It all started with a punk kid’s tweet.
Alterna-rockers Against Me! had heard about friends in NOFX working with C’ville-based Champion Brewing Company on a collaboration beer. Guitarist James Bowman, doing some recording with Mike Burkett (aka Fat Mike) of NOFX, tried the beer and tweeted at Champion brew master Hunter Smith that he liked it.
You guys should make a “Black Me (St)out,” suggested a random fan on Twitter. It would be a cool nod to the final track and first single from Against Me!’s latest album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
“We kind of just said ‘haha, yeah,’” Smith said. “And a couple months later [Bowman] reached out and said, ‘So you want to do this?’”
The band and Champion brewers worked together to come up with a concept for the beer, and the wheat-based Black Me (St)out has since become part of Champion’s regular offerings. In fact, it’s the next beer the brewery is planning to release in cans.
“Once the initial batch was finished, I tried it and loved it,” Bowman said. “The rest is history. I haven’t had the opportunity to actually make the beer yet, but Hunter and I talk about making beers all the time.”
After Against Me! rocks the Southern Cafe and Music Hall on July 25, fans of the band and brewery will be treated to something that isn’t part of either’s regular offerings. From midnight to 2am, Champion will be pouring a version of the stout that’s been aged in bourbon barrels, and Bowman will be stopping by the brewery to hang out and play deejay. Smith said he expects the guitarist and vocalist to select “music that’s inspired them.”
Whether that will be music that inspired Bowman and Against Me! a decade ago or now remains to be seen. The band has gone through a lot since it came together in 1997. Only two of the early members, Bowman and founder Laura Jane Grace, remain with the band, which is now rounded out by bassist Inge Johansson and drummer Atom Willard, and the height of Against Me!’s popularity with 2010’s major label release White Crosses seems like a long time ago. Since then, the band has parted ways with Sire Records, and Grace has changed her name from Tom Gabel and begun living as a woman.
“I don’t ever wanna talk that way again/I don’t wanna know people like that anymore/ As if there was an obligation/As if I owed you something,” Grace begins on “Black Me Out,” before screaming the refrain.
Champion’s relationship with bands—they’ve done a collabo with The Hold Steady in addition to the NOFX and Against Me! beers—isn’t necessarily unique in the craft brewing world. Craft stalwarts Dogfish Head and Stone have dabbled in the practice, and cult favorite Three Floyds in Indiana arguably pioneered it. The question is always just how much input the band has on the final product. Is the whole thing just clever marketing? Or are there actual synergies happening?
Smith admits the beers Champion made with NOFX and The Hold Steady were made from somewhat of a distance. He concocted Stickin’ in My Rye, a rye India pale ale, as an homage to NOFX’s track “Stickin’ in My Eye” before getting the band’s sign-off. The Hold Steady beer was a collaborative creative process but mediated through the band’s photographer.
As a rule of thumb, Smith said the musicians involved in the collaborations at least have to be onboard with the idea and the style of beer being brewed.
“We only wanted to do it as an authorized project together,” Smith said. “It wouldn’t be any fun if you did it under the radar and were just hoping you didn’t get caught.”
The Black Me (St)out represents Champion’s closest collaboration with a band yet. Starting with the idea of doing a stout in honor of the first single on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the first idea on the table was a Russian imperial stout, a big bodied, high-alcohol version of the style.
“We both agreed giving a bunch of punk kids a nine percent Russian imperial stout wasn’t the best idea,” Smith said.
They settled on producing a drier, lower alcohol stout and used wheat malt to give the beer a rich body without taking it over the top.
Smith said the process of working with musicians is a natural one for him. Prior to opening his brewery, he played as a singer-songwriter locally, and he enjoyed a brief stint with a record label when he was younger. His music career was derailed in part because he wanted to settle down and start a family. Collaborating with bands allows him to bring out his old passions when making beer.
“Musicians and brewers have such a similar vibe,” Smith said. “There is something that resonates through the creative process. Craft beer and punk rock and metal are so together in that they are against the status quo. They don’t want to do shiny pop, and we don’t want to do corn and rice lager.”
Smith said the types of people that are into alt-rock tend to gravitate toward non-mainstream beers. That means there could be quite a crowd at Champion for the Against Me! after party. But don’t leave the band’s show early, Smith said.
Spoken like a musician.