Why So Many Metal Bands Are Releasing Their Own Beers

As major and underground bands produce unique brews, craft beer is quickly becoming metal's ultimate merch accessory.

Why So Many Metal Bands Are Releasing Their Own Beers
Courtney Iseman

“One of the earliest childhood memories I have is sitting on my grandparents’ back porch in the summertime, pouring [my grandfather] and my dad pints of Schmidt’s beer and sneaking sips of the head,” says Jon Kunz, guitarist of Pennsylvanian death metal crew Outer Heaven, when asked why he wanted to make a beer. “I don’t remember much of my childhood, but I can still taste that crappy Schmidt’s foam and love it.”

Jon’s certainly not alone. Between an initial rush around 2012 and today, enough bands have put out beers that it seems hard to think of a band without its own unique craft brew. Now that making a band-centric beer has become commonplace, one wonders exactly how we got here. Does the combination of metal and beer make so much sense that these collaborations could become a permanent fixture in music merch?

A match made in Hell

From the simple love of beer that a musician like Jon has to the cross-promotion that can benefit a brewery, we talked to bands, brewers and industry experts to examine why so many bands have something brewing these days.

“Beer is a no-brainer when it comes to rock’n’roll from a marketing perspective,” branding and marketing expert and owner of FeralCat Productions Liz Vap says in an email. “Especially when it comes to metal music, it goes hand in hand, drinking a beer at a show and watching your favorite band.”

The link between certain genres of music and drinking is hardly a mystery, from metalheads crushing cans to hip-hop videos giving champagne a starring role. Beyond the thematic bond, there’s the simple connection of rock shows being the perfect place to have a drink. But not only are most venues centered around their bars (where the majority of their nightly revenues come from), but many also can stock band/brewery collaborations at their bars. With metal-and-beer festivals on the rise, bands and breweries increasingly have the chance to capitalize on this inherent connection and bring their collaborations right to the bands’ shows.

“We did a festival together where the breweries were pouring beer next to the bands selling merch,” recalls KCBC co-owner Tony Bellis of the brewery’s collaboration with Arizona death metallers Gatecreeper. “It’s cool for everyone going to the show to drink the beer, talk to the band, and talk to us all in one stop.”

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One of the first bands to add their name to a craft beer were Canadian thrashers Voivod, releasing Kluskap O’Kom with Quebec’s Hopfenstark Brewery in 2013. To guitarist Dan ”Chewy” Mongrain, metal and beer take the concept of pairings to a more artistic level.

“It is great to pair a taste with a music,” Dan says. “We usually pair food and drinks or drinks and drinks, but now we can pair sound and drinks in a conceptual way...I think it’s in itself another kind of art.”

At the bar, everybody’s famous

In the beginning, there was Trooper. Well, almost: Iron Maiden and Robinsons Brewery teamed up to release their ESB, or Extra Special Bitter, in March of 2013, when the band beer scene consisted of a few craft offerings from underground bands and a few forgettable pilsners from stadium players like KISS (fronted by two known teetotalers). While many of the big-name brews faded out, Maiden and Robinsons clearly had established a strong partnership that helped Trooper become one of the most ubiquitous metal beers at bars and venues to this day.

“I am incredibly proud of the success that Trooper has had, and long may it continue,” Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson told us. “I’m delighted that our fans and beer lovers worldwide have enjoyed them so much, and who knows what we will come up with next.”

Trooper’s success may well be the source of inspiration for other prominent acts who would follow suit and try their hand at a beer as the trend bubbled on for subgenre staples like Pig Destroyer and Skeletonwitch. Based on Trooper’s survival versus beers from the likes of AC/DC having a quick death, bigger bands knew they had to be as involved in the process of making a beer as underground death and doom metal bands.

