Scorched Tundra: When Beer Meets Metal Fest –
A Q&A with Founder Alexi Front
INTERVIEWED AUGUST 13, 2016
AT LOCAL OPTION - LINCOLN PARK, CHICAGO
There's nothing more metal in Chicago than Local Option bier. Brewed by metal heads, for metal heads, and inspired by their global metal culture, the Lincoln Park bar has grown an entirely unique international brand over the last few years. We first chatted with the Local Option 'bierwerkers' back in early 2014, and have been following their progress closely since.
Alexi Front, the front man for the Local Option brand, has been on a mission to bring his very own metal festival, Scorched Tundra, to his hometown. After five years of rocking out in Gothenburg, Sweden, the sixth iteration of the festival is set to premiere at Chicago's Empty Bottle, alongside its namesake beer. Brewed by Local Option, at Burnt City, in collaboration with coffee roaster Dark Matter, this is truly a one of a kind brew. We sat down with Alexi over a couple of pours to catch up on Local Option, find out more about this unique 'festival' stout, and discuss the surprisingly welcoming world of Swedish beer and heavy metal.
Local Option has been on a tear since we first chatted in 2014, and the growth of the brewery has been astounding to watch. What have you been up to recently?
Well, earlier this year, we went on a trip to Europe and brewed three different collaboration beers. One was was these guys [pours beer], Brekeriet, a really small brewery in the south of Sweden. They're the only brewery in Sweden doing all Brett or lacto fermentation.
We brewed a beer with them and Jester King. It's an American wild ale that goes through fermentation with Jester King and Brekeriet's yeast cultures. We'll go through secondary fermentation with raspberries, rose hips, and seabuckthorns.
Brekeriet is pretty conservative in what they do, so they're pretty in-line with what we do and what Jester King does. I think they showcase really gentle fruit profiles and a delicate funky yeast culture in a really nice, genuine way. These guys do tend to use a lot of fruit or ingredients that are native to Scandinavia as well. They have this "sense of place."
Would you say "sense of place" is the common thread with all these breweries you've worked with?
I think some care quite a bit about that—Brekeriet being a good example. Närke Kulturbryggerie is another good one. They were one of the original craft breweries in Sweden. They made a really famous beer called the Stormaktsporter, which is rated in the top five best stouts on Ratebeer from about 2005-2010, when the owner's son died and he decided to stop making that beer. Their use of local ingredients takes into consideration what the Swedish palate is used to. They make pretty not-aggressive-in-alcohol-content, but pretty-aggressive-in-flavor beers.
Do you see any familiarity in Scandinavian brewing approach, to that in the US?
In general, a lot of the third wave brewers take a lot of American inspiration. So you see a lot of beers that have different labels on them but taste a lot like American beer. So a lot of IPAs and stouts, and even gose and Berliner Weisses. There's a very strong influence of American culture. Beer goes right along with that, in that you see Swedes doing a lot of things that Americans are doing.
You mentioned Jester King and we know you just brewed Feral Dampf with them. How was that experience?
We've been looking to do a collaboration with Jester King for a really long time. They've always really loved our Dampf Loc. They really loved the historic aspect, the conservative profile of the beer, and the grist on it which features barley in a really unique way. We wanted to introduce Jester King's unique yeast culture to this grist which we thought would be a wonderful platform for this yeast to shine. Also, this would be one of only a few beers that Jester King has made that don't feature wheat in some capacity. If you taste any of their other line of funky or fruited sours, there's always a wheat component to it.
Since we're here to talk about the Scorched Tundra VI festival and its namesake beer–what was your inspiration behind the style for Scorched Tundra?
Well we've made a coffee beer before—our Mourning Wood oak-aged amber coffee ale. We felt as though we had mastered the non-stout coffee beer, but I wanted to make a darker richer beer that would be fitting for the music that's going on at the festival. I wanted to integrate coffee in some way as well because the guys from Monolord–who are one of the headliners–are huge coffee nerds. Oh...and I like coffee a lot as well.
