It’s good to be indoors on a rainy or snowy Sunday afternoon, and even better to be in a brewery — Arboretum Trail Brewing Co. in Larimer, in this instance. A dozen or so patrons wait expectantly as Nate Stimmel and Justin Koszarek set up a keyboard in the corner and distribute plastic-covered songbooks among the tables.
Koszarek stands in front of the keyboard. “Please open your hymnals to page one,” he says. Beer Choir is about to begin.
First up is the Beer Choir Theme Song, fittingly enough: “The Beer Choir is the choir that sings while drinking beer/so bottoms up! Cheers! Let’s sing while drinking beer!” It’s not Sondheim, or even Sousa. But it sets the mood.
The theme song is one of the few originals in the hymnal. It was written by Michael Engelhardt, who founded Beer Choir in Minneapolis in 2015. (There are now more than 20 chapters nationwide, from Bend, Oregon, to Rochester, New York.) Most of the 40 songs are sea shanties (the drunken sailor kind), Irish weepies or German stein bangers. One, “Under the Anheuser Bush,” was actually commissioned by the Budweiser makers back in 1903.
A little later in the service, Mike Franzone steps out from behind the keyboard, as Koszarek’s spouse, Cindy, fills in. Justin has a pleasant voice, but Franzone used to be a touring professional opera singer. It’s fair to say he takes it up a notch, as he leads the choristers in “The Wild Rover.”
The most popular number, by far, is the theme from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” also known as “Also sprach Zarathustra,” and listed in the Beer Choir hymnal as “Also Drank Varathursta.” The Richard Strauss composition had no lyrics, but Engelhardt fixed that, as follows: “Beer beer beer BEER BEER! Beerbeerbeerbeerbeerbeer …” At the choir’s insistence, Mike Franzone leads them in an encore.
Once the singing has ended, and the barroom’s attention has turned to football, Justin and Cindy grab beers and talk Pittsburgh Beer Choir.
“Our slogan is ‘Feeding the soul with music and washing it down with beer,” Justin says.
The couple discovered Beer Choir when they lived in the Chicago suburbs. When they moved to Pittsburgh, Justin emailed choir headquarters, asking to start a Pittsburgh chapter. It turns out that Stimmel had also inquired.
“I had read about Beer Choir, and I thought it sounded cool,” says Stimmel, a psychiatric researcher at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. “I love to sing.”
So the two were brought together, and they held their first event in October at Inner Groove Brewing’s Allentown taproom.
In Chicago, Justin says, much of the choir is made up of singers who can sight-read. So far, that hasn’t been the case in Pittsburgh. But as a music educator himself — he teaches at Propel Montour High School and is the band director at Peters Township High School — Justin says, “We like to keep it informal and meet people where they are.”
If you show up the night of a Beer Choir event, you become part of the choir — no auditions or experience needed.
Justin’s favorite hymn is the “Beer Choir Theme Song,” while Cindy, a native of Milwaukee, opts for “Beer Barrel Polka.”
“I’ve been hearing that my whole life,” she says.
A challenge looms for the Beer Choir team, however: Franzone is leaving town in May. After touring Europe with an opera company for 10 years, he’s now a data professional with GoDaddy. He is moving with his wife Ally and their two kids to Arizona to be closer to family.
“I hate to think of it,” says Stimmel.
“I would potentially like to start my own choir there though,” Franzone says. “I think it’d be cool.”
He’ll still be around for the next couple of events, though. Beer Choir visits Old Thunder Brewing Company in Blawnox on Feb. 19.
“It’s an old post office,” Justin notes. “It’s such a vibrant space for singing.”
On March 19, they’ll be at Acclamation Brewing in Verona for a St. Patrick’s Day weekend singalong.
There’s been some talk of scheduling evening choir sessions, but it all depends on what the breweries want, Justin says.
“We want to augment whatever the breweries are doing, and add to the environment, if possible.” Ideally, he says, he’d like to work through all the stops on the Pittsburgh Brewers Guild brewery guide.
Ben Steffen, co-owner and head brewer at Arboretum Trail, is happy to host the choir.
“You always have to get people in the door,” he says. “This has been one of our bigger crowds for a Sunday.”