Punk Rock and Beer

punkrockandbeer

By Ian Wise – from issue #6 of Mash Tun Journal

I woke up earlier today after a stressful night in the beer industry and read that Tommy Ramone had died. I had the idea for this article a while back, but now it feels a little more urgent. This article is about two very specific things: beer and punk rock. Outside of my family (or perhaps in spite of my family), those are pretty much the only two things that actually matter, in that I still learn so much from both of them, despite the fact that they are basic and erroneous. I know that beer is water, barley, hops, and yeast, but looking at those four ingredients is a confusing rush. Like the first time I heard an SS Decontrol record and thought, “Holy shit, that’s just four people?”

There’s something fantastic in how four simple ingredients controlled by tiny variables can create an impossibly large world of flavor and weights. Sometimes something hits just right and all the spaces in between seem to disappear. The four ingredients in beer have taught me more about chemistry, history, and sociology than I ever learned in school. While punk is usually four upset kids yelling, the life lessons I’ve taken away from it have literally defined who I am and what I do with my life on a day-to-day basis. If I hadn’t found punk early in my life then I probably wouldn’t have the confidence and resilience it takes to cut it in the beer industry, and I sure as hell would have found a job more lucrative than backing the craft scene.

We currently have more breweries in the US since Prohibition, and now that regional styles are taking off we are starting to see smaller scenes pop up in other countries as well. This explosion mirrors the late ‘70s, early ‘80s trend of aggressive music that empowered people to do something simply because they could. American’s craft beer explosion has similarly inspired a wave of new breweries, to the point of terminal velocity. It seems we are seeing mediocre copycats cropping up. Many are just trying to get us too drunk at the beer fests to remember whether or not we liked their product. Are we really convincing ourselves that bigger is better, or that more of the same is really going to make us complete? Sure, we can all cop Black Flag riffs and spew out a million double IPAs, but does the world really need anything heavier than My War?

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There is much to learn from the overlooked pieces of our past. Digging out obscure Spanish records—Eskorio, early Deciblios, and the lone single by Vulpess—shows how those bands took cues from British and American styles, before weaving those influences with their own sensibilities. Vulpess, a band composed of four, young Spanish girls, made a notable contribution to the punk canon in 1983 with their ripping cover of the Stooges classic “I Wanna’ Be Your Dog.” Their version includes gender-specific lyrics, and whose updated title roughly translates to “I Like Being a Whore.” It’s not a record people would line up to buy, but it’s on par with the hyped records released by renowned labels of the era. Nowadays, we’ll drive 100 miles—or scour Craigslist—for a bottle of beer whose inclusion into our Ratebeer profile will look good to our friends. Meanwhile, challenging brews sit on the shelves of liquor stores, eager for us to see the intrigue of Maibock, Rauchbier, and Brabent Ale, styles that do not get their just dues, compared to barrel-aged stouts and double IPAs.

The brewing industry in the US is catering to a larger, more educated crowd than ever, yet the market’s most popular beer styles show an industry in its infancy. India pale ales make up over 60% of the American craft market, with the term “hop head” being co-opted by even the most bland businessmen affecting a chic persona in their Social Distortion t-shirt. “Yes, I went to college,” they think. “Now I have a lot of money to spend on stuff you can’t afford.” Although the yuppie beer market is expanding, the Danes are an example of counter-culture brewing, churning out awkward brews akin to the glory days of Danish punk like the Lost Kids or the Sods. With breweries Mikkeller and Evil Twin, the Bjergso brothers are showing that they can open up the palates of even those most conservative, aged faux-hipsters. If Evil Twin’s cheeky beers—Low Life Pilsener and Soft DK Imperial Stout, for example—have a rightful place in the market, there’s no reason more esoteric brews can’t make their way into our mouths, right?

You may have opened one of the last three issues of this DIY-style zine and read my articles about international cheese pairings with beer. Maybe you actually went to a local market and tracked down something I wrote about. Maybe you had a party with your friends where you paired beer with cheese—I hope my writing had an influence on that. Instead of writing about cheese and beer, this time I’m going to pair beer with records. Whether you find this music at the record store, on eBay, or through BitTorrent, get your shopping list ready. Afterward, invite your friends over for a drinking party that will be a little less sophisticated but a lot more fun.

