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.