In Suds & Sounds we turn the spotlight on breweries, focusing on the role of music in that brewery’s history, packaging, tastes, and in its city or town as a whole. The idea is to get beer and music lovers to connect with a side of the brewery that may often go overlooked, but one that we think is absolutely vital. To accomplish this, we are talking to the brewers themselves about their own love of music and the role it plays in how they approach their beer. And who knows, maybe we’ll even talk to a musicians from time to time to give a perspective from the other side.
Late last year I was browsing social media and feeling some serious FOMO over the fact that I would be missing The Hold Steady’s 4-night Massive Nights celebration at the Brooklyn Bowl New York. It seemed like everyone I respect in the music industry and a handful of friends would be there, but there was no way I could fly across the country. Making the whole thing even more painful was the fact that the band was releasing a special beer just for the shows…a hazy IPA no less! Being a fan of The Hold Steady and the haze, I looked up the brewery responsible for bringing two of my favorite things in the world together only to discover that is was a little brewery out of Hartford, CT called Hanging Hills Brewing Company.
Hartford isn’t exactly a major tour stop for most bands, nor is it a craft beer hotspot, which is precisely why Hanging Hills seemed so interesting. Fast forward to February of this year and the brewery crossed my radar once again when they brewed a special beer to celebrate the annual Drive-By Truckers (another favorite) Heathens Homecoming at the 40-Watt in Athens, GA. Turns out, the team at Hanging Hills are huge music fans and are quickly gaining a reputation not just for their band collaborations, but for their hazy IPAs, not to mention sours, stouts, saisons and pilsners among other styles – many of which are named after songs. At their little brewery in Hartford they even book the occasional band. Ultimately, the brewery seemed like a perfect fit for this column and lucky for me Founder and Brewer Joe Ploof was happy to talk.
How long have you been brewing and what do you consider your greatest triumph so far as a craft brewer?
Both my business partner, Brian [Cox], and I have been brewing professionally since 2012. We graduated from the same summer class of the American Brewers Guild. Personally, I think the greatest triumph as a craft brewer was opening our doors. There are so many hurdles and negative opinions towards small business, especially as we approach theoretical saturation in craft, that it’d be a lot easier to work for someone else indefinitely and not open our own business. We opened Hanging Hills on July 9th, 2016 in spite of the hurdles and, more importantly, no longer have to work for another boss. That’s a pretty rad feeling. Bosses suck ass.
Talk about the beer culture a bit in your city. What do people look for in a good beer and what do you hope to provide, and also do you see the beer scene as being linked in any way to the music scene?
The beer culture in Hartford is a bit nascent compared to other cities of our size. We self-distribute in Hartford and the surrounding town of West Hartford. Many of the businesses, as in more than 50%, won’t give us a sniff because we self-distribute. You also have to take into account the very real wealth gap between Hartford and the surrounding bedroom communities. Are people going to spend $12 for a 4-pack of our IPA or are they going to drop $6 on a 6 pk of some light lager? Hartford is one of the poorest cities in the country, so beer money is tight for a lot of our citizens. There are some things we can change (I pester the HELL out of the folks who won’t take our business) and others that’ll require more help than craft beer. We try to focus on the things we can change.
With that said, there are a handful of truly awesome package stores and bars that are not only open-minded to working with us but are truly supportive of what we’re up to. They check in with me weekly about what’s new, what moved really well for them, or just to find out what size pint they should be serving a certain beer in. It’s been pretty rad to watch doors open and find a warm and receptive audience on the other side.
This being New England, IPA is the king of craft. Specifically the eponymous hazy, juicy, fruity style the region specializes in. We learned pretty quickly that in order to get people to the ESB table, we were going to need to offer a hazy IPA. The palate for this beer can be quite sophisticated. Generally speaking, folks have learned the difference between a good example of the style and a poorly crafted one. Oh, New England! IPA, Hartbeat DIPA and Mail Truck American Pale are regular offerings in these styles. Mail Truck is an awesome, fruity and dry American Pale that emphasizes the tropical and unique pepper-like qualities of the Ekuanot/El Dorado hop combo. Hartbeat DIPA is an 8.4% showcase of Citra and Mosaic hops. All at once catty, mango-y, pineapple-y and wonderful. Oh, New England! is our hop rotator IPA. This most recent batch blended Citra with Idaho 7 for a truly wild flavor profile.
The beer scene is 100% connected to the music scene, especially here in Hartford. I feel like small businesses and bands tend to have a chip on their shoulders here – imagine going through the rigamarole of opening a business only to have patrons suggest that we should have opened in one of the bedroom communities surrounding the city. We love it here. We love the underdog status. We love that our beer is drawing people from all over the state into a part of Hartford that they would’ve only driven past before. The bands and musicians tend to draw from that same headspace. Even if they don’t play punk music aesthetically, it’s a punk mindset. An us vs them. And we all thrive in that battle of existential evils.
A lot of breweries seem to incorporate their own musical tastes into their packaging and presentation, whether it be a collaboration with a band, a tribute label, or a beer name that references something they like. Has you brewery ever done something like this, and if so can you tell us about it?
Oh yeah, for sure. We did a beer called Water Tower Kettle Sour that we fermented on pink guava last year. The idea was to create a beer that would inspire some drinking atop a water tower during the summer. It’s a thing you do in po-dunk towns when you’re growing up. I did it and half the kids I went to, uh, cough, high school with did the same thing. The Hold Steady has a song called “Constructive Summer” in which Craig Finn says “we’re gonna lean this ladder up against the water tower/climb up to the top and drink and talk”, and it perfectly encapsulates the need to socialize and drink with a mix of thrill seeking. The summer is all about taking chances, right? We wanted to tap into that youthful energy with both the style of beer, the name of the beer and the label artwork (which we owe a deep debt to the classic Endless Summer movie poster). I’m probably going to get some misguided blowback for encouraging teen partying but that’s not really the idea. The idea was to capture the mindset of youthful indiscretion, risk taking, fun, etc all while confronting the harsh realities of what summer really means as an adult.
