Beer & Music: The Jams That Fuel Craft Brewing Inspiration in Pittsburgh

If there’s one thing in life that you can always depend on, it’s this: Music makes everything better.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an example. I was just recently faced with the mundane task of cleaning out and organizing my garage. It’s not exactly something I was looking forward to, nor had high on my priority list. It’s just one of those things you do and get it over with. Also, I knew I’d be kicking myself if I waited ’til winter and had to bundle up to finish the job.

So, into the trenches I went. But I didn’t go into battle alone. I armed myself with music from one of my favorite bands, Machine Head. And a couple hours later, mission accomplished. The heavy guitar riffs and unique explosive sound that is Machine Head carried me through and, as an added bonus, helped me brainstorm the introduction to this story you’re currently consuming.

Think about it: Without music, would any of Rocky’s training montages been impactful? Without music, anyone doing the Macarena would look like nothing more than an escaped mental patient…although that argument can be made regardless. Without music, those Richard Simmons workout tapes would look just plain silly. And, I’m sorry, anything in the world set to the tune of the Benny Hill Theme is just better. Period. Watch this and try to argue:

When it comes to brewing beer, music is a natural accompaniment. Brewing is not unlike any other art form in the world. The artist has to get into a certain mood to attack the project at hand with the mindset of ending up with a masterpiece on the other side. And music is the perfect catalyst to set the tone for the day and make these artistic visions a reality.

If you’ve ever had the privilege of visiting a brewery during production times, you’ve most likely gotten to witness a real treat. The men and women who work tirelessly for their labor of love are typically in the thick of producing the brewery’s next release…and nearly 100% of the time, the sounds of music waft through the air as thick as the smell of fresh new brew. These brewers are the ultimate artists, utilizing ingenuity, trial and error, incredible focus, and a passion for perfection as they create the ultimate finished work: Beer!

Photo courtesy of The Independent Brewing Company - Pittsburgh.

Photo courtesy of The Independent Brewing Company – Pittsburgh.

And a great song serves as the perfect backdrop.

So, my inquiring mind had to know: What kinds of music fuel the creativity of some of our brewers in Pittsburgh? As hops get added to the boil and yeast gets pitched, what tunes and bands keep these brewhouses bumpin’ all day long? I figured there was no better way to get the answers I desired than by going straight to the source and get up close with some of our city’s best brewers and the music that steals their beer-making hearts.

You want to talk about musical diversity? The following is a regular musical UN…

East End Brewing

We kick off this journey into music and brewing at East End Brewing. Why? Because music means so much to the creation of East End beers, it’s documented as part of the brewing process.

You see, brewers keep a journal of their recipes where notes can be added, tweaks can be made, and the best versions of a specific beer can be saved for duplication down the road. At East End, brewers Brendan Benson, Joe Green, and Nordy Siljander also note what music they were listening to when that beer reached perfection. A hop-fueled muse, if you will.

“Generally, it’s brewer’s choice of what’s playing, so that can vary wildly depending on who (of the three) is doing the brewing,” said Scott Smith, owner of East End Brewing. “The idea is that the music contributes to the beer.”

Scott also informed me that the East End crew has been talking with Pittsburgh band The Beagle Brothers about testing the idea of brewing a special batch of beer…one that is brewed with full musical accompaniment the entire brew day.

NOTE: Front row seats for this show will sell out quicker than Woodstock.

Hitchhiker Brewing

Beer and GuitarOver the past year and a half, we’ve seen Hitchhiker Brewing’s Head Brewer Andy Kwiatkowski tinker and tweak and work like mad to perfect his recipes to crank out some incredible beers. From the first Hitchhiker batch that hit the scene during Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week 2014 to an extensive lineup of beers now on tap at their Mt. Lebanon taproom and bars across the city, the Hitchhiker brand has become a staple in the South Hills craft beer community. And those beers came to life with a variety of music helping the cause.

“It really depends on the the situation,” Andy explained. “Mashing in, lately I have been listening to Run the Jewels 2. Mid-brew, I’ve been listening to Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight. And cleaning up, I listen to Bluegrass or the Brewing Network.”

Spoonwood Brewing

Staying in the South Hills, musical influence is a major player at Spoonwood Brewing. Visits to the brewhouse to chat with Head Brewer Steve Ilnicki have led to the consumption of great beers, as well as a wide range of bands from different genres. From The Beatles to Guns ‘N Roses to Coheed and Cambria, whose track “Good Eye Sniper” is the inspiration behind the name of Steve’s mind-blowing Double IPA, good music and brewing go hand-in-hand at Spoonwood.

“I’m huge on music and brewing and want to make that connection prominent,” Steve stated. “Five Believers (Spoonwood’s Blonde Ale) was inspired by Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’ album, and Working Class Hero (Spoonwood’s Cream Ale) came from the John Lennon song. On brewing days, I always play something heavier like Metallica, Slayer, or Anthrax to keep the energy up.”

The Brew Gentlemen

Venturing down the road to Braddock, The Brew Gentlemen have carved out an incredible niche for themselves in this community on the rebound. Once a booming steel powerhouse, Braddock had fallen on harder times in the 1980s. Thankfully, Matt Katase and Asa Foster had the foresight to see tremendous things on the horizon and have played a major part in Braddock’s continuing revival.

