Beer as Conceptual Art

29 07 2010

Conceptionalism is nothing new in the American Craft Brew Scene. Even in the early days, Mendocino was naming all their beers after local birds. Flying Dog names all their beers with dog related puns and hires Ralph Steadman to design their labels. Most brewers in America came from the DIY aesthetic of the homebrew community. The results are nontraditional beers brewerd with nontraditional ingredients and by nontraditional practices. From this we have things like a quadruply dry-hopped Imperial IPA called Pliney the Elder; a pumpkin beer conditioned in a firkin made out of giant pumpkin; and a beer that features ingredients from every continent.

Schmaltz Brewing makes two very popular concept lines: the Jewish themed He’Brew and the Coney Island line of lagers: all named after acts in the freak show. At least two breweries have pirate theme lines. Dogfish Head, along with making the above mentioned Pangaea ale also makes a line of ancient beers and has made a beer dedicated to Miles Davis. This particular beer joins other beers dedicated to Thelonious Monk and other musicians like Frank Zappa.

With this long tradition of high concept beers, it should come to no great surprise that a brewer has used their beer as a forum for meta commentary on the current state of brewing. Brew Dog’s owners call themselves the Brew Punks and they wear the mantle well. Adopting a Devil-may-care attitude and an aesthetic of the anarchic, DIY, underground punk scene, their beers are joyfully irreverent. Their original line of beers were simple but with a daring edge. Their 3 A.M. Saint is a deliciously hoppy red ale. But they began to gain people’s attention when their 13% Imperial Stout called “Tokyo*” (dedicated to the 1980’s video game Space Invaders) was banned for having to much alcohol in England. Their response was a 1% ABV beer called “Nanny State”. The twist: this non-alcoholic beer has over 100 IBUs- A blindingly bitter FU! to the British Government.

As the eyes of the beer world trained in on them, Brew Dog’s follow up was 32% ABV Icebeer called Tactical Nuclear Penguin. They stepped into the extreme challenge by topping Sam Adam’s Utopias which previously held the record at 27%. In the video below, one can see the process in which they made the penguin. It also begins to show the formulation of the Beer Punk aesthetic: Giant Penguin costumes, nudity, and a healthy dose of irreverence.

This beer won them fame and a lucrative distribution contract to the States. By the time Mainstream America heard about Brew Dog, there was already backlash. Some considered their work as silly. While others thought the Brew Punks were opportunistic.

Love them or hate them, Brew Dog has left its mark on the beer world. When a German brewery threatened to steal their title, they responded with Sink the Bismark; a 41% Ice beer that referenced England’s chilly history with Germany.

For many, this seemed like the last straw. Even this editor fell into the backlash. As more and more people clamored for these ridiculously strong beers, terms like “over-hyped”, “fadish” and “self-promoting’ were thrown around. Until this week…

Brew Dog has released their Coup d’Etat with the The End of History. They have announced their final blow in the extreme beer wars. At 110 Proof (55% ABV), the beer rivals whiskey in strength. Not quite beer. Not quite a spirit. They have made their own hybrid. Just as Yves Klein designed and trademarked his own shade of blue, Brew Dog has perfected their own form of alcohol. This bleeding edge beer doesn’t come in just any bottle. This beer comes in a taxidermy rodent. Yes, that is right. This beer comes in road kill. And that is exactly what won me back to the side of Brew Dog. In a sweeping blow to the establishment, they have made their own liquor and served it up in a dead animal. All this for a price tag of $700!

In a day in age, where beer has become trendy and people collect bottles and trade them and sell them on-line, Brew Dog simultaneously created a collectible bottle and made a commentary on the ridiculousness of collecting bottles. Reading the comments on news stories and the End of History webpage, one gets the distinct impression that many people just don’t get it. There are talks of Brew Dog “Jumping the Shark” or “not being fair.” The haters are back, saying this beer is “gimmicky” or that they are “out for a quick buck.” But there is nothing “gimmicky” about well executed conceptual art.

Using organic matter for modern art has been used before. The famous DaDa artist Piero Manzoni submitted his own canned feces as an art piece. Joseph Beuys often incorporated animal pelts in his work. In 1965, he performed a piece called “How to Explain Pictures of a Dead Hare” in which he locked himself in an art gallery, covered his face with honey and cradled a dead hare.  In 1974, he even donned animal skins and locked himself in a room with a wild coyote. A few years back, there was a famous conflict in New York over a painting of the Virgin Mary made out of a collage of pornographic images and elephant dung. And Sam Pompas has begun selling jars of jam made from Lady Dianna’s hair.

Brew Dog may be silly and irreverent, but they do it with wit and intelligence. Just the name: The End of History references a political theory book about the transition of power from royalty to the people. If history is the recording of political structure, then democracy, in its purest form, is the end of history. If this beer has moved out of the realm of beer into some sort of non-beer, then this is the end of beer history. They could have named it something silly, but instead, they named it something with nuance and hidden meaning that the average person would not understand.

Many artists and performers have used irreverence as the medium for their message. And in these cases, the medium is the message. In the 1970’s, glam rockers like David Bowie and Elton John brought the debate over gender and sexuality to a whole new level by blurring and blending genders and sexuality into a melange of ambiguity. Lady Gaga is reminding a new generation of the need to question gender paradigms. Frank Zappa pioneered pre-punk by blending jazz, rock and avant-garde into something totally unheard of; sparking other genres of music.

Many brewers have brought their beers to a level of fine art, rivaling some of the finest wines and liquors. But we finally have the conceptual artists on the fringe reminding us not to take things so seriously. We need more “bad boys of brewing” who will remind us: hey, its just beer! Don’t take yourselves too seriously. And if you don’t have $700 to spend on beer that comes in a squirrel, its no big deal. Because, honestly, the joke is on the people who do.




2 responses

29 07 2010

I’m curious as to what the response to this will be. A Dutch brewer hitting the 60% ABV mark

30 07 2010

Well said! Brilliant article.

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