The Long, Strange Connection Between Craft Beer and Jam Bands

Nick Hines The Long, Strange Connection Between Craft Beer and Jam Bands

4 minute Read

In 2010, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company received a call from the management team of legendary jam band Phish. The group famous for seven-hour sets wanted the brewery to make a special beer for a festival the following year. The result was Sierra Nevada’s Foam Pilsner, a 5.6 percent alcohol by volume beer designed to be endlessly crushable throughout the band’s epic sets.

The partnership seemed natural. Bill Manley, a beer ambassador at Sierra Nevada, told Live For Live Music that the brewery has “always had a connection with Phish and their fans,” and that Phish’s music is popular at the brewery.

They’re not alone. Lagunitas Brewing Company was a sponsor of Jam in the Van, a a music series headed by those who “keep it heady.” Dogfish Head created a signature beer for the Grateful Dead, American Beauty, in 2013. Sweetwater Brewing Company enrobes bottles in tie-dye labels and names beers after 420 culture. What is it about jam bands and craft beer that go so well together?

Undeniable Connection

Starting in the late 1960s and early 1980s, respectively, performance-driven bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish have been turning live music into a lifestyle. Their fans were rabidly loyal, dedicating weeks, months, and years of their lives to the bands’ touring schedules. Meanwhile, once the late 1980s and early 1990s rolled around, a wave of American homebrewers were starting a beer movement that would eventually turn into a $23.5 billion craft beer market.

“It does appear that the rise of craft breweries corresponds pretty closely to the rise of the second generation of jam bands,” Peter Conners, the author of the jam band microhistory “JAMerica,” tells me in an email. “People who like jam band music tend to appreciate things that are unique, carefully made, and full of identity — and they stay very loyal once they find something they like. I’d guess the same can be said for people who are passionate about craft beer.”

The Experience Economy

The earliest craft breweries were generally located on the coasts, near large cities like Chicago, and in liberal enclaves like Colorado. This was partly due to regulation — residual gbue laws in the South and Midwest stymied beer innovation — and partly due to the greater desire for innovation and change in those areas.

The craft beer audience was composed, generally, of upper-middle-class drinkers who could afford to pay a couple extra dollars more than what the macro beers were selling for, and craft breweries were happy to fill that demand. For a certain type of consumer, the extra cost was worth the deep satisfaction of trying something new and unexpected. It was not mainstream but it was accessible to those who sought it out. As a result, it provided a chance to be a part of a subcultural community of like-minded people who were also subverting the status quo.

According to Todd Ashmann, president of Blue Point Brewing Company, craft beer drinkers are looking for more than just your average American lager; they’re looking for an experience.

Swap out beer for music, and the same can be said for Dead Heads and Phans. Just as craft beer fanatics revel in telling you how they got their hands on a rare can, you’re more likely to hear a Dead Head reminiscing about the last tribute concert they went to or live recording they procured than studying guitar sheet music or quietly listening to studio recordings. As with experimental brews, each live show is different, and therein lies the allure.

The Phan Base

“As a fan of both, I’ve found that most folks who attend jam band shows are fairly open-minded and interested in trying new experiences,” says Jeremy Danner, the ambassador brewer at Boulevard Brewing Company. “Not just related to music, but also culinarily, traveling, beverages, etc. Given that willingness to try new things, there seems to be a fun intersection of craft beer drinkers at most of the jam band shows I attend.”

It took some doing, but Rob Tod, founder of Allagash Brewing Company, also admitted to me that he was a Dead Head. We were standing in the barrel room at the brewery when I brought it up and asked about the connection. He laughed and slightly avoided the question, but when I stayed quiet and didn’t follow up with a different question, he jumped back into the conversation and allowed that he’d been to a couple of shows. He even had a picture on his phone of him at a show that he said should never see the light of day (he couldn’t find it, much to the relief of Allagash’s marketing director Jeff Pillet-Shore).

Rochester, New York, hometown of “JAMerica” author Conners, is also the birthplace of Three Heads Brewing. The name comes from the fact that the people who started the brewery are all Dead Heads and fans of Phish, or, as Conners puts it, “in other words, great guys.”

Go Green

“I think the easy answer is pot,” Blue Point’s Ashmann says plainly.

He has a point. Marijuana and hops share a chemical compound, terpenes, that accounts for their similar scent. Cannabis terms like “dank” are used to describe the flavor profiles of certain beers. Many beer names allude to marijuana; but some, like Lagunitas’s newly released Supercritical IPA, are made with marijuana terpenes extracts.

“As far as I can see, people in every profession like to smoke weed,” Conners says. “I actually think marijuana cultivation and the rise of legal weed outlets is very similar to the early emergence of craft breweries.”

Like craft beer and jam band scenes, weed culture is typically more prevalent on the coasts and in cities. Craft labels, especially small and independent operations, tend to represent the individual personalities and preferences of their founders. Some of those entrepreneurial brewers may just so happen to like marijuana, as in the openly marijuana-loving Lagunitas crew.

Speaking of brewers who enjoy weed, Conners adds: “I’m sure they’re all abiding by their local laws and being upright citizens in every way. Move along. Nothing to see here.”

The Next Set

Like all good parties, however, this one may be approaching its inevitable conclusion. At Boulevard, when Danner gets a chance to play the music, he plays a variety of music he calls “Danner’s Hotel Party.” It’s a mix of “bluegrass, jam bands, classic rock, old-school hip-hop, and a touch of Katy Perry,” he says, adding, “She just gets me, man.”

Metal plays as I walk through the Allagash brewery, not the Grateful Dead or The Black Crowes. Dan Jansen, the brewmaster at Blue Point, says he prefers classic rock.

Some of hottest new brewers, like Stillwater Artisanal Ales and Other Half, are more likely to have grown up with hip-hop and alternative rock than jam bands. For many born in the 1990s, voices like Nas and Kurt Cobain represent revolution, not seemingly happy-go-lucky hippies like Jerry Garcia.

But, even as times change and both the music and beer industries evolve, the shared origin stories of craft beer and jam bands are hard to ignore. That’s a set that will never end.

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