The Art in Brewing Beer: Eric Steen

March 5, 2012 · Print This Article

The dry, frequently mouth-puckering style of beer called lambic is brewed almost exclusively in one small corner of Belgium. Unlike most beer—which is brewed with unvarying amounts and calculated strains of yeast—lambic is subjected to spontaneous fermentation. This is done by exposing the wort to outside air in a structure called a coolship. It’s sort of like leaving the windows open and it goes against the popular image of a brewery as an ultra-hygienic temple of stainless steel. Wild yeast and bacteria present in the air wander into the wort, lending each batch of lambic specific characteristics created by chance. Lambic is crucial for the production of gueuze, another traditional beer style from Belgium’s Pajottenland. Gueuze is essentially blended lambic. Younger lambics that still have some sugar left in them are combined with lambics that have been aged longer. The reintroduction of sugar in the young lambic sparks a second round of fermentation. The result of this process is called gueuze.

The artist, homebrewer, and organizer Eric Steen blends roles with the creativity and skill of a Belgian brewmaster blending lambics in pursuit of the perfect gueuze. Each role informs the other, sparking transformations in his work as a whole as the artist in him feeds on the sugar of homebrewing, mellowed all over by the aged subtleties of organizing. Steen went to grad school in beer-savvy Portland, OR and is now based in Colorado Springs, a beer Mecca in its own right. He has brewed his own beer, collaborated with amateur and professional brewers, and organized countless events rooted in the experience of drinking beer. While his work as an artist is by no means limited to beer, he also runs a beer blog (Focus on the Beer) specific to Colorado Springs (his home base these days) that allows him to interface with both the local beer community and the art audiences cultivated by his many projects.

Eric Steen at the tap

In the interview below, conducted by email over the past few weeks, Steen and I discuss, among other things, how he came to beer, how some of his projects have manifested, and skills  and processes that might translate between the worlds of brewing and art.

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Bryce Dwyer: What was the first beer you loved? What was the last beer you drank?

Eric Steen: The beer that changed my life was Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale. My friend Brian Hall used to make fun of me because I couldn’t finish a pint of any beer, but something clicked with that one and I’ve never been the same since. Some people develop their taste buds and get sick of their early interests, but I still will buy myself a pack of that beer. It always reminds me of Oregon and some great times.

The last beer I drank was actually at a Wild Game and Wild Beer dinner at Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs a day ago. Three breweries participated and brought in beers that use wild yeast strains. It was the best beer dinner I’ve been to. So, technically, the last beer was at that. It was called Buddha Nuvo, a collaboration between 14 different breweries, it had buddha’s hand fruit, lots of pumpkin and spices, ten different strains of Brett yeast, and was aged in Chardonnay wine barrels. It was an amazing beer too.

BD: Can you relate an anecdote about your path from artist with a casual interest in beer to artist with a solid involvement with beer? More and more artists are taking interest in fields further flung from art and need to know how to navigate that journey. Do you have any insight about this from your own experience? 

ES: I’m tempted to say it will vary from field to field but I suppose I can let my anecdote serve as a way to navigate the question, without coming to any real conclusion one way or another. My trajectory as an artist really changed in grad school [at Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA Program] when I was asked “What are you passionate about?” Reluctantly and maybe even jokingly I said that I love beer. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. So I tried out a project or two, nothing I really care to mention here, but I learned a lot about it and realized that it would be worth making an effort to really focus in on beer as a major element of my work.

