Singer JJ Grey, St. Petersburg brewer team up for Nare Sugar Brown Ale

Jacksonville's JJ Grey is the inspiration for Nare Sugar Brown Ale, produced by a St. Pete brewer. Tobin Voggesser
Jacksonville's JJ Grey is the inspiration for Nare Sugar Brown Ale, produced by a St. Pete brewer.Tobin Voggesser
Published October 30 2013

Joe Hurst wasn't much of a beer drinker, but the trucker and farmer did like his coffee, and he preferred it sans sweetener — or, as he used to put it, "nare sugar."

That phrase always stuck with his grandson, JJ Grey, who penned a song with that title for his band Mofro's debut album, Blackwater, in 2001. And on Friday, when Grey and Mofro take the stage at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg, his fans will get to taste a new, local beer inspired by that phrase: Nare Sugar Brown Ale.

"It tastes good, but I gotta watch out, because it's a little stronger than a regular store-bought beer," the Jacksonville singer-songwriter said by phone from a tour stop this week in Chattanooga, Tenn. "So I gotta watch out on stage. I don't want people demanding their money back too quickly. But it's gonna be wild. I'll have a little keg there on the side of the stage Friday night, and I'm looking forward to that."

Created through a collaboration between Tampa's Cigar City Brewing, St. Petersburg's Green Bench Brewing and Grey himself, Nare Sugar Brown is the second music-themed beer produced by St. Pete's Rock Brothers Brewing. High Road Ale — named for a song by Bradenton's Have Gun, Will Travel — was released in April and has been on tap at local bars all summer.

But Rock Brothers co-owner Kevin Lilly said they've been courting Grey and Mofro ever since the popular roots, blues, funk and alt-country group's last show at Jannus Live in 2012.

"Our model was to launch with a national artist in their home state," Lilly said. "It was just the perfect band. Everyone involved is giant Mofro fan. We got to bridge the counties, with the St. Pete and Cigar City collaborative brew. It was a marriage of a lot of cool things coming together."

Grey admits he's not much of a craft beer guy — "I just drink whatever beer is handy," he said — but he's starting to get more into it now that he's seen how much work goes into creating a recipe.

"When Rock Brothers called me and asked me to do it, I thought I was gonna go down there and it was going to be, 'Here, taste these three beers and pick one.' And it wasn't," he said. "They really wanted to get in there and roll their sleeves up and come up with something. It was a fun process. It was almost like recording a song."

Grey told the brewers that he'd once enjoyed a sweet, "ice-creamish" beer in Belgium, which got the conversation rolling. Someone suggested Nare Sugar as inspiration — an unusual choice, as it's a deeper cut that Grey rarely plays in concert.

The song, Grey said, is "about a lady telling a dude he ain't gonna get nare sugar." But brewers took the name literally, choosing to sweeten the beer with lactose. In other words, Grey's beer is made just like his grandfather's coffee — nare sugar.

"We liked going back to that deep cut on that first album," Lilly said. "What a cool story, to go back to the roots of his music in addition to the roots of his childhood memory."