Brew Tunes

A group on the Palouse unites history and a love of singing with the art of craft beer

click to enlarge Sarah Graham leads the Beer Choir - TARYN PHANEUF
Taryn Phaneuf
Sarah Graham leads the Beer Choir

With a pint in hand, Palouse Choral Society Director Sarah Graham leads a crowd at Clarkston, Washington's Riverport Brewing Co. through a round of an unfamiliar, alehouse-inspired tune from the year 1611. The early verse is a little quiet, but the "hey-nonny-nonnies" ring out as more and more singers add their voices.

Once a month since last October, the Palouse-Two Rivers Beer Choir, made up mostly of local choral society members, brings a stack of songbooks, a few instruments and an appetite for craft beer to breweries in either the Lewis-Clark Valley or the Palouse.

The concept is straightforward: "The Beer Choir is the choir that sings while drinking beer," as its theme song goes.

Created in 2014 by Michael Engelhardt, a choral composer and conductor in St. Louis, beer choir is a lively combination of music and beer reminiscent of pubs in the United Kingdom, or Oktoberfest celebrations in Germany. Beer choir has taken off in about a dozen chapters around the U.S. — mostly in areas with burgeoning craft beer markets — from major cities like Seattle to smaller regions like the Palouse.

Introduced to beer choir through a network for choral directors that includes the movement's founder, Graham put forth the opportunity to lead monthly community singing events when she took over directing the Palouse Choral Society this year.

In the same vein as protest music, though admittedly more lighthearted, Graham says people enjoy singing in large groups because it connects them to something bigger.

"It's something Americans don't do," she says. "It brings people together in a way other things don't."

Hunga Dunga Brewery Co. in Moscow has hosted the local beer choir, and brewery owner Graham Lilly says the group draws a sizable crowd.

"It creates a really fun atmosphere and encourages participation, [and] for people to come down and engage with people, and sing songs, and songs about beer," Lilly says. "It's pretty fun. We like to do live music from time to time when we can."

The beer choir hymnal, as it's called, includes a collection of traditional European drinking songs, with a few additions, like "Dough-Ray-Me," which includes instructions to sing "like Julie Andrews, but more surly... and slurry."

"Dough, the stuff that buys my beer; Ray, the guy who serves my beer," the song goes. "Me, the guy who drinks my beer. Far — a long, long way for beer... "

Gary Peterson, a longtime choral member who also owns a Moscow antique shop, enjoys dark beer and singing "Drunken Sailor," a song that didn't require adaptation to fit the ale-inspired theme of these evening shows.

Mostly a way to socialize and have fun outside of rehearsals, about a quarter of choral members show up to beer choir events, he says. He hopes that beer choir exposes more people to the choral society, emphasizing that they'd love to draw new singers, especially a few younger voices.

"We would love to have more young singers. For the most part, we're an older group, and we're always looking for young people to come join us," says Peterson.

"While this is sort of an old-fashioned idea of getting together to sing in a bar, it's easy to join in, and it's a rare person who doesn't find it fun. So I think we can kind of cross the generations that way, and that's really great." ♦

Palouse-Two Rivers Beer Choir • Thu, June 29 from 7-8 pm • Free • Birch & Barley • 1360 Bishop Blvd., Pullman •

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