At this point I really loved to drink and taste beer but I didn’t really know enough about it to spark the interest of people I wanted to collaborate with. It was never a conscious decision to wiggle my way into the beer community, but I started keeping a beer blog and I started reading about beer for hours every day. At some point I was able to have conversations with people in the industry so that they took me reasonably seriously and could get on board with something I asked them to do. From there it has just grown and was a bit of a step by step process. It was certainly not at all a sudden realization that I desired and (I hesitate to say it) needed people in the industry to believe that what I was doing was worthwhile. It’s not that I needed their approval or affirmation, it just was a growing impression that I had that I was not only making art, that these folks need not see it as art, but that it was definitely also part of their world. That’s one huge reason why the beer becomes sculpture to me. I work with ideas but the beer itself as an object must remain central to what I do in order for it to be taken at all seriously. Anyway, the more I’ve written, the more I use social media to connect, the more I’ve attached myself to that community. I’ve even begun organizing events that I wouldn’t call my “art” but that I do to further educate my readers (and myself) and I think things like that are super important as well. I’m not just constantly doing my own thing as an artist, but I’m really a part of this thing and now work in multiple ways to stay a part of it.

BD: Can you speak more specifically about some of your beer-related projects?

ES:  I’ll go through the ones that I think may be most relevant. Concerning actually making beer myself: I am a homebrewer and I have made a few beers that were part of art related events. In general when I make a beer for art, meaning not just homebrew to be consumed at home, I make a Heather Ale. The recipe is based on a beer, also called Heather Ale, made by William Bros. Brewing in Alloa, Scotland. It uses heather flower tips to get much of the aroma and flavor. The beer has an interesting history. In eighteenth century Scotland, the English outlawed the use of any ingredients in beer besides water, hops, and malt. Because of this, Heather Ale was not produced commercially until the 1980’s when a Gaelic family gave their recipe to Williams Bros. This brewery has inspired me in multiple ways, and I have actually taken their recipe, changed it, and used it for art events. I’ve used this beer for Open Engagement, Eat Art in NYC, a show in Southern Oregon that was about the mythical state of Jefferson and a few other circumstances. For Open Engagement 2011, I actually had Coalition Brewery in Portland re-brew the recipe on their commercial system so it could be served at a real brewery.

Tasting event as part of Beers Made by Walking

In addition to brewing myself I have a number of projects. Beers Made By Walking was a summer long series where a public audience went on a nature hike with a homebrewer and a naturalist. We identified edible and medicinal plants along the way. Afterwards, the homebrewer created a recipe based off ingredients we identified on the hike and brewed the beer at a local commercial brewery. There were eight beers, served in two different tasting sessions, and because we produced the beer commercially the event took place not in a gallery, but at a local pub. I really liked the idea that each beer became a portrait of the particular trail its ingredients came from. In the future I’ll be doing this again, but in various iterations. One will be working with commercial breweries in Colorado and in Oregon. They will send their brewers on a hike and then the beer produced will actually raise money for local environmental non-profit groups.

Steen with a few of the homebrewer participants of Beers Made by Walking

I’ve also created a couple pop-up pubs. In Glasgow I worked with 17 local homebrewers, and they made about 25 beers which we served for free to the public. There were ten beers on tap at a time, getting rotated out every ten or so minutes. It lasted about four hours and then we shut it down. This was in a gallery and was part of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. It was also a culmination of a month long series of educational beer activities called Pub School. For Performa 11 I also created a pop-up pub, Performa Brew Pub, this time working with 33 NYC homebrewers. There were 33 beers and all were on tap at the same time. In both situations I worked directly with the homebrewers to present their beer in a way they thought would be special. The beers were on display as was their equipment, although we could still utilize the equipment like at a normal bar.

The last one I’ll mention for now was called Art & Beer and happened twice at the Portland Art Museum. Each time I invited three local commercial brewers to tour the museum. They picked out art that they liked, we researched it for them and then they made a beer based off the artwork. So the beer was served at the museum, and you could see the artwork, and for a few weeks afterword some of the beer was available in town as well.

BD: Have any skills or tendencies from your training as an artist come to bear on your brewing? Is there some relationship between your brewing and your art practice (even if it’s a way to support work monetarily), or do they mostly exist separately from one another?