So this is your first beer of this style?
Yep, our first coffee stout. I've been itching to do it. Conceptually the idea with this is to make a beer whose malt profile emulates unsweetened chocolate malt shake—very smooth unsweetened chocolate notes, but a lot of that darker fruit note, too. I thought that would be a really good springboard for the coffee.
Where'd you source the coffee?
We went over to see Noah at Dark Matter, who used to work here at Local Option, and is the head of production over there now. We cupped out a couple of different coffees and mixed them together. I wanted to make Noah a part of this as well, because he's obviously played an important part in getting us to where we are today. I've felt as though it would be appropriate to bring him back now that he's wearing his new hat.
We decided on some Guatemalan coffee from this small family farm. This particular blend has a really wonderful jammy, slightly acidic profile. Not only does the malt of the beer work really well with that, but the hops we decided to use work very well—Bramling Cross—a British varietal that are known to have a very woody and berry profile. All of that together, and I think we made a really nice beer. It's about 7% ABV, but you don't detect much alcohol. It drinks lighter, but people who have a lot of coffee stouts can feel the density of it as well.
Where was this brewed?
We brewed at Burnt City on their small system. It was released at Local Option and will be at The Empty Bottle for the Scorched Tundra festival. It's going to be at a few other places that have supported Local Option quite heavily this year and places that I think are appropriate to promote this festival.
Let's talk about the festival. It's clearly something you're very passionate about, you have years as the founder/organizer under your belt. How did you come to found 'Scorched Tundra'?
I started a label in 2004 focusing on Swedish death metal because I always thought that stuff was interesting. Prior to that, I had a zine like you guys, except in a music context. I would interview bands and go to shows. We were actually one of the first three metal zines back in 2003. We had a section for unsigned bands—so we found a lot of stuff and a lot of stuff found us. We thought it was really interesting that the other labels weren't paying attention. So we started our own label. And doing that meant traveling over to Europe to meet these bands and finding opportunities to do tours. The festival Scorched Tundra began as a festival of bands that I was working with.
2016 marks the sixth year of the fest, correct?
Yep. So the first one was in 2010. It grew to being on two stages with 700+ people. We were raging to some really interesting stuff that I think is very important–in that not a lot of the metal festivals in Europe were really showcasing it. Doing that in a more intimate environment has a very strong effect on people.
We understand that this is the first foray stateside for Scorched Tundra, from Sweden...
This is the first year it's in the US. One through five have been in Sweden, at a venue called Sticky Fingers. It's a really well known rock venue in Gothenburg, in southern Sweden. I have strong roots there, so doing it at that venue was very important. The city not only has a very strong native metal scene, but it's also three hours by car from every Nordic capital. I wanted to try and triangulate all the populations, and Gothenburg was the best place to do that. It also has the best beer scene in Sweden too.
Will Scorched Tundra–the festival, or the beer–return to Sweden?
Yea, so what's going to happen going forward is there'll be a beer for every event, released in the market where the festival is. So I'll make one in Sweden for the spring event, and I'm going to make a new one for when I do this again here in Chicago next year.
What's it like brewing a Local Option beer in Sweden?
It's a bit more complicated there because there's no three-tier system. Big distributors have a strong role in what your average bar carries. They'll buy equipment for new bars to help them get off the ground—it's very common in most European countries—to create tied houses.
Sticky Fingers is bound to serve from one portfolio because that producer built out the entire bar and provides all the beer. Nowadays, they've changed their agreement, so I'll be able to get a Scorched Tundra beer in. But in the past, it had been pretty strict that unless I made beer at the biggest producer in Sweden, it wasn't going to happen. But this is the first time a Scorched Tundra beer has been made for the festival.
Hit us with some metal music knowledge. Why Sweden?
In Sweden, there's this admiration for American culture that has taken over from the '80s and '90s forward. Achieving something in America carries a lot of weight going back to Sweden as well. A lot of bands that do very well in the US, by proxy do really well in Sweden.