The result is beers that don’t just wear a band’s logo on their label, but seem to embody their identity. In 2016, Motörhead and Camerons Brewery rolled out their Road Crew IPA, demonstrating the bond between metal and drinking that the Road Crew team, Global Merchandising Services Chairman Barry Drinkwater and Project Manager Michael Drinkwater, say Lemmy believed in. “In Motörhead’s world there is only one scene -- so both cultures are one and the same.”

Gotta drink ‘em all

“I remember when I worked with kings of merchandise The Rolling Stones on the Steel Wheels tour and they sold branded incense and it sold out in a day,” Liz Vap says. “I think audiences, especially metal audiences, are so loyal to their bands that they want to support them in any way, and love something different when it comes to merchandise.”

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For modern fans, who already own a million T-shirts and maybe aren’t so diehard as to sew patches on their jackets, band-themed brews are a fresh way for fans to get their hands on another piece of their favorite artists. One could easily argue that a beer is more useful -- in the moment, at least -- than, say, a sticker. Especially in the age of craft brewing, people like to “collect” unique or hard-to-find beers, and if that beer represents and supports one of their favorite bands, all the better.

“It adds to the fan’s experience — people tell us they bought it at a festival just because it has our logo on it,” Eyehategod frontman Mike IX Williams says of his band’s craft beer collaborations with Indiana’s 3 Floyds Brewing Co. “It’s also for people to enjoy and drink, but at the same it’s another piece of merch to have. It’s interactive. You drink it, and you save the bottle for later.”

Collaboration mania

More than ever before, brands are thinking outside the box for ways to market themselves. Simultaneously, breweries collaborating with other breweries has reached the level where almost any brewery you step into will have one or two taps featuring beers by outside parties. Even big brands are turning to breweries to make them promotional brews, from Dunkin’s Coffee Porter to IHOP’s Pumpkin Pancake Stout. As beer journalist and author of Drink Better Beer Joshua M. Bernstein puts it, “It’s 2019, isn’t everything a gimmick now?”

For bands, these opportunities are a fun way to work outside of music -- a chance to embrace something they love while simultaneously helping to promote their main project.

“When you’re the ‘creative type,’ you don’t like being limited to one outlet of creativity,” says Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine. The thrash legends’ follow-up to their À Tout Le Monde beer with Unibroue, Saison 13, was recently announced, officially making Megadeth one of the more prolific beer-producing metal bands. “Making this beer was just as fulfilling as writing a new song for me...except I get to drink it! I’m no stranger to the alcohol business. For one, I’ve drank a lot of it in my past and we opened a wine business about five years ago during my Symphony Interrupted performance...Since then, we’ve had such a great experience and envisioned expanding. I love an ice-cold beer on a hot day, and I think it’s a fact that beer makes friends.”

One of the reasons collaboration fever is playing out in the music world through IPAs and porters is the same reason corporate brands have been choosing breweries for their stunt promotions: the rising demand for and prevalence of craft beer.

“Craft beer is blowing up all over the world,” Dave notes. “I think people are bored with just a regular piss-colored beer. Now it’s becoming as much of an art as the beer business.”

“Venues and bars have gotten more savvy to craft beer in the last two decades,” says Adam Zuniga, ‘Beer Slayer’ of documentary series The Six Most Metal Breweries. “It used to be absolutely dominated by corporate beer, and a lot of that goes with sponsorship. Now, they’re responding to consumer demand and consumers want more craft.”

Black sales at midnight

“It’s no secret that the original ways of growth and making it in the music industry have drastically changed,” Liz Vap notes. “The bands, labels and management have to find alternate methods of getting the artist funds outside of streaming.”

That both heavy music and craft beer need to adapt to a changing audience has made both art forms perfect bedfellows. Artists who need to pivot from the dying world of physical sales are perfect catalysts for underground breweries looking for a leg up.

“Music and beer are going through the same crisis in different ways,” agrees KCBC’s Tony Bellis. “Bands aren’t selling music the way they used to, so they’re looking for additional revenue streams other than being on the road. It’s the same with breweries. In the United States, we have over 7,000 craft breweries. That’s a lot of competition.”

