This Beer Tastes Like a Rothko

A lot of ink (both real and virtual) has been used to define the craft beer movement. For the most part, craft beer has often been defined by industrial terms (the way beer is produced, how much is produced, who produces the beer) and cultural (people drink craft beer because it offers a wide variety of new and interesting tastes). While both of these points are crucial to understanding what is happening right now with beer, it still feels as though there is an element lacking when describing the current beer world in such terms. The amount of innovation and experimentation going on in breweries around the world is missing when you only look at the industrial and cultural sides of the equation.

My memory of the four cinema studies courses I took in undergrad is kind of hazy by now, but the method of viewing works of art through various lenses (cultural/economic/technological/aesthetic) has always stuck in my brain. Recently a question popped in my head – could we define the current craft beer world as an artistic movement ? This may sound kind of crazy, but it fills the void not covered by looking at beer through the industrial and cultural spheres. It acknowledges that there is more happening with craft beer right now than just people making (and drinking) beer in a more traditional manner.

A lot of early craft brewers focused more on reviving styles and bringing back flavour to beer. That is not to say that the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale wasn’t an innovative beer, but it was still just barley, hops, water and yeast. Anchor was brewing their Steam and later Porter. Porters may have been almost extinct, but it was still based on tradition. Many breweries started through the 80s were usually making a pale, amber or brown ale – interesting beers when lager dominated the market, but not quite exploring new ground in an historical sense.

The beer world has significantly changed since then and I would argue it is possible to view a lot of new beers as part of a larger movement within the beer industry. Playing around with ingredients has become normalized in the craft beer industry and can be viewed as modernist or postmodern. Breweries are now exploring ingredients and beer styles that would have been unimaginable when the craft beer industry started. If you’re reading this in Ontario, you have probably tried either the Spearhead Hawaiian Style Pale Ale or the Kissmeyer Nordic Pale Ale – two beers that you could drink without knowing they had extra ingredients. Of course the twist to the pale ale style is part of the marketing of these beers, yet the final products can easily be enjoyed without being aware of the extra ingredients.

Think about all those times someone has said, “It’s good, but it’s not really a saison” (or whatever style the beer claims to be). It happens fairly often. But what if we were to call that beer a modernist saison? Is it now allowed to bend and play around with the saison style? In a way, it all goes back to how styles are defined and the flexibility of a brewer to test the boundaries of how we define any particular style (or even how we define beer).

This isn’t a stretch when you think of molecular gastronomy/modernist cuisine (or whatever you want to call it). It’s not a perfect comparison (molecular gastronomy joins the worlds of science and fine dining, while beer and science are old friends), but the cerebral component is similar. The goal is still to put together something tasty, but also challenge the audience into thinking about what they are consuming. It challenges our notion of how we define something, whether eating eggs benedict at wd-50 or a beer made with ten different ingredients. Going back to the Spearhead and Kissmeyer beers, they strike me as modernist pale ales – they fit the style yet do so with a twist. Cynics may claim that a lot of these beers are just a way to differentiate one pale ale from the larger market, but I think they are indicative of a larger movement happening in craft beer.

That is not to say that all craft beers fit in the frame of modernism, the same way that not all films made in France from the late 50s through the 60s were New Wave. Breweries often test boundaries while make a range of beers that fit within normal style guidelines. But having a term for all these beers that defy, test or play around with styles seems important as more breweries experiment with flavours and techniques.

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2 responses to “This Beer Tastes Like a Rothko

  1. I would argue that if you’re going to apply actual critical modes of thought to craft beer that modernism is more than likely the division of beer into styles. If you think about, for instance, English Literary Criticism, then your first wave critics are de facto modernists in the vein of F.R. Leavis and the development of a sense of canon. Those early theorists were essential in dividing the literary tradition into various eras and movements, which is not entirely unlike the division of beer into styles.

    I think that defying established styles is really more of a postmodern instinct. Why can’t an IPA be black? Why can’t a stout be white? The division into ever more niche categorical styles is something that modernist thought resists because it has developed a system of information to catalogue the extant. I mean, I don’t know what grungecore is, but I can guarantee you musicologists are scoffing at it. A Hawaiian Pale Ale is a subversion of genre to some extent. I think the ultimate example is BrewDog’s End Of History, which was not only the strongest beer in the world, but also stuffed inside a dead weasel and named after a book by Francis Fukuyama essentially forecasting the goal of history being the culmination of liberalism. Now that’s some post-modernist nonsense right there.

    • I’m completely open to calling it post-modern – using modernist was influenced more from the food aspect. I didn’t really want to open that debate, at least not while trying to keep my word count down, but your points are valid.

      I also had a feeling you would be quick to comment on this, so thanks for not disappointing!

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