ST. PAUL, Minn. — Wielding ales and stouts, lagers and porters, the assembled throng of citizen-singers leaned into the chorus of “The Wild Rover,” an old Irish drinking song.
“And it’s no, nay, never!
No, nay, never, no more!”
By the second verse, pockets of harmony were heard as some voices broke into alto and tenor, bass and soprano.
By the third verse, the patio at Flat Earth Brewing Co. in St. Paul, with its medieval-ruins vibe, rang with full-throated chords sung at director Adam Reinwald’s mug-swinging tempo.
“And it’s no, nay, never! No, nay, never, no more!
Will I plaaayyyy the wild roverrrrr, no never, no more!”
Beer Choir was in session.
The event is exactly as billed. In the words of the official theme song: “The Beer Choir is the choir that sings while drinking beer.”
It convenes about every three months — this was the third time — depending on when co-founders Reinwald and Paul Wilson can jibe their schedules with a brewery able to host several hundred choristers. A Facebook page, Beer Choir Twin Cities, is the best way to stay informed.
For Reinwald and Wilson, music represents (variously) a means of healing, an escape from chaos, a path back to basics, a whole lotta fun.
“There’s a physiological response to singing together,” Reinwald said. “After a while, your heartbeat moves in time with your neighbor’s.”
Sensing that he’d veered into choir-geekdom, he quickly added: “And there’s beer!”
STRANGERS INTO FRIENDS
The idea began three years ago. Michael Engelhardt, a composer and conductor in St. Louis, was noodling about ways to get more people singing together. He’s also a champion of craft beers and, coupled with a musically populist streak, came up with the idea of singing while drinking beer.
Eventually, he connected with Reinwald and Wilson, who needed little persuading. They scheduled the first Beer Choir Twin Cities at St. Paul’s Summit Brewery. More than 500 people showed up. The second event, in April at Minneapolis’ Inbound BrewCo, attracted 400 singers. Last month’s sing at Flat Earth drew about 300.
That may sound like crowds are ebbing, if you can say that about three-figure turnouts, but they’re just becoming more manageable, Wilson said. While the Twin Cities chapter is not the first Beer Choir, it’s considered the flagship of the 17 chapters across the country because of the turnout, Reinwald said.
Reinwald and Wilson have known each other since they sang together at St. Olaf College. “If we’d had a baby when we first met each other, that baby could now drink!” Reinwald said, cracking up Wilson.
They pursued different careers; Reinwald is assistant conductor of the National Lutheran Choir, Wilson is a wealth management adviser. But they kept singing together for several years in Cantus, among the top male vocal ensembles in the country.
However much they joke about the adult beverages in this gig, they’ve long been motivated by another goal: helping people feel like they belong to a group, and turning strangers into friends.
‘A PUBLIC QUORUM FOR FUN’
Participation has not been a tough sell in a state known as “the land of 10,000 choirs.”
According to Chorus America, a national advocacy group, Minnesota has more than 100 independent professional, community and youth choirs, plus thousands of school and church choirs. Put another way, more than 450,000 Minnesotans — about one in eight — sing in at least one chorus.
“I tell people that singing is required to live here,” said Jean Ramlow of Golden Valley, at her first beer choir with her friend Suzy Travis of Edina. Ramlow sings in other community choir events, but Travis was a newbie. “I’m a better drinker than I am a singer,” she said. “But I can sing with gusto.”
Not a note had been sung, but they’d been chatting with Michael Karaman of Plymouth, at his third Beer Choir and, as a member of the Twin Cities a cappella group Kantorei, a trained singer.
“I like to harmonize spontaneously,” Karaman said, but his reasons for singing with suds are social. “You get to meet new people over a beer, in an open environment.”
What brought Marje Nitz of North St. Paul to her first Beer Choir? “Music, and alcohol,” she said, laughing. She’d grown up singing, but never quite in these circumstances. “This seems like a public quorum for fun.”
Everyone had been encouraged to download the Beer Choir Hymnal, assembled at the national level by Engelhardt. There are original and traditional songs, German rounds and English chanteys, and a classic riff on Do-Re-Mi (“Dough, the stuff that buys me beer. Ray, the guy who serves me beer.”)
(Listen to a few songs on YouTube; search Twin Cities Beer Choir.)
Wilson and Reinwald might throw in a little Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” or ask singers to make up new words to nursery rhyme tunes. When a bridal bar crawl happened upon the April session at Inbound, they led an extemporaneous rendition of “Chapel of Love.”
High school choir director Richard Carrillo, Mendota Heights, is sold on the idea.
“Music is a huge part of my life, but doing this as a random experience is a blast,” he said. “Music brings people together, and this is the epitome of that.”
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A TRIBAL EXPERIENCE
For founder Engelhardt, Beer Choir is just the first iteration of a much bigger idea.
His vision is that choral singing finds its way into other “tribes” of people, moving beyond beer drinkers to, say, coffee sippers, yogis, fill-in-the-blankers — “all in an effort to fulfill what I believe is my primary mission: Bring choir to the people.”
Baby steps. For now, so many chapters are applying for membership under the umbrella of the national Beer Choir that he’s temporarily hit “pause” on the process.
And, for anyone concerned about singers climbing into their cars with baritone on their breath, many at the Flat Earth session wore T-shirts urging: “Sing responsibly,” which is a clever way of saying: Don’t be stupid.
After all, Wilson said, Beer Choir is meant to be “a respite from the chaos” that can be daily life.
Which sent Reinwald on a reminiscence of days immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, when he found himself heading for Brit’s Pub in Minneapolis.
“When times are tumultuous, I want to be with other people. I want to sing with my friends. We’re all looking for human connection.”
Then came the jokes.
“At Beer Choir, you know you already have two things in common with someone you’ve never met,” Wilson said.
Added Reinwald: “Zero talent is required, but participation is essential.”