ES: There is definitely a relationship to my brewing habits, beer habits and my art. The majority of my work in some way uses beer and/or is about beer. In many ways these projects are “beer events” as much as they are “art projects”‘ and I particularly like the blurring of these boundaries. As an artist I am interested in looking at the particular aesthetics and creativity of beer and brewing. I see the brewer as an artist and in my work I try to make the beer the highlight of the experience, so it becomes a type of drinkable sculpture in a way. However, I’m also really interested in social forms of art and so my work is also about finding intersections between fields of interest, such as beer, geography, education, and art. Another aspect of socially-engaged art that I really incorporate is the common theme of blurring the role between artist and audience. I work with commercial brewers and homebrewers and when someone comes to one of these events they may not even realize that it was organized by me. Instead, they become interested in the work of the other brewers (artists) that have been involved from the beginning. Those are some of my “formal” considerations, if you could call them that.

Steen's Performa Brew Pub

About the last part of that question though, the part where you say it could be way to support work monetarily, I would like to say something. In addition to making beer-related art projects I also spend a large amount of my time reading and writing about beer. I have a blog called Focus on the Beer I update almost every day. I have other writers and a photographer as well. The blog can be promotional at times, but it’s definitely a way to both build and understand the craft beer community as well. I often post my thoughts on particular beers as well as thoughts on the industry in general. I am able to be both promotional and critical. Through the blog, I organize educational events such as Meet the Brewer and I’m even starting up a granting program where readers can realize their own community-based beer events to be funded by the blog. We do accept local advertising through breweries and beer companies that I believe in, so I have recently become more capable of supporting what we could call “field research.” I’m hesitant to call the blog an art project, but certainly it keeps me highly informed on the industry.

Perhaps the thing that I appreciate most of all about the blog (and I didn’t intend for this to happen) is that it has really legitimized some of the strange things I do. People in the beer industry are now interested in what I do. They follow me online and even attend events that I organize and seek to be a part of it. The more I do this, the more I realize how important it is to not only possess authentic enthusiasm for the expanded field I’m engaged in, but also to have the thumbs up from the people in that particular field.

BD: Can you point to any beer-related projects, art or otherwise, that have been helpful to you in your experience with beer? Projects that have helped you think through aesthetic quandaries are as relevant as technical help or inspirational small businesspeople. 

ES: To be honest, I had not heard of Tom Marioni’s project (The Act of Drinking Beer is the Highest Form of Art)or Superflex’s Free Beer before the first one or two projects I did. I did soon thereafter become familiar with them and while they don’t necessarily influence me directly, I do think about the title of Tom Marioni’s piece as I’m drinking beer with my friends. “Drinking beer with friends is the highest form of art” is true, and I realize this on a regular basis.

I’ve been influenced by plenty of artists and art projects, and many have changed the way I do what I do. Sunday Soup and Josh Greene’s Service Works have been on my mind recently as I’ve been thinking about a granting program for our readers. Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, and REBAR have been on my mind a lot too, in terms of walking. When I think about the roles of artist/audience I often consider the work of Harrell Fletcher and Temporary Services. Additionally I’d say when I think about my work I like to think that it’s site specific, both in the physical place I do something but also in the “field of beer.” I’m also inspired by people like Mierle Laderman Ukeles and her work with NY Sanitation Department.

I’m also hugely influenced by people working in various ways in the beer industry. Many people have influenced and inspired me as much as the artists mentioned above. I’m particular inspired by Williams Bros. Brewing, who I mentioned already. They began a whole program of historical Scottish beers that use ingredients from the landscape including seaweed, elderberries, dandelions, Scottish pine, and more. I also mentioned Coalition Brewing in Portland. They have a program where they bring in a homebrewer and allow them to brew a beer (they approve the recipe first) on a large commercial scale, so then the homebrewer has a real commercially produced beer. I think that’s awesome. There’s also this guy in Portland named Dean Pottle who has a speakeasy at his house called Dean’s Scene. When his neon light is on, you know that you are welcome to come downstairs and pour yourself whatever you want. He’s regularly opening his house up to the public.