“The cross-promotion from social media benefits both of us,” says Mark Osborne, owner of Virginia’s Adroit Theory, who has collaborated with underground bands like Horrendous and Outer Heaven. “It creates an opportunity for the band and obviously for us, as well, to design new artwork that dovetails with album releases or new singles. What we did with Outer Heaven...it integrated very well with their artwork.” (Notably, famed death metal artist Mark Riddick did the art for Outer Heaven’s beer, NecroGenesis)

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“Working with Def Leppard and releasing Def Leppard Pale definitely opened us up to new audiences who we don’t normally connect with,” says Elysian Brewing Company’s Brand Manager Andrea Boyle. “Def Leppard fans are diehard about the band, and were ecstatic to get their hands on the collaboration brew while getting introduced to the Elysian brand.”

United we stand, gently swaying from side to side

“If you decide to do a collab with someone, the brewery should have the same way of thinking about beers as you have as a band making music,” says At The Gates frontman Tomas Lindberg of the band’s IPA collaboration with 3 Floyds. “3 Floyds fit us perfectly in that way, as they were very serious and ambitious -- basically just focused on creating great shit.”

Another common thread between bands and breweries is shared work ethic and fandom of one another. Often, bands love craft beer and brewers love metal, leading them to find one another when the idea for collaboration arises. It’s common to hear metal blasting through brew houses, and for all of the business opportunities, many of these partnerships come down to two sides who respect each other’s work and want to do something fun together.

Connections can also be local. “There has to be common ground,” says Revolution Brewing brewer John “Jumpy” Palos of their collaborative beer with hard rockers Chevelle. “We like to collaborate with bands from Chicago, having that common location and sense of community in both the music and brewery scenes.”

“If you’re a local brewery, why not partner with a local band?” Joshua M. Bernstein reasons. “It’s the same as partnering with a local business. What makes more sense, partnering with R.E.I. on a national scale or a local band? All marketing opportunities have merit, but how are you trying to present yourself as a brewery?”

As is the case for Outer Heaven and plenty of others, connections can be grounded in a band just plain loving beer.

“As a lifelong beer lover, the idea of making a beer exactly as what we would call our perfect beer sounded like perfection,” Gary Holt says when asked about the Toxic Maltz beer Exodus made with 3 Floyds. “I wanted a super strong high-quality Belgian-style ale that reminded me of my first tour in Europe. When [late frontman Paul] Baloff and all of us first hit an outdoor beer garden and saw the dudes drinking beers out of glasses like fish bowls, we said to the waiter, ‘We’ll have what they’re having!’, not knowing they were 10-to-12 percent alcohol! We got hammered. We needed to relive that.”

Who’s buying the next round?

Sadly, while metal’s beer collaborations are legion, the ability to sell them as merch is slim to none. Thanks to distribution laws and the fact that beer is a perishable item, selling six packs alongside shirts is something bands simply can’t do.

“I think we’re going to see more band and brewer collabs not due to some novelty aspect, but because the two are so ingrained,” says Outer Heaven’s Jon Kunz. “I can’t see it becoming a viable merch option, though...You can’t mail liquid, so selling it online isn’t an option, either. I [can’t] imagine a venue allowing anyone besides themselves selling alcohol to their patrons, so selling it at shows is also out of the question. Until the laws change regarding alcohol, I think we’re more likely to hear new Necrophagist than see cases of NecroGenesis at the merch table.”

Based on the enthusiasm from bands and breweries, though, along with the practical benefits these collaborations bring from promotion to revenue to good old fashioned fun, fans can expect to see more metal beers holding ground as their own special kind of merch.

“It’s an extension of the merch table,” says Adam Zuniga. “Being able to buy a beer with the band on it, with their name, their artwork -- to me, that absolutely has as much value as picking up a T-shirt and frankly, an album for that matter.”

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