"I gotta lotta old friends that are gettin' back in touch," starts Craig Finn of The Hold Steady in "Stay Positive." It began for me last year when I recognized the name Hanging Hills on a can in a display case. It was one of the new Connecticut breweries I was meaning to try, but the name was all I knew. You can hide a lot with hops dosed at Keith Richards levels, or rose hips, cacao nibs, and whatever else anyone has a mind to dump into a fermenter, so I like to start with known quantities, and chose their Hills Pils. Dotted lines sprang up on maps of memory in that moment, but I didn't know it yet.
This is a story of beer, rock music, and a reason to have hope.
Hills Pils is excellent. I'm going to save you all a bit by bit breakdown in the interest of brevity, but it's a crisp, bitter, clean pilsner with richness enough to set it apart, and the extra nudge of hops needed to snare the American consumer. In the summer of 2017 when this story begins, I started buying all I could find. I brought it to night time gatherings around fire pits, for friends who were renting beach houses, and up to a race at Lime Rock.
At the same time, elsewhere and upstate in Hartford, the brewers at Hanging Hills created a beer they called Water Tower Kettle Sour, after the lyrics to a Hold Steady song called "Constructive Summer." They mentioned their new beer on social media and somewhere, maybe at home base in Brooklyn, maybe back home in Minneapolis, but probably on the road, the band took notice. Hanging Hills got a re-Tweet which created a blip in the national media's roiling churn.
Summer rolled along, and I made plans to attend the first ever G.O.A.T. Brew Fest as an excuse to check out the new stadium where the Hartford Yard Goats play, and an opportunity to do the same for new Connecticut breweries whose products were hard to find in Fairfield County. Around the same time, the Hold Steady announced a run of shows at Brooklyn Bowl, giving Joe Ploof and the folks at Hanging Hills an idea. They reached out to the band with a mock-up of label art for A Stage And An IPA, another lyrical reference. "We're just fans, but: can we make a beer for you guys?" they were asking. This time they got a message.
Summer was over, but it was still warm. I was driving up to Hartford, belting out off-key lyrics to "Ramble On" in my car while The Hold Steady was heading back from European tour. Up At Hanging Hills, the crew was brewing.
"The next day after I reached out, I got an email from their band manager, David Gottlieb," Ploof told me. "He said the band was definitely down and, purely by coincidence, they had expressed interest in having a beer for this run of shows. My timing was awesome as it turned out." Only a few months old, the brewery was making an official beer for their favorite band's multi-show Brooklyn residency.
A few miles away in Hartford, I was at the baseball park making my way through the open concourse on a gorgeous, sunny day. It's been a boondoggle for the city, yes, but The GoatYard (not its real name) is gleaming, well laid out, and a hell of a spot for a game or a brewfest. I had excellent new beers from Connecticut locals Alvarium, Still Hill, These Guys, and Hog River (more on them to come), and sidled up to the Hanging Hills booth. Lines, literal and figurative, were converging.
Oh, New England is a rotating hop series IPA, and the one I had that day was tripled up with Citra, Lemondrop, and Idaho 7 hop varieties. It was a satisfying new school, unfiltered IPA awash in fresh citrus flavors. The second version I had nixed the Citra in the hop bill and became a bit earthier as a result. I left Hartford and headed south with a head full of notes.
A month later, this past November, I was eating lunch at Bar 333 in Milford when the universe tapped me on the shoulder. "Meet the brewers of Hanging Hills of Hartford" was on the wall, scheduled for that same night. I paid, finished my work for the day, and returned that night to the place where all those dotted lines which had been racing across the country for months would converge. Right...
"Have you ever heard of a band called Drive-By Truckers?"
Joe Ploof sat next to me at the bar. Hanging Hills and I are both from Connecticut, but the Drive-By Truckers are from Athens, Georgia, which is where I went to college. I've seen the Truckers at bars and clubs literally more times than I can remember. The Hold Steady's roots are in Minneapolis, but they formed in Brooklyn, and the experience with them emboldened Ploof to reach out to the Truckers.
A giant pin fell from the sky and buried itself in that moment, securing all those dotted lines in place, right there, right then.
Beer, Rock, and Hope
Athens, Georgia is both a laboratory and mecca of music. The B-52s, Widespread Panic, Washed Out, Dangermouse, and R.E.M. all sprang up there, along with the Truckers brand of alt-country-psychobilly ripshit rock.
The beer Hanging Hills created in Hartford and made for Athens is available at the brewery (150 Ledyard St., Hartford) today, Friday, January 26th. It is an extremely limited edition brown ale made with Georgia-grown Triticale malt - a hybrid of wheat and rye. The beer will be served at the Drive-By Truckers shows, Feb. 15-17, at a tiny club I used to haunt in Athens called the 40-Watt.
The shows will benefit Nuçi'sSpace, a music and educational space dedicated to suicide prevention, and ending the stigma of mental illness. Nuçi's is right down the hill from where I lived in Athens, and I used to walk to shows there all the time. I remember Japancakes playing while we watched from bean bags chairs. The crumbling remains of a brick church where R.E.M. played their first show sits directly behind Nuçi's, its ruins slowly being devoured by kudzu. This is a worthy cause, and it's at the heart of where all the lines come together.
"I gotta lotta old friends that are gettin' back in touch
And it's a pretty good feelin', yeah it feels pretty good"