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.


5 Ways People Admit They Are Beer Amateurs (Plus 5 More)

7 07 2010

Long time supporter of the Blog, Johnny Automatic, sent us a link to an article from The LA Weekly called “L.A. Beer Experts Mythbust 5 Complaints of Amateur Beer Drinkers“. It is a lovely little article that looks into commonly help myths held by people whose main source of beer knowledge comes from the Industrial beer guys. We won’t rehash the entire article since you can follow the link. But I will sum up their findings.

1. “There’s too much head on the beer.” In short beers should be poured with some head. The bubbles help aerate the beer and bring the aromas into your nose. Head makes your beer taste good.

2. “This glass isn’t frosted.” Don’t serve beer in frosted glasses. For the love of beer, just don’t. Frosted glasses cause two things: Too much foam (causing your beer to go flatter faster, as well as spray all over the place) and it causes aromas to be locked into the beer instead of in your nose. Frosted mugs cause bland, flat beer.

3. “Why such a small pour for higher alcohol content beer? What a ripoff.” Higher alcohol beers often have bigger flavors, aromas, higher IBUs and generally will be more complex. Drinking an entire pint will exhaust your pallet as well as get you super drunk. By the end of a big pour of a big beer, you may be cursing instead of praising it.

4. “What’s up with this girly tulip glass?” While we may not want to admit it, the traditional pint glass we are used to having our beer served in is one of the worst vessels to serve a beer. It does nothing to promote aeration, collection of aromas, support head retention or show off the form of the beer. There are many other glasses that do these things much better though. And so we choose those glasses to help accentuate the beer we serve. Plus, if you think holding a funny looking glass threatens your masculinity, you may want to speak with a shrink.

Blue Mountains? Pfft!

5. “This beer isn’t cold enough.” This is one of the most common complaints I get as a beer server. Americans tend to drink their beer ice cold. Thanks to companies like Coors (See picture to the right), we believe that all our beer should be cold enough to give brain freeze.  Much like the frozen mug above, ice cold is too cold for beer. American lagers can be served as cold as the high 30s(F) but most ales should be served as warm as 55(F). 55 degrees is hardly room temperature, and it is not warm. If tomorrow was 55, you would be reaching for a sweater most likely.

Five More Things Beer Amateurs Say

1. “Beer in a can?!” This is not your grandfather’s beer in a can. This is space aged modern beer in a can. The beer can you all know and love is even found in the Museum of Modern Art’s design collection. It is nearly perfect in design. No more spoilage, rusty metallic taste, or crappy quality. Some of the best beers in America are now coming in cans with all the added benefits: they are lighter, don’t shatter, prevent skunking and oxygenation, less expensive and are easier to recycle. Plus they get colder faster and stay that way longer. Think of them like tiny kegs. Plus, you have no problem drinking soda from a can.

2 “Don’t worry about pour it. I’ll drink it straight from the bottle.” There are so many things

Photo Credit: eschipul CC

wrong with this! first of all, one tastes with more than one’s mouth. The process of tasting involves the mouth, nose, and (to a lesser extent) the eyes and ears. Imagine ording a fresh, sizzling steak at a fancy steak house but before it arrives, you put on a blindfold, nose plug and earplugs. And while you are at it, you put on some thick gloves. Essentially, that is what you are doing when you drink straight fromt he bottle. Secondly, your beer has been created specifically by a brewer for color, aroma, carbonation, head retention, mouth feel, aroma and taste.  By pouring the beer in a glass, you get the whole intended product. Finally, it looks uncouth to drink from the bottle. You wouldn’t want to drink from the wine bottle, why is a beer bottle ok?

3. “Hold on, let me check Beer Advocate/Rate Beer.” Smart phones are pretty cool. I’ll give you that. And having a beer app on your phone can help settle bets (or cause new ones)like whether Orkney Skullsplitter is a Barleywine or a Scotch Ale (true story). But when you start looking through the menu with beer advocate by your side in order to find the beer with the highest ranking, that is tacky. As a waiter it tells me two things: “I want the best but I don’t want to risk” and “I don’t trust your opinion.” To address the former point first: trying new things often comes with risk. As long as you come toward your beers with an open mind, an opportunity to learn and a willingness to be surprised, you cannot fail. On the latter point: I , as a beer server, like my job a lot. And my lively hood depends on being a good at it. I have carefully developed my pallet. I have learned the beer styles and have tried many outstanding examples. I keep up on the beer news and follow the trends. I read the beer blogs and follow beer advocate and rate beer. 40+ hours of my week is devoted to bringing people beer. I believe I am very good at my job. But instead of trusting me to help you find something, you trust your phone–something that has never had a beer in its life. Leave beer advoacte at home. This goes the same for beer tomes.

4. “Do you have cider beer?” This one is easy. And it is a small point. It is really a pet peeve for me and my colleagues. But it needs to be addressed. Beer is fermented grain spiced with hops. Cider is fermented apple juice. They are two different things. If I went to a wine bar and asked for “vodka wine” I would be laughed at. If I went to a Bourbon bar and asked for “Whiskey Rum,” I would lose all respect. There is no such thing as “cider beer.” (Now, there is a cocktail called a “snakebite” that is lager and cider mixed together. But it is not “cider beer”.)

5. “Can I get a lemon for my beer?” We’ve discussed this one before. In short, you don’t need it. Think of lemon as ketchup on your steak: completely unnecessary. That being said, there is a time and place for everything. Leave your lemons at home.

What about you? What do you hear at the bar or liquor store that makes your flesh crawl? What makes you think “noob”? Or, what is your pet peeve?

T-Shirt Designs and Facebook

1 06 2010

The Thinking Person’s Beer is proud to announce two big developments. The first is T-shirts. Beginning in July, readers will have an opportunity to donate to the Thinking Person’s Beer to receive a t-shirt. The donation structure will be revealed next month. In the mean time, we need your help deciding which t-shirts should be available. Below are the shirt designs and voting will be in the Poll of the Month on the right hand side. All shirts will have a slogan on the front with “” on the back. And all shirts will be hand silk screened by me. The top two designs will be selected for release.

“Ask Me About Beer. Tell Me When to Stop.”

“Beer Geek”

“You Say ‘Beer Geek’ Like It Is a Bad Thing”

“The Audacity of Hops”

“Water Malt Hops Yeast”

There could be one that just says “The Thinking Person’s Beer” as well. We will solicit ideas in the comments below.

The second big announcement is that we are now on Come and friend us there. We will be announcing upcoming events, put more pictures, and have more conversation there.

Until then, happy drinking!