DID YOU ever drink a pint that tasted so good it left you wondering if you had just swallowed a work of art?
You heard the flavor speak, you welcomed the body’s warmth, you smiled, you cried, you sighed at the rush. Something struck you at an emotional level. Not just an appreciation of a well-crafted beer, not just the alcohol. But an expressive, visceral experience that touched your soul.
You felt it the same way you might feel a Pablo Picasso or a Thelonious Monk – something deeper than a series of well-executed brushstrokes or piano notes.
Not to get all esoteric on you (it’s “just” beer, ain’t it?), but I can still taste the last mouthful of Deschutes Twilight Summer Ale I enjoyed late one afternoon in August while lounging in the shade on my front steps.
It’s more than a lingering memory; it’s a moment of sublimity that makes me wonder: Is it possible for a beer to be a work of art?
The question arises for me this week as, for the third year, I’ve brought together a group of area brewers for a beer tasting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s annual Contemporary Craft Show.
The gathering tomorrow evening is an opportunity for the brewers to speak about their craft in the midst of a spectacular show featuring nearly 200 of the nation’s finest craftspeople.
Typically, before the four-day show, which opens today, I wander the aisles of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in awe of the displayed works – ceramics, jewelry, leather, metal, paper, every imaginable medium.
I’m particularly struck by the woodworks because it’s a hobby of mine. There are beautifully carved vases, sculpted bowls, intricate inlays, pieces that take hours upon hours of meticulous effort. I appreciate a perfectly assembled set of drawers because I’ve sweated out my own hand-cut dovetails.
I admire the technique and the skill of the craft.
But on occasion, something catches my eye – something that touches me the same way that Twilight Summer Ale did.
Maybe it’s the perfect proportions of furniture maker Jo Roessler’s end tables, or the swirling, burled curves of sculptor Norm Sartorius’ spoons.
Whatever, I’m struck by the parallels between these artisans and those who brew the beers we savor. Both are skilled craftspeople and inspired artists, it seems, producing unique objects that sometimes evoke emotion.
So I asked a handful of participants in the show and beer tasting: Do you see yourself as an artist or craftsperson? I was struck by the similarity of their replies. (They’re posted at my website, http://wp.me/p4TC9V-OA).
One said, “I am always a craftsman in that I am skilled with my tools and techniques. I am only occasionally an artist, however. In the course of working I sometimes enter the realm of ideas, expressing those ideas using my craftsmanship. “
Another said that his creations were both “an art and a science . . . requiring equal amounts of creativity and precision. “
You wouldn’t know from simply reading the words that the former came from a sculptor, Sartorius, and the latter a brewer, Luke Bowen, of Evil Genius.
Most of the artisans who replied agreed that they see themselves as craftsman and artist.
Which means the answer – can beer be art? – is entirely subjective, and one dependent on time and place and being.
Andrew Grosse and Joe Fazekas, the brewers at Broken Goblet, in Bristol, observed in a jointly written email that “it comes down to who you are as a person.
“[Co-owners] Mike LaCouture and Jay Grosse have songs that immediately make them cry, or laugh, or whatever, because their musical background has tuned their emotions to react this way. There are many, however, who can listen to a beautiful piece of classical music, or a modern phenom, and have zero response.
“It seems to be the same with beer. We watched a guy try our Fall of Ryesengard, a black rye ale, get goose bumps all up and down his arms. He was literally going crazy over the beer. Others can drink the best beer in the world, and have zero attachment to it other than, ‘Yeah, I like that. ‘
“We don’t judge either way, but we certainly have more fun with the former group.”
The 38th Annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show runs today through Sunday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, 12th and Arch streets. Tickets are available online and at the door.
The Handcraft Beer Tasting Event, held within the show, is at 7 p.m. Friday. Beers will be presented by brewers from Broken Goblet, Evil Genius, Conshohocken Brewing, Neshaminy Creek and Saint Benjamin. Tickets are available online at pmacraftshow.org for $45 and include admission to the craft show.