Kyle Hollingsworth, keyboardist for The String Cheese Incident, played a show at Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House in April as part of the Craft Brewers Conference events. He regularly tours the country and serves as a guest beer maker at several breweries when not producing suds on his system at home. Photo by Emma Browne
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Fans of “This is Spinal Tap” will be familiar with the phrase, “These go to 11.” The lead guitarist says the line while explaining to the rockumentary’s director that all of his amplifiers’ knobs go one level above the zero to 10 setting on standard equipment. Turning it up to 11 expresses maximal effort — going above and beyond to create an extraordinary experience. It’s not surprising, then, that this saying is often uttered by the keyboardist with The String Cheese Incident, Kyle Hollingsworth. He uses it to describe both the passion he puts into his music and enthusiasm he has for craft beer. Hollingsworth, who lives in Boulder, Colo., was in Oregon in April for a performance at Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House as part of the Craft Beer Conference. His unique ability to travel the country while on tour has allowed him to become immersed in geographically distinct craft beer scenes, gain access to a number of breweries as a guest beer maker and learn how his skill set gained through collaborations as an artist cross-applies to the brewhouse.
There are people who enjoy drinking beer and, perhaps, even exploring by sampling styles outside of their comfort zone. But then there are individuals who exhibit a deeper interest in the beverage — they seek out knowledge on the history of the craft. They want to know the ins and outs of the process and remain on top of developments in the field. Hollingsworth exhibits that deeper commitment to brewing. But his initial interest didn’t necessarily stem from such principled reasoning. He recalls getting into homebrewing around the age of 18, a time in life where motivations can be dubious.
“My brother had been homebrewing a couple of years before me, so, of course, I was like, ‘Cool, I’ll do what he’s doing! He’s listening to Grateful Dead, I’ll listen to that! He smokes pot, I’ll do that!’” Hollingsworth laughed.
He also admitted it was handy to be able to make something that ferments in the basement and then get a little buzz from consuming your experiment all before turning the legal drinking age. But brewing still took significant effort. Hollingsworth, who grew up in Baltimore, Md., didn’t have access to a wide array of brewing equipment. Decades ago, there certainly wasn’t the same sort of homebrewing boom that has been seen in recent years. Hollingsworth said there was pretty much just one homebrewing shop in the area that was run by an old guy with a big beard. While it sounds like some things haven’t changed in the realm of homebrewing, there clearly are advances he’s now grateful for. Hollingsworth would rely on this sole outpost to buy his homebrew “kit.” And in those days that simply meant cans of malt. Therefore, his attachment to the hobby was more about its inventive nature.
“I think the first thing that attracted me to it was the process for sure — the creativity that can go into the process, the ability to create something new out of three or four different elements that can become something else after it’s fermented,” he described.
Years of experience have allowed Hollingsworth to graduate to a 10-gallon Ruby Street homebrewing system that he uses in his backyard. He cites the advances in technology as allowing him to fine-tune things. And similar to the way that The String Cheese Incident’s sound is kind of funky and unique, Hollingsworth brings that style to his recipes. One of his favorite concoctions included sassafras gathered on his property. He cut up the roots and essentially used a “tea of sassafras” as his wort.
Hollingsworth readily admits he’s a better musician than he is a homebrewer. But the two roles have plenty of overlap. Musicians know that once they master the fundamental elements, it allows them the liberty to move beyond the basics and break the conventions. This describes much of what Hollingsworth’s sound has evolved into — when not playing with The String Cheese Incident, he’s holding jam sessions with other artists, often from other genres. There’s an element of risk involved as there is with any impromptu performance. A note could fall flat. Things could get out of sync. But not knowing whether something could go wrong makes it all the more thrilling, and a successful execution results in a more rewarding experience. Hollingsworth said the same idea applies to brewing. Once you get the technique to make standard styles, the freedom to “riff” becomes possible.
“And you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen,” Hollingsworth said. “You throw in sassafras root or you’ll try an orange peel or something or really weird adjuncts that you never thought would really work. And sometimes it turns out to be the best brew you’ve ever made or the best jam you’ve ever played. And out of that comes joy, in my mind at least. The joy is part of the grand experiment — it’s what’s going to happen when all of these things, all of these elements come together.”
