The past few years have seen an array of collaborations between rappers and craft beer brands, as well as the birth of organizations bridging the gap between them. But what does the future hold for the marriage of beer and hip hop?
In order to understand its roots, we need to take a trip down memory lane, specifically one with Diddy popping bottles of Cristal.
In the 1990s, well before Chance the Rapper linked up with Goose Island or Nappy Roots dropped a second collaboration with Atlanta’s Monday Night Brewing, the drinks typical of hip hop circles were on opposite sides of the spectrum. If you weren’t brown-bagging malt liquor, you were probably mimicking your favorite rapper with one of many hip hop-approved spirits or bubbly.
“You kind of look back at the history of hip hop and where you see sort of alcoholic beverage association fly, and it's always been kind of extreme,” says Patrick Mullin, Digital Marketing Manager at Boulevard Brewing Co. “And it makes you wonder, 'Why can't that middle ground work?' And 'Where does beer fit into that equation?'”
According to Lenox Mercedes, founder of the hip hop beer festival High Gravity Hip Hop, malt liquor was popular in hip hop for so long simply due to affordability and access.
“The truth is there were limited options, what they call food deserts today, and the only adult beverages that made their way into those neighborhoods were the cheapest stuff breweries were making. A sweet swill with clever marketing,” Lenox says.
While fans whose pockets weren’t as deep as their hip hop idols fell prey to malt liquor’s marketing and a cheap price tag, Champagne was an example of the genre’s lavishness. The sip of celebration, it wasn’t rare to see a bottle of Moët or Cristal make a cameo in a video featuring JAY-Z or Biggie. But according to Lenox, it was also an indicator of hip hop’s decadent side.
“Everybody wants to go from ‘ashy to classy’ and show off their success with a bottle of bubbly,” he says. “When you win a championship, Champagne. When you win a car race, Champagne. When you bring in the new year, Champagne. It is the official drink of celebration. Hip hop artists are notorious for spending their wealth to the point of destruction.”
Craft brewers could benefit from having hip hop culture appreciate what they do, and vice versa.”
But the tides are slowly changing. A self-proclaimed “huge” fan of hip hop, Boulevard's Mullin played a key role in the release of Bou Lou, a recent collaboration between Kansas City rapper Tech N9ne and Boulevard. Released in June, Bou Lou takes its inspiration from Tech’s “Caribou Lou,” a cocktail made using 151-proof rum, coconut rum, and pineapple juice. Hip hop aficionados know that “Caribou Lou” is also the title of a song featured on Tech N9ne’s album Everready (The Religion). Described as “a gift from God” by Tech himself, Bou Lou is a wheat beer that features pineapple and coconut flavors. With its swift success, it’s also a potential blueprint for the future of hip hop and craft beer.
“The reception has just been crazy,” says Mullin. “People were so amped and psyched about this. And I think it's because not only is beer and hip hop's ties something kind of fresh and different—in this particular case, there's so many layers to it. There's that local, Kansas City connection and we're sharing a hometown. It's the fact that the beer's based on a very particular song and creation of his. It's not just another idea. It's something very special and tailored to this collaboration.”
Although Tech N9ne, who is proud of his partnership with Boulevard, believes that hip hop hasn’t quite embraced craft beer just yet, he is hopeful. He compares the evolution of independent hip hop artists to that of craft beer’s reach.
“When we started our independent thing, a lot of people weren't independent. It was E-40. It was ICP [Insane Clown Posse], Rhymesayers, Atmosphere. It wasn't a lot. But [then] they saw how well we did it and how we were surviving. And then the epidemic came. ‘If Tech N9ne and them can do it then we can do it.' So, we opened that up,” says Tech N9ne. “So, who's to say we can't open it up with brewing?”
From a production standpoint, breaking into brewing beer commercially requires a lot of startup capital. According to Jen Price, a beer educator based in Atlanta, there could be a path forward in crowdfunding for people of color. Earlier this year, Price launched a Kickstarter campaign that successfully raised more than $30,000 to fund the opening of the Atlanta Beer Boutique, a bottle shop that will also feature a space for beer education and exposure.
Price does clarify that the hip hop community and people of color aren't always synonymous. While messaging through hip hop is one way to raise brand awareness and introduce craft beer to a new audience, crowdfunding is doubly effective, given that it helps bring in the capital needed for entrepreneurs of color to jump into the craft beer market, and also serves as the ideal marketing tool.
“The opportunity definitely is there,” Price says. “I think crowdfunding is the perfect tool to use not only for raising money, but for raising brand awareness. And just awareness in general. I think that I got so much more out of the campaign than I bargained for.”
The issue with our culture, at least in the South, is that there's just a lack of exposure.”
A lack of exposure and marketing, and subsequently a lack of demand, is one reason why people of color have historically been ignored in the craft beer scene. Collaborating with hip hop artists is one method for breweries to reach communities of color directly and sincerely. Price believes that craft brewers “could benefit from having hip hop culture appreciate what they do” and vice versa.
“I think what I've found with exposing people to things is that when you expose them, when they become aware then they can appreciate,” she says. “The issue with our culture, at least in the South, is that there's just a lack of exposure. Or people even catering to or promoting to [us]...And you go to the store and it's overwhelming.”
She adds, “I feel like there is a growing opportunity to market—a growing desire for breweries to start marketing to hip hop or to people of color. And I don't want to use those synonymously, but they kind of are in Atlanta. I see that breweries are recognizing that opportunity.”
Boulevard’s Mullins agrees that breweries should do more to build a bridge between those communities.
“I think a lot of it is just: Breweries need to do that outreach,” he says. “I think if you were to ask the average person on the street, 'What type of music would you associate with craft beer?' I'm sure hip hop would not be the first answer for most people—and I think that's because it seems like those connections and types have been established so heavily in the past. But it doesn't mean that can't change. That doesn't mean we can't shift that perception a little bit and show that there's some diversity to offer.”
Illustration by Remo Remoquillo