Is brewing a craft or an art? Both? The dictionary calls art: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”, and a craft as “an activity involving skill in making things by hand”. A brewer can be both, but he can be just a craftsman. The brewers we appreciate today are definitely artists.
The craft brewer uses his creativity, experience and craftsmanship to create something new, something that is indeed beautiful and evokes an emotion. The craft brewer therefore is an artist. Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria or Heston Blumenthal take a totally different and new look at food. They change how it is made and play with your senses and make you look at food in multiple ways. The consumption of food, and also beer, takes on more than one meaning than just a tasty beverage.
If beer is an art-form it can be analyzed like art. The modern brewing world is behaving a lot like other post-modern art. For a deeper understanding of what post-modernism entails, I refer to sites like Wikipedia. In this article some of the characteristics will be mentioned, and hopefully it will give you a little more understanding. I have looked mostly at music and used it to look at brewing.
4 main characteristics
Many lists of characteristics will mention at least 10. Since many of these overlap I have compressed it into these four main characteristics of post-modern brewing:
- No boundaries between styles. Styles are in effect meaningless.
- Challenges what is a high or a low style.
- Has no problem looking at past, present and future for inspiration.
- Challenges the idea of a brewer(y).
Does this cover everything? No, but for what I want to highlight it will suffice.
1. No respect for boundaries between styles. Styles are in effect meaningless.
The supermarket shelves show you the rigid borders between styles. There are pilsners, weizens, blondes, dubbels and tripels. Easy to understand styles that don’t mix. With the influx of English and mostly American styles these borders are fading. The IPA made its entrance but also the DIPA, the Imperial stout, etc.. Good brewers these days just start brewing without a clear style in mind. In some cases the beer can even be a vehicle of another ingredient, which we will see later. Since for them it is not the market that prescribes the overall flavor they can, and will, do whatever they like.
A while back that De Molen started putting styles on their labels because people asked. They did, hesitantly, but kept calling their beers ‘IPA-ish’ or other ‘ish’es. Styles really are just a guideline for the consumer, not the aim of the brewer. So if someone next to you in the bar says that a certain beer falls a little outside ‘the style’, get the nearest blunt object and smack them on the head. It is in essence no different than someone saying ‘I don’t like beer’ when they mean Heineken.
Rooie Dop has this to say about one of their beers:
“At Rooie Dop, we don’t really care about styles. But this is our version of an American IPA. Classic example of the style? Fits perfectly into the category? No. Does it need to be? It just needs to be pretty tasty! Chinook and Cascade hops dominate this beer and are assisted by a biscuity malty backbone”
On menus in beer cafe’s and on shelves of specialty beer shops you see them struggle with this new idea. Some shops and café’s will sort the beer according to style, which is getting increasingly difficult. The better shops and café’s have stopped doing this at all. De Bierkoning and Bert’s Bierhuis sort their beers according to country and then brewery. They have correctly seen that people nowadays tend to follow a brewery more than a style. If there is a new brewery in the store, often all the bottles of said brewery are bought. For café’s it’s still a slightly different story. Many consumers still think in old terms of pilsners and anything else, it’s up to the barman to try and describe his way through it all. At least to good bars give you a taster.
With the rise of the internet, social media and the open market it is now easier to travel and try beer made from all over the world. Brewers will also get their inspiration from other cultures. Beer from non-Western European countries will not even fit the old ways of pigeonholing. Modern brewing is eclectic and crosscultural, with no borders of style.
From style to ingredients, a form of deconstruction.
There is a shift from style to ingredients. A beer made with brett and Cascade will give you a better sense of what it will be than knowing it’s a stout or dubbel.
Now let’s look at additions to the beer. Let me be clear, I am not talking about additives to keep to beer fresh or the foam firm. This is not about chemical elements put in mostly for show or commerce. I am also not talking about the usual additions of citrus or orange peel or coriander in Hoegaarden or candied sugar in bocks. They are there to make elements already part of the beer more pronounced. I am talking about the addition of things way out of leftfield. Hot peppers, melons, cucumber, or a variety of herbs and spices.