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Los Angeles was arguably the punk rock hub of the world in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, home to many of the revered bands whose influence is apparent in the music played on modern college radio. While Black Flag and the majority of the early Dangerhouse Records set are (rightly) celebrated in the mainstream rock press, there are dozens of other early gems that never got the recognition they deserve. The Chiefs, an early proto-hardcore band, released a fantastic 7” in 1980 called Blues. It invited the listener into the Los Angeles scene with open arms. Those arms were sweaty and probably smelled like beer and stale cigarettes, but the mid-tempo romp was as important to the punk crowd as Black Flag’s Jealous Again EP. For a beer in a similar vein, travel thirty minutes south to San Diego’s Stone Brewing and try their Chipotle Porter. Compared to the rest of Stone’s aggressive portfolio, Chipotle Porter is understated yet robust. For a more aggressive affair, pair Arrogant Bastard with Fear’s The Record LP—tell me it’s doesn’t go great with screaming “I Don’t Care About You” from your porch at 2 a.m. For another LA/San Diego crossover, drop the needle on “Mindless Contentment” from the Plugz 7”, Move, and crack a Green Flash West Coast IPA. Both are simple, the song in its repetitive melody and the beer in its almost excessive use of hops. For their respective times, both are representative of Southern California—and neither could be more refreshing.

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Next, let’s visit a place not many people look to for great beer or punk, the American South. Alabama’s beer scene is exploding right now, mostly due to recently relaxed laws regarding ABV and bottle size. For years, the big guns of the beer market have successfully stifled legislation put forth in the interest of craft beer. Meanwhile, people were driving to neighboring states to get good beer. A tenacious beer advocate could also find the occasional miniature speakeasy in the way of bootlegged taps in bars, bars that risked losing their licenses to pour a hearty stout or double IPA. Thinking about how bad it was reminds me of early Alabama bands like Huntsville’s Knockabouts, whose shows sometimes turned into riots, as rednecks tried to fight them and the cops always sided with the more conservative locals. Beginning in 1983, they recorded a litany of songs about their surroundings, including a sloppy cover a classic Southern rock tune—their rendition was called “Shit Home Alabama.” They never released a record in their ‘80s heyday (much like their younger Huntsville counterparts Dead Pigeon or Birmingham’s fabled GNP), but the prolific San Francisco label Prank Records released a 7” of selected demo tracks in 1994. The record is snotty and sarcastic, but equally dangerous when viewed in the context of its time and place, much like brewing beer during Prohibition.

The perfect pairing is unfortunately now impossible. The nights I spent sucking down beer from Huntsville’s Olde Towne brewery can’t be recreated. As Huntsville’s first microbrewery since Prohibition, the company struggled to sell simple but well-crafted brews to a market dominated by Budweiser for several years. They lost their business to a fire in 2007 and somehow found the resolve to rebuild, only to close in 2010 due to lack of local interest. The next year some of the first relaxed beer laws in the state were passed and the craft beer movement began to gain traction in Alabama. Now Alabama is home to several great breweries, mostly based around the Birmingham area. Good People and Avondale Brewing are honing their skills and selling to an eager market.

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Florida in the 1980s rivaled New York or Boston in terms of violence. Cuban skinheads in Miami were fighting gang bangers and jocks were literally out to kill punks in Fort Lauderdale. Turns out, the bands from the day matched that intensity. An obvious choice for a beer pairing is Belching Penguin’s Draft Beer, Not Me, a totally over-the-top and high speed LP from 1986. Not only was Belching Penguin ahead of their time, they had a sense of humor about their music. I can imagine a retired Florida punk spinning Draft Beer, Not Me with a good tripel in hand. Tripel goes down smooth but gets you drunk fast, like a lot of Florida hardcore. For this pairing, I suggest La Fin Du Monde from Canada’s Unibroue. If you want to do some killer geographic pairing with Unibroue, look for the Fringe Records catalog, specializing in late ‘80s Canadian crossover (I highly recommend the debut LPs by Death Sentence and Sudden Impact). If you want to keep your Florida pairings Southern, check out another high-gravity, but easy to drink beer like Good People’s Snake Handler IPA. In Alabama, the old way to buy most high-alcohol craft beer was via draft at liquor stores. You could buy gallon milk jugs of Snake Handler for $14, and then you’d see ragged punks at parties blasting Operation Ivy and drinking gallons of beer straight out of the carton, standing in the backyard of whoever would host them. It’s a truly Southern experience. Nashville’s Yazoo Brewing’s Sue, a smoked ale suited for Southern nights when you’re stuffing your face full of Full Moon BBQ while an Anti-Heros record plays in the background