Can you specifically talk about your recent collaboration with the Drive-By Truckers? How did that come about? What kind of beer did you brew and how did the band’s music inform the beer you chose to brew?
About three years ago, I emailed lead singer Patterson Hood’s general info email to let him know how much his solo record meant to me. Having grown up as a conscientious redneck myself, the songs affected me deeply. Within 24 hours, the DBT’s manager, Christine Stauder, emailed me back to say thanks and that she would forward on to Patterson. Because of that email, I now had her email address which I had forgotten about until November of 2017. At that time, we were gearing up to do a collaboration beer with the Hold Steady for their run of shows at the Brooklyn Bowl. Feeling emboldened by the Hold Steady partnership, I emailed Christine to find out if the Drive-By Truckers would be interested in doing something similar for their Homecoming shows in Athens, GA in February. She emailed me back (again) and said, hey, let me talk it over with the guys but maybe. She also went to the Hold Steady shows (there’s a monster union within the fan Venn Diagram of the two bands) and had the beer we did for them, and was impressed enough to help make it happen. She emailed me back again and said, yes, in fact the band was interested but that they didn’t want to do an IPA. To me, this was great news. IPA sells but it’s a brew that takes up about 70% of our fermenter space at any given time. When she asked us to do something different, my brain immediately started thinking about Georgia and their artist Wes Freed and what would it mean to make a Georgia-influenced beer. When I think of Georgia, I think of peaches and pecans. We hadn’t brewed a brown ale at the Hanging Hills yet so I worked with head brewer Brian Cox to come up with a pecan brown. Now that that we had a style, we started researching Georgia grown agricultural ingredients. We finally settled on triticale malt, a wheat-rye hybrid, that’s as nutty as it is spicy, and sorghum syrup because sorghum syrup is on a lot of kitchen tables in the south instead of maple syrup. The rest was just balancing out the beer.
In your opinion, is there a particular band or genre that is ideal to listen to while brewing beer?
Depends on who’s brewing…for our assistant brewer Eric, he’ll play anything from Ty Segall to Kendrick Lamar to (if no one else is around) some heavy Doom Metal. Brian is a monster Gary Clark, Jr and Rory Gallagher guy so if he has control of the bluetooth that day, you can rest assured it’s some blues oriented music. For me? Brewing makes me tap into the creative side of my brain. I tend to think in locations; what am I brewing? What’s the beer’s intent? Where would I drink it? All things to keep me in the headspace of the beer…I’ll (obviously) play a lot of DBT but also Tom Fucking Petty, AA Bondy, Kendrick, a band from my home town called the Kamikaze Hearts, Neil Young’s On the Beach, Sturgill Simpson, Lucinda Williams, the Clash, the Hold Steady, Patti Smith, John Prine’s first record, Allen Toussaint, Rebirth Brass Band, Margo Price, Tammy Wynette…whatever the beer calls for.
Some breweries have gotten more into music through sponsoring tours, festivals, or even throwing their own versions of those. How do you think live music fits into the fabric of craft beer, and is this something your brewery has done?
Our 1st Anniversary party came real close…4 bands, we partnered with a couple other small businesses to set up pop-up shops, two food trucks, but really, we’re tiny. Like we have a 10-barrel brewhouse, 4×20 bbl fermenters and 1×30 bbl fermenter. We don’t have the cash money to do something that inspired just yet. Some day we’re going to throw a kick ass party and invite y’all to Hartford to enjoy it with us.
When naming beers, do you consciously try and reference songs, bands or albums, or do you find you naturally gravitate towards it?
I think it’s a little of both. I brewed a DIPA using galaxy hops awhile back. It was so explosive, so flavorful and I was listening to Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea so calling it She Was Born in a Bottle Rocket just fit. Other times, take Chester, Goddamnit for instance…it’s a perfect beer name in its own right but as the name of a marquee beer for a three night, 25+ song setlist series of shows at a legendary rock club (the 40 Watt), Chester, Goddamnit! is so perfect. Take our rotating hop series, Oh, New England!. It’s a series of hazy New England-style IPA so the name fits independently. But when listening to Jonathan Richman’s “New England”, you really get what we’re going for. His song is a love letter to the region and ours is a love letter to the style invented by the region’s brewers.
Do you have any musicians or noteworthy people that you can say are fans of any of your beers?
Motherfucking Steve Selvidge (Hold Steady guitarist) came up to me before the Friday night Hold Steady set, shook my hand and said, “You brewed this IPA (Massive Nights IPA)? It’s really fucking good.” I’ll take that endorsement over just about anyone.
Breweries often collaborate with other breweries for beers and Hanging Hills is no stranger to this. They also have been known to collaborate with musicians. Is there a musician or band that you would love to collaborate with, and if so, what kind of beer do you envision you would brew?
Man, this is a good question. We’ve already partnered with my two favorite bands, The Hold Steady and the Drive-By Truckers, so anyone else is an extra layer of frosting on the cake. I can’t believe that those two collabs happened so I haven’t had the chance to think on the next step yet.
Probably Haim. Those sisters are fucking hilarious, their songs are perfect pop gems, and I think they’d probably drink some with us. So long as we could choreograph a dance routine with them, shit, I’d brew whatever they told me to brew. I think Brian’s eyes have rolled all the way back into his head just thinking about a Haim beer. But yeah, Haim. Haim is the business.
Hanging Hills Brewing Company is located at 150 Ledyard St. in Hartford, CT. For tap room hours, beer selection and more visit hanginghillsbrewery.com.
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