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Craft Beer and Jazz

Thad Aerts By

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I’m more intrigued by the intangible nature of how something is expressed--be that jazz or beer. You can show me music scores or recipe sheets all day long--but really, that means nothing to me. I want the finished product and I want to discover the mystery of why the particular piece of music or glass of beer before me is what it is. I want its personality, not its report card.
As I type these words, I'm sitting here sipping on an Apricot Peach Orange Whip Mimosa Gose while listening to Derek Bailey's Improvisation LP. If you aren't aware of Bailey's work, he was a British guitarist who championed the European "free" style. All improv, all the time-with no structure to speak of. Many have argued that Bailey and his angular screech and skronk have no place in anything labeled jazz, or even music for that matter. Purists.

Apricot Peach Orange Whip Mimosa Gose is a beer we make at Boiler Brewing Company—a small-batch craft brewery and tap room that I manage in Lincoln, NE. Gose is a mild German sour that has salt added. In addition to the base beer, there is a ton of apricot, peach, and orange. Think pulpy citrus fruit juice. The beer is thick-so much so that the pulp remains in suspension and coats the side of the glass. Again, there are plenty of purists who would cry foul on such a concoction—especially anyone who thinks the German purity law was a good idea.

These two things, and the worlds that they come from drip with correlation and I find myself drawing on their common ground more so than not. Admittedly, I think about these things more than the average person. As one who manages a craft beer brewery, I'm around beer, thinking about beer, writing about beer, and, best case scenario, drinking beer—a lot. I have no choice! I've tried making beer—once. And I probably won't try again.

Since I was five years old, I have been thinking about, talking about, and infatuated with music. Being a small child driving in the car with my mom when Joan Jett's "I Love Rock & Roll" came on the radio was all it took. That was the shot of heroin that started a life-long addiction that even if I tried, even real, real hard-could not kick. Like beer, I've also tried my hand at making music, more than once. I spent all my formative years, and then some, playing in bands as well as making music on my own. Part of success is knowing what you are good, and not good at. I was not good at making music. Or beer.

Therein lies a large part of my fascination with these two things—the mystery. I think the fact that I'm no good at making music or beer makes me all the more curious and respectful of the discipline it takes to do so. Those who can't-teach. Or at least talk about it to anyone who will listen. That's me.

Typically, there are two methods of advancement. There is boundary pushing, avant-garde ideas that force people to re-evaluate their ideas on something. The craft beer industry is currently experiencing a period like this. Then there is the endeavor of minuscule advancements of diminishing returns in the name of refinement. At this point in history, jazz is a lot like this.

I bought my first jazz record (actually cassette) when I was 17 years old and a senior in high school. It was Joe Henderson's So Near, So Far. By that point in my life, I had spent plenty of time and money in record stores and had seen my fair share of jazz records in the bins. I remember being really drawn to the cover art; they looked so cool! So refined. So classy. But I resigned the music to being something that folks three times my age enjoyed. It had nothing to do with me—but for some reason, I kept finding myself intrigued.

I finally bit with So Near. I took the cassette out to my car and popped it in the stereo. I listened and tried and listened some more but the fact was, I didn't get it. At all. It reaffirmed my inclination that this music had nothing to do with me. I was into punk rock. And hip-hop. The closest I had gotten to jazz at that point was Ron Carter playing bass on A Tribe Called Quest's The Low-End Theory.

Over the next couple of years, for whatever reason I kept coming back to jazz. I bought a few more records with the goal of understanding what was going on. Gazillions of people before me had fallen in love with jazz so there had to be something there—and I wanted to know what it was! But if all else failed and I never caught on, at least I had the cover art to look at.

I remember once I started to figure it out a little, the songs I was drawn to were one's that had a catchy melody. However, once the solos started, it was time to move on. I had a long way to go. Fast forward (pun intended) almost 20 years and the solos are all I want to hear. I don't want to pretend that I have somehow arrived and am an expert on jazz, or music as a whole for that matter. But my taste, appreciation, and the way I hear jazz is on a completely different plain from where it was so many years ago-and it should be. Now, it's not only what is played, but how it's played.

When I first started dabbling in jazz, it all sounded the same. I mean, aside from the variations in theme, tempo, and melody—it was all just jazz. I could barely hear, or cared to hear the differences between different groups of musicians. Never mind the variation of different musicians playing the same instrument. Miles Davis was no different than Lee Morgan who was no different than Chet Baker. It was all trumpet and it might as well have been played by the same person. Of course, this is crazy. Now, the differences in tone, phrasing, etc. of a trumpet is not only incredibly noticeable, it's what I am fascinated by.

So what does this have to do with craft beer? Over the past 20-ish years, craft beer has come into its own with an explosion of experimentation. The things that are being done today are things I never thought I would see. In my mind, it's a lot like what jazz went through in the '50s through the '70s. Boundaries pushed and new styles created—to the point that many said this isn't even jazz, or music for that matter. See Bailey reference above.

The funny thing is, beer is a beverage that has been around for centuries. It wasn't until after prohibition that the faint, yellow, fizzy, sub-par flavor blah came to be accepted and known as "beer." At least in the United States. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this essay. The fact remains that there have been generations upon generations of people that lived their lives believing that beer, by and large, only meant one thing. And that one thing was faint, yellow, fizzy, sub-par flavor blah that was packaged in a can or bottle and relied heavily on the colors red, white, and blue.
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