One of the most underrated areas for both beer and punk music is the Midwest. Considering the target readership of this magazine (that probably stopped reading after the second paragraph), the Midwest seems like a good place to finish. Chicago has the fastest growing beer market in the United States (I was told recently that 122 new brands were launched in Illinois in the past year), so we really do have a lot to choose from. If traffic is light, Revolution, Two Brothers, Solemn Oath, and Three Floyds are all located within an hour of each other. Similarly, some of the progressive records from the golden era of punk (and beyond) were made in the region. Some of them sold out quicker than Bourbon County Proprietor’s, such as the Youth Attack catalog—whew!

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In 1983, Ruthless Records released one of the better-known Chicago classics: The Effigies’ We’re Da Machine, peppered with nods to the British Oi movement. Still, it felt like a fuckin’ Chicago record, with all the balls and smarmy charm of a bunch of guys too smart to write resort terrace anthems or pub rock clichés. Warrenville’s Two Brothers Brewing Company, one of the oldest independently-owned craft breweries in Illinois, follows a similar aesthetic of making old world styles and developing them for a rougher American palate. Cane and Ebel, a red rye with Thai palm sugar, has a smooth sweetness delivered by a body as thick and viscous as an Effigies single. Black pepper and pineapple roll out of the nose like the guitar licks on “Quota” or “Techno’s Gone.”

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But what about the less refined aspects of the Midwestern punk canon? If you are used to The Effigies as the center of the region, you can split most of the Midwest’s bands onto either side of their sound. On one side, you have the raw, sped up bootboy rock in Detroit bands like Negative Approach and Bored Youth. They incorporated soccer chants and glam riffs with their sound, writing, in my opinion, the most aggressive and angst-ridden songs in the history of American music. In 1981, Negative Approach’s first record, a self-titled 7” slotted as one of the first releases on Touch and Go (who would become one of the most prolific indie labels in history), still sounds like a fucked up, tortured mess. Their younger counterparts, Bored Youth, followed a similar idea, but they only released one demo tape during their time together. The demo was bootlegged by German label Lost and Found in 1993 and officially released by Alona’s Dream Records in 2013. A good pairing for both is a  new brewery in the Western Suburbs of Chicago called Flesk Brewing. Maybe it’s because they are one of the little guys—brewing on a 3 ½ barrel system—but as the Chicago landscape is populated by dozens of new nanobreweries, they are the one’s playing loud enough to be heard over the static of the others. Their beers aren’t the easiest to find, much like an original pressing of the Negative Approach 7”. But when you do come across a Flesk beer, buy and savor it. Bored Youth only recorded 8 songs and you don’t want to be left with half a bottle when the needle hits the center label.

After years of digging through record boxes I’ve learned that it’s easy to own a lot of records. I mean, really easy. But it’s hard to own a lot of good ones. I’ve also learned that there is too much good beer in this world to waste my liver drinking mediocre beer. There’s something to be learned from the records sitting on a shelf waiting to blow your mind. I spent 15 years looking for a copy of We Can’t Help it If We’re From Florida, but finding it wasn’t the result of standing in line or following trends—it was split-second serendipity. I felt the same when I walked into a bar in Tuscon without an idea of what I wanted and spotted a bottle of Ska’s Steel Toe Stout. I got to taste a beer that I had always missed in the Chicago and Alabama markets, and to me it was more rewarding than getting to rank a 2011 Dark Lord for the approval of Internet hordes.

We are all individuals—our preferences should reflect our own experiences. Whether it’s a good beer or a good punk record, two things less tangible than their ingredients define both, and that is a time and a place. The terroir of each is not only what lends them their subtleties, it’s what give them their meaning. Nights spent sharing good beer with friends while listening to the music of your youth will have more impact on you than mere tasting notes you memorize and file away. Chasing the white whale is a hunt that ends several hours after it begins, when you land on the shore, lonely and sober, with the Untappd badge to prove your journey. But if you see the world as a jungle with millions of goals waiting to be discovered, your life is a journey that retains your interest until you succumb to your own obsessions. I can’t imagine living another way.

RIP Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy.

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Ian Wise is Mash Tun Editor and has a punk rock and beer show on Lumpen Radio called Out of Vogue.

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