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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This post is part of an ongoing series about art and beer.
Over the weekend, I met artist and brewer Christopher Tourre at his house as he and Lance Curran, his partner in Arcade Brewery, brewed a five and a half gallon batch of beer they call Oatmilk Stout. Tourre brews on his kitchen stove in big gleaming steel pots. At the same time that he showed me a page of obscure calculations made in composition notebook, the mash assembled by those same calculations steeped in a rough plastic cooler of the kind you normally bring iced and bottled beer to the beach in. A hardware store spigot juts out its front for easy drainage. Chris tells me that some home brewers get extremely scientific in their process, invoking hyper accurate measurements and fine-tuned equipment to get as close as possible to target flavor components like International Bitterness Units (IBUs). But even a highly trained human tongue can only pick out a range of a few IBUs. Add in layers of complexity like sweet flavors from the beer’s malt or extracts added to it and the exact measurement becomes even harder to guess at without equipment.
For Tourre and Curran, this kind of ambiguity is an asset to be celebrated both in their beer and in the engagements they’re looking to build around it. The imperfect process and intuitive understanding a brewer have are just two things that make brewing an artful craft. While Arcade is certainly intended to function as a business, lessons that come from participatory art and event-making are also primary concerns. Last year, in a month-long residency at Spoke, Tourre invited the public to both sample his own beer and to share in the creation of original brews. He connected with foragers and garderners around Chicago to make small batches of beer and soda using ingredients they found or grew. He also gave free home-brewing workshops. At the end of the month, he hosted a tasting of all the different beverages crafted with his co-creators present to share the stories behind each drink.
Although the Public Brewery at Spoke was firmly planted in the realm of art, it also helped Tourre and Curran’s business prospects. The residency got them in touch with New Chicago Beer Company, opening soon at The Plant—an indoor vertical farm in the Back of the Yards. Arcade will be renting New Chicago’s equipment between cycles to brew their first commercial batches. But public events are not intended to shrewdly forward a brand and network. Tourre and Curran think of interfacing with the public as more than market research. As they shift from an art project to a business, they’re aware of certain values they want to hold onto. “Sometimes it’s easier as an artist to create a convivial spirit and atmosphere.” Tourre says, “How do you stay sincere when it becomes a business? How do you take something that I would do as an art project and convert that over to a money making endeavor? How do you keep the same spirit, legitimacy, and authenticity? That’s part of the challenge for us.”
Because the beer isn’t in the bottle yet, sincerity and collaboration with the public are mostly guiding principles at the moment. But Arcade does have a few plans for keeping audiences substantially involved in what they do. Public Brew sessions will work much like the residency at Spoke did: people can attend causal brewing sessions where Tourre answers questions and explains every step of the process. While Arcade will have certain beers available year-round, their seasonals will be decided by a process of public consensus. People will be able to submit, discuss, and vote on recipes to create seasonal brews they’ll share credit on.
Arcade is also developing some novel ideas for the design of the bottles too. They’re working with the writer Jason Aaron and the comic artist Tony Moore to create a six-pack design where each bottle will have on it a frame of an original comic that relates to the beer it holds. The central theme for Arcade seems to be that everything around the beer is as important as the beer itself. As Curran said during our brewing session: you don’t just taste the beer, you experience it. That experience manifests in the crafting of beverage and builds out to include the vessel it comes in, the type of things people do when they’re drinking it, and the understanding people have of what it is they’re consuming.
By 1979, Tom Marioni had been gathering with friends, drinking beer, and calling it art for almost a decade. It began in 1970 when Marioni invited friends to the Oakland Musem of Art on a Monday, the day it was closed, to hang out and drink beer. The gathering’s detritus became the art for the museum-going public to experience. Marioni called it The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends is the Highest Form of Art, and began hosting nights of beer drinking at his studio and at his Museum of Conceptual Art. In the wake of countless bottles and hangovers, the work finally made an appearance at SFMoMA in 1979. It was recently reinstalled there for the museum’s exhibition The Art of Participation.
This iteration of The Act of Drinking Beer took shape as a seventies-era fridge stocked with free beer, a framed poster from Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art, and a sturdy wood shelf mounted on the wall that displayed 200 bottles of Anchor Steam Beer. A bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling seems to me to represent Marioni’s “eureka moment” realization that the act of drinking beer with friends, an experience common to so many local art scenes, could become the art itself. The beer served was certainly appropriate for the venue—Anchor Steam Beer has been brewed in San Francisco for over a hundred years, perhaps the best known of a category of beer called California Common. It’s something of an anomaly, as most beer is sorted into one of two categories: warm-fermented ale or cool-fermented lager. California Common Beer blurs these categories. West Coast brewers in the late nineteenth century brewed lager yeast warm to produce a beer that retains characteristics of both ale and lager. The result is something of a hybrid, an experiment by necessity that flouts traditional wisdom and tastes good anyway.
Anchor also holds an important place in the history of craft beer. After the second World War, the American beer market was dominated (as it still is) by large breweries like Miller and Anheuser-Busch. While the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco held on after the war, it did so by producing low-quality beer. Fritz Maytag III, heir to the Maytag fortune, bought the brewery in 1965 and restored it to its former glory by slowing things down and making smaller quantities of high-quality beer. It was artful, experimental, and historically conscious—all hallmarks of craft brewing today. Craft beer categories are even more well-defined than categories in art. With precisely measured qualities like alcohol-by-volume, international bitterness units, and specific gravity I could describe a Pilsner in a few lines. Art Brut would likely take a few paragraphs. But craft beer also opens itself to radical mistreatments of its established standards, allowing for the birth of new hybrid categories like California Common.
By refusing categories, The Act of Drinking Beer allowed the social form of beer drinking to exist as an artwork in its own right. Since Marioni’s first bottle was cracked open, a slew of artists have made artwork that takes shape around shared food and beverage. But Marioni’s expansion of art’s categorical dimensions to include social gatherings is not the most interesting thing about him. The impulse to disregard categories without permission, abandoning the urge to patrol boundaries, is what truly opens up new productive avenues for artmaking. Only this kind of free-wheeling experimentation can keep art, and brewing, vital.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be conducting and posting interviews with artists that brew to try and find out what skills, qualities, and perpsectives they bring to bear on beer. I suspect that most of them brew not to plant the flag of art on the shores of beer, but to explore untapped potentials in making a beverage they’ve been led to for reasons as varied as the refrigerated stock of a craft beer store. Just as a lager yeast and an ale-style fermentation can combine to make a beer that happily exists as both ale and lager, so too can artists and brewers disregard time-worn categories and embrace the possibilities of being two things at once. That beer can be art shouldn’t surprise us. The myriad things that artists can do with beer should.