though, and it’s impressive how often they’re finding them. While it’s difficult to imagine Pitbull conducting a quality test at an InBev facility or Aloe Blacc and Capital Cities suggesting tweaks to the malt bill of Beck’s flagship lager, craft brewers are now frequently asking musicians to come on board not just as brand partners, but as full-blown collaborators. The result has been a crop of fascinating, often delicious beers, imprinted with the idiosyncrasies of dozens of great bands.
Stillwater Artisanal Ales has been a major player in the movement to unite craft brewers and musicians for the greater good, with collaborations with Lower Dens, Small Black, and Tennis already under their belt as a part of their Sensory Series. On April 25, the gypsy operation will launch The Devil Is People, a sour smoked wheat ale brewed in collaboration with Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the atmospheric Grails/Slint affiliates, Watter. In an unusual twist, there’s also a 12-inch single associated with the project, credited to Bonnie Stillwatter and due out April 14 on Brooklyn label Temporary Residence Ltd. Between the beer and the record, The Devil Is People project might be the most fully synthesized marriage of brewing and musical creation ever.
Brian Strumke, the founder and brewmaster of Stillwater Artisanal, has been the driving force behind the company’s collaborations. As an electronic musician and visual artist himself, Strumke has always tried to use his beers to stir up a reaction in you that goes beyond just the flavor of what’s in your glass. Take the gorgeous, distinctive Stillwater label art, done by tattoo artist Lee Verzosa. Every brewery worth its salt has an aesthetic, but Stillwater’s is remarkably consistent dating to their very early days, and that’s a testament to Strumke’s commitment to beer as art. His choices of musical collaborators are an extension of that level of care.
“As with any type of creative collaboration, I seek to work with others that share a common vision and interests,” Strumke told me in an email interview. “Coming from a music and art background, I find that most of my interests in those worlds usually coincide with what I am trying to do with Stillwater and the relationships usually unfold naturally. And while similar collaborative projects like this are based on marketing or endorsement, ours have all been based on mutual admiration for one another’s work.”
That mutual admiration simply has to be in place for a musician-brewer collaboration to work. Music nerds and beer geeks are both adept at sniffing out phoniness. When a beer exists primarily as a piece of merch for the band “collaborator,” it’s obvious, and those beers rarely have much impact beyond completist superfan collectors. The beers that succeed do so because they work on two levels — as a great beverage, and as a worthy, aesthetically resonant part of a band’s output.
We culled a few of the most interesting examples in the gallery above. Cheers!