The sound of a bagpipe is one that defies onomatopoeic description. Equal parts pipe organ, sovaldi sitar drone, and and python-ensnared sheep, it is at once abrasively off-putting and irresistibly seductive. Bombast and melodiousness stuffed uncomfortably into one inflated bag.
The sound of the pipes is also inexplicably linked to beer. At every beer festival I have ever attended bagpipes have served to usher the crowds in and then back out again, like the Pied Piper with his rats and children. This is true not just in Minnesota, but nationally. Brewers Association festivals including the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and SAVOR always begin with a pipe and drum band. From Florida to Washington it’s the bagpipes that start the taps flowing.
A related curiosity is the wearing of the kilt. Whether authentic or utility, beer fests bring out an unusually high concentration of kilts. Men by the hundreds – okay, the tens – parade around festival grounds in their tartan or Carhartt® manskirts. What’s the deal?
I have never understood the connection. Certainly the Scottish drink beer, their already incomprehensible brogue becoming more garbled with every pint, but this is a distinctly American phenomenon. I have it on good authority that you wouldn’t hear pipes or see kilts at a beer fest in Glasgow or Edinburgh. So what is it about beer that turns so many of us Yanks into wanna-be Scots? Curiosity got the best of me. I decided to find out.
It was a stormy day at the Beer Dabbler Pride Fest where I began my quest. Waves of rain rolled through one after another, sending people scurrying under brewer tents for shelter. During breaks in the weather I queried anyone in a kilt. The reasons they gave were many. “It’s breezy.” “It’s comfortable.” “It provides easy access.” (I didn’t ask for what.) And from a woman in a Utilikilt®, “My husband wears a kilt because I like what it does to him. He likes what I do to him later.”
These reasons were all fine and dandy, sexy even, but none of them had anything to do with beer. No one at Pride Fest could explain why a beer festival in particular had prompted them to pull a kilt out of the closet, so to speak. I was going to have to dig deeper.
I needed to talk to someone in the industry. Flat Earth Brewing founder and now-retired Summit brewer Jeff Williamson was known to don a kilt at fests. I sought him out. Williamson cited his own Scottish heritage. He owns kilts that bear the tartan of the region whence his family came, but he mostly wears a Utilikilt® to beer fests. It’s easier to clean spilled beer off of 65/35 Poly/Cotton Twill than wool. He parroted the Pride Festers’ assertions of comfort and ease of access. (Again, I didn’t ask.) But he could offer no explanation for the connection between kilts and American craft beer. Another dead end.
I turned my attention to bagpipes. Perhaps an answer to that oddity would also solve the kilt question. I sought out Dennis Skrade, the man whose clangorous tones have kicked off nearly every beer fest in the state. He’s played Winterfest and Autumn Brew Review from the beginning. He’s blown up his bladder at the Great Taste of the Midwest, All Pints North, and several other fests. His pipes have accompanied Rock Bottom tappings and the blessing of the Maibock at Town Hall. In short, he’s been everywhere and played them all. Surely he would have some insight.
Skrade first proposed a number of benign theories. “Beer makes people happy and makes them smile.” He said. “Bagpipes do the same thing.” He noted that bagpipes have long served to commemorate important events both solemn and festive; think police funerals or the queen’s birthday. Or maybe it’s that beer people are loud and brash. Like bagpipes, you hear them coming. These folks need something equally piercing to get their attention, especially after a few beers. Bagpipes were meant to lead people into battle. Their tone gets your blood going and makes the hair on your neck stand up. And they can be heard even over a festival’s din.
Skrade also thought that it might be more an Irish connection than Scottish. The Irish have their own piping tradition and made up a larger percentage of immigrants to this country in the 19th-century. A Chicago fire chief of the day purportedly hired men based on whether they could blow songs that he didn’t know. The Irish have a prodigious reputation as aficionados of the drink. It’s no secret that St. Patrick’s Day, one of the biggest drinking holidays of the year, is also a prime day for pipers. And many of the early beer imports to this country were Irish; think Guinness and Harp. This theory deserved further exploration.
