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Top of the hops: pop stars who brew beers

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You’ve sold millions of records, you’ve got the luxury lifestyle, so what next? Easy. You make your own beer.
by Will Hawkes

You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline,’ Frank Zappa once memorably said. Were he alive today, Zappa might direct his sardonic quip at his fellow musicians (give or take an airline): over the past few years, a motley selection of rockers, mods, folkies and teenyboppers have trudged out of the studio and into the brewery. There’s Iron Maiden, Madness, 90s’ pop sensation Hanson, AC/DC, Professor Green and plenty more besides. But where has this love-in between music and beer come from? According to Sam McGregor of Signature Brew, a London company that produces beers with musicians, it’s a reaction to the quality of beer at your average concert. ‘It seemed like the bigger the gig, the worse the beer was,’ he says. ‘When we started the company, music was in a big black hole as far as beer went – and actually, as we found out, people who were interested in music often had really good taste in beer. It was something that we wanted to change.’ But isn’t it a gimmick? The popularity of some of these beers suggests not. It took just a few months for Iron Maiden’s Trooper to sell 1m pints – while Rob Flanagan, managing director of Growler, who produced Madness’s Gladness beer, says they wouldn’t have got involved if they didn’t think the ‘Nutty Boys’ were in it for the long haul. ‘I got a phone call out of the blue,’ he says. ‘It’s not really what we do, to be honest. “Who is it?” I asked. “Madness”. That interested me, but we wanted to be sure they were into it in the right way. They were.’ So, which of these beers are chart-toppers, and which deserve to be consigned to the bargain bucket? Here are five of the best that are easily available in the UK – and not just at music gigs.

musical beers_professor green - Professor-Green_beer.jpgHip hop: Professor Green

Hip-hop artists are generally thought to be more interested in blingy Champagne and brandy than beer, but not Professor Green (pictured, right). He was very involved in the production of his beer, Remedy, says Signature Brew’s McGregor. ‘We took him up to Titanic Brewery in Staffordshire, where the beer was initially brewed,’ he says. ‘We showed him round and explained the process. He had a very good idea of what he wanted.’ Green enjoyed the American-style pale ales he was offered but wanted to brew something made entirely with English ingredients. He was pleased with the outcome. ‘I suppose a smart person would pick a beer that would sell very well, but with my music I’m quite selfish, I make music that I like,’ he says. ‘I don’t go in to the studio and go “what can I make that will sell x amount of copies?” I just went with what my taste requirements… required!’ The beer, now available in Morrisons, has been served at a number of Professor Green’s gigs – but it deserves to be drunk more widely. Clean and satisfyingly bitter, it’s the sort of golden, hoppy ale that couldn’t be more popular at the moment.

Heavy metal: Iron Maiden

Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden, is a lover of all things British: witness his on-stage brandishing of the Union Flag and his obsession with military history. That patriotic urge extends, it appears, to ale. ‘I’m a lifelong fan of traditional English ale,’ he said when Trooper was launched in March this year, with the help of Stockport brewery Robinsons. ‘I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when we were asked to create our own beer.’ Given that, it’s no surprise that Trooper, named after the band’s 1983 tune about the Charge of the Light Brigade, is a traditional drop: Dickinson took a real interest in its creation, visiting the brewery on a number of occasions and working with head brewer Martyn Weeks to formulate the recipe. ‘As a fan of traditional English cask beer, I thought that this could actually be something really exciting… we could develop a proper, real, long-term beer,’ explains Dickinson. A proper beer it certainly is, but its traditional flavour – all nutty malt and prickly English hops – means it’s more likely to appeal to fans of classic brown bitter than the new craft-beer crowd.

musical beers_madness - Madness-beer_Suggs-and-Mike-Barson-at-Growler-Brewery.jpgSka: Madness