And at the source of their success? Well, beer, of course! What tunes shake the walls at The Brew Gentlemen? Head Brewer Zach Gordon shed some light on the subject.

“We listen to a wide range of music in the brewhouse,” Zach pointed out. “I guess it depends on the mood that day. Anything from Electronic to Rap to Indie Rock. We definitely have favorites like ‘Dr. Dre – 2001’ and ‘War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream.'”

Grist House Brewing

“Grinding Out Great Beers” isn’t just a slogan at Grist House Brewing, it’s a way of life. Since day one, co-owners Brian Eaton and Kyle Mientkiewicz, as well as Assistant Brewer Sean Biby, have been committed to bringing the best beers to the party and they’ve rarely missed in that quest. From the relaxing outdoor seating area to the view of the brewhouse from the bar and everything in between, Grist House Brewing does not disappoint. But what tunes grind out of the speakers during the brewing process?

“Oh man, everything,” Brian said. “Rap, country, rock, folk, even classical. Sean lobbies for death metal but he rarely gets his way!”

Rivertowne Brewing

I paid a visit to Rivertowne Brewing’s production brewery in Export one recent morning and was treated to the familiar riffs of Iron Maiden. I had a beer in hand by 11:30am and everything seemed right with the world. Good music was blaring and the smell of fresh brew was floating through the air. Rivertowne has been bringing solid craft beer to Pittsburgh since 2012 and has reached distribution in six states. They also have four restaurants across the city that feature beers produced at the brewery and smaller batches from the Rivertowne Pour House’s pilot system, as well as other local favorites. And, as I discovered, the playlist on brew days reads like the ultimate Pandora channel.

“We listen to a lot,” Head Brewer Dale Walters said. “We listen to Iron Maiden, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, Phish, Dave Matthews Band, The Black Keys, Arctic Monkeys, Van Halen, Jim Hendrix, Flogging Molly, Pennywise, Metallica, Lamb of God, and Slayer.”

Just to name a few.

Rock Bottom

Beer & MusicTwo of the coolest and craziest cats I’ve met in Pittsburgh’s beer world have to be Meg and James Evans, brewers at Rock Bottom Brewery & Restaurant in The Waterfront. James also splits his time between Rock Bottom and the aforementioned Spoonwood, so you know he’s got good music in his ear no matter which brewhouse he’s frequenting. I asked James and Meg what sets the tone for a kick-ass brew day.

“I jam to The Black Dahlia Murder and Goatwhore,” James said. “I also listen to a lot of classic metal, like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Pantera.”

“I get into a lot of Ghost, Within The Ruins, and Thy Art is Murder,” Meg explained. “I also like to brew to Punk like Agnostic Front, Leftover Crack, and Bad Brains.”

Leftover Crack = best name ever.

Noble Stein Brewing Company

Their doors may not be open yet, but construction is underway and Noble Stein Brewing Company will soon be churning out quality beers in the heart of Indiana County. I’ve been particularly fond of their Hop Hired Hands Saison and can’t wait until I can hook it to my veins…er, get it more frequently in growler fills.

Make no mistake about it, Zack, Ben, Alex, and Max are set for primetime and their brewing adventures have been set to the beat of some funky jams as well.

“We listen to a lot of Electronic Dance Music,” Zack declared. “Our band of choice is Skrillex.”

Noble Stein is anticipating a late November/early December 2015 grand opening.

And On the Home Brewing Front…

Last, but certainly not least, the Pittsburgh region is bursting at the seams with tremendous home brewers. Many of the brewers who are making the beers you know and love got their start in their garages or basements and what once served as a hobby became a wildly fun profession. Home brewing has risen to dizzying heights and the presence of clubs such as T.R.A.S.H. (Three Rivers Association of Serious Homebrewers) and T.R.U.B. (Three Rivers Underground Brewers) can be felt at beer festivals all over town year-round. T.R.U.B. holds an annual event known as Brewing Up A Cure that’s designed to showcase the efforts of their entire club in an incredibly unique event, as well as raise money for Cystic Fibrosis.

It doesn’t matter where you’re brewing at…music is along for the ride. I tapped home brewers Gregor Bender and Malcolm Frazer to discover what cascades from their speakers when the brewing goes down.

“My brewing mentor introduced me to Mumford and Sons, so I like listening to that,” Gregor stated. “I like anything relaxing and melodic…sometimes house and trance music to pass the time.”

“I’m actually all over the place,” Malcolm admitted. “I love old school punk like The Ramones, new rock-inspired bluegrass such as Slim Cessna and the Auto Club, and blues like BB King. But, I’d say I settle primarily on 90s jazz-inspired hip-hop and funk.”

 

So there you have it. A small look inside to the music that makes Pittsburgh brewers tick. Often times, we get so wrapped up in the final product, we forget about all the work it took to get it in front of us. As I said, these brewers are truly masters of their craft. It’s enlightening to discover the muses that drive that artistic accomplishment.

The next step is organizing a Lollapalooza-esque brewing marathon. If anyone wants to take the lead on that, it’s all yours.

 

Into brewing? Tell us what music drives your passion to create awesome beer in the Comments section below!

 

 

 

 

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Jason Cercone

For more commentary from Jason, visit jasoncercone.com.