Derek Garman was teetering on the edge of insanity. After listening to the rap supergroup Wu-Tang Clan—and their debut 1993 album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)—at 130 decibels for eight hours straight every day for 12 days, he was questioning the merits of his profession.
Garman is not a DJ, a hip hop connoisseur, nor even a Wu-Tang Clan fan, for that matter. This bassy assault on his ears was not an act of choice, but rather one of culinary science.
Garman is the head brewer at Fortnight Brewing in Cary, North Carolina. He and his team were using sonic vibrations—in this case, East Coast gangster rap—to stress out the yeast during the fermentation process with the purpose of altering the flavour, character, and complexion of a new beer, aptly dubbed “Bring da Ruckus.”
He and other brewers encircled the brewery’s fermentation tank with two 30-inch speakers and blasted Wu-Tang at maximum volume for nearly two weeks while their beer was churning away. The novel experiment forced Garman to wear earplugs for days on end, left him with several headaches, and transformed some of his employees into figurative zombies.
“I’d say about day two or three—about halfway through the day—is when I started to develop a headache just from hearing the same music over and over again,” explained Garman, who has been brewing beer for six years.
One Fortnight employee wound up taking a week-long vacation after the first day. Another developed bags under his eyes. Garman also offset the rap overload by listening to classical music and techno on his own headphones.
“Twelve days of any kind of music will drive you crazy,” Garman added. “It was pretty rough.”
They had initially just played the scrappy LP’s lead song, “Bring Da Ruckus,” on repeat for six hours, but that got old fast. So they switched up to playing the whole album for the sake of variety—and their sanity.
Using music to alter or enhance the flavour of craft alcohol isn’t entirely new, but it’s still a relatively young trend. In Kentucky, there’s a distiller who fermented brandy with subwoofers pumping David Bowie hits; an Austrian winemaker did the same with classical music. However, Fortnight seems to be at the forefront of the rising trend of using music, sound, and vibrations to ferment craft beer.
“We were looking to do something slightly different, something that does music and fusion,” said Colin Spark, 40, co-owner of Fortnight Brewing and one of the brainchildren of Bring da Ruckus.
Though Spark grew up in Newcastle in the UK, he moved to the United States as a teenager and went to high school in Houston. The young Brit, who grew up listening to the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, and Nirvana was suddenly immersed in—and mesmerised—by the soundscapes of American hip hop’s golden era, especially the Wu-Tang Clan.
“It was just different,” Spark recalled. “Moving from England to Texas, I was just bombarded by all these new cultural experiences, and the rise of hip hop was one of those, and it sort of was the watershed moment where it went across cultural boundaries in the early 90s. I remember putting 36 Chambers into my car and bumping to Wu-Tang, and never heard anything like it.”
Spark’s team talked about brewing a beer infused with The Clash’s music, but hypothesised that rap music, because of its heavy bass and repetition, would have a more pronounced effect on the yeast. Fortnight, known for brewing English-inspired ales, then anointed Wu-Tang as the—perhaps unlikely—sonic guinea pig for their new experiment.
“It was something that was like the soundtrack of our lives,” he said of Wu-Tang’s influence on not only his, but Fortnight’s other owners’ upbringings.
“We kind of grew up around that verge of hip hop and funk influencing our childhood, our growing up. It was something classic,” he added.
It might sound like a marketing scheme to some, but Spark insists otherwise.
“The vibrations of a sound wave stress out the yeast, which will cause it to ferment differently, which creates different aromatics, which then creates different flavour profiles,” he described. “[Using music] really changed the flavour profile of this beer.”
Bring da Ruckus is actually made from the exact same recipe of another tangy IPA that Fortnight brews, called Bring da Saucer. He said that Bring da Ruckus emerged as a “more bitter, less floral, less sweet” brew, with a completely distinct aroma and taste from its genetic forefather.
To prove the difference between the two ales wasn’t just hocus pocus, Fortnight sought out a laboratory and a German beer scientist.
“The lab showed that there was a distinct chemical difference between the two, even though it’s got the same ingredients,” he said. “The only difference was the sound.”
Both beers were tested at Avazyme, a North Carolina agriculture and food sciences lab that performs “food safety analyses for contaminants, pathogens and allergens, food quality and nutrition analysis, [and] genetic trait testing,” according to its website.
“The sound vibrations—and I think it’s mostly the vibrations—they caused some different behavior in the yeast,” said Volker Bornemann, founder of Avazyme, a chemist and a beer scientist who tested the chemical differences between Bring da Saucer and Bring da Ruckus.
Bornemann analysed the two beers side by side using various techniques including gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, liquid chromatography.
“We have all these flavour compounds—they’re already in the beer and come into the beer through the ingredients, like the hops, and some of it changes during the mashing and beer-making process in the brewhouse. But most of the flavours are produced during the fermentation process by the yeast,” added Bornemann, who is from Mannheim, Germany, but is now an adjunct professor in the Department of Chemistry at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
“The yeast is a live organism, and it certainly is quite imaginable that the yeast is affected by the sound vibrations,” Borenemann added.
Although the beers appear to be chemically different, Bornemann does not have direct evidence on how or why sound vibrations impact on the yeast—and ultimately, the flavour of the beer—in the way that they have. Yet, he believes the stress on the yeast, triggered by the Wu-Tang sonic infusion, made the single-cell eukaryotic microorganisms increasingly metabolically active.
Science notwithstanding not, everyone is buying the hype behind Bring da Ruckus, and the new brew has conjured a few skeptics.
“I’m just skeptical as to the science behind Bring da Ruckus,” said Nikki Miller-Ka, a food blogger and homebrewer of ten years, who has not yet tried the Wu-Tang-inspired beer.
“I understand that an independent scientific agency said that it was different chemically, but that one agency—I don’t believe it. I feel like it’s bunk science.”
Some craft beer imbibers, however, say Bring da Ruckus’ taste speaks for itself.
Tim Beeman, the host of craft brew podcasts “Beer Dads” and “The Less Desirables” in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, tasted both Bring da Ruckus and Bring da Saucer back-to-back and noted the differences between the two, and even preferred the former over the latter.
“The original [Bring da Saucer], I tasted the hops on the front end; on the modified [Bring da Ruckus], the hops come in on the back end,” he said between gulps. “There’s a creamier flavour. It’s a richer flavour—the flavor profile is richer than what the original was. It’s sweeter than the original. If I’m picking between the two, I’m certainly going to go with [Bring da Ruckus]. Of course there’s a marketing gimmickry in there, but I believe that I can actually taste the flavour difference.”
And what does the beer’s namesake think of all of this? Requests for comment to Wu-Tang members RZA and Method Man went unanswered. Heathcliff Berru, GZA’s manager, also declined to comment, citing his client’s busy schedule.
“We’ve been wrapping an album,” he told MUNCHIES via email.
The first batch of Bring da Ruckus was a limited release. Fortnight brewed 20 barrels of it, or about 5,000 pints, which were sold locally and bottle shops and bars. Unfortunately, Fortnight does not yet distribute outside North Carolina.
Fortnight Brewing is planning a second release of Bring da Ruckus this month, but whether or not the ale—or the trend of musically infused craft beer—will catch on is unclear.
“One of the great things about the craft beer industry is that even though the principles, biology, and science of beer are revered, there is a tremendous amount of freedom to try something unusual or different just to see if it works,” said Spark, who dreams of attempting a whole series of sound-infused beers.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more music infusions that are released. Experimentation and brewing go hand-in-hand,” he said.