12 December 2011

KOTBR #137: Superbeer

The idea of a superbeer1 - a beer composed of the combined flavors of two or more highly regarded individual beers - is perhaps a new idea in craft beer. Yes, there have been collaborations before, but (as far as I can recall) there has never been an effort for two or more breweries to take their best-known and limited release beers and combine them to create something entirely new.

Three Floyds' 15th Anniversary Beer, Baller Stout, changes that. Brewers from Surly (Darkness), Mikkeller (Beer Geek Brunch), and Struise (Black Albert) brewed their recipes at Floyds, and then combined their beer with Dark Lord to create a new and unprecedented Russian-style imperial stout.

While idea of combining elements from the best of one thing to create something entirely different is new to beer, it's not new to Rock and Roll. Wikipedia provides a long list of supergroups - some more super than others2. Is Baller Stout the Traveling Wilburys, or Chickenfoot? We sat down with the beer to find out.

While touring as a member of Nirvana, Dave Grohl brought along a guitar, writing songs that were never shared with his bandmates. After the death of Kurt Cobain, Grohl took these songs to a studio outside of Seattle, playing every instrument, and completing an album's worth of material in just 5 days. He released the album via tape to friends with the title "Foo Fighters".

Eventually the music industry took notice, and Grohl decided to put together a band. Although the band started with former Sunny Day Real Estate members Nate Mendel (bass) and William Goldsmith (drums), and former Germs/Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear, eventually the band swallowed up the Alanis Morissette touring band's Taylor Hawkins and No Use For A Name's Chris Shiflett. Considering their collective history, it would be fair to call Foo Fighters a supergroup.

But no one thinks of Foo Fighters as a supergroup - I think it's fair to say that most people think of Foo Fighters as Dave Grohl's band after Nirvana. And while most folks are at least OK with what the Foo Fighters do, it's hard to forget how good Nirvana were, and remember Dave Grohl as their monstrous drummer. That's no slight to the other members of the Foo Fighters - it's just that the legacy of Nirvana overshadows anything that comes after it.

At this point, you're probably wondering if you're still reading about beer.

Baller Stout is a fine beer, one that anyone would be happy to drink and praise if it had come from any random brewery. But knowing the beer's history - Dark Lord, Darkness, Black Albert, and Beer Geek Brunch - there's a legacy to compete with. Dark Lord by itself is the Nirvana element here, the be all/end all Russian Imperial Stout, and while the other beers certainly add something to the mix, wasn't Nirvana really fucking great?

4.2 Mugs

Whenever a supergroup is formed, it usually creates both excitement and fear. The optimistic typically bring to mind the hope for the creative energy of the different members to create something new and exciting, or simply fuse their abilities together into a hybrid sound. On the other hand, pessimistic fans fear an uninspired turd of greedy musicians struggling for ways to make more money. When 3 Floyds announced their XV Anniversary Baller Stout, much of the beer world was playing the role of the optimist. I know I was.

Back in 1995, members of Pantera, Crowbar, Corrosion of Conformity and Eyehategod collaborated on an album that had much of the same weight associated with it. Each musician and their respective band had a proven track record of releasing many classic albums that helped define their respective genres. The resulting inaugural album by the supergroup simply named Down was perhaps unlike anything many of their fans had ever heard. A fusion of their individual styles of thrash, sludge and doom was invigorated with a dominant blues overtone. The album was very clearly the work of the individuals involved, but the end result was something more than the simple sum of their parts. While the fans of each of the bands might not say they enjoyed the work of Down more than the work of the bands on their own, it was hard not to respect the great sound that was created.

3 Floyds, Surly, Mikkeller and Struise walked in to the XV Anniversary Baller Stout in a similar manner. Each brewer has more than proven themselves in the craft beer world and are consistently breaking new ground and redefining expectations. So what would they create, when their powers combined in Voltron-esque fashion? Not wanting to pull any punches, each brewer laid down their most sought-after recipes and got to work in the 3 Floyds brewery.

The result actually does taste like a blend of the beers involved. Aromas of bourbon arise first, followed by molasses, chocolate, vanilla and malted milk balls. As a beer, it almost drinks like a milkshake. Dominant vanilla, cocoa, bourbon, bittersweet chocolate and molasses are wrapped in a creamy mouthfeel with a finish of black cherry. This beer is quite simply a very enjoyable imperial stout. It maintains a balance of being drinkable without being so decadent or cloyingly sweet that you can continue to drink and enjoy it all the way through the glass and probably want another one at the end.

Baller Stout is, in fact, much like the supergroup Down. While each brewery creates their own Imperial Stout, it is not a style that is brewed regularly. Something altogether unique was created by blending everyone's talents, and while it may not be better than the pieces individually, it is a great beer that deserves respect and easily stands on its own in a vast sea of craft beer. Perhaps more importantly, mirroring Down's first album NOLA, it's something that can be enjoyed from beginning to end and leave you ready for more.

