Illustration by Stephanie Rudig
Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

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Before the drone-metal band Sunn O))) performed at 9:30 Club in March, with their towering wall of amps rattling the innards of every person in the crowd, they had some beer. And before that, they made some beer. 

Specifically, Sunn O)))’s Greg Anderson visited Right Proper Brewing Company’s production house in Brookland to help put the finishing touches on “Soused,” a collaboration between Right Proper, Richmond, Va.’s Stone Brewing, and Sperryville, Va.’s Pen Druid Brewing. The beer was named after and inspired by Sunn O)))’s 2014 collaborative album with ’60s pop singer turned avant-garde musician Scott Walker.

For those who aren’t that, er, tapped into the world of craft brewing, musicians and brewers making a beer inspired by an album might seem like a strange collaboration. But for all those involved, it makes sense. “Soused” is just one example of what has become an indisputable trend in the D.C. region and the wider craft brewing world: the intertwined relationship between suds and sound. 

With “Soused,” Right Proper’s head brewer Nathan Zeender says, “it wasn’t like a flavor-interpretation of this Scott Walker [and Sunn O)))] song,” but rather using ingredients that speak to the dense, solemn, and sparse tone of album. In this case, it involved a traditional Nordic yeast. 

Close to 20 of Right Proper’s beers over the years are directly inspired by Zeender’s musical tastes, which he says tend to skew toward “meditative droning music, jazz, and a spattering of other stuff.” The “Ornette” and the “Duke” take their names from significant jazz musicians. The “Invisible City of Bladensburg,” influenced by the music of guitarist John Fahey, and the “Bee’s Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull,” inspired by the instrumental group Earth, are a little more esoteric. 

Elsewhere in the D.C. area, craft breweries are working with bands as a way of further cementing the relationship between beer and music. “Music and beer are both forms of art,” says Brandon Skall, co-owner of DC Brau, which has partnered with both local metal mainstay Darkest Hour and local ska heroes The Pietasters on different beers. “You’re both operating in the constructs of your environment… creating your own songs, it’s not that different from creating your own beer.” 

The environment that Skall speaks of isn’t limited to a specific beer. It can impact an entire brewery’s identity, like at Atlas Brew Works. “With Atlas, our whole sort of design aesthetic is steampunk, with the idea that that’s very much a mix of art and science, as is the brewing process,” says Justin Cox, CEO and founder of Atlas. 

Last summer, instead of creating a single summer beer, Cox says Atlas instead decided to make a series of beers for the season. “We were kind of thinking of flavor profiles and concepts for beer, and we ended up kind of having a music theme for the naming of beers,” he says. They ended up with three beers: the “Should I Stay or Should I Gose,” the “Rye, Rye My Darling,” and the D.C. punk-inspired “Dance of Days” pale ale.

“We’re always trying to think of some clever, punny names for our beers,” Cox says, “but there was a lot of those bands being played in the brewery at the time, and I think that kind of sparked our juices on the naming front.”

Like Right Proper’s “Soused,” Atlas developed a metal-themed beer earlier this year, for Decibel Magazine’s Metal & Beer Fest in Philadelphia, using ingredients specifically suited for a black saison. “We called [it] HaSaWoDo, which is short for ‘Hail Satan Worship Doom,’” Cox says. “We wanted something that was kind of light and airy, as some metal can be, but also—we made it black, that’s super metal. And it was 6.66 percent ABV.” 

While brewing requires a lot of science and hands-on craftsmanship, Right Proper’s Zeender says, it is a process that thrives on instinct and experimentation, much like composing a song. In that sense, tipplers and concertgoers can start to understand the similar work that goes into making beer and music. 

Or, that logic could be complete bullshit.

“There’s no real good logic as to how the connection is made,” Zeender says, “but I’m inspired by the music in the act of brewing.”