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Having a Beer With... Kyle Hollingsworth

May 23, 2017

By Dan Epstein, May 23, 2017

There are musicians who love craft beer, and craft brewers who love music — but few people are as deeply dedicated to both art forms as Kyle Hollingsworth.

Though best known as the keyboardist of legendary Colorado jam band The String Cheese Incident, Hollingsworth has been brewing his own beer since he was a teenager. Over the past decade, he’s worked on collaborative brews with over 25 breweries around America, including New Belgium, Stone, and Sierra Nevada; he’s also hosted over a dozen festivals and tours showcasing both beer and music, most of them — like the forthcoming Kyle’s Brew Fest, which will be held in Denver on July 20 at the Great Divide Brewing Co. — in tandem with Conscious Alliance, a charity that provides hunger relief and youth empowerment to communities in crisis.

Whether on tour with String Cheese or his own Kyle Hollingsworth Band, the irrepressible Hollingsworth also hosts “Hop On Tour,” an after-show meet-and-greet event that showcases beers from a local brewery in the town that he’s playing. “It usually works pretty well,” he laughs. “Though we did one in Austin in April with Hops & Grain Brewing, and it was all these wasted people going, ‘HEY KYLE!!’ It’s like, maybe we should be doing this at the beginning of the night! Sometimes it becomes more about the meet and greet than the beer — but when it works, it works great!”

Believe, the seventh and latest studio album from String Cheese Incident, hit the streets in April, and the band is currently busy preparing to spend much of the summer on the road. But Hollingsworth still found a few minutes to talk to October about the similarities between making music and making beer, his hands-on approach to collaborative brewing, and the memorable London pub crawl he took with Steve Winwood.

How did you get into beer and brewing in the first place?
I started probably when I was fifteen; and since I just turned eighteen, it’s been a couple of years. [Laughs] No, I’m about to turn fifty, so I’ve been homebrewing for a long time. My passion originated probably because my brother was doing it first. Anything my brother did was cool; whether it was listening to the Grateful Dead, smoking pot, or making beer, I was like, “I’ve gotta do that, too!”

It was really fun, and I took to it right away; I was intrigued by the process, intrigued by the transformation of the ingredients. I grew up in Baltimore, and for one of my first brews I used sassafras, which is an East Coast tree — you can dig [the roots] up, scrape them and make a tea out of ‘em, so I made a sassafras brew. I was really all about the experimentation. And then, of course, it didn’t hurt that I could have a fermented beverage before the age of 21! [Laughs]

Homebrewing was really just a small cult at the time…
It’s so true! There was only one homebrew shop in my area, and it was all super mountaineer type dudes with big beards; you’d have to drive about 45 minutes to get there, and all you could do was buy these cans of malt. [Laughs] And you had only three styles to choose from — amber, pale and porter — which were all based on the popular beers of the time, like Bass, and which were not particularly flavorful compared to now.    

Were you ever into macrobrews?
Oh yeah, of course I was. I was eighteen, twenty, twenty-one, drinking Busch Light. [Laughs] Beck’s and Beck’s Dark, that was the first kind of quality brew I remember finding. But there wasn’t much of an option back then.

The creativity that you put into brewing — does that feel pretty similar to the creativity that you express while writing and playing music?
Yes, and that’s kind of my thing. I’ve been going around the country talking about my passion for both of these art forms — not just how they resonate with me, but also how they connect for me. I play music in an improvisational band, so I take chances on a nightly basis. And when I brew, I feel like I’m willing to taking chances there, as well. When you’re learning keyboards or learning an instrument, you have to get that instrument under your fingers; you have to know your scales. And it’s the same way with brewing; you have to know the ingredients, the timing of things, the temperature of things. But once you get that under your finger tips, you can riff and improvise off of it.

So I feel like I approach brewing the same way I approach music — anything can happen! Sometimes it’ll be the best solo you ever played, or the worst beer you ever made! [Laughs] You jump in that space, and you live in that question mark, and sometimes you are blessed with some great outcomes.

The Syndicate

You have a theory of how beer ingredients are like members of a band. Could you go into that a bit?
Yes, I always think about how the drums are the water, and the bass is the grain or the malt — and then the guitar is the hops, because it can go to eleven, right? [Laughs] It can be super-hoppy. And then the punchline is that the yeast is like the lead singer, because it doesn’t always show up. [Laughs] But also, he gives a personality to the band, in the same way that the yeast gives the personality to a beer. And then I’m always asked, “Well, what’s the keyboard player?” And maybe that’s some kind of extra dry hop on top, or something.

Believe was recorded at The Lab, the band’s new studio. It’s the first String Cheese album that wasn’t done at a professional studio — does that essentially make it your first “home brew” record?
Mmmm — love it! [Laughs] Yeah, that’s great! We started a new studio space, where we can be creative at home. It’s not like where you’re in a big studio, where the longer you’re there, the more you’re spending. With The Lab, if we spend three hours trying something and it doesn’t work out, that’s fine.

Do you think you’ll continue to take the “homebrew” approach with future records?
Yes. It always comes with some challenges, because one thing about being in a studio away from home and having the pressure to get it done within a specific time frame is that you really get focused. With this studio, it’s so close to all of our homes that we’ll go in for eight hours, like it’s a job; and then you go home and your wife’s calling, and there’s all this stuff you have to do around the house or whatever. So it takes a little more dedication to stay focused on the project.

The record was produced by Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison. Is he a big beer guy, too?
I’m a huge Talking Heads fan, so working with him was like, “Oh my god!” I had to stop myself from constantly asking him questions, like, “How did you get that guitar tone on Remain In Light?” But he’s more of a wine guy — he likes fermented beverages, but more of the grape kind! [Laughs]

Are there any notable musicians that you’ve bonded with over beer?
Yes! Jesse [Miller], the bass player of Lotus, he’s a big beer guy. He has incredible tastebuds — I think he sees more in a beer than anybody does.

