“Whiskey’s too rough, champagne costs too much, and vodka puts my mouth in gear.” – Tom T. Hall, “I Like Beer”
Like old friends who met young, beer and music are inextricably linked. At the dawn of civilization, those proto-hipster Sumerians honored their goddess of brewing with a hymn that doubled as a recipe (sample lyric: Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats. Coolness overcomes). Thousands of years later, Trappist monks began batching ales to the sound of their own chanting. The earliest drinking songs1 were, in fact, beer-drinking songs, and today England, Ireland, Japan, and a slew of other nations boast tunes to be sung with a pint.
In his indispensable “Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink,” Randy Mosher writes, “Beer is the universal beverage. [It] brings people together on common ground.” Longfellow described music in similar terms, as “the universal language of mankind.” Is it any wonder these two cultural levelers pair so well together?2 Is it a coincidence that hoisting a stein looks like a dance move?
Though embraced worldwide, beer and music are, of course, subject to fiercely held individual tastes. The same could be said of the sweet spot where the two intersect. Beethoven, for one, was fond of low-alcohol “small beer.” Pioneering jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet liked lager.3 Buddy Guy favors witbier and even offers an eponymous version at his Chicago blues club. During their scruffy ’80s prime, The Replacements kept Grainbelt in business by honoring the proud rock ‘n’ roll tradition of drinking until you forget your songs. Indie hero and noted lush Robert Pollard still keeps a cooler of Bud Light by his side while performing. And let’s not forget gangster rap’s complicated 1990s dalliance with malt liquor.4
Occasionally, beer spills onto the lyric sheet.5 Early 20th-century blues and jazz songwriter Wesley Wilson is remembered for “Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer),” a screw-it-let’s-get-drunk jam if there ever was one, sung most effectively by Billie Holiday. Other songs tout beer’s role as the poor man’s tipple (“Six Pack,” Black Flag), a legitimate meal substitute (“Beer for Breakfast,” The Replacements), a beverage worth fighting for (“One Beer,” MF DOOM; “Monkey Banana/Excuse O,” Fela Kuti), and the ultimate shit-starter (“Beercan,” Beck). There’s even a subgenre dedicated to beer delivery vessels: Toby Keith pours his swilly stuff into a red Solo cup; Garth Brooks had a love-hate relationship with a “Longneck Bottle” (Longneck bottle, let go of my hand); and pop-punksters NOFX swear by the “Beer Bong” (Drinking beer’s too slow, beer bong’s the way to go!).
Craft brew is conspicuously absent from the modern songbook. L.A. group The Firkins sings about it, as do brewer-fronted bands like Dogfish Head’s self-described “beer geek hip-hop ensemble”—but these are novelty acts. Not that I’m craving serious odes to double IPAs and chocolate stouts, or to those who make them,6 but given that everyone from Action Bronson to Billy Joel have penned verses about fancy food, you’d think there’d be some legitimate songs about good beer by now.
Offstage, beer fuels the audience as much as the artist. Some hop-head music fans engage their passions through old rituals such as sipping a Bavarian brew at a polka bar or sake (it’s beer!) at a karaoke lounge in Tokyo. Others are lemmings, like the gutterpunks who once chugged Mickey’s in the manner of their favorite singing anarchists.7 More recent is the trend of mixing beer and song through playlists, an approach that can feel forced. (Does Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” really go well with a dark lager, as NPR suggested a couple years back?). But more often than not, combining the two art forms is organic and malleable, dependent on time, place and one’s mood8—like singing in the shower with a bottle of Pliny the Elder or throwing on some INXS and cracking a Foster’s to remind you of that walkabout down under.
But lest our history lesson becomes too sentimental, let’s remember that malt drink and music are also longtime business partners. For up-and-coming performers, beer is often currency. In the late 1940s, a young Carl Perkins worked for cheap suds in the juke joints of his native Tennessee. When Perkins became a bona fide rockabilly star, beer was just another line item on his rider, as it has been for countless acts throughout history.9 Breweries themselves often drive the record business,10 sponsoring shows and festivals, but the inverse is also true, as evidenced by the slew of music-themed beers released each year—21st Amendment’s Back in Black IPA, for instance, or Surly’s Doomtree, an English bitter inspired by the Minneapolis hip-hop crew of the same name.
What would Ninkasi, the Sumerian deity of beer, make of capitalism’s claws in song and brew? And of musical demigods and their ale-swigging followers? After wondering why there aren’t more female brewers and bandleaders, she’d probably be cool with it all. Because removed from modern context, music and beer are simply joyous expressions of life. Throw the two together, and your night’s likely to turn into a Jimmy Witherspoon song. “Let’s have a party and drink up all the beer,” the legendary jump blues singer once belted. “Well wine is fine, but give me lots of beer.”
1–Medieval poetry collection “Carmina Burana” is thought to contain the first recorded drinking songs.
2–Wine and liquor also pair well with music, but their shared history with song isn’t nearly as deep and tangled as beer’s. A hot take for another day, I suppose.
3–While vacationing in a small town in Ohio in the early 1940s, Bechet, who was black, ordered a beer at a local tavern. The bartender looked him up and down and told him he had to drink it from a can. “Certainly it’s much more sanitary that way,” said Bechet with a smile. The bartender turned red and handed Bechet a glass.
4–Long before it was embraced by gangster rap, Olde English was brewed by People’s Brewing Company of Duluth until the outfit closed in 1957.
5–Not counting those traditional beer drinking ditties, which are a dime a dozen and include “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” (orig. America), “Beer, Beer, Beer” (British Isles), and “Ein Prosit” (Germany).
6–L.A. hip-hop group People Under the Stairs does mention Stone Brewing Co. in one of its songs, so that’s a start.
7–“I’ve only been in love with a beer bottle and a mirror.” —Sid Vicious
8–On a recent night at Minnehaha Falls, three friends and I split a pitcher of Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold. While sipping from plastic cups, we watched a jazz quartet whose fiddle player stole the show with wild, improvisational riffs. The malty lager was just as remarkable. It was one of those rare meldings of beer and music that borders on transcendence.
9–My favorite beer-based tour rider request comes courtesy of Adele. During her 2011 tour, the singer asked for “12 bottles of the best quality European lager beer,” adding that “North American beer is NOT acceptable.” If only she knew what she was missing.
10–If it’s synergy you’re looking for, look no further than commercials, the most blatant mechanism for beer and music’s free-market tendencies. For a classic example, YouTube the 1960s ad for Schaefer Beer, in which Louis Armstrong growls, “Schaefer, it’s the one beer to have when you’re having more than one!”