He also pointed out that music and beer need proper balance. In a band, for example, it’s important to make sure the guitarist and lead vocalist aren’t 10 times louder in the mix than everyone else. Similarly, Hollingsworth said that if you’re drinking a beer and notice the malt bill is over the top or the hops are overpowering, the combination of ingredients needs adjustment. He added that sometimes the industry as a whole needs to check its balance. In the way that music fans flock to iTunes and download the hits, creating demand for similar-sounding music, breweries also encounter a certain beer or style that will have a surge in popularity, such as an IPA. Over time, that could compromise quality and lead to homogeneity. Hollingsworth said his hope was that a willingness to experiment would counteract that trend.
Hollingsworth is certainly driven to explore with his beer making. That’s led him to become a gypsy brewer, of sorts, and perhaps the envy of every craft beer aficionado out there. He’s made special collaboration brews with the likes of Stone Brewing Co., Boulder Beer Company, Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery and Ska Brewing Co., just to name a few. Of course, his involvement in the music industry opens a lot of doors that the average beer lover wouldn’t be able to access. But Hollingsworth’s fanatical approach to the projects probably helps as well. What really gets him weak in the knees isn’t encountering big-name rock stars — it’s meeting the elite of the beer world.
“I play with a lot of famous musicians, from Paul Simon to Zac Brown. And when I hang out with them I’m like, ‘Oh hey, how’s it going?’ And I’m not really that star struck,” he explained. “But when I see, like, famous brewers, I’m full on like, ‘Oh my God! That’s Mitch! That’s Mitch from Stone! I don’t know what to say. Should I say hello? Should I go up?’ I get all stammered, you know?”
One of his wildest brew dreams came true when he got to make a beer at Stone with fellow musician Keri Kelli, hard rock guitarist who used to play with Alice Cooper. Head brewer Mitch Steele wanted to produce a musician-inspired beer and he certainly ended up with two artists whose sounds are wildly different. Their approaches to the project were as well. Hollingsworth said he wasn’t really sure what type of beer he wanted to make, so was open to suggestions and experimentation. Kelli, however, came in and nixed that right off the bat. He was determined to do a double IPA. Hollingsworth, who loves the style, was immediately on board and the Stone Collective Distortion IPA was the result. To add some of The String Cheese Incident, hippy vibe to the beer, Hollingsworth had the head brewer play around with different herbs and spices, such as chamomile, lavender and sage. But elderberry and coriander won out in the end.
Now a brewing day with two musicians and no music just wouldn’t have been right. The experience ended up wrapping with a giant jam session that included the Stone production line. Hollingsworth estimated there were some 19 guitar players and 11 drummers. Working with new people, both in music and brewing, forces Hollingsworth out of his comfort zone and provides fresh perspective, since it’s easy to get used to the styles of those you’ve spent years with.
“For me, collaborations always bring out — not always — tend to bring out the best in everyone,” Hollingsworth said. “I feel like everyone kind of shows up to a collaboration bringing their A-game, so in a lot of ways the sum is always greater than the parts.”
Hollingsworth took pause when asked what he gets from brewing that he doesn’t from music (besides the obvious drinkable end product). Ultimately, he landed upon the satisfaction of consistency in what seems to be a life filled with constant change and improvisation.
“Even if I have a composed piece I’m playing the same every time, it’s always a little bit of wiggle room. It doesn’t always sound the way I want it,” he described. “But in some degrees with brewing, once I get good at it, as I talk to people who have more experience, I can make a good beer twice in a row versus I can’t make a great jam twice in a row. And once you get the elements together, you’ve kind of followed through on it. I feel like you get the consistency out of beer that I don’t always get out of music.”
In the near future, Hollingsworth will keep playing music and making beer. His touring is sure to bring him back to Portland as well. He sees this region as sort of the grandfather of the craft beer movement that will eventually help ground emerging markets like Asheville, N.C. He’s entertained the idea of starting his own brewery, but admitted it sounds like a lot of work. His thoughts then drifted to creating what sounds like the ideal hangout for any beer lover.
“I just kind of have this vision of a wooden bar with 15 of my favorite tap handles,” he shared.
There would be one saved for his own creation along with space for The String Cheese Incident and other acts to play in the back. Lucky for the people in Boulder, Colo. if Hollingsworth makes it happen. In the meantime, though, you can be sure that whatever he does, it won’t stop at 10. He will be turning things up to 11.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.