3.9 mugs

The Hindu Love Gods came together in early in 1984 with three members from R.E.M: Bill Berry, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills. The vocals started out with Bryan Cook from Oh-OK. This wasn't so much supergroup at this point, but just a few months later The Hindu Love Gods showed up in studio with Warren Zevon on vocals. This "supergroup" wasn't very creative since they mostly just did covers of old blues songs or of other songs that the bands had played before. Their most popular song was Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" or the cover of Prince's "Raspberry Beret." This was more of a band that was put together for friends having a good time while getting drunk on the road. The members of the band just liked getting together, getting drunk, and playing music they wanted to play together. The whole was never as good as the individual parts that went into the band, but they never cared since they were just having a good time together. Their camaraderie was significantly more important than what the creative force behind the group would have ever been. They were not reinventing the wheel, but rather having a good time with their friends. The four parts of Baller are exactly the same way. The brewers have come together to do as they wish, and have done it for the camaraderie. This is a product of four friends doing as they wish and finding a good excuse to throw one hell of a party. The final product isn't as good as the individual contributors, but that wasn't ever their purpose.

3.0 Mugs

VH1’s Behind the Music: Band Aid

Jim Forbes, Behind the Music’s narrator: November 1984. Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof is watching BBC News when he sees a report on the devastating famine in Ethiopia. Hit by the urge to help those affected by the famine, Geldof contacts fellow Irishman Midge Ure, lead singer for Ultravox, with an idea: assemble a supergroup to record a song, the proceeds from which will go to the famine victims. The group would be called “Band Aid.”

After hearing Geldof’s pitch, Ure was game. Therefore, the two quickly penned the song. A few weeks later, Geldof sat down with some of the artists who were to be key members of the group: Simon LeBon of Duran Duran; Boy George of Culture Club; Phil Collins of Genesis; George Michael of Wham!; Bono of U2; Sting; and Rob Halford of Judas Priest. The purpose of the meeting: to discuss the song, which was tentatively titled, "Do They Know It's Christmas."

Cameras were rolling the day of the meeting, which took place at Sarm West Studio in London. This is what was captured on film...

Geldof: So gents, thanks for coming. Midge and I are really excited about this endeavor. We think we're going to do a lot of good for the victims of the famine. So if you don't mind having a seat, I'll go through the lyrics of the song and maybe some of the arrangement--

Rob Halford: Hold on a moment. What's this about a song?

Geldof: Didn't Midge tell you, Rob? We wrote a song.

Halford: He told me nothing of the sort. He just said he wanted to talk about contributing to the famine relief effort in Ethiopia. So what do you propose to do? Fly down to Africa to sing a song to bloody cheer them up? I thought we were going to make plans to travel to Addis Ababa to actually do some work—load up the trucks with grain and milk and water and all that, drive to the villages, actually hand out the food. You know, have actual contact with the people we’re helping.

Geldof: Well, no. [Laughs uncomfortably]. Don’t be daft, Rob. We thought it would be much better to just record a song and make lots of money with it so we could just send the money down there. If we went down there, we’d only scare those poor people, what with our huge shoulder pads and weird hairdos. Who needs to load trucks anyway? I have some eyebrows to shave off.

Phil Collins: I bloody well don’t want to load any trucks.

Boy George: It would be bad for my nails. Not to mention my makeup.

Sting: I can’t possibly go down to Africa. I’ll be sequestered in my flat with Trudy for the rest of the month trying to break the world’s tantric sex endurance record.

Bono: I won’t be available for a trip either. I’m going to be working on U2’s next song about Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s called “Pride (In the Name of Love) II: James Earl Ray Was A Fucker.”

Simon LeBon: That’s bloody catchy!

Bono: Yeah, I know, right? Johnny Rotten helped me come up with that.

Geldof: So anyway, the song’s called “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Midge and I are thinking that Paul Young is going to sing the opening of the song, which goes—

Halford: Wait. Who is “they”?

Geldof: They?

Halford: Yeah. You said the title of the song is “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Who’s “they”?

Geldof: Oh. “They” are the people of Africa.

Halford: Well that’s bloody stupid.

Geldof: Why’s it stupid? I don’t understand—

Halford: Muslims, you wanker! Most Africans don’t know it’s Christmastime because they’re bloody Muslims. They don’t give a bloody whit about Christmas.

George Michael [in a Cockney accent, conveyed in a deep baritone]: Oi, wha’ are you on abou’ anyway, Halford?

Halford: What—where the bloody hell did that come from?

George Michael: You’ve no’ ‘eard me real voice, ‘ave ya?

Halford: Uh, no. You just about made me brown me bloody trousers, mate! If I’d known you had those pipes, I’d have signed you on to Priest long ago, man! Do me a favor, George, eh?—try singing this for me: breakin’ the law, breakin’ the law.

George Michael [continuing in his real, Cockney-accented baritone voice]: BREAKIN’ THE LAW, BREAKIN’ THE LAW!

Halford [grinning]: Wicked! That’s bloody perfect, man!