Swedes have a bit of this 'small country' mentality, that combined with an interest in American culture puts a lot of prominence on what we do here. If you do something well here, and if you're a Swede who becomes recognized for what you do, that's a big deal. They take this small person perspective in that, "We're just Swedes from a country of nine million people. Why the fuck do 350 million care about us 7 hours away?"
We've observed a similar attitude in several European countries.
I think there's something a little more unique about the Swedish example because they're very familiar with the English language and our culture in a way that continental cultures are not. Their native culture is so small and they've imported so much of ours from the '80's forward. It means quite a bit if, for example, you're a Swiss band, and you do very well in Germany or Austria. It can actually mean more than being big in the States. The US is much more removed culturally from them than Germans or Austrians.
The metal scene seems to have gained a significant foothold in certain parts of Europe, particularly Scandinavia. Why is that?
Scandinavia, from really the '70's and forward have been pretty central, especially considering how small these countries are, to the rock scene in Europe. Whether it's some of the bands from the late '70's or '80's that came out as sort of an extension of the British progressive rock scene, then into metal bands in the '80's and '90's.
The Swedes have had a very disproportionate influence on metal throughout Europe and then growing into the US as well. Part of it is that the government is very generous in funding for artistic endeavors. You could have a rehearsal space that's subsidized, or you could get music lessons for free during school. Because Sweden is a very indoor culture, it lends itself well to people playing music. That combined with some of the–literal–darkness, brought a lot of people toward metal.
How does Swedish metal compare to its equivalent in the States?
If we were to have had this conversation in 2004 or 2005, I would have said something a little different. I would have said that Swedish metal oscillates more toward a certain sound from Gothenburg and Stockholm. In Stockholm there was the uptempo, straightforward death metal scene that proliferated in the '90s and produced bands like Entombed, and Dark Funeral. In Gothenburg, you had a more melodic death metal sound that was influenced by American death metal and British heavy metal.
Nowadays, in my travel throughout Sweden and through the US, I've found there's everything everywhere. The internet has totally destroyed all of these old barriers. Metal really transcends cultural boundaries and knows no boundaries. That's what makes it different to jazz or blues music. Blues music is a very American phenomenon. It's had its influence on music everywhere, but it doesn't make sense when a long blond haired German dude is playing blues, in the same way an big soulful black person is.
That sounds like "sense of place" to us.
Oh man, that went full circle. But that's exactly right.
How do you see metal and craft beer coming together?
Well you can build correlations because, "Craft beer is sticking it to the man!" And because it's an alternative to something large, concrete and immovable. You can say that metal started in the same way in that it was a reaction to popular music. It was a consequence of youth—youthful people with a lot of energy wanting to create dynamic, heavy, fast music.
I think where craft beer is now somewhat in it's infancy would be quite like heavy metal in San Francisco in 1986, right when Metallica is on their full rise with Master of Puppets. You had a lot of great bands coming out at that time. We can build parallels, but it's also very tricky because music is a very personal thing. It hits people in a different way than beer does. Beer is a beverage and an intoxicant. Music is an intoxicant as well to a certain extent. Metal is something that people kind of wear, in a lot of ways.
What's your favorite name for a metal band? We've heard some doozies.
Any final thoughts about Scorched Tundra?
To me, putting this on in Chicago is the culmination of a lot of things I've been working on throughout the years. It's really exciting to have the only metal festival that's based in Europe and the US.
I'm really stoked to finally show a lot of people here in Chicago what I do when I travel so far away, and to give them that kind of experience here.
If metal is your thing, grab your tickets now for Scorched Tundra, a two night event on September 2–3, 2016 at Ukranian Village's Empty Bottle. If beer is your jam, look for the Scorched Tundra beer at limited locations throughout Chicago. And don't forget to check out our original Q&A with the Local Option crew—one of The Hop Review's original interviews.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
Interviewed by Jack Muldowney & Tom White.