Kyle Hollingsworth, keyboardist of The String Cheese Incident, is the king of beer/band collaborations. Over the past decade, he’s brewed with more than 25 breweries across the country, released three nationally distributed collaborative beers and put together more than a dozen of his own beer festivals. He hosted the first-of-its-kind Lebrewski Cruise ( a beer- and music-focused voyage from Miami to the Caribbean) last year, and even has an entire section of his website dedicated to “Brews News.” With the String Cheese Incident’s new album, “Believe,” dropping Friday, Hollingsworth called from the band’s tour stop in Madison, Wisconsin, to chat about his homebrewing hobby, upcoming beer collaborations and that one time he jammed with a dozen brewers at Stone:
DRAFT: You’ve collaborated with brewers across the country, you’ve spoken at GABF, and you even have your own beer festival. What got you into beer in the first place?
I started homebrewing when I was like 16, or something ridiculous like that. I think what first got me motivated was my older brother. Everything he did was really cool. He listened to the Grateful Dead; I listened to the Grateful Dead. But he was also homebrewing, and I think I got inspired by cool things that he did but also by the process. Once I kind of saw that chemical reactions were happening and something was bubbling downstairs, and I could be involved in the creation of this thing, all of a sudden it became really enticing to me. So I kind of took over and he kind of dropped off with it, and I took all his homebrew supplies with me to college, and I kept going. As I moved from state to state, I would carry it around in the back of my car. It was pretty much the keyboard, the homebrew stuff and a sleeping bag.
It must have been tough to keep up the homebrewing hobby as the band became more popular. At what point did you decide that it would remain a big part of your life?
It was actually perfect, because we would be gone on long tours in the early days of String Cheese. We were probably playing and touring 285 days a year. So trying to brew during those times was obviously difficult; sometimes we’d go two months before I could come back to it. So it was trickier to keep up with it then. I would brew sometimes in between tours, when we’d have a week or so, and then I’d have to head out again. But the upside was that I would come back a few weeks later and everything would be all fermented out. But then, as String Cheese started offering more time to be at home, I got more passionate about it. And honestly, it’s was just over the last eight to 10 years that through my side project I’ve kind of connected the dots with all my solo work and connecting with breweries specifically.
When and how did the first collaboration happen? Did you approach a brewery, or did they approach you?
I was based in Boulder for a while and met some friends through there, and then I put together a charity event that has now become an annual thing called Hoppy Holidays—it’s right around Christmas time. I got together with a brewer who was a friend of mine who worked at New Belgium. And that was the first collaboration. It was just this little charity event, with my solo band right there, inside the brewery, and we played right next to the kettle and everything. The brew turned out pretty good. So that kind of sparked things, and this is a really cool angle for me as far as being a musician.
What do you like to brew?
I have a brewing buddy named John who lives down the street; he’s awesome. He’s always challenging me to do new and different things. If he wasn’t around I’d probably default to doing IPAs. I’ve been doing a lot of farmhouse ales and Belgian styles lately, but I get a little frustrated with the yeast strains sometimes. I like to say that if you looked at beer like a band, the drummer would be the water, and the bass would be the malt, and the hops would be the guitar player—because it goes to 11—and then the yeast is like the lead singer. It doesn’t always show up. It’s the wild card. I get frustrated at the Belgian yeast sometimes. I usually just default to basic pale ales; I haven’t gone super deep into any out-there styles in the homebrew world. Outside of that, I have like 25 or 30 collaborations with big breweries, and I’ve done some cool stuff with them.
Have you ever entered any homebrew competitions?
Never with one of my recipes. I’m a little nervous about that. It’s funny; in the music world I know a lot of bigger people. But then I walk around the brewing world and I get so nervous. Like, “Oh my god, that’s Mitch from Stone!” I don’t know what to say to him. Meanwhile, I’m like, “What’s up, Paul Simon?” I’m really relaxed with the people in the music industry, but in the brewing industry I’m a super fan. “Oh my god, that’s Sam Calagione! He’s right there!”
Most musicians get fan mail. Do you also get bottles of homebrew from fans who know about your beer love?
I do, occasionally. I’ve been sent a few recipes, and occasionally fans will bring me homebrew. The big one, though, is like, “Hey, my friend’s opening a brewery in Detroit; you should come have a beer with me.” Through that I’ve been connecting with a lot of small breweries. I do this thing called Hop on Tour, which is where fans can come and I showcase a local brewery in every town where we’re touring. So that’s a fun thing.