Gladness was conceived in The Dublin Castle in Camden, where the band Madness (pictured, left) drinks. Produced at Growler Brewery in Pentlow, Essex it can now be found in pubs all over London. A golden pale ale made with hops traditionally used for lagers (Saaz, which is Czech, and the German Tettnanger), the beer is a distillation of the band’s differing beer tastes. ‘Two of them like dark beers, two like ales, and one or two liked lagers,’ says Growler MD Rob Flanagan. ‘How do you get a style of beer that they all liked? We settled on a light-blonde ale with strong lager tones.’ Two members of Madness, Suggs and keyboardist Mike Barson (pictured), travelled to Essex to see the beer being made. The whole band appear pleased with the final product. ‘The process was a joyous experience, and painless,’ says the band’s saxophonist Lee Thompson. ‘I would recommend this ale to anyone over the legal age and – of course – in moderation.’ Whether you drink it in moderation or not, it’s worth trying. The use of lager hops gives it something different, a lemony kick that is perfect for summer drinking.

Folk: Frank Turner

You might expect someone with the folky leanings of Frank Turner (pictured above, centre) to produce something pretty traditional, but no. Believe is a clean-tasting wheat beer made with a motley selection of hops from around the world, the sort of refreshment that might come in handy during one of Turner’s gigs. The beer’s unique flavour (for a wheat beer) owes a lot to a lengthy tasting session with Signature’s McGregor and head brewer Tom Bott. ‘The people we’ve worked with have tried beers all over the world, but don’t have the beer education,’ says McGregor. ‘When you explain something, they’re interested.’ Turner is clearly delighted with the outcome. ‘Being asked to design a beer was a new one for me – I don’t know masses about beer, other than that I like drinking it a whole lot,’ he says. ‘In the end, I learned a lot.’

musica beers_elbow beer - elbowbeer_pressshot.jpgIndie: Elbow

Pictured, right. Lancashire’s favourite maudlin five-piece were a little surprised by the demand for their beer when it was launched in 2011. Initially designed purely as a limited edition, ‘build a rocket boys!’ – named after the album of the same name – has gone on to become a huge success. In its first year, some 250,000 pints and 65,000 bottles were sold. That said, Elbow’s own love of pubs suggests but they might know a saleable beer when they see one. ‘All our best ideas were formed over a drink,’ the band’s drummer Richard Jupp told The Times in October last year. ‘For many bands, the pub is how you jump from the bedroom to the stage. I’d say 50% of Elbow’s lyrics are written on beer mats... we used to refer to it as the office.’ You can see the influence of the pub on the beer: this is an honest-to-goodness session ale without any kind of pretension.

Top of the Drops

Iron Maiden: Trooper (4.8% abv)
A golden-brown British bitter, Trooper offers a blend of nutty malt and prickly hedgerow hops. Unlike Iron Maiden, it’s unlikely to excite or offend. £15.60 for 8 x 500ml bottles from ironmaidenbeer.com.
Professor Green: Remedy (5.9% abv)
Pale and hoppy like so many modern ales, this one relies on English hops. There’s a dry, refreshing, almost Pilsner-like bitterness. Crisp, straightforward and very satisfying indeed. £1.79 per 330ml bottle at Morrisons; signaturebrew.co.uk.
Madness: Gladness (4.2% abv)
There’s plenty of enticing lemony bitterness from the European hops used, plus some malt sweetness. A very decent hot-day beer. £3.50 a pint at Nicholson’s pubs in London; growlerbrewery.com.
Frank Turner: Believe (4.8% abv)
Those expecting cloves and bananas in the style of the great Bavarian wheat beers will be disappointed. This is an easy-drinking, golden glugger with more in the way of oranges and lemons. £35.40 for 24 x 330ml bottles; signaturebrew.co.uk.
Elbow: build a rocket boys! (4% abv)
A fairly old-fashioned drop, this one: plenty of sweet, biscuity malt with just a touch of hop sharpness. Not the most exciting beer around. £15.60 for 8 x 500ml bottles from elbowbeer.co.uk

This feature was published in the autumn 2013 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.

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