I’m inspired by all kinds of tasty and beautifully crafted beer, from subtle flavors to loud and obnoxious flavors. Perhaps there’s too many to mention. I will mention one brewery, Crooked Stave, that has been experimenting with a wild yeast called Brettanomyces. Normally associated with sour beers here in the US, this brewery is redefining the way we think of Brett yeast strains by making delicately soft beers, concentrating on parts of the yeast that we’ve not really thought about before. I’m also influenced by other beer bloggers that go out of their way to create events around something they’ve been thinking a lot about. One of my favorite examples is Ezra Johnson Greenough of the New School Beer Blog. He organized a fruit beer festival in which he challenged breweries to create fruit beers that will make beer drinkers rethink what they know of fruit beer.

Maybe this doesn’t need to be mentioned but I’m also really influenced by people who do alternative education and by people who write about it. All my projects incorporate varying levels of what I think is experimental pedagogy, but maybe this is for another discussion?

BD: From your point of view, what is important for someone who encounters the project to take away? The taste of the beer leaves the senses soon after the glass is drained, but are there other aesthetic qualities, historical perspectives, learned habits, or thought processes that you hope stick with the participants your work reaches?

ES: Actually, one thing that I hope people take away is a sense that they just tasted something that might change the way they think about beer. I think that beer is often seen as a party drink, associated with drunk driving, objectifying advertisements, and little flavor. So I hope that when someone drinks a “Smoked Wheat Chili Sour,” their socks are knocked off.

Concerning other qualities, it really depends on the project. For example, in Beers Made By Walking I hope that people interested in beer will gain something from the botanist or naturalist, that they will learn about the landscape in new ways. I hope people interested in the outdoors will begin to appreciate the mind of the brewer and understand beer differently, and I hope the brewer will understand the landscape anew. In that project I provide two venues for those people to connect: on the hikes and at the pub. Perhaps most importantly, the project is motivated by my desire to have people simply experience being outside, and to grow an appreciation for nature. I’d also like people to have a more holistic understanding of the landscape that they’ve walked through.

Other projects are totally different, some engage more heavily in forms of alternative education than others. In Building in the Post-Apocalypse, which I haven’t mentioned yet, I look at a number of options for doing education and learning differently than a typical classroom set up, and I point to the pub, or perhaps the table with the pitcher of beer as being a more suitable place for learning. In the pop-up pubs I work directly with homebrewers and I’m thinking more about participation, the common language used among homebrewers, as well as looking at these folks as artists, people engaged in a craft for the fun and enjoyment of what they are doing. They experiment or hone their skills, although they are not professionals in the field. I build those spaces to focus on the beer as sculpture, but also build a pub atmosphere that encourages people to hang out and talk (not just sit alone, not just get drunk) with the brewers about what they do. I suppose in these pubs it is a more direct look at the beer as a craft, the brewer as the artist, than in some of the other projects.

BD: How do you think about documenting your work? How do you shape the experience of someone encountering your work at a remove?

ES: This is a tough call for me. In general, documentation for me refers to online articles, my website, and artist presentations. I’ve tried taking some of the physical remnants from an event and transplanting them into another gallery and I was very dissatisfied with how that turned out and haven’t wanted to do it since. In one or two cases the leftovers (of, say, the pop-up pubs) were literally left in a gallery, complete with sticky floors, beer smells, and bottles everywhere. People came into the gallery, walked around, knew they missed something, and could sit on the picnic benches and read through the menu.

I really like creating menus for these projects, they serve the role of both a menu for what’s on tap but also an artist catalog with additional information about the participating artists, information about the beer, and, with Beers Made By Walking, a write up on the whole experience. That way, someone who misses the event can at least begin to understand that there were, say, 33 beers available, and read up on what the brewer is all about. For projects that don’t have an exhibition element to them, I may write about it on the blog, without being heavy handed about all the ideas I’m working through, usually a dry type of telling what happened with brief information about why I do what I do. There may be better ways to do these things that I’ll figure out, but this is what I’m most comfortable with at the moment.

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