At Borefts a few years ago they had beers aged in vinegar barrels. Go figure. With every ingredient added many more beers are possible. The best examples of breweries who don’t limit themselves by ingredients but are using them as new opportunities are Oersoep and Oedipus, though Emelisse and De Molen have great examples as well.
But in a clearcut example of post-modern contradiction they can just as easily deconstruct beer to one main element and highlight this. All the releases of special beers highlighting hops or yeast are a good example. It makes a certain kind of hops the star of the show.
2. Challenges what is a high or a low style.
Pilsner is often seen as a low style for the masses. Joe Sixpack wasn’t drinking six cans of barrel-aged Baltic Porter with juniper but cheap generic lager. Beercafe’s will mostly serve stronger, more interesting styles even though a pilsner is in fact not an easy style to get right. It is much easier to score with an Imperial Stout than a pilsner, yet the former is seen as a high style.
Modern brewing challenges what is or what is not a high and low style. In fact, just as with styles there is no distinction apart from personal taste. Brewers will make whatever they want from pilsners to IPA’s to fruit beers.
A great example of a more democratic, fluid way of thinking about high and low styles are this year’s Borefts festival. Every year there is a theme, a style that the brewers present at the festival will make in a sort of contest. This year they will be making radlers. A style generally thought of as a sweetened, watered down version of already boring German lagers. Yet the country’s premier brewery thought it was a good idea and from what we have seen already the result will be unique and amazing. People will still think that this is a bad idea, but the people at De Molen know what’s going on. A strawberry IPA? Yes, please.
3. Past, present and future
Look at the list of beers from Dutch craft breweries. Apart from finding most of the styles from the traditional beer countries newer styles appear as well. The typical Dutch beer Kuyt has been making a comeback, backed in part by Jopen who have this as a staple beer. Many interesting things are happening and I have seen gose, mumm and braggot on menu’s, all beers that originated well before most of you were born in other parts of Europe. A new look at historical documents might give us even more new, yet old, beers.
The present is clear, whatever is made now they can make and often will make. The future is that great undiscovered country. Because post-modern brewers tend not to think in styles the future is open for even more inventions and ingredients. Thinking in styles is thinking in traditions, and traditions usually are not the best engine for progression. I have already said that styles are relative and that high and low are, add time to the list to.
4. The Modern Brewer(y)
Many brewers are, or at least start out as, contract or gypsy brewers. This is mostly for financial reasons. They almost use the other brewery as a sort of pop-up installation. Some brewers are fine with this and see no need to have their own kettles. The recipe is there and there might be some changes with every brewery but if you are brewing at the right brewery who recognizes and respects the recipe there is no problem. If anyone is complaining that the beer wasn’t made in their own brewery, please tell them it’s an empty and outdated notion. It makes the production of beer easier, people who have great ideas might not have entered the market but now they can.
Many brewers are only interested in crafting the recipe in the first place. Once the recipe has been fine-tuned to their liking they often leave it alone and let others do the actual producing. Very similar to a composer who just finished a sonata. Does him being there make it better?
Craft brewers are part of a movement. The Impressionist painters often painted together or each other. Picasso sometimes teamed up with others to create art that was truly the result of combined efforts. In brewing the collaboration brew is a great example. They have a common cause, making great craft beer and you need the help and expertise of others sometimes, it’s a win-win.
The future of (Dutch) brewing
At the moment we are experiencing a time of rapid growth. New breweries start every week and not many are folding. How long this will take is anyone’s guess, but I reckon the beer scene being very different in a decade. The smaller ones will have vanished again and if the public gets more beer savvy they will start to recognize what is good and what isn’t. With limited space in stores and bars only the good ones will survive, but the good ones with a strong foundation behind the ideas.
There are many good things happening in the Netherlands right now having to do with beer. The best ones that we have shown us and most of all the world what the way forward is. Style rigidity and making beer like it was the 20th century won’t hold anymore, post-modern brewers of today are looking at the past and will because of that still be with us in the future.