Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Is Brewing an Art Form?

Often in reading about beer or brewing, making beer is referred to as "art." Is it? "Such and Such" as an art form gets thrown around a lot and often times the usage bothers me. When I was in school there were many discussions about "High Art vs. Low Art," and what was what when it came to calling something art. For almost an entire week my class I took about the Simpsons, "The Simpsons as Satirical Authors," discussed whether or not a cartoon could be accurately described as art, and beyond that, act as a moral weather vane and mirror for our culture. We watched a lot of cartoons. This question of "brewing as an art form" has been nagging at me for a while now, and I still haven't been able to come up with a satisfying answer on my own. Something that you hold near and dear to your heart, something that you make your livelihood out of, shouldn't have big unanswered questions hanging out there as far as I'm concerned.

I went to school for four and a half years to study film, specifically cinematography, and walked away with a BA in film (with honors I might add). BA of course stands for Bachelors of Arts. Columbia College Chicago determined that I met the requirements for them to confer a degree upon me for completing their film program. Now on face value, that doesn't mean anything beyond the fact that I completed the film program. It doesn't necessarily mean that I have any talent when it comes to shooting, lighting, or the like. It also doesn't mean that I can watch movies better than the average person, or that I can get into the theater for discounted rates. but it does mean that I know a lot about film, from the history of filmmaking to modern day techniques. I studied under some impressive instructors. I know a fair amount about the art form of film.
My fiancée has an English degree from a large state school in Wisconsin. Like my BA, it doesn't mean that she has perfect grammar, or that she can read faster than anyone else. (She does however have the amazing ability of proofreading and editing papers that have a deadline of tomorrow morning) But she does know a lot about Victorian literature, and about liberal arts studies in general.

So what does all of this have to do with the question of is Brewing an Art? To me, and with my prejudices, an art form immediately conjures concepts of fine art. i.e. film, photography, painting, sculpting, writing, drawing, etc. You don't need a degree or any formal training to do any of those things, but they are readily accepted as art forms. Most of the time art is conveying a message or a feeling that goes from the artist to the other person. Beer certainly goes from my brewhouse to your mouths, and I certainly put a lot of time, thought, and effort into it, but that doesn't make it an art. Does it?

(Are these men artists?)

Part of my problem with this is that brewing beer has historically been a trade. In many medieval cities where brewing was common, the brewers had powerful guilds and lots of political power. In modern times trades such as plumbers and electricians have their unions that wield the power. Do many people think of wiring a building or sweating pipes together an art form? This duality really gives me some pause. Maybe part of it is being a good midwestern boy who doesn't want to think more of himself than he should. Another part of this is from an interaction I saw once on one of the beer sites. A brewer compared himself to Picasso because he felt that his beers were simply misunderstood. The beers didn't have a problem, you had the problem. I'm an artist and you just don't understand me - kind of thing.

If you go by a strict dictionary definition, such as M-W

Main Entry: art
Pronunciation: 'ärt
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin art-, ars --
1 : skill acquired by experience, study, or observation art of making friends>
2 a : a branch of learning: (1) : one of the humanities (2) plural : LIBERAL ARTS b archaic : LEARNING, SCHOLARSHIP
3 : an occupation requiring knowledge or skill art of organ building>
4 a : the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced b (1) : FINE ARTS (2) : one of the fine arts (3) : a graphic art
Definition 3, an occupation requiring knowledge or skill, then I think that brewing definitely falls within the realm of art. But I think I'm still not satisfied.

So I'm throwing it out there to you in interwebsland. Brewing as an art form yes/no and why?


Stan Hieronymus said...

Andrew, as you know this is a subject that haunts me.

I've asked brewers about it, and you'll even find Matt quoted here:


I lean toward thinking of small-batch brewers as artisans myself.

I wouldn't history restrict you - thinking about your reference to the trade aspect - any more than brewers feel obligated to brew an IPA as it was made in England more than 100 years ago.

GenX at 40 said...

I think art has to be a skill or craft that conveys meaning. What message does craft beer convey? That the everyday can be surprising? That the theatre of the mouth is a surprising faculty that we have been blessed with? That the company of others is a blessing? Maybe those things are sufficient meaning.

A Good Beer Blog

Anonymous said...

Brewer A-

If we were machines and cranking out product without much cause to think about what we are up to I would say we are 'not artists'.

Our industry tries quite hard to employ such words as 'Artisan, artisanal, and craft' for a reason.
Of course it is to emply that we are in fact creating something and it happens to be 'art in a glass'. Yes, certain liberties have to be taken to except this but as Stan H. mentions it is the small batch brewer that truly is an artisan.

Maybe the art...at least to me is in the vision the brewer has prior to brewing that is possibly the truest form of art...the creation of a new beer. I find when thinking of a beer you have to put that beer together in your head and on paper. It's a 'canvas' so to speak, you are thinking about color, flavor(s)both in the background and in the front. Aging, carbonation, fermentation and presentation to the customer.

These things don't come without passion and the willingness to create them. Inspiration usually comes from somthing more than to collect a paycheck. As a brewer you endure the hardships and unpleasantness of brewing as you have pride in your 'work'. The end result...your 'art', that pint of goodness you toiled to create, confirmed when you taste, that you have created 'art in liquid form'.

Cheers! See you in Denver!

Todd Ashman
Truckee, CA

Russ said...

Hey Andrew-

Congrats on finally tying the knot! Anyway, to provide a belated answer to your question...

I guess I would separate art from science/business as follows: art has a subjective goal, whereas science and business have objective goals. If you design an artificial heart valve, you've succeeded if it works and you've failed if it doesn't. The same can't be said of a work of art.

I think brewing can go either way. If your goal is to replicate a certain beer, then it's not art. Somebody can try it and objectively say, "yes, this tastes like Budweiser" or "no, it does not." Thus you've either objectively met your goal or you haven't.

However, if you are brewing to create something new, then it's art. Nobody can objectively say "this beer is good" or "this beer sucks." It's an expression of what tastes good to you, just like a painting is an expression of what looks good to the painter. Others may disagree, but they can't say it's wrong.

Anyway, just my two cents... Can't wait to swing by and try the Oktoberfest! Prost!

Griz said...

An interesting question.

As an engineer I tend to think in terms of process. When someone tells me "it's an art" I take that to mean it is not a process that you can accurately document and reliably reproduce. It takes some skill, or undefinable intuition to create the end result, and that the results will vary depending on the "artist's" ability.
Given that criteria, Brewing can be an art, or not.
Breweries like Budweiser have gone to great lengths to take the "art" our of brewing. The have developed equipment and defined process to the point where you put the ingredients in this end, turn the crank, and out comes very consistent product at this end, month, after month, after month....
On the other end of the scale is some place like Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs. Every brew is viewed as an opportunity to create "the best yet", sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't. It's always good but you never go in expecting to have the same beer you had last time. Their brew, and brewing, truly is art.
I would expect that most breweries fall somewhere in between.