I’ll admit to having a soft spot for band-plus-brewery special releases, and I’ve gone out of my way to score bottles of the Iron Maiden beer The Trooper, Mastodon’s The Hunter marzen from Germany’s Mahr’s Brau, and Dan the Automator’s cider-beer hybrid Positive Contact from Dogfish Head, among others. So when I recently opened a box from a local public relations firm that handles music biz clients I was both intrigued and frightened at what I found: four bottles of the Hanson brother’s new Mmmhops craft beer and a copy of their latest album, Anthem.
How would the pale ale—brewed at Oklahoma’s Mustang Brewery—stack up to the other musical brews? And how would the ale pair with the newest release from the band known for one song from 15 years ago? I was about to find out, but it would be difficult to overcome my existing prejudices.
I was primed to dislike Hanson’s ubiquitous single “MMMBop” when it took over airwaves and cable music channels in early 1997. I was wrapping up my freshman year of college in Santa Cruz, California and a girl down the hall of my dorm was infected by the brothers’ saccharine earworm early on. I remember her stereo would alternate between blasting the nauseatingly peppy MMMBop and that even more infectious tune by Deep Blue Something—Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Over and over and over. At a furious volume.
It was enough to drive one to drink, and back in those days I turned to bottles of Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve or Pete’s Wicked Ale. Not paragons of the craft brewing revolution, but not too shabby for 1997.
My tastes in music and in beer are straightforward. I like the 12 bar blues, indulgent guitar solos and hoppy pale ales. For me it doesn’t get much better than a sixer of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and a Hold Steady album on the stereo, so I wasn’t expecting much when I sat down with the four bottles, the CD, and a notebook, but I was surprised by the results.
I’ll give it to you straight—both the brew and the disc surpassed my admittedly low expectations. And while you probably won’t find Anthem playing on my stereo much, I wouldn’t hesitate to order a pint of Mmmhops.
The beer is labeled as a “pale ale” but the alcohol content of over 7% ABV, and the intense hop character and firm bitterness place the beer very firmly in the IPA category. My sample bottles were noticeably less-than-fresh (par for the course with these types of sample packages unfortunately), but I was struck by just how much pungent hop character was still present alongside the twang of oxidation. The IPA has a sturdy malt body that carries some sweetness into the finish, and while the hop aroma was faded, there was still enough resinous pine and bright citrus rind character to offset the slightly stale-tasting malts. There was a pleasant flavor of orange oil and tropical fruit that lingered in the finish alongside the pronounced bitterness.
It was an unexpectedly flavorful brew that would have been even more impressive fresh. Living in Los Angeles, I have my pick of world class IPAs brewed in the west coast-style (well attenuated with little malt character and as hoppy as can be—brews like Ballast Point Sculpin, Firestone Walker Union Jack, or Russian River Blind Pig) and the more malt-balanced east coast IPA style—like Mmmhops—is a nice occasional change-of-pace. I’m looking forward to trying Mmmhops again (though that might be tough as the beer is currently only available in the brothers’ home state of Oklahoma).
As for Anthem—the bubblegum rock was more tolerable than I’d anticipated, but I still needed to open some additional bottles to get through the disc. While you might have expected it from the beer, it was actually the album that had more of a “homebrew” vibe. Written, performed, and produced by the brothers, the songs could have used input from some ears that weren’t the bands, someone to pull them back from the worst of their indulgences and maybe even fight to trim the disc’s 13 songs into a more focused tracklist. At its worst, the album sounds overproduced and over polished (especially the lifeless drums and occasionally overwrought lyrics), but the brothers do manage some genuinely fun moments. “You Can’t Stop Us” starts with a downright dirty riff and the most impassioned vocals on the album, but it also has a chorus that sounds like an outtake from a Hagar-era Van Halen song (not a good thing). It’s the Michael Jackson-tinged “I’ve Got Soul,” with its funky guitar line and horn blasts, that is the album at its most fun and unabashed.
The scary thing for me was how much the album grew on me after a few listens while writing this article. After a couple of pints and a couple of listens, I was groovin’ to Anthem and tapping my foot even if my tongue was tucked in my cheek. As slick as the production is, and as on the nose as the lyrics can be, you can tell that the brothers were having a blast making the album—and that vibe is almost as infectious as that first breakout hit song, MMMBop—a song that built their studio, record label, and beer brand.
Make your jokes and take your shots at the brothers Hanson, but don’t say that they’re not music lovers and beer lovers. They’re just guys with the means to pursue their passions, and enough smarts to not care about the haters. Anthem is about being true to yourself, and the Mmmhops brew is true to the spirit of craft beer (and pretty tasty too)!