The worlds of beer and music often clash in potent collaborations: Iron Maiden is responsible for the 4.8 percent ABV 'Trooper'; Pearl Jam has a fruity 'Faithful Ale'; and even Motorhead put their name to a lager, presumably for those quiet moments when Lemmy needed a break from bourbon. (RIP.)
Yet in the strange pantheon of music brews, there was something extraordinary about the partnership that took place in November on a grey morning in the small Belgian town of Lochristi: Rick Astley, the British singer-songwriter whose 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up" went from from pop smash hit to internet cult favourite, and Danish craft beer wizard Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller teamed up to make a beer. It was going to be a red lager with a hint of ginger. Astley likes ginger.
"I always drink honey and ginger before I go on stage," Astley said. "If we can get it right in the beer, then it's going to be a refreshing drink."
Bjergsø's previous collaborators have ranged from restaurant noma to metal rockers Mastodon to a Danish funeral home, yet Astley, who Bjergsø idolised as a teenager, was always at the top of the wish list. "Rick is the biggest of them all," he said. "It's a huge deal for me to meet a man who I was a big fan of when I was younger. This isn't your average day at the brewery."
The courtship was instigated by Bjergsø, but the collaboration was a good fit for Astley, who has enjoyed another run of success with his latest album 50 and subsequent sold-out concerts. A custom-made, Rick-approved beer would be the icing on the cake for the summer tour. "I don't really see it as a business venture, but who knows," said Astley. "We might come up with a beer that the world ends up loving."
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A few weeks before their meeting in Belgium, Bjergsø shipped a package of Mikkeller brews—from fruit-infused sours to heavy IPAs—to the singer's home in Richmond outside London. Astley and his Danish wife had sampled the beers with a mixture of wonder and weariness. "For me, it was a bit of a jump into the unknown", said Astley. "I tasted a few of the beers and found it really difficult. But I was drinking it with the wrong attitude. I was expecting to fill a glass and drink it like you would drink a pint at the pub."
The night before their brewing session, Astley and Bjergsø met up in Brussels to dig deeper into the world of Belgian beer. At the brewery 3 Fonteinen, on the edge of Brussels, they feasted on plump mussels from the Dutch west coast steamed in liberal measures of Oude Geuze, a spontaneously fermented beer made according to local traditions. There was freshly brewed faro, a lambic sweetened with brown sugar, served in blue and white stoneware pitchers.
"I'm starting to realise what's going on with this craft beer thing," said Astley. "But I'm still five steps behind Mikkel." When they touched down later at Brussels' fabled Moeder Lambic bar for more of the sour stuff, Astley was feeling the attraction. "I'm becoming a convert. I'm going to the dark side."
The next morning, at De Proef brewery in Lochristi, Bjergsø and Astley washed the soles of their shoes before they entered what is hailed as one of the most high-tech breweries in the business. Bjergsø has made most of his Mikkeller beers there for the last nine years, and describes the place as "Willy Wonka's beer factory". Brewmaster Dirk Naudts, who leads a team of about 40, guided them around the facilities, including an in-house R&D lab that wouldn't seem out of place at a small-scale space program. There were petri dishes full of weedy-looking hops, yeast strains spinning in centrifuges, and a secret department devoted to the DNA fingerprinting of hops.
Astley looked on with baffled wonder while the brewers smiled knowingly. As they walked to the bottling plant, one of the brewery workers stopped Astley and asked him to sign an LP. "I once signed a bible for two nuns on a mountain top in Italy," said the singer, "but I'd say this is pretty weird."
Based on Astley's input on taste and flavour, Bjergsø had sent off a recipe to De Proef so they could get started on a test batch of the red lager. Bjergsø stopped by a large conically shaped stainless steel tank where he peered through the porthole. Inside was a foamy, golden brown liquid swirling around like a hurricane. "Hi Rick," he said, "This is your beer."
The singer wondered if a taste would give them any indication of the final product. "No," said Bjergsø, "because this beer 'tea' is going to be very fat and sweet, and the final beer is going to be a dry lager that's very crisp."
It would be another four months before they got to the taste the final product together. This time, it would be in Los Angeles, where Astley was touring and Bjergsø was opening a new Mikkeller bar. The name for the beer—Astley's Northern Hop—was the singer's tribute to his northern English roots and weekend dances. It's expected to be released in London on April 13 at the bar Draft House, and will subsequently be available in Mikkeller's bars and shops.
Back in Belgium, before they parted ways the first time, Astley got a much less pleasant hop sample. Almost as a ritual marking his initiation into the brewers' rank, Bjergsø urged Astley to try some sticky, swamp-green hop extract. "I hope you don't lose your voice," said Dirk. A few seconds later, after he'd dipped the tip of his little finger into the golden can of extract, Astley recoiled in horror and ran for the water tap. "If you took a spoonful of that you'd never sing again," he said. "That stuff is lethal. It's like it's from another planet. Like an alien lifeform."
Bjergsø smiled, clutching a 12" interview picture disc that he had kept since his schooldays in the late 1980s, and asked Astley to sign. The brewer was off home to Denmark to write new beer recipes and expand his empire, and Astley was off to meet José Mourinho and the Manchester United football team, because, well, he's Rick Astley, and life throws you nice surprises when your music is ubiquitous from Manchester to Mozambique. Even If he didn't leave Belgium as a changed man, at least Astley was a changed beer-drinker.
"This has been a real eye-opener. It's obviously a very human thing and a very instinctive thing about taste, flavour, and the pleasure of drinking beer, but to get this right consistently, there is a high level of science involved," he said.
"What I like in a beer has actually changed within these last 24 hours. When we make the next beer, we'll go crazy."