What do you get when you cross a music-loving craft beer company with great local bands? Natural Villain, for starters. The golden lager with a slightly hoppy bite is the latest collaboration between Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. and a group they love, in this case hometown indie rockers Twin Peaks. It’s a natural connection that Goose Island President Todd Ahsmann tells Billboard was a perfect fit for both, and just the latest brand extension to tap into the dual power of suds and sounds.
“With my history in the music industry I was a witness to the powerful connection between music and beer… I can tell you where I had some of my favorite beers for the first time, usually at a concert or when I was about to go to a concert,” says Ahsmann, who went from bartending at Goose Island brewpub in 1988 to two decades in the marketing departments of major and indie labels working with everyone from Beyoncé to The Ramones and Blur.
“It’s the same with music. I can remember the smells of certain beers or beers I drank at a concert, so I figured other people might as well,” he says about why Goose Island began partnering with musical acts in 2014, when it worked with hip-hop duo Run the Jewels on an American Pale Wheat Ale that began a years-long relationship with Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival.
Back in 2013, Ahsmann says he was talking to the festival’s booker — Goose Island has been a sponsor since 2005, when it was known as the Intonation Festival — and he floated the idea of collaborating with an act on the bill to create a signature beer. RTJ’s Killer Mike and El-P spent a day at the brewery picking out hops, which has led to similar collabs with Chicago’s Chance the Rapper and Canadian indie rockers Japandroids.
“Testimonials work, but you can tell when someone is faking it to promote something, so I want a true collaboration,” Ahsmann says of the work that goes into something like Chance’s Helles-style No Collar beer. The Twin Peaks “garage-style lager,” which rolled off the line in March, is named after a track from the group’s 2013 debut album, Sunken, and singer/guitarist Cadien Lake James tell Billboard that the connection with GI goes back to 2014.
The band played the Goose Island Block Party that year and they’ve crossed paths numerous times since they first offered Natural Villain at Pitchfork in 2016 before sending it out nationally this year. “It’s been a long time growth, coming pretty naturally from Goose’s effort to involve the local Chicago scene in their events and evolving into a personal relationship the band has with them now,” says James, who admits the band aren’t beer aficianados per se, but have had their “fair share” of brews around the country and the world, where they’ve developed a taste for Mexican lagers.
They’ve happily sampled every one of the Pitchfork/Goose Island collabs over the past six years and were eager to visit the brewery to sample some different lagers to see what they might like their name on. “They explained how they’re brewed and why they taste how they do [and] we ended up narrowing the tastes down to what led the guys to Natural Villain,” James says. As to what makes it Twin Peaks-worthy, he adds, “I suppose you could say it’s easy to drink too many of these beers cause they don’t fill you up, they taste great, and are extremely refreshing.”
Ahsmann says Goose Island has cooked up around 200 barrels of Natural Villain, which is now getting a wide release in bottles, cans and on draft, with sales that have so far “definitely exceeded expectations.” There will be another collaboration this year with Pitchfork on an as-yet-unannounced beer, but in the meantime Ahsmann says he’s have a blast being a brewery A&R man.
“A bit selfishly, we don’t really think about it from a business perspective… we get a head’s up on who is performing before the [Pitchfork] schedule is out, we see who’s available and who likes beer and… what better way for a beer company to get people to try beer?” he says. “Forget sunglasses. Make a beer that people will actually enjoy and hopefully they’ll get a sense of what Goose Island is by the beers we pick to make.”
For James, who never thought he’d move out of his mom and dad’s house, definitely didn’t picture leaving the country to play his music around the world and couldn’t fathom owning more than one working guitar, Natural Villain is definitely a career summit. “No, I didn’t imagine we’d have our own signature beer, and it feels good,” he says.