But my one really famous story is this one: I was in London in 2003 when we were working on Untying the Knot. We had done some shows with Steve Winwood, and Steve was in London at the time; he called me up in the middle of mixing and insisted that I go out with him that night. He was like, “Oh, they don’t need your input!” [Laughs] He comes to the studio and picks me up, and I’m like, “It’s fucking Steve Winwood!” And he was like, “Let’s go drink beers!”

He told me that he goes to different pubs throughout the city, especially the ones with cask-conditioned beer, and makes sure they’re consistent; he has a permit to go around and try these beers, and luckily, that was the night I went out with him! So that night, we went from bar to bar, and totally bonded over beers and music. It was an amazing experience! I remember riding back in the cab with him, and my head was just spinning.

You’ve done over 25 collaborations with various brewers. How did that all start?
We did a benefit show for New Belgium about eight or ten years ago, and Chad, one of the brewers there, found out I was a homebrewer. He said, “Why don’t we make a beer for the event?” And I was like, “Hell, yeah!” We went there, and we used his home brew system, so it wasn’t like we did it on the big system, but it we still did it at the brew house. We served it, and it was like, very okay — it wasn’t like the best beer ever.

But it got me going. The benefit was for Conscious Alliance, which is a charity we work with a lot. So I was like, “Wow, why don’t we do this more often? We’ll do things with Conscious Alliance, and I’ll make beers with different people.” We had to pound a lot of doors in the first few years to make it happen, because no musicians were doing this. There were people making distilled spirits, like Sammy Hagar with Cabo Wabo tequila, and Jimmy Buffett had a Margaritaville beer out, but that was it. But it was a cool little hook, and we just pushed forward with it. Five or six of them were national, but we’ve done a lot of local breweries from the west coast to the east coast.

When embarking upon a collaboration with a brewery, do you usually have a particular concept going in of what you want to do? Or does a lot of it depend on which brewery you’re working with, and what they’re bringing to the table?
What they’re willing to bring to the table, for sure. Unless it’s one of the big national ones, they’re usually pretty open. I did one here in Colorado last summer with Odd13 Brewing, a hibiscus IPA; with something like that, it’s kind of like, the weirder the better. Stone was totally open for whatever; but since they’re making enough to sell to the whole country, they’ve got a clearer idea of what they want.

Sometimes, it’s all done through phone calls, Facetime and emails; but as much as I possibly can, I try to be there — not only creating the recipe, but tasting, doing some pilot batches, getting in there and shoveling the grain, cleaning up… The process is what’s fun for me, and I just like being part of it. A lot of bands are like, “We made a beer!” And I’m like, “Well, you kind of made a beer! You went out there and said, ‘Make me something,’ and then people brought it to you. You weren’t in the kettle, getting burned by the boiling water!” [Laughs]

You have to bring consistency and quality and passion to the table, and sometimes I feel that doesn’t always come together for some of the breweries out there.”

Have you been disappointed by how any of these collaborations have turned out?
Yes. Like I said, you’re never quite sure how things are going to turn out, especially when you’re brewing at home — but when you’re working with a brewery, you hope it’s going to work out. I released solo CD a few years ago, and I did three different national beers for it; if you bought the beers, you could scan them and download a free song. One of the beers I made [a session IPA with Rock Brothers Brewing] was for a track called “Happening Now,” and it was like so un-happening! I was like, “Yeah, here’s the new single off the disc, and here comes the new beer!” And then it was like… wow. [Laughs] The fans were very polite — “Very nice beer, Kyle!” Yeah, thanks. But it comes and goes like that; I just wish it hadn’t been on such a large scale!

Are you someone who enjoys a beer or three before going onstage?
No way. Beer is a good way for me to unwind; whereas when I’m onstage, I try to stay wound up! So for me, I don’t even drink anything until second set. My tech has a beer ready for me post-show, or during the last couple of songs.

Is there one particular type of beer that you usually gravitate towards?
I’m more of a hop guy, and I’m always interested in more complex beers. I do like Belgians, because the yeast brings really cool stuff to the table; but if it’s just going to be a malt bomb for no purpose, and it’s just kind of sweet, I’m not into that. So I’m more of an IPA guy. I do like farmhouse and minimal sours — kind of “training wheel” sours — and Belgians, for sure. But it’s got to have some kind of funk. I try to bring the funk when I play, so I like to drink the funk when I’m drinking!

What are your thoughts on how the beer landscape has changed in the last decade?
I think for me, what I’m finding is that there are so many different breweries happening now — and while a brewery can make a great beer, they’re not always consistent. So I’m missing a little bit of consistency coming from the onslaught of breweries. From a selfish point of view, if you find something you love, you want it to taste similar every time you drink it. [Laughs] But also, you want to bring great product to the market, not just bring product to the market because it sells.

It’s like, if you flood the market with hippie bands, some are gonna rise to the top, and most of them won’t. You have to bring consistency and quality and passion to the table, and sometimes I feel that doesn’t always come together for some of the breweries out there.

Do you have any upcoming beer projects that we should know about?
I am in the middle of working with a brewery in the Southeast to make a beer with Relix magazine. Dean from Relix is a big beer guy, and he was like, “You’re the guy to do this with us.” We think we have someone on the hook to do it with; the plan is that we’ll go down and make it together, and maybe release some music with it, as well. String Cheese just came out with an awesome album, and I’m also working on my next solo project, so I’m sure there’ll be some cool beer hooks with that next year!

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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