Brewers seem to collaborate with people in the music industry more often than any other. Why do you think music and beer go so well together?
Well, I can speak to my interest in it. I think how it connects for me is in my particular style of music, where there’s a lot of spontaneity. I feel like I learned the craft of the piano, how to play it, and then that becomes the art of improvisation, the art of the unknown. I approach brewing in the same way: You have the basic techniques, but then improvising brings about more interesting recipes and more interesting results. But bigger picture, I think music and beer are both a big part of community-building. They bring people together. They loosen people up a little bit.
Last year you did the first-ever craft beer-focused cruise: The Lebrewski Cruise. Is that something you’re ever going to do again?
Hallelujah, I wish. We just needed a thousand more people to show up and it would’ve been great. But it was a great concept and it was so much fun. We did a tasting every day on the boat; we had like 25 or 30 different breweries on board, and I called all the different breweries beforehand and said, “I know you’re going to bring your flagship, but please, for the tastings, bring some unique stuff.” And they all stepped up. The tastings were full of these crazy barrel-aged beers and other things. It was incredible. And then we did meet-and-greets with the brewers, and then we did homebrewing 101 classes and some other things. It was a blast.
Any other beer-related projects coming up soon?
I’m working on something kind of cool. I can’t say with which breweries yet, but a friend of ours who runs Relix magazine is looking to make a beer, so we’re contacting a couple different companies to do a beer with us that would be followed in Relix through two issues. So that’ll be kind of fun. We’re in talks with breweries to set that up as a national release.
Through all the beer events and collaborations you’ve done, what have been your favorite experiences?
The first one that comes to mind is with Stone. Going out with Mitch and Greg and doing a pilot batch with me and the guitarist from Alice Cooper, and not only being involved with brewing the beer—we actually went to their organic gardens to pick the ingredients we’d put in the beer—but then after brewing the beer, we had a huge jam session. Mitch was on guitar, and there were like nine bottling guys that were bass players, and 11 other guys who were drummers. Pretty much everyone at the brewery played something, though not all of them played it well. We brewed the beer and did that whole thing, and then at night they cleared out the back room and we had seriously like 14 or 15 musicians playing. Greg played guitar for a minute, and Mitch came up and did his thing, and Jeremy [Moynier, Stone’s lead brewer] was playing keys, and he and I were riffing off each other. It was just one of the best real collaborations in every sense. I woke up and had a high from the whole thing.
You have a new album, “Believe”, coming out on Friday. Tell us a bit about it.
This is String Cheese’s seventh album. We’ve been working a lot at this new studio we call The Lab, and it’s a space where we can be really creative without feeling the pressures of a studio. We have it set up to be this creative space, so we’ve been going there and writing material, and as it comes together, that’s when we press record. It’s the first album that has completely come from The Lab. Once again, we had our friend Jerry Harrison from the Talking Heads helping us through the process. He worked on the last one as well. He pushed us in some different ways, not only writing but getting certain sounds. I’m really psyched about it.
Anything coming up with your solo project?
Yeah, I’m always keeping busy with that. There’s some beer stuff on the horizon; some of it’s wishful thinking and some of it’s more concrete. I’ll be coming out with a solo disc probably in the next year, which’ll be my fourth. With the last disc, I did three separate beers and a single tied to each one of the beers. The beers were released first, so I tried to make each song match the beer. One was with Stone, the Collective Distortion IPA, and that was an aggressive double IPA so the song was more hyper, and then there was Boulder Beer’s Hoopla Pale Ale, and one with Cigar City [editor’s note: that beer was Happening Now, a session IPA]. I don’t know if I’ll do exactly that again—trying to fly to all those places, create the recipes, brew the beers and then write songs to match them was tough. But I’m sure there’ll be some sort of beer release that comes around when I release the new CD.
Do you have a holy grail beer? One that you’ve always wanted but never been able to get your hands on?
I’ve been so lucky, because people just bring me great beer, and the beer culture is always growing so there’s always great new stuff to try. I don’t know if it’s a holy grail, but I’ve never tried Pliny the Younger. At this point I don’t know whether that beer is just a myth. Someday I’m going to have to get up to Russian River and stand outside the doors to get that.
Okay, last one: If you could drink a beer with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
I like that question. Would it be a musician? Would it be an old homebrewer, like George Washington? I have his recipe and I’ve been meaning to try it out. But the first person who comes to mind is probably [Talking Heads founder and lead singer] David Byrne. I’d like to pick his brain. That would be interesting, sonically, for me.
Responses have been edited for clarity and space.