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String Cheese, Jam Bands and Homebrews

Veteran musician Kyle Hollingsworth talks music and homebrewing – and the surprising similarity between them.
Kyle Hollingsworth Homebrewing Music String Cheese Band

Playing music and brewing beer both require ample creativity. Musicians and brewers alike employ their unique skill set to create something new and fascinating out of disparate elements that may seem strange and off-kilter when approached individually.

No one knows this dichotomy better than fervent homebrewer and veteran musician Kyle Hollingsworth, the keyboardist of The String Cheese Incident as well as a successful solo artist. He’s also the man behind Boulder Beer’s Hoopla Pale Ale, a brew designed to change the festival circuit’s beer landscape from swill-soaked to discerning.

Hoopla was inspired by the String Cheese Incident’s 2011 set at Bonnaroo. “I looked in the audience and saw all these people drinking mediocre beers in the blazing sun and I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something about this.’ I knew I needed to make a beer that people can drink in the sun when it’s blazing hot that has more character, more flavor and just better taste.”

After a few collaborations with smaller breweries, Hollingsworth’s clout in the beer business was starting to grow and he approached Boulder about crafting a beer with this premise in mind. “I went to Boulder and said: ‘Let’s make a pale ale that’s light enough to drink in 85 degrees and 90 percent humidity, but has an IBU load that’s not way over the top; something that people would enjoy. Let’s put that in people’s hands at events, and change the jam-band, festival culture.’”

By this point, Hollingsworth had come a long way from his first forays with classical piano (at the age of 7), which grew out of his siblings’ interest in music.

“I was always drawn to the piano. I would sit down at the piano at home and tinker on it, which led to creating music at the piano or with found objects, such as drumming with my cutlery at the kitchen table – and my mom telling me not to do that anymore.”

There’s an inescapable joy to hearing Hollingsworth talk about his early love of music and how that passion put him on the road to his dream career. This same zeal applies to his love of beer and his history of homebrewing as well.

After having his first sip of Brooklyn Lager in 1988, he realized there was a lot more flavorful beer out there, and after turning 21, he searched out good craft breweries whenever he could get the chance, discovering Bell’s, Lagunitas, Avery and Ballast Point along the way. These pioneering craft breweries inspired him to create his own beers.

Hollingsworth started homebrewing with at the tender (and legally dubious) age of 16. “Pretty early on I was intrigued by homebrewing. My brother started homebrewing in 1984, when there was only one homebrewing shop nearby. Anything my older brother did I thought was cool. So he and I started together and he kind of gave up on it when he went to college, but I continued on.”

The alchemical aspects of brewing fascinated Hollingsworth. “I was intrigued by the process of it; it was pretty mystical, pretty magical to me that I could put all these ingredients together – just 4 or 5 ingredients – and a whole new form would come out of it.”

He loved experimenting within the confines of recipes as well. For one brew, he dug up some sassafras from his backyard, sliced up the roots, and used those for his wort. “The process of taking chances a little bit, and the idea that you never know what you’re going to get was very appealing to me.”

A lot of his early homebrews ended up being undrinkable (including the sassafras one) and he was forced to clean up his fair share of exploded bottles, but he enjoyed watching the fermentation process occur and learned a lot during his formative homebrewing years.

Hollingsworth’s passion for beer continued to pick up steam after learning the basics. He brewed extensively, sponging up as much knowledge as possible along the way, tweaking his style and continuing to experiment and take chances with every batch he brewed.

Recently, Hollingsworth has been a participant in over 20 collaborations with breweries around the country – 3 of which were national releases. His first was Boulder's Hoopla, the next was Cigar City Brewing’s Happening Now Session IPA and the most recent was Stone Brewing’s Collective Distortion IPA with co-collaborator Keri Kelli (guitarist for Alice Cooper).

With Collective Distortion, a 9.2 percent Double IPA brewed with elderberries and coriander, Hollingsworth got to work with one of his favorite brewers: Stone’s founder Greg Koch. “I had been in touch with Mitch and Greg at Stone for a while about wanting to do a beer together, and they finally said ‘Let’s do it.’ I was like ‘Yes! That’s my favorite brewery of all time!’”

According to Hollingsworth, the creation of a beer “is different for every brewery,” but with Collective Distortion, he was present for its genesis (the test batch and recipe creation) and for the brewing of the actual batch as well. It was Hollingsworth’s idea to add the elderberries and Greg’s idea to add the “really fun” coriander.

Hoopla included a QR code that, when scanned, would link to a song by Hollingsworth from his most recent album, Speed of Life. The other two national collaborations also had singles from the album on the breweries' websites, and all the tracks were meant to be simultaneously listened to as each beer was consumed. This blending of music and beer is something that Hollingsworth is very interested in.

Music and beer tend to go hand-in-hand as both require abundant passion, dedication and patience. Hollingsworth has devoted his life to both endeavors and tries to tie them together in tangible ways with his Brewru Experience talks. Over the past few years, Hollingsworth has spoken about the intermingling of beer and music to crowds at various festivals.

And sometimes he does more than just speak:

“I went to the Craft Beer Conference this year in Portland and I played a show, then I did a Brewru talk with the guys from Deschutes. In the talk, I paired the different elements of brewing with a different instrument on stage. The drummer was the water, the bass was the grain, the guitar player was the hops (because he turns it up to 11) and the lead singer was the yeast (because he’s the wild card).”

Music and beer will continue to revolve around trailblazing originality and creativity as long as there are boundaries that can still be crossed.

With those boundaries in sight, Hollingsworth will continue to brew and share his knowledge of beer with anyone who wants to listen. In our talk, he waxed poetic about beer and brewing but was apologetic about his mellifluousness: “Sorry I’m rambling… I just really love beer.”