Seeking answers, I pushed Skrade harder. Ultimately he laid the blame on Summit Brewing Company founder Mark Stutrud. In 1986 Skrade tried his first Summit beer. He liked it so much that he made a point of visiting the brewery. Upon learning that Stutrud was a fan of the pipes, Skrade asked to be allowed to play at the brewery. Ever since, festivities at Summit have included bagpipes. The tradition expanded from there.
So this whole bagpipe/kilt thing is Mark Stutrud’s fault. Now I had a real lead.
I confronted Stutrud with the accusation. “I deny that outright.” He said. “There is way too much liability involved. The amount of insurance, the premium would be outrageous. So I wouldn’t do it.”
He did confess an affinity for bagpipes and kilts. It is, he claimed, in his DNA. His need to be around pipers and people who wear kilts is a way of dealing with subconscious issues of Scandinavian abhorrence of pipes; a way to confront ancestral fears head on. “The Vikings considered bagpipes weapons of mass destruction. It’s about the only thing that scared them.”
He also pointed out that in the 1980s craft brewers were deviants; isolated miscreants making flavorful beer in a sea of…well you know. Pipers are also a bit of a deviant group, he opined. There is a natural affinity.
Reflecting on the real connection between bagpipes and beer, Stutrud took a historical perspective. He related it back to Anglo traditions at a time when life was bound up with the seasons. A successful harvest was celebrated with dancing and drinking accompanied by bagpipes. “It’s a long-standing tradition that pipers were always compensated in beer. So they’re like flies to honey in that regard.” So are modern pipers just looking for ways to get free beer? “There is absolutely no question.” Stutrud continued. “Every piper I’ve met has the same perspective. So truthfully I think that’s the direct connection. Those guys are seeking out a good mug of ale. And historically that’s how it’s always been.”
I next turned to Bob McKenzie, Head Brewer at the Barley John’s Brewery in New Richmond, Wisconsin and an actual bagpipe-playing Scotsman. If anyone would have insight, certainly it would be him. I first asked him about Dennis Skrade’s Irish theory. He discounted it immediately, saying, “Irish people would already be drunk and getting into fights by the time they got to the festival, so it’s unlikely that they’d be in any shape to play the bagpipes.” I ran this past Irishman and Summit Head Brewer Damian McConn for verification. “That’s like stench from a sweaty sock.” he replied, adding that he had no idea what the connection was between bagpipes, kilts, and American beer fests.
McKenzie thought the connection could have its roots in the fact that early American craft brewers were by and large brewing English styles and reaching out to people with an interest in British culture. Bert Grant, a native of Scotland and the man who basically invented the brewpub when he opened the Yakima Brewing and Malting Co. in 1982, exemplified this. According to an article on Seattlepi.com, “Grant was known to wear a kilt at his pub in Yakima and occasionally dance on the bar. He kept a claymore – a double-bladed broadsword – just in case he had to enforce his ban on smoking.”
McKenzie reinforced the Pied Piper theory. Festival organizers like bagpipes because they are loud and people follow them. When the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild did two sessions of Autumn Brew Review a few of years ago, they wondered how they were going to get people to leave after the first session ended. The answer was to send in the pipers. People will either follow them or run away from them was the thinking. It worked. McKenzie speculated on the reasons. “The Scottish used them to lead people into war, so maybe there’s just some primordial instinct to follow a bagpiper. It could just be to see if they fall down or not. You’ve got this person trying to walk and play this instrument that involves a lot of wind at the same time. Everybody just wants to see if they are going to fall over.”
After positing these possibilities McKenzie got down to brass tacks. “My first idea is that it all has to do with Dennis Skrade. I kind of thought initially that it was solely due to the fact that he likes free beer. It was an elaborate ploy for him to get free beer.” But then McKenzie went to the GABF where there were bagpipes and people in kilts. He realized that this was bigger than just one man.
Bagpipe bands are mostly male, he postulated. If given the chance to drink free beer they would jump at it. “One bagpiper somewhere thought, ‘this is a good way of getting beer.’ Word went out over the piper forums to contact the local beer festival. They’ll let you in for free. All you have to do is play bagpipes at the beginning and the end. Any piper that survived St. Patrick’s Day knows that you can still play bagpipes no matter how much you drink.”
As for the wearing of the kilt McKenzie said, “They make it much easier to go to the bathroom. Something that is important when consuming large quantities of beer.” Is this what people meant by “ease of access?”