Geldof: Look, gentlemen, let’s just focus on discussing the song, alright? Time is of the essence here because we have to get the song released by Christmas. Okay? So the opening of the song goes like this: “It’s Christmastime/there’s no need to be afraid/At Christmastime/we let in light and we banish shade.” What do you think?

LeBon: That’s great.

Sting: Brilliant. Ethereal.

Boy George: Very nice. I love it. People will really like—

Collins: I want to sing the opening.

Geldof: Phil, we thought we’d have you just play the drums for the song. Paul Young has already offered to sing the opening.

Collins: Well I don’t want to play drums. I want to sing the opening.

Geldof: Look Phil, I appreciate your offer, but we—


Halford: Bloody hell, I’m liking this aggression! Phil, you’re the dog’s bollocks, mate! Dave Holland’s been talking about leaving the band. Want to come play drums for us?

Collins [brandishing a drumstick at Halford]: I’ll bloody brain you—

Geldof: Gentlemen!!! Can we just get back to the business at hand? Look Phil—drums are very important in this song. We’re starting the song off with this nice African rhythm, and you’re just the guy we need to hold down the beat.

Collins: Right. Sorry.

Geldof: Okay. So Boy, you come in next with this lyric: “And in our world of plenty, we can spread a smile of joy!/Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime!”

Boy George: Oh! It’s so gorgeous!

Geldof: Glad you like it. And then Phil, you build up on drums here and then George, you come in with this: “But say a prayer, pray for the other ones, at Christmastime.” And make sure you use your fake singing voice, okay? We don’t want you frightening anyone.

George Michael [continuing in his real, booming voice]: Bu’ tha’s only like a bloody line-and-a-half.

Geldof: But you and Simon are going to overlap here because he’s going to come in with “it’s hard, but when you’re having fun/There’s a world outside your window.”

George Michael: Okay, tha’s fine. Bu’ is there like a public loo nearby where I can go and hang out after I sing tha’ line? I have a feeling I’m going to have to, um, release some energy after I finish singing the line.

Geldof: Uh…alright. Yeah, I think the loo’s just outside the studio.

George Michael [grinning]: Right, mate.

Geldof [giving George Michael a puzzled look]: Right…so then Sting, you’re going to come in to do a little harmony with Simon here with this: “And it’s a world of dreaded fear/Where the only water flowing is a bitter sting of tears.” And then Bono, you join in here too with, “And the Christmas bells that ring there/are the clanging chimes of doom.”

Halford: [Laughing]. Oh, that is fucking wicked!

Geldof: What on earth do you mean by that?

Halford: Well that’s just so dark and evil!

It’s brilliant, man! “Clanging chimes of doom”! [Laughing]. Can you work in a reference to the Grim Reaper or something?

Geldof: That really wasn’t our intent with the lyric—

Bono: Uh Bob, just thinking out loud here. I have an idea.

Geldof: Okay. What is it?

Bono: Right after I sing that thing about the clanging chimes of doom, I’m going to half-yell and half-sing, “WELL TONIGHT THANK GOD IT’S THEM INSTEAD OF YOU!”

LeBon: Don’t you think that’s a bit mean-spirited?

Sting: Yeah, that’s right bloody mean.

Geldof: I’m not sure that I follow you, Bono.

Bono: I think it’ll be brilliant. I’m really good at yell-singing.

Collins [raising his hand]: Bob? Bob? Can I sing Bono’s yell-singing thing? Please? Please please?

Geldof: Just shut it a moment, Phil, will you?

Halford: [Laughing]. You really are a daft lot, aren’t you? Bono’s line isn’t meant to be mean. It’s a sarcastic line! It’s irony! Well, either that or he’s gone completely mental.

Geldof: I hope it’s the former. Anyway, Bono, I’ll think about your…interesting proposal. Okay? So let’s look at the next lyric. Here, we’re going to have everyone singing—well, everyone except you, Phil—this lyric: “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime”—

Halford: Hold on a bloody fucking minute. Are you bloody joking?

Geldof: Oh, good God. What is it now Rob?

Halford: Of course there’s not going to be any bloody snow in Africa this Christmas! It’s AFRICA—you know, the continent that has large swaths of land located on the Equator for fuck’s sake. Of course you’re not going to have any bleeding snow! Not unless you’re talking about Mount Kilimanjaro. Then you might bloody well have snow—

Geldof: THAT’S IT! Rob, you’re either going to shut up or you’re going to leave!

Halford: Leave? That sounds like a brilliant idea! I need a fucking beer anyway. By the way, George, I’m serious about the offer. Your massive pipes added to Priest would take the band to a whole new level. So when you’re done messing about in the loo, ring me up, eh?

3.85 Mugs.

Three Floyds/Mikkeller/de Struise/Surly 15th Anniversary Baller Stout
Mike: 4.2 Mugs | Matt: 3.0 Mugs | Gina: 3.0 Mugs | Jim: 3.85 Mugs | Rod: 3.9 Mugs
KOTBR Score: 3.59 Mugs

* * * * *

1Let it be known that Hoosier Beer Geek used this term first

2Duck Sauce featuring Armand Van